December 25, 2009 at 2:40 am EST | by Nick Napolitano
A striking new ‘View’ on 14th Street

David Franco, a longtime local entrepreneur who co-owns Level 2 Development, opened View 14, a 185-unit apartment building in the bustling 14th and U corridor. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

David Franco laughs as he recalls his foray into the entrepreneurial arena. It was 1989 and his good friend, John Guggenmos, was pulling together a group of investors to buy the nightclub Tracks. Franco, a fresh-faced 24-year-old, could not have known that Tracks would shortly experience its heyday and become the focal point of D.C.’s gay nightlife scene, making it a hugely profitable venture, but he smelled opportunity. Or at the very least a really good time. He was ready to jump at the chance.

There was just one snag: “I was not out at the time.”

Franco wasn’t among the legions of gay men and lesbians who came to D.C. to explore and embrace life outside the closet. The recent University of Maryland graduate was a native Washingtonian who had never lived anywhere else. He and his four brothers worked for the family business, a chain of discount department stores run by their father, and they all lived within a mile of each other in the Maryland suburbs. How would his family, especially his Orthodox Jewish father, react to having a family member who was not only gay but owned a gay nightclub?

“I went to my father and said, ‘Dad, I have this opportunity and the opportunity requires me to leave the family business.’” When his father asked what the opportunity was, Franco forced the words out. “I said, ‘I have the opportunity to go in with a group of guys to buy a [gay] nightclub.’ I thought my father was going to hit the roof.  But instead he said, ‘If this is going to make you happy, you have my blessing.’”

The Tracks venture was the first step along a career path that would see Franco launch with his Tracks associates a new gay establishment in D.C., Trumpets restaurant, and with business partner Keith Clark start Universal Gear, a chain of clothing stores popular with gay men. Those accomplishments, however, were dwarfed with the opening last month of View 14, a $90 million 185-unit apartment building that he and business partner Jeff Blum developed and built through their real estate firm, Level 2 Development.

The building’s interior was designed in collaboration with local furniture store owners Jason Claire and Eric Kole of Vastu and has the feel of a boutique hotel:  funky but modern, stylish with some flashes of whimsy. It boasts the usual upscale finishes like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and an enviable array of amenities, some the kind you would expect in a new luxury building – roof decks with Weber grills, a party room, 24-hour concierge service, fitness center, underground parking – but some you might not have seen elsewhere, including a sculpture garden, yoga studio, fully loaded theater, and a screen in the cavernous lobby that tells you when the next green and yellow line trains will be arriving at the U Street Metro Station.

Franco likens View 14 itself to a “giant ship coming down 14th Street.” It’s a very fitting image, with the sleek and majestic glass, steel and stone structure seeming to glide down the hill from Columbia Heights to the U Street area. How View 14 came to be is a harrowing voyage in itself, fraught with the squalls and swells of a tanking real estate market and the ensuing lending crisis.

It was 2005, and Franco and Blum were finishing their first venture together, the development of a 12-unit apartment building on the 1400 block of Chapin Street, N.W., called the Mercury at Meridian Hill Park. The real estate market was moving from high gear into overdrive, Franco said, and the building sold out very quickly. Flush with excitement, the two decided that for their second project together they would go big in order to capitalize on the red hot market.

After losing a bid on a property in the NoMa neighborhood, they set their sights on the Petrovich Auto Repair garage at the corner of 14th Street and Florida Avenue, around the corner from the Mercury. The property was perfectly situated on a hill that would afford stunning views of the city, and was within a stone’s throw of the popular U Street corridor.

Unfortunately, owners Paolo and Pedro Petrovich weren’t exactly jumping at the opportunity.

“They weren’t prepared [to sell] at that time,” said Franco. “They wanted to reinvest [whatever profit they would make from the sale] but didn’t know what to do.”

Undeterred, Franco and Blum made themselves a fixture at the Petroviches’ garage. “One of us would be in there at least once a week, seeing how things were,” often over lunch. “We really cultivated a relationship.” Franco, meanwhile, diligently researched opportunities for the Petroviches to reinvest their money. When the brothers took him up on a suggestion to tour some CVS stores in the Baltimore area, Franco began to feel guardedly optimistic.

Several months later, after a delicate dance with the Petroviches that could only be described as a wooing, complete with the appearance of a rival suitor, Franco and Blum won the sale.

Once that first major hurdle was cleared other challenges followed – finding a suitable architect and investment partner, navigating city bureaucracy to get the requisite permits to build a large scale condo building where an auto repair shop used to be, making expensive arrangements for the grounds to be cleansed of several decades worth of oil and gasoline seepage – but those were overcome with hard work and perseverance.

Franco and Blum quickly found strong support for their project among D.C. politicians, with Mayor Adrian Fenty attending the groundbreaking and Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham stepping in to facilitate communication with Comcast, which had been unresponsive to Franco and Blum’s appeals to discuss with them the relocation of Comcast-owned satellite dish equipment and a signal receiver tower from the View 14 site. Graham would later champion legislation that gave the View 14 project $5.7 million in tax abatement.

The View 14 developers also won kudos from local community leaders and the city government by donating $1 million to the residents of Cresthill Apartments toward the purchase of their building and the formation of a cooperative. This was done as part of their deal with the city, which requires developers to provide affordable housing if they are building a high-density project. Rather than set aside units in the new building for that purpose, as is normally done, the View 14 developers, seeing need in their community, chose instead to donate needed funds to the Cresthill residents, whose building was less than a block away and was soon to be sold on the open market.

“I never will forget the first day I met David,” said Sankofa Cooperative president Sheila Royster, who has lived in the Cresthill Apartments building for 40 years. “He came to my unit and he brought me a plant. I thought that was wonderful. It was a genuine gesture and to me it just demonstrated his respect for us and what we were doing.”

Dark clouds began to loom though as speculation that the housing market was cresting gave way to fears of a housing bubble that could burst at any moment and send property values tumbling.  Still, Franco and Blum were confident. More than 1,000 people attended the lavish launch party in September of 2006. Rival developers nervously dubbed View 14 “The Death Star” because it was expected to “suck up all the other condo purchasers in the market,” Franco said. “We were excited.”

Contracts trickled in, a dozen and a half in the first two months, and the cold reality set in: they weren’t selling enough units to finance the start of construction on time. It might be months, or even a year, before they reached that point. If they were able to reach that point.

The two men sat down with their project partners and made the difficult decision to re-engineer View 14 as a rental project. “It was literally the million dollar decision for us,” said Franco. “We had spent a million dollars in marketing and building a sales center.”

Franco said that he and Blum have accepted a letter of intent from a “well-known retail and services establishment in the area” that will use 8,000 square feet of space to expand their facilities.

“The neighborhood is going to be ecstatic when they learn who’s going to be there,” he promises. A signed lease and announcement is expected soon.

Franco is just as ebullient when he talks about the 14th and U Street neighborhood and its future. He points out that the Solea, a condo building directly across 14th Street from View 14, has nearly sold out. And there is just one unit left for sale at Union Row, the massive, 216-unit condo building that also houses Yes! Market, a CVS, and the restaurant Eatonville.

“That speaks volumes to the desirability of this neighborhood,” said Franco.

About 25 leases have been signed so far and the first View 14 residents moved in over Thanksgiving weekend, among them Galan Panger, a 24-year-old gay man who is leasing a studio. Panger, who works in Google’s downtown D.C. office, said he was impressed by the quality of the building’s construction and with the finishes. The amenities solidified the decision to trade in his digs at nearby Union Row for View 14.

“It was nice of them to create these community spaces,” Panger said. “My boyfriend and I have been grilling even though it’s been cold.” They have been sticking to the east roof deck after Franco joked during a tour of the building that it was the gayer of the two rooftop spaces since it has “the more fabulous view.”

Franco himself is one of View 14’s newest tenants, along with his dog; last week he sold his home near Meridian Hill Park and they moved into one of the penthouse units.

Franco sees a wide mix of people coming to View 14, from single young professionals to retired couples. There is also a fair bit of traffic from gay and lesbian renters like Panger, which Franco attributes to a variety of factors, including the fact that the building bears the strong imprint of two openly gay men, he and Blum, as well as the influence of other gay men they know like Claire and Kole of Vastu and Chris Cahill, a good friend of Franco’s who works for Botanical Decorators and came up with the idea for using the courtyard space as a sculpture garden and helped select the sculptures and interior plants.

People, gay and straight alike, Franco observed, appreciate quality and, “not to rely too heavily on stereotypes, but gay men have a natural attention to detail. We as gay men are [attuned] to high style, high design and convenience. This building delivers that.”

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