Missouri Loves Company
Can luxury apartments succeed at a run-down intersection of Brightwood?

The corner of Missouri and Georgia avenues holds a special significance for many District residents: It’s either the beginning or the end of the fastest route through Northwest, on Military Road across Rock Creek Park.

For years, the corner has been part of a quiet, residential area, with the usual small Georgia Avenue businesses: Liquor stores, barbershops, and cheap clothing emporiums amid low-slung buildings and homes.

Directly across the street, there’s a sign that reads chinese foo subs∙seafood∙chken.

Developer Dick Knapp is among those who think the area’s due for a change.

“People say how about a Poets and Busboys?” says Knapp, who’s with Foulger-Pratt, a construction, development, and management company based in Rockville.

In 2007, Knapp began work on a proposal to build a 400-unit luxury apartment building at the site of the old Curtis Chevrolet dealership, with rents ranging from $1,250 for studios to up to $2,300 for two-bedrooms.

The building’s ground level will have roughly 20,840 square feet of retail: possibly coffee shops, sit-down restaurants, or a bit of both, something like the popular local chain Busboys and Poets, which has been credited with “invigorating neighborhoods that were once down on their luck,” according to local real-estate blog UrbanTurf.com.

In D.C., those neighborhoods are U Street and Mount Vernon Square, areas that have a lot of foot traffic, are Metro-accessible, and are already pretty flush with restaurants that have seats.

But Knapp is an ambitious sort. He thinks he can replicate their successes, with some modifications for a “lower income” bracket. Eight percent of his units are pegged for people making 80 percent of the area median income. In other words: His affordable housing would be all of $50 or $100 less per month for studios; one-bedrooms would rent for about $1,400, and two-bedroom units would be around $1,650 in a neighborhood with no Metro and few amenities beyond a go-go club.

The locals think he’s crazy: “Everyone knows it’s ludicrous—old, young, black, white,” says Sara Green, an ANC commissioner. “Mayor Fenty gets up there and says we have a reasonable affordable housing program in this city, and when a $1,300 studio is affordable housing—it’s a joke.”

Her fellow commissioner, Brenda Speaks, also questions this project’s fit for the area: “In Ward 4, there are people that have been here, worked here, raised their children here, and some of their children now live in their houses. I myself have been here since 1965—in the same house in fact.”

She says her neighbors—bungalow and row-house dwellers—similarly fail to get how 400 Class A apartments will enhance their neighborhood.

“They don’t feel it would satisfy their needs,” she says. “They just don’t want it.”

But city officials, including Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, seem to be on board.

“We’ve been very involved in every way—in making sure we’re championing the project, in keeping the project on task, making sure we’re dealing with historic preservation issues, making sure we’re working with the community, on getting feedback from them. Every way possible,” says Bowser.

As for the protests from the local commissioners, Bowser pooh-poohs them: “A number of the ANC commissioners are new this year, and they haven’t been as actively involved. So they may not know all of the issues,” she says. (For the record: The commissioners governing aspects of the project are a mix of newly elected and multiterm officials.)

No matter. Bowser’s looking out for their interests, suggesting that it’s possible the people of her ward don’t even know what they want. “There’s almost this sense that some may have that they don’t deserve good quality rental housing,” she says. All over the city, “there are things that people expect when they move into a new building, and this building will be so appointed. This building will be a real asset to the overall community.”

The D.C. Office of Planning backs her up. Stephen Mordfin, a specialist with that office, believes the project “has the potential to be the type of catalytic development Georgia Avenue is in dire need of.”

When e-mailed a follow-up question (the only method the office would respond to), Mordfin asks a colleague to step in—“We expect that new housing units that include retail choices and community amenities and are located in attractive, walkable neighborhoods like Brightwood will be absorbed into the market and will also help to catalyze additional neighborhood development,” writes Malaika Abernathy, the office’s Ward 4 neighborhood planning coordinator.

Local market experts are more circumspect about the high-rent success.

There are several new Class A apartments in areas in upper Northwest, says Grant Montgomery, vice president of Alexandria-based real estate research firm Delta Associates. (See more info on price comparisons here). Take for example the Gables Takoma Park, a new LEED-certified apartment building with 145 units, or the apartment buildings in the Fort Totten area.

The catch: Both of them are right next to a Metro station.

“It’s just becoming more and more important as a piece of what people are using as their decision matrix,” says Montgomery.

But there are several other factors to consider, says Mary Ann Voight, an independent marketing consultant who has researched pricing for the Bozzuto Group, a company that builds and manages apartment buildings throughout the mid-Atlantic.

Success depends on “what’s being planned in terms of redevelopment overall,” and whether there’s a solid renter base in the area, she says. Maybe people in the immediate area would like to stay there but can afford nicer units.

But even Knapp says there’s not a lot of talk these days about other projects piggy-backing on his. Then again, he’s not relying on neighborhood types to fill the leasing office.

Instead, Knapp’s best-laid plans are tied to D.C., itself, as the draw.

“Washington’s a growing market. There’s always going to be an influx of new folks arriving. These are people coming from outside the market. They’re moving down from Wall Street. There are people coming in from California, Texas, Florida. I think all of us know people that are looking for jobs in Washington.”

Perhaps the right slouchy-couch coffeeshop will help. Or maybe Brightwood just needs a bar referencing some Lewis Carroll tale (See: Columbia Heights’ Wonderland Ballroom; Petworth’s Looking Glass Lounge).

The truth is, it’s a gamble, and a waiting game: “It just takes longer,” says Voight.

“If Busboys and Poets is there and it can create a mini-neighborhood, then yeah, I think it can work,” she says.

Busboys owner Andy Shallal says he doesn’t recall receiving a call from any Brightwood developers yet. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

“I get developers calling like twice a day,” he says.

Shallal currently has two major new openings in the works: Eatonville on 14th Street, right across from the original Busboys and Poets, and his latest B&P outpost in Hyattsville.

To re-create what’s worked, Shallal says he looks for “a fairly urban environment.”

“I wouldn’t do it in Bethesda. I wouldn’t do it in Rockville. I wouldn’t do it outside the Beltway,” he says. Within the city, Shallal has looked at spots in Petworth and Brentwood. Location’s important—but not everything. It certainly wasn’t the be-all-end-all with his latest spot. But Hyattsville will work, he says, because of its proximity to the University of Maryland and because the developer “really gave me a very good deal, so that was obviously also part of my interest.”