Breathing New Rhythm Into Tired Streets; Yoga Studios Signal D.C. Gentrification

Article Published in The Washington Post - June 12, 2006

By Lyndsay Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer

To track the economic transformation of Washington, here's a simple rule: Follow the yoga mats.

The march of yoga studios from west to east across the District dovetails with the development frenzy that began five years ago and is remaking long-stagnant neighborhoods.

And it's not by accident. Owners of yoga studios are drawn to the cheap rents of transitional neighborhoods, naturally, but some developers actively recruit them. They see the studios as symbols of safety for women and amenities for their target demographic.

"Yoga tends to be an activity done by well-educated people -- it's a quiet, subtle sign that things are changing," said John K. McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute. "It doesn't mean upper-income people necessarily, because students do it, but they are much more highly educated people. These tend to be the gentrifiers."

The city does not count its yoga studios, but an informal survey turned up 25. The oldest are clustered around affluent Georgetown, Tenleytown, Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle -- with six on Wisconsin Avenue alone -- while the newest have set up shop on steadily gentrifying U Street, Logan Circle and beyond.

The most recent arrival is Yoga House, which opened on Georgia Avenue in the Petworth neighborhood in October. On a hunch that the working-class community just north of Howard University was about to take off, developers Josh Adler and Robb LaKritz had purchased a building that had been vacant for a decade. "It's the next stop up the Green Line from Columbia Heights," Adler said. "It just made sense that this was really going to change soon."

On the ground floor, they created a sit-down restaurant named Temperance Hall, the only one in the immediate vicinity. Then they built the yoga studio above it.

A yoga studio would bring people to the building, maybe increasing customers at the restaurant, Adler said. But it would also send a message: "Women tend to practice yoga more than men, and when you see a woman walking down the sidewalk with a yoga mat under her arm, it says she feels safe enough to do that," he said.

Adler and LaKritz installed bamboo floors, created oversize windows to make the studio light and airy, and then on a community listserv found a yogi who had been teaching in Tenleytown and Adams Morgan and longed to own a studio. They leased the 6,000-square- foot studio to Elizabeth Greathouse for $3,300 a month, a third of the rent she would pay in Dupont Circle.

This month, a yoga studio will open on H Street in Northeast, a strip that is poised for a comeback. The studio will replace a 40- year-old laundromat that had been losing business as rising rents forced out its customers. A few blocks away, developer Jim Abdo is spending $250 million to convert the old Capital Children's Museum building into condominiums.

Studio owner Elizabeth Glover is paying $4,000 a month for 3,000 square feet, half of what she would pay on the other side of Capitol Hill along Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

"I like the idea of helping rebuild an area that was the site of riots" after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, said Glover, 31, who is opening Bikram Capitol Hill after teaching for years at studios in Dupont Circle, Falls Church and Rockville.

"I was a little concerned about being a gentrifier," she added. "But I really liked this neighborhood. If you walk around Northwest, everyone looks down on the ground. Here, everyone looks you in the eye and says hello."

Greathouse's friends initially questioned the wisdom of her move, too. One teacher declined to work there, and a few students didn't follow her. "Some people won't come here because they're afraid," said Greathouse, who lives 10 minutes away in Brookland. "They ask if it's safe to park their car. It's 'the 'hood' for them."

Business was slow at first. Sometimes no one showed up for a class. "That doesn't happen any more," Greathouse said. Classes have gradually grown, although she has yet to turn a profit.

Half of the 500 customers on her mailing list live in the neighborhood. Most are relative newcomers. When she opened in October, her clientele was largely white, but over time it has become racially mixed. Now, half of the local clients are black.

On a recent evening, an economic consultant, a federal analyst and a foreign aid professional were among the students sitting cross- legged on the gleaming bamboo floor, trying to bring their navels to their spines as they inhaled. The class was overwhelmingly young and female.

Greathouse sprinkled rose petals along the windowsill, lighted candles in the sconces on the exposed brick walls and invited the class to chant "Om." Outside, in the alley lined with trash, three boys jumped up and down on a discarded mattress under a broken basketball hoop.

Cindy Runyan, a financial analyst for the American Red Cross, moved to the neighborhood in 2004 because she could buy a four- bedroom house for $350,000. Yoga House has become a de facto gathering spot for the newcomers, she said. "I've met a lot of people in the neighborhood in class," said Runyan, who hopes for another restaurant or two, coffee shops, a bookstore.

Georgia Avenue still looks worn and rough around the edges. Yoga House is surrounded by peeling storefronts, many of them vacant. There's a clinic that provides free HIV testing on the corner and a strip club down the street. The front window of a long-shut dry cleaner is punctured by a bullet hole.

Sharon Ray, 45, has lived in Petworth for years and noticed the yoga studio when it opened. "I wanted to try it, but I didn't have that kind of money at the time," said Ray, a condominium maintenance worker.

Some longtime residents cast a wary glance at the yoga studio. "They're bringing in the rich and sending the poor to Maryland and Southeast -- that's how I see it," said Brenda Allen, who has lived in Petworth since 1978.

"Let's face it -- yoga is something that people with disposable income can do," said Robin Heider, a 31-year-old economic consultant who bought a rowhouse on Seventh Street NW last year. She had been taking classes in Dupont Circle until Yoga House opened. Now she comes twice a week.

Two blocks north, the Bethesda developers Donatelli & Klein plan 156 condominiums and 17,000 square feet of retail space in a $40 million project on an empty lot adjacent to the Metro station. Four blocks north, the Jair Lynch Co. intends to build a $27 million development that includes 110 rental apartments, 19,500 square feet of shops anchored by a cafe, and a branch of Results gym, the upscale local health club chain. And eight blocks north, LaKritz- Adler plans 105 condominiums and 20,000 square feet of retail space.

Kimberly Perkins, 32, a speech pathologist from Rockville, took a class with Greathouse for the first time last month and left thinking that she, too, will move to Petworth.

"I don't know much about this area, but it has a yoga studio -- I could practice every day," she said.

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