March 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
U St. bar, stadium site to use shipping containers

D.C. residents have welcomed frequent recent announcements detailing restaurant and bar venues planned throughout the city and in developing neighborhoods. A wide range of new small business concepts and social environments are continually taking shape across the District.

Two unique new local projects share an unusual architectural element. Both a proposed taqueria and bar in the Shaw area and an open-air retail and event fairground site being set up adjacent to the Washington Nationals Stadium plan to utilize large salvaged corrugated steel shipping containers in creating temporary structures.

A narrow empty lot at 919 U St., N.W., on the bustling commercial corridor near the 9:30 Club, is the proposed site for a new restaurant and bar planned by hospitality entrepreneurs — and brothers — Ian and Eric Hilton. Eric, half of Grammy-winning Thievery Corporation fame, has developed a restaurant-lounge-bar dynasty in the U Street entertainment area.

He opened the Eighteenth Street Lounge in 1995, also using space in the downtown building as the home base for the music group and ESL Records. In recent years – partnering with family members, his wife and others – Eric has been the driving force behind the U Street neighborhood destinations Marvin, Gibson, Blackbyrd, Patty Boom Boom, the Dickson and American Ice Company, and is an investor in U Street Music Hall. Upcoming projects include the Brixton (currently under construction at the corner of 9th and U streets across from Nellie’s Sports Bar), the Independent (undergoing renovation at 715 Florida Ave., adjacent to Town Danceboutique) and Chez Billy (opening soon on Georgia Avenue in Petworth).

The new El Ray restaurant bar venture is to be constructed by flanking two railroad car-sized shipping containers along both adjoining property walls. The units would be joined by glass doors spanning the storefront entrance and topped with a perpendicular container featuring an internally illuminated sign.

The shipping containers would also be used to enclose and segregate interior kitchen, refrigeration and restroom areas. The street facade design includes a take-out window with an angled metal canopy. Inside, partially covered elevated metal trusses will define the space, extending to an open outdoor rear patio area enclosed by a seven-foot-high wood fence.

This week, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will evaluate an agency staff report recommending the venue’s unique design as consistent with historic preservation law and the character of the Uptown Arts District, established to encourage retail and entertainment uses, at a March 22 meeting. The ad hoc structure would be temporary, pending future redevelopment of the tract.

According to HPRB staff, the “use of shipping containers for temporary retail and arts uses is an increasingly popular option for activating vacant urban sites.” They reference both London’s BoxPark and Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market container structures as “architecturally imaginative shops.” They note that the “proposal is also consistent with the Office of Planning’s Temporary Urbanism Initiative which seeks to transform vacant spaces into vibrant destinations.”

The report compares the proposed eatery with the Half Street, S.E., outdoor “Fairgrounds” project currently being configured using shipping containers – a combination food, retail, market and entertainment space on a vacant lot owned by the Akridge real estate development firm. The use of the site will precede construction of a 700,000-square-foot mixed-use residential, retail and office development slated to begin construction later this year.

This temporary “pop-up” arena, adjacent to both the Nationals stadium and Navy Yard Metro, is scheduled to open March 30 and will remain in operation seven days a week through October 1. The facility will also feature two “permanent” food truck versions of local alcohol-licensed restaurants with additional rotating mobile food trucks on non-game days. A permanent bar and stage area are also planned.

The site will host several food vendor “Truckeroo” events previously held in the ballpark area, on specific dates. (Unlike D.C., a number of cities allowing food trucks to operate prohibit them from using public space, such as parking spots, restricting street food vendors to designated private lots or special off-street spaces.)

These new urban projects will enliven their respective D.C. locales. Let’s hope that the El Ray restaurant and bar on U Street enjoys smooth sailing with all licensing requirements and quickly moves forward to opening.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

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