April 12, 2012 at 9:02 am EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
14th in flux

A new apartment building being built across from the Black Cat on 14th Street NW in Washington. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Construction on 14th Street N.W. in Washington is nothing new — anyone who frequents the uber-gay area has been seeing chain-link fences, closed sidewalks and cranes for months as various massive projects are underway. But with ground now broken for the Louis, the former Utopia spot at 14th and U that will be a mixed-use space featuring 267 new apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail street-level space, it feels like the whole stretch is one massive construction zone from about R to W.

With so many projects underway at once, what effect will all this ultimately have on the street? And what exactly is planned at each spot?

It’s an unusual part of town in the sense that past Thomas Circle and the downtown area, 14th varies extensively in character and nature. Much denser with commercial business than its 13th or 15th street neighbors, 14th encompasses parts of three different neighborhoods (Logan, Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor), several ANC zones and two city wards (one and two). It’s also a street that has seen massive change in the last decade. And if all the construction seems rather sudden, long-time residents and those following city zoning news know these projects have all been in the works for years. Much of the simultaneous ground breaking is due to financing now being more readily available than it was in the few years just after the 2008 stock market crash.

“Those of us who live here have known about these projects for five to six years,” says Ramon Estrada, the 2B09 ANC commissioner that encompasses part of the street. “When a project is approved by zoning, they have a two-year window but for some of these projects, that hit right in the middle of the recessions so they asked the ANC for extensions. We wanted these projects to be built so all we had to do was re-approve them.”

Among the projects underway are:

  • The aforementioned Louis, a mixed-use project that will replace the Taco Bell/KFC and other shops formerly on the west side of 14th Street just south of U. The project, according to developer JBG, will be a nine-story, 267-unit apartment building with street-level retail space. JGB partnered with developer Georgetown Strategic Capital after their original plans stalled (the project was originally called Utopia). Construction started in February. JB and Georgetown Strategic Capital are working with architect Eric Colbert & Associates and interior designor Cecconi Simone on the project, according to Urban Turf, a site that monitors new condos and apartments coming to D.C.
  • District Condos, another JBG project, is a 125-unit residential project being built at the corner of 14th and S, according to Urban Turf and other sources. This is the spot that was formerly a Whitman-Walker AIDS drop-in clinic. Originally planned as condos, the building will now be studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.
  • The massive Jefferson 14W project (Jefferson14w.com), a Perseus Realty and Jefferson Apartment Group project at 14th and W N.W. that will have 231 apartments, a 40,000 square-foot YMCA and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail that’s slated to be finished by fall.
  • At 14th and Belmont (the 2400 block), a nine-story highrise that, according to the Prince of Petworth blog, will be 255 condos, street-level retail with underground parking and other amenities. This spot was formerly the Nehemiah Strip Mall.
  • View 14 (view14.com) has been finished since 2010 (and has been sold) but still has retail space for rent and represents the new wave of development on the street. The 185-unit building was originally planned as condos but is now rental apartments.
  • Level 2 Development plans a seven-story, 144-unit condo building at 1905 and 191714th Street, by the Carpet & Furniture shop. This project is more in the planning stage and has met with some opposition from residents.
  • Two condo buildings are going in at14th and R — one in the Verizon building, the other in the former auto repair shop beside Miss Pixie’s. Look for between 30 and 40 condos in each.

Several gay D.C. residents the Blade spoke with said the changes are mostly positive.

“I think first of all on the14th Street corridor there was just enough land available for some of these really cool projects,” says Evan Johnson, a local Realtor who’s gay and has an eponymous real estate group. “Whether they’re apartments or condos, I’d obviously prefer condos since I’m in the sales side, but either way, the more residents it brings in, that brings the opportunity build more stores … I think it provides a tremendous opportunity to clean up some of the older buildings that needed attention and it’s still close enough to Dupont and Logan … that it’s a highly sought-after area. I don’t see any real negative impact.”

As the projects were being considered, City Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) said he had some concerns, but they’ve been addressed.

“I’m certainly glad we’re keeping the post office,” Grahm, who’s openly gay, says. “They will have ground floor space with street access at the Reeve building. I welcome all this new activity because we have worked very hard and very successfully to keep our low income housing. Many of the big buildings north of Florida Avenue are low income apartment buildings which we have not only preserved, but they’ve also been rehabilitated all the way north of the Target. We haven’t lost that diversity and that’s very important as we welcome new people into the area.”

Tim Christensen, president of the Logan Circle Community Association and a Logan resident since 1989, says there are some concerns Logan residents have such as parking restrictions and extended hours for liquor sales, but he’s been active in voicing his concerns and those of his neighbors with their ANC elected officials.

“I’m a huge fan of mixed-use development and we’ve seen a lot of it in Logan through the years,” Christensen, who’s gay, says. “I think one of the biggest challenges for our businesses will be making sure they have enough foot traffic throughout the daytime on Mondays through Fridays. They’re fine in the evenings and on weekends when you have a lot of foot traffic, but if it’s very quiet in these areas during the work week, that can really mean the difference between success and failure for some of our businesses.”

And as for the hustle and bustle of the actual construction? Estrada says he hasn’t heard any significant grumbling about it.

“I think it’s just a temporary inconvenience. All of these neighbors are aware of the extent of how big these projects are so I think everybody is dealing with it just fine. I haven’t received any complaints.”

And why are so many rentals over condos? The reasons, observers say, are complicated. According to Mark Wellborn, editor-in-chief of Urban Turf, large projects have to meet certain sale/percentage benchmarks with non-government financing before they can proceed. Since government-backed financing through entities like FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are how most buyers proceed, that can stymie construction. Projects with rentals don’t have the same requirements.

Observers predict the apartments, once finished, will rent for about $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom and will bring a 15-18 percent increase in residents to the area likely to match a similar spike the area saw since the 2000 census. The new residents are not expected to drastically alter the percentage of LGBT residents in Logan or Columbia Heights.

“I think it will be good for gay people overall,” Graham says.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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