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Southwest’s in development limbo. For now, residents take what they can get.
In the coming years, the Southwest waterfront will transform into a glittering $1.5 billion development with three new hotels, condos, and a bustling promenade overlooking Hains Point. But until then, locals can take in the old scenery: the garish Maine Avenue Fish Market, boring anchor sculptures, empty wooden benches, and a strip of boxy seafood restaurants and clubs, including the now-closed D.C. hotspot and drama magnet, H20.
H20 opened promising to be primarily a restaurant in an area that lacks sit-down options for eating. Susan Carpenter, who has lived on a floating house in front of the club for a decade, says that promise went seriously unfulfilled.
On Friday or Saturday nights, the bass thumped through her house. The next morning, she often found lewd party fliers strewn all over the street.
“I call them booty cards,” says Carpenter, 67. Besides these common-enough nuisances, there was a fatal shooting outside the club in May 2007. The death knell for this spacious 42,000-square-foot building arrived when H20’s proprietor, Abdul Khanu, lost his liquor license, forcing him to close down.
That development made Carpenter “extremely happy.” But since then, there’s been no development; it’s empty.
If neighbors like Carpenter could pick what goes in there, “it would be very nice to have a place right here along the sea wall to have a cup of coffee and read your morning paper-that sort of thing. But I don’t know if that’s going to be a possibility,” she says.
But something is happening there. The new proprietor is a former employee of the closed club and, although she wants a liquor license, she still bills the place as friendly to coffee drinkers.
“She described it as ‘Busboys without the books,'” says 6D Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Andy Litsky. “I said fine.”
Kristina Noell, the former director of catering sales and marketing at H20, has also worked for the Hard Rock Café and a variety of other businesses and groups-everything from a cyber café to government contractors to associations.
Noell has big dreams for the space, although she’s not terribly available to talk about them.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a constant stream of people and several large trucks clogged the sidewalks around 800 Water St. SW. Inside, people dragged busted old tables through a back corridor to vehicles carting away junk. The main rooms were practically empty, minus a few tables and chairs and a central wooden bar space.
The man in charge that day said he’d had trouble connecting with Noell to get his cleaning crew inside. Lucky for him, someone was already working in the building when he arrived.
I had the same experience. Myriad phone calls went unanswered for days; her cell phone mailbox was full. She did, however, respond to e-mails, and we finally touched base by phone six days after my first call.
Noell writes that she plans to open up a café, catering space, and restaurant-a “premium family-friendly venue.”
She says she never intended to usurp her former boss’ throne at the locale. But after H20 closed, former clients continued to contact her about hosting parties there.
Until 2007, the building was owned by the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (a publicly chartered but largely independent group), which disbanded in 2007, says Nina Albert, a project manager for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The city then took over the 1970s-style, low-slung structure, and is negotiating a two-year lease with Noell, who says she intends to open her business mid-spring-before the glittering development is developed.
Albert says Noell, whom she’s known for several years, approached her in late October with a business plan. Albert says she felt the city needed to find a tenant for 800 Water St., especially to help out its commercial neighbors. “There are those other businesses, which are still operational and want to generate business, and if that becomes a vacant lot, people willŠcease to frequent those businesses. We don’t want that to happen either,” she says.
And obviously, with the clock ticking toward development, it makes sense to get a tenant in quickly-a business that can establish itself in a few short years.
Noell plans to call her addition to the waterfront Hogate’s after the seafood restaurant that operated in Southwest for three decades and was a pillar of the neighborhood. “It was very nice,” Carpenter says of the old Hogate’s. Her husband’s a Washingtonian, and when she first met his family, they took her there “for a grand Sunday lunch,” she says.
“There will be things that will be reminiscent of the old restaurant-they [had] the rum buns that everyone still loves,” she says about the old place’s famous sticky buns. “We’ll also have our own rum buns, but there will be a twist.”
For a while, Noell considered calling her restaurant “Hogate’s by Kristina.” Then she decided to cut the extra wording; her place was obviously going to have a different vibe and personality. “It’s not going to look like Hogate’s,” she says. She adds that, in addition to holding the lease on the property, the city also owns the name-and she’s free to use it.
“Continuing the tradition and branding the venue this way will assist in ensuring a smoother transition,” she says. In other words: This is not H20.
Yet the transition has not been without hitches.
When Noell first came before ANC6D in December requesting a stipulated liquor license, she was denied. She later negotiated with a committee and was granted approval on Jan. 12. “No one had any idea about who she was and what her investment strategy was,” say Litsky about the first meeting. (He could not attend but heard about it later.)
As work continues on the space, he says the ANC just wants to make sure she, unlike her former boss, delivers what she promises-and not another nightclub.
Litsky and others did a walk-through with Noell and, for now, her dream is moving forward. But it could be knocked down once the construction cranes move in.
Noell may be able to extend her lease for one year after it runs out. But developers plan to demolish her building as soon as possible, according to project manager Albert.
“We don’t know when redevelopment will occur. The earliest it will occur is starting two years from now, but the reality is, it’s possible it will really take three years,” she says. “In the interim,” says Litsky. “We’ll have the opportunity to have a more vibrant community life on the waterfront. We see no reason to wait.”
Image by Darrow Montgomery