City Paper is not for tourists
There’s lots to unpack in the reported deal to build a D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point: the implications for the riverfront neighborhood, the potential pitfalls following criticism of the city’s (more expansive) funding of nearby Nationals Park, the ability to pull off all the necessary swaps and arrangements, etc. But one aspect that may get overlooked as the city goes into soccer frenzy is what the city’s giving up far from Buzzard Point—-namely the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW, which the city will reportedly trade to developer Akridge in exchange for land at Buzzard Point to complete the soccer deal.
When the Reeves Center opened in the 1980s, it was a harbinger of revitalization for the 14th and U corridors. The area had been ransacked in the 1968 riots and had never fully recovered. The Reeves Center meant jobs and stability, a sign that the city hadn’t forgotten the once-vibrant neighborhood altogether and was committed to its comeback.
That was then. Now, the area has come so far that most D.C. residents can no longer afford to live, really, anywhere near there. The Washington Post published a story this week headlined “Gentrification in overdrive on 14th Street,” detailing the 1,200 condos and 100,000 square feet of retail that are currently being built or have been completed in the past nine months. This paper’s Young & Hungry blog recently counted nine restaurants that have opened so far along the 14th Street corridor in 2013, with 14 more on the way.
And yet the Reeves Center has mostly stood still—-and slowly disintegrated. In 2011, then-Loose Lips columnist Alan Suderman described the chaos that had taken over parts of the building where city agencies once worked, before decamping to more modern buildings elsewhere in the city. “The Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at the corner of 14th and U streets NW,” he wrote, “is an eight-story, 500,000-square-foot basket case that stands as a symbol of wasted opportunity and government dysfunction.” On rainy days, buckets in the lobby collected water. On the seventh floor, occupied by the District Department of Transportation before it moved to Capitol Riverfront, Suderman found a trash heap that included old prescription bottles and a not-so-hot 2004 performance review of a lackadaisical street sign installer who had probably long since been fired. There were reports of various sexual acts in the crumbling offices.
Across U Street from the Reeves Center, the Louis at 14th is rising up. (Its website says it all: “The avant garde in D.C. have long sought an urban oasis to call home, a place where District decadence meets cool convenience. At last, Louis has arrived.”) Across 14th Street from the Reeves Center, The Gibson serves up $15 cocktails. But the Reeves Center, in addition to having lost many of its former government functions, doesn’t do much in the way of neighborhood-serving retail. On U Street, there’s no retail at all; on 14th, there’s a large shoe repair shop and a few weirdly hidden storefronts under the offices.
It almost brings to mind The Building That Shall Not Be Named, the Dark Lord of the downtown streetscape—-the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The city has long wanted to rid itself of the FBI headquarters, the very definition of a street-deadening edifice. For an entire city block, pedestrians hurry past the cold, imposing facades of the set-back, retail-less fortress, with nothing to draw them in. Now that the FBI is seeking a move from its obsolete headquarters, the city senses a major opportunity to bring in a mixed-use development that makes the streets that much more friendly and vibrant—-not to mention lucrative, since the FBI pays no property taxes to the District.
The Reeves Center really isn’t in the same category as the Hoover Building, in terms of aesthetics or function. But still, its architecture looks dated, its retail presence is limited, and it simply seems to be out of a different era, when anything that offered jobs and stability was welcome. Like the Hoover Building, it isn’t bringing in nearly the revenue it could be; a private building there would send property tax—-and, presumably, more sales tax—-dollars flowing into city coffers.
Meanwhile, the city is sending its government agencies to parts of the city that, well, aren’t all that different from 14th and U in 1985. DDOT helped jumpstart development in Capitol Riverfront; the Reeves Center agencies may be headed to Anacostia, joining the Department of Housing and Community Development at the heart of a neighborhood that’s struggling to break through its historic struggles and attract new retail and residents.
Perhaps in 25 years, we’ll be having this same conversation about Anacostia, and the city will be trying to trade its government buildings there to a developer hungry to capitalize on the high demand for mixed-use development in the neighborhood. For now, though, we’re not there yet—-and the D.C. United deal appears to offer the city an opportunity to call it quits at a building that’s long past its prime.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery