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Ten years before Busboys & Poets arrived, but long after Ben’s Chili Bowl starting selling half-smokes, the 1600 block of U Street NW was home to a restaurant supply store, a crappy pizza joint, local dive Stetson’s Famous Bar & Grill, some vacant storefronts, and, across the street, fire and police stations.
Because half the block is dedicated to urban peacekeeping, it seemed destined to be ignored, relegated to the D.C. development dustbin. But entrepreneur David von Storch saw something in the tan brick building at 1612 U, formally known as E.B. Adams Co. and stocked full of cutlery and dining necessities. Von Storch had served hard time on D.C.’s gentrification frontier. In 1987, he helped usher in “the Georgetownization of Adams Morgan”—as one former D.C. Council chair called it—with the opening of the Dakota Nightclub/Montana Café. In the mid-1990s, he was a beer man running Capitol City Brewing Company. But he decided to take a chance on a new hard-knock neighborhood—and, in the roughly 15 years since, the area above and below 14th and U Streets down to Logan Circle has exploded. A surprising amount of that development has come out of his starter building. There are a few key personalities involved—and a few tangled stories between them. But they’re all connected to 1612, a place that’s much more than bricks, mortar, and hard bodies.
Von Storch signs a lease-to-own agreement on the four-story building at 1612 U Street. He has a vision for it: After hauling out “random boxes and crates of plates and silverware,” von Storch decides he wants to transform the fourth floor into a kind of community center for gay-oriented businesses and nonprofits. “This was at the height of the AIDS crisis, and there was so much discrimination and lack of positive energy within the gay community,” he says. He sees “a place where people could be safe to create their own businesses in an environment that was supportive.” On the ground floor, there’s an art gallery and an eatery called Basics Café, which serves smoothies and sandwiches and offers weekend brunch with counter service.
Von Storch also draws up plans for a gym. The fitness scene is fairly limited at this point: There’s Washington Sports Club, Gold’s Gym, and “a couple of gay gyms that were really kind of ratty,” but no sizable space where gays could work out and feel comfortable and welcome. Back then, that kind of space was important for the gay community, especially for anyone who was HIV-positive, says von Storch, who learned in the late 1980s that he is infected with the virus. “You can’t go to a club and drink and smoke cigarettes if you’re positive and you want to stay healthy.”
But after designing the space with his architect brother Stephen, von Storch decides he’s not ready to launch a gym, especially since Capitol City is expanding to three new locations.
Instead he selects Doug Jefferies, a personal trainer with his own boutique fitness operation on 17th Street, to run the gym. Jefferies, who’d been looking for such an opportunity, rents the space, asking to expand inside the building within a year. Results ends up flourishing into a four-gym chain with other locations in Mount Vernon Triangle, downtown, and on Capitol Hill.
Things sour between Jefferies and von Storch; they’re engaged in a legal battle over landlord/tenant issues, and David Franco, a friend of both who owns the Universal Gear clothing chain, steps in to mediate. Franco and Jefferies are buddies from way back: “Actually, I was in the cherry picker washing windows the day before he opened up his gym,” says Franco. He and von Storch had planned a massive fundraiser surrounding the 1993 gay rights march on Washington. “Though our friendship has been casual, there’s always been a great deal of mutual respect,” says Franco of von Storch. “He’s someone that I can count on.”
While resolving the legal conflicts—von Storch claims Jefferies isn’t in compliance with the lease, which Jefferies denies—Franco spends a lot of time on the fourth floor of 1612 U Street and decides the space would be perfect for the headquarters of his blooming clothing boutique chain, which also has stores in Chicago and New York. At that point, Universal Gear’s D.C. shop is on 17th Street, a few blocks south of 1612 U. The building had become part of a “routine” for young gay men living in the area, he says. “Oftentimes, after work, you’d go to Results, get your workout in, you’d stop and get a bite to eat, or stop at the Safeway on 17th Street—and then pop into Universal Gear and buy your outfit for the weekend.” The southern end of 17th Street had J.R.’s DC Bar and Grill. The northern end, near where 17th hits U, had Results. “That was the strip,” says Franco.
Von Storch and Jefferies aren’t Franco’s only connection to the building: His friend Jeff Blum also works on the fourth floor. In 2001, Blum is commuting back and forth from Dallas, where he works for a company that builds security systems. He spends one week a month in Texas and the rest of the time in D.C. at 1612 U Street. But finally, he quits the Texas gig. “I was just miserable,” he says. “I wanted to do something that was focused back home in the neighborhood that I had moved into, and so that’s when I started my real estate business,” he recalls. His first project is the Clift, a 19th-century rowhouse transformed into a four-unit condo building on R Street between 14th and 15th.
After Blum finishes the Clift, he and Franco start looking at real estate together, co-founding Level2Development. Both men had grown up in suburban Maryland—Blum in Potomac, Franco in Silver Spring—and spent their formative years in D.C., where their fathers worked in prominent retail businesses. Blum’s dad ran the catalog showroom for W. Bell & Company at 14th and P Streets in the building that’s now the Studio Theatre. Franco’s family owned the Brentwood Village Shopping Centre on Rhode Island Avenue NE, a couple of discount shopping stores, and a children’s apparel, furniture, and toy store downtown at 12th and G.
Level2Development’s first project is the Mercury on Chapin Street, a conversion of 1960s apartments into a fancy 12-unit condo building. “The 14th Street gold rush was clearly underway,” says Blum. “The Whole Foods was open. The 1400 block of P was clearly underway.” In 2004, as the Mercury was underway, Level2Development makes its next, and much more substantial, acquisition: a parcel of land at 14th Street and Florida Avenue, then home to an auto repair shop, a body shop, a used car dealership, and a storage space for vending carts—and, right next door, a humongous, antiquated-looking signal tower controlled by Comcast. View 14 is slated to be one of the largest condo projects in an area that’s booming with them: 180 units.
Von Storch purchases 1612 U Street for $5.8 million. “As soon as I was able to buy the building, I did,” he says. “Once I controlled the building, I was able to start planning for the addition and the different things I wanted to do.” The new concept includes installing his own gym in the space currently occupied by Results, whose 15-year lease is up in March 2011.
Von Storch already has his own gym chain in the works and the following year launches Vida Fitness in the Verizon Center, adding clubs in Logan Circle and the Renaissance Hotel near the Convention Center later. D.C. is a different place than when he first envisioned creating a gym. “As the market has changed, and as people have changed, and as health has changed,” he says, “my concept of what a gym and fitness center could be and should be has changed.” There’s no mention of the AIDS crisis in this vision—just extreme luxury: There’s state-of-the-art equipment, including exercise pools known as “the swimmers treadmill,” as well as spas offering “Zone Therapy Wraps” and “Marine Therapy Pedi Scrubs.” By now, 1612 U Street is also home to Bang Salon, another von Storch chain co-founded with Nikki Esoldo in 2001. “I have always wanted to come back here and bring my businesses back into this building at a new level,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to get it done. It took a long time for me to figure out the process, the people, and the financing.”
Blum and Franco buy the Nehemiah Retail Center, a decrepit strip mall across 14th Street from View 14. Home to a wig shop, nail salon, Chinese carryout, and 24-hour mini-mart, it’s only 11 years old, but already an “instant relic, a symbol of lame government-spurred development during the pre-boom years,” as Washington City Paper described it in a 2008 cover story called “Outstripped.” “It never shook off the feel of government cheese.” Blum and Franco negotiate the lease termination agreements with the strip mall’s tenants and begin sketching out another gentrification behemoth. Their final plans include a building with 250 residential units, many boasting “floor to ceiling glass, balconies, and terraces to capture natural light and views of the city.” The mixed-use development is also slated to include “a hotel-inspired lobby open to an outdoor atrium, a wi-fi lounge, ground floor retail services, and underground parking.”
Having bought and cleared out the Nehemiah Center, Franco and Blum sell the land to another developer. Meanwhile, View 14 has switched from for-purchase units to apartments, in light of what has become a condo glut in Washington. As the groundbreaking nears, a number of gym owners express interest in leasing the ground-level space. Among them: von Storch, Jefferies, and out-of-town chain Crunch. Talks accelerate with Jefferies. “We went through a series of design changes and protracted lease negotiations for about 11 months. We gave Doug a lot of liberties because he was a friend of mine, and we pressed on knowing that Doug had to find a new facility because his lease was up.” But in the “11th hour,” Jefferies backed out, says Franco.
Says Jefferies: “Jeff and David had courted me for years in that space. I told them if that space wasn’t going to be absolutely stunning, that area wasn’t going to be right for me. They tried to make it happen.” But ultimately, Jefferies isn’t enthusiastic about it.
Franco moves his Universal Gear store on 17th Street to a 14th Street space that’s roughly double the size. “We felt that it was important for us to be in an area that was growing as a retail corridor,” he says. “We believed that 17th Street was very limited, and 14th Street was just basically wide open with its large boulevard-style street, wide sidewalks and many storefronts.”
Von Storch starts making the rounds to the Dupont Circle Conservancy, local ANCs, and the usual District zoning and preservation bodies to get his design approved for his 1612 U Street overhaul. In the new plans, Bang Salon remains. Vida Fitness’ flagship location consumes most of the space, including a new addition to the east of the current 1612 building. There is to be a large restaurant, a swanky rooftop pool, and a dumbwaiter between the two, so bikini-clad gym members won’t starve mid-tanning session.
By year’s end, Franco and Blum’s View 14 opens and starts leasing units.
Jefferies has a new venture, too, called “Stroga,” with spaces for yoga and group strength training sessions. It will be located near the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road. To replace his Results Dupont location, Jefferies says he considered space in the same building as the Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan and checked out places below 14th and U Streets—like the Central Union Mission building and the large brick structure at 14th and T, soon to be home to furniture store Room & Board. He’s worried the area’s too saturated with large-scale gyms. “Stroga could become its own independent chain,” says Jefferies. This one’s set to open Feb. 15.
Von Storch pours “six figures” into producing his own reality show about himself and his mini-empire, co-starring “Nikki,” the kinky-haired salon partner; “Elaine,” the spa director who describes herself as “haggalicious”; “Camden,” the punky, young, married stylist; and “James,” Vida’s sales and marketing director whose claim to fame is that he sold Barack Obama an early D.C. gym membership back in his senatorial days (and, no, it wasn’t to Vida). The show is called “Complicated Order” and, on Jan. 11, von Storch releases it to the world—and Hollywood cable networks—with a Web site that clearly takes some of its inspiration from Bravo. The pilot airs to a packed crowd, mostly von Storch’s employees and their friends, at Town Danceboutique by U Street. “This is gonna be so exciting!” von Storch exclaims in the pilot, in front of a long-empty building at 14th and Q that he hopes to turn into a restaurant/bakery. (Lease negotiations are underway, he says.)
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery