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InTowner Article

The InTowner article: Major Projects Launching in Columbia Heights

 By Michael K. Wilkinson

Two Key Land Disposition Agreements Approved

    Ever since Metro opened its Columbia Heights station in September 1999, massive redevelopment of the heart of the neighborhood, along the 14th Street commercial corridor, has been “just around the corner.” May 2003 will be the month that Columbia Heights turns that corner, as two groundbreaking ceremonies take place and plans for a dozen other major projects move briskly through the planning stages and on to implementation. On April 26, following a public hearing, the Board of Directors of the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC) voted unanimously to approve Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs) for two of 12 land parcels owned by the city through its RLA Redevelopment Corporation (RLARC).

Tivoli Square Now Underway

    The first, Parcel 29, is the site of the historic Tivoli Theater at 14th Street and Park Road, which is to be developed by Tivoli Partners, LLC, a group headed by DC-based developer Horning Brothers. As previously reported by this newspaper (“Tivoli Square Project Underway; Site Work Soon to be Visible,” InTowner, April 2002, page 1), the Tivoli Square project actually encompasses four components:

 • As the centerpiece, a restored Tivoli Theater with 24,000 square feet of retail space along 14th Street, a 250-seat performing arts theater operated by GALA Hispanic Theatre, and 28,000 square feet of office space in the upper levels of the structure;

• A state-of-the-art, 53,000 square-foot grocery store on Park Road, operated by Giant Foods, and containing two levels of parking above the store;

• At the corner of 14th and Monroe Streets, a north building containing a sitdown restaurant; and

Condominium town homes along Monroe Street containing 40 residential units, with 20 percent set aside for low and moderate-income buyers.

    Once the LDA was approved, the developer was able to put in motion a series of final steps for beginning construction. A Groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for May 13 at 5 p.m. at the site, with presentations by Mayor Anthony Williams, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, and NCRC officials. Also expected are representatives from the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, a neighborhood partner in the development; Giant Foods, the anchor tenant; Riggs Bank; and GALA Hispanic Theatre.

    For the commercial development, Horning Brothers will begin construction on May 13, with projected completion in August 2004. Construction on the residential component will commence in February 2004, with occupancy projected for a year later.

    While visible progress can be made starting immediately on the renovation of the exterior of the Tivoli and construction of the new commercial structures, the developer still needs to complete one final—and crucial—step in the approval process: State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) approval of the plans for the interior of the building. The developer claims to have coordinated closely throughout the design process with the SHPO; however, preservation of the historic elements on the interior of the building has proven to be the most recent challenge, pitting once again a bottom line-oriented developer against preservation- minded activists in the neighborhood.

    Eric Graye, President of Save the Tivoli [no website found], a local organization that has fought for decades against countless proposals and plans to sacrifice the original building in part or in whole, told The InTowner that the approved development plan is far superior to any previous scheme. Gray is mainly pleased with the fact that the original building is to be retained and preserved, but also notes that he is pleased with how the design for the Giant store is “in keeping with the urban character of the neighborhood,” and how the new townhouses on Monroe Street will serve “as a buffer [between] the existing residences on Monroe Street [and] the commercial intrusion of the Giant.”

    He added, however, that “the grand sense of space and the amazingly wonderful acoustical quality of the main auditorium and stage area will be gone and replaced by the extension of the original 14th Street-facing retail storefront area into the footprint of the auditorium. [While] I do support the rehabilitation of 14th Street storefronts as neighborhood-serving retail, . . . I don’t think this vision requires the extension of this space into the auditorium. The ‘good’ news is that all of the modifications to the interior are to be done in a manner that is reversible so that, in the future, a plan which is more sensitive to the original design of the building could [be implemented].”

    For its part in the development, the group responsible for finishing out and operating the theater space, GALA Hispanic Theatre, is grateful for the opportunity to be headquartered in the building. In fact, recent changes to the design of the theater have benefited both the building and the theater: In earlier schemes, the theater was to be tucked into an awkward, rectangular corner deep inside the building. The dramatic, domed ceiling in the original theater, along with two smaller domes, were going to be hidden from public view either inside the office component of the development, or preserved under temporary cover, for possible renovation at a later time.

    With persistent lobbying by the theater company and their architects, the Smith Group, the developers eventually agreed to move the theater to the center of the building, sitting directly under the original dome. GALA co-founder Rebecca Medrano told The InTowner that the developers “have been patient and collaborative in terms of adjusting their plans to meet the needs of the community and the needs of GALA’s performing space.”

Hines Funeral Home Slated for New Use

    Also approved by the NCRC Board on April 26 was the LDA for the new headquarters of the Greater Washington Urban League, to be located in the former Hines Funeral Home building on the northeast corner of 14th and Harvard, which will be totally restored and adapted to this new use. (This building was featured last year in this newspaper’s “Scenes from the Past”; see, InTowner, June 2002, page 12.)

    The Urban League, with its headquarters currently located just a few blocks up 14th Street at Otis Place, is a social services organization with programs for aging, education, housing and community development, and a technology resource center. Busting at the seams in its current, 11,400- square foot facility, the organization will be able to improve and expand its services significantly in the nearly 30,000 square feet that the historic Hines building offers.

    The organization has budgeted $10 million for purchasing, renovating and maintaining the new headquarters building, including a $5 million endowment to ensure building operation and maintenance into the future. It is purchasing the shell from the RLARC for $628,000, and expects construction costs of almost $3.75 million.

    The building is in near ruins, after 15 years of abandonment and neglect, according to project architect Amy Sanderson of Russell Sears and Associates. Sanderson states that most of the building above ground level is unsafe for walking, resulting mainly from pervasive water damage sustained following a period of basic neglect, particularly of the roof. Fortunately, however, the exterior of the building, with rare auburn colored pressed brick and extensive copper cornices and gutters, remains largely intact.

    Plans call for restoring the exterior virtually to its original state, with the only major changes taking place on the less visible side and rear of the structure. On the interior, the structure will be rebuilt completely to accommodate a wide range of functions for the organization. These include offices for the organization’s program staff and executives, meeting and conference rooms, a reception room/special events meeting space with a seating capacity of 100, computer labs and technology resource center, a library, a community services kiosk, a satellite office for the office of Aging Services, and a One-Stop Career Services Center under the DC Department of Employment Services. Additionally, there is approximately 5,000 square feet of office space that the organization will lease out.

    The Urban League is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise the funds to complete the project. To date, it has raised a total of over $2.3 million, split nearly evenly between actual cash received and pledges yet to be collected. Its current headquarters building recently appraised for $1.25 million, and may be sold in the future to raise a significant portion of the remaining funds needed for the new building.

    What is interesting about the Urban League initiative is that it makes up a part of a significant number of nonprofit and arts organizations taking an active part in the developments lining 14th Street in Columbia Heights. Along with GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington, the Urban League, in its drive to stay on 14th Street through this period of intensive redevelopment, is bringing an important element of cultural, commercial and economic diversity to the development.

New Name for Metro Stop?

    In a related footnote, members of the community have recently begun to press public officials about re-naming the Columbia Heights metro station “Columbia Heights/Tivoli (Theatre),” a suggestion that was met with applause at the April 26 LDA hearing. Ward 1 City Councilmember Jim Graham, who also chairs metro’s Board of Directors, told The InTowner that he thought renaming the station was “a very exciting idea,” and noted in the same breath that Mount Pleasant had been lobbying for several years to be added to the station name. “I am receptive to any [name change] proposal which is demonstrated
to have the support of the neighborhood,”including the endorsement of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC). Such a change, Graham stated, would cost “below $100,000,” and even less if done at a time when maps and signs were being changed for other reasons such as opening of new stations. Graham noted that one of the two recent name changes (U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo) yielded the longest station
name in the system and had become somewhat of a challenge for Metro operators to announce uniformly. (The other name change was Adams Morgan/Woodley Park, on the Red Line.)


Reprinted with permission. (c) InTowner Publishing Corp. 2003; All Rights Reserved.
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