City Paper is not for tourists
The Hive II doesn’t open until Nov. 15, but it’s already buzzing. Contractors stroll the halls, putting the finishing touches on the shared workspace and business incubator. Members of ARCH Development Corporation, the nonprofit behind the project, poke their heads out of the space’s private offices. A pink Buddha bust stares expectantly out into one of the large common areas, waiting for company; another common area, decked out entirely in black, white, and red, seems to be waiting for The White Stripes.
“I wish you’d been here a few minutes ago,” says ARCH CEO Duane Gautier as I arrive. “A new client just came by unannounced to sign up for office space.”
Sitting just around the corner from its bustling cousin and predecessor, The Hive II isn’t your typical D.C. incubator—an office for young companies that provides them with resources and support. It’s located far from the startup swath that cuts across Northwest D.C. from Georgetown to Dupont Circle to U Street to Chinatown. Instead of white-collar professionals and young entrepreneurs, its neighbors on Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia include a methadone clinic and a string of empty storefronts.
It’s tempting, then, to ask whether Ward 8, the city’s poorest, is ready for the Hive. Can Anacostia really sustain two such business centers, born more of hope and ambition (and city grants) than of financial fundamentals?
But perhaps that’s the wrong question. To judge by Gautier’s ambitions, what we should really be asking is: Can The Hive sustain Anacostia?
Gautier doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a man who’s been working for three decades to bring new life to Anacostia, ever since he founded ARCH in 1983. (He’s emphatically loyal to Historic Anacostia, scoffing at the notion of expanding to another part of the city.) For one thing, he’s white in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. For another, he lives in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. In fact, he hasn’t resided in Anacostia since 1961, when he had a summer internship on Capitol Hill, and when it was a very different neighborhood.
“In 1961, this was a thriving, thriving community,” Gautier says, noting that it was also racially integrated, with large black and white populations. But by the time then-Mayor Marion Barry suggested to Gautier that he open a job training center in Ward 8 in the early 1980s, many of Anacostia’s storefronts were burned out, and many of its middle-income residents had left.
Still, 10 years after ARCH opened its job training center, it had grown into an $8 million organization serving a number of functions in the community. It first spun off its non-job training operations, and later switched gears entirely as other training programs sprung up, focusing on business development in Anacostia through arts and culture.
As a white guy living in Virginia, Gautier recounts, he initially faced some resistance to his big moves in Anacostia, but he says that’s a thing of the past. “Racial issues have declined in this area. The other thing is, I’ve been here 25 years. I’ve outlived my opposition,” Gautier says. “I don’t mean they died. They’ve all moved out.”
You can find evidence of ARCH’s success all over the neighborhood. Next to The Hive II is Honfleur Gallery, a clean white space featuring local and international artists and designed to feel like a gallery in Europe or SoHo. Around the corner on Martin Luther King Avenue SE is the digital print lab Vivid Solutions and a gallery bearing the same name. A block away, the Anacostia Playhouse—currently the H Street Playhouse—will arrive this spring, courtesy of a grant and some prodding from ARCH. There’s the Web-based Anacostia soap opera ARCH co-sponsors, the now-annual Lumen8Anacostia arts festival it spearheaded for the first time this year, and the additional five to seven arts venues Gautier hopes to see in the neighborhood within two years.
And then there’s the first Hive, on Martin Luther King Avenue. It’s smaller than its new cousin, but its 20 clients are at home in its compact but well-apportioned workspaces. The idea for The Hive began in 2010 in Big Chair Coffee and Grill, currently Anacostia’s only proper sit-down spot.
“We’re sitting on the second floor of the Big Chair,” recalls Gautier, “and there are a bunch of professionals there and they say, ‘We’re all working in these shared office spaces all over the place. You want a challenge? Build one here.’”
Gautier accepted the challenge in 2010, and the results surprised even him, the consummate optimist. “We thought it’d take six months to fill it up,” he says. “It took three—and the private offices were gone within a month.”
Gautier says there’s “no pattern” to The Hive’s tenants, which include consultants, engineers, and realtors. To the extent that there is a theme, it’s companies in the early stages of their existence whose employees live or do business in Ward 8. “We were finding that people wanted to stay in Ward 8, and there was no place to go,” Gautier says.
But the demand for more meeting space, and more space in general, quickly exceeded what The Hive could provide. And so The Hive II was born.
ARCH rents and sublets The Hive (unlike The Hive II, which it owns), and the rent is all covered by income from its tenants. The technical assistance and business services ARCH provides, however, are funded by a grant from the District Department of Housing and Community Development. “There’s not a business incubator in the D.C. area that runs without government support,” he says.
Gautier thinks Anacostia holds two advantages over other business districts in D.C. First, it’s considerably less expensive than the startup-rich neighborhoods of Northwest. Second, for many commuters from the suburbs, like Gautier himself, it’s actually more accessible than Gallery Place or Dupont.
Nikki Peele, the managing director of The Hive, chimes in with a third advantage: “I don’t know any other place in the city where you have such an affinity to your neighbor.”
Peele’s word choice may be deliberate. Affinity Lab is D.C.’s premier incubator, currently located on U Street NW but founded in Adams Morgan in 2001. Adams Morgan may now have some of the city’s most expensive real estate, but back then, says Affinity Lab co-founder Charles Planck, it shared some similarities with the Anacostia of today.
“At the time, nobody would say that Adams Morgan was an entrepreneurial or business hub of the District,” Planck says. But as in Anacostia, there were quite a few contractors and consultants living in the area, so the potential for business growth was high, given the right catalyst. Affinity Lab helped increase the neighborhood’s daytime population, giving a boost to local restaurants and other businesses.
“An incubator that is focused on the local economy and growing and developing neighborhood entrepreneurs can be a tremendous asset,” says Planck. “So with regard to The Hive, I’d have to say that in our own experience, as long as you are really putting the local community in focus and doing it for the local community, then to a certain extent, if you build it they will come.”
Gautier likes to make side-by-side comparisons between The Hive and spaces like Affinity Lab. A fully furnished private office, which costs between $1,200 and $2,100 a month at The Hive II, can’t be found at Affinity, ARCH proudly points out; a private workstation—$450 at The Hive II—will set you back nearly twice as much ($895) at Affinity. And, Gautier says, The Hive II is “most likely the only shared-space office in town with $90,000 worth of original art on the walls.”
“I love The Hive,” says James Watson, CEO of IT provider TeamCPN, which has been at the incubator for slightly more than a year and works largely with Ward 8 companies. “It’s a great space, and there are other businesses around, which gives you a chance to talk to other people and network.” He also points to the affordability of its office space and the perks of working in a Historically Underutilized Business Zone, or HUBZone, which gives companies working there a leg up in bidding for government contracts.
But in one crucial regard, The Hive is at a significant disadvantage. Affinity Lab met the needs of a startup culture that existed largely at neighborhood institutions like the coffee shop Tryst. Though the impetus for The Hive may have come from a conversation at Big Chair, Anacostia largely lacks the kinds of communal spaces where sparks fly. For now, Big Chair, with its limited seating, is just about the only option for brainstorming over coffee.
“Coffee shops are crucial,” says Peter Corbett, CEO of the Dupont-based digital agency iStrategyLabs and a cheerleader for the D.C. tech scene. Techies, he says, routinely hang out at cafes like Dupont’s Filter, Dolcezza, and Cafe Dupont; Logan Circle’s Peregrine Espresso; and Downtown’s Chinatown Coffee. “If I walk into Peregrine on a given day, I’ll see four or five people who I know,” Corbett says.
In this regard, Gautier might need to invert the development of Anacostia: first, bring a daytime population to the neighborhood, and hope cafes and other amenities follow.
“It is sort of a chicken-and-egg situation, but it’s gotta start someplace,” says Planck. “The key is to make yourself a nexus, a connecting point for a variety of different types of people and interests in a community. Once you create a community like that, that will increase demand.”
Looking to the future, Gautier envisions a thriving tech center taking advantage of Anacostia’s high-quality broadband infrastructure. (He blames the city government for not promoting tech east of the river sooner. “If they would get behind us as much as they got behind other parts of the city, we’d be a tech center,” he says.) Within a year, he aims to bring two new restaurants to the neighborhood. Within 10, he says, “every storefront in Anacostia will be renovated; it’s going to be an arts district.”
If it happens, the cross-pollinating businesses of The Hive will be partly to thank.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery