Georgia Ave. Awakening

Article Published in The Washington Post - January 14, 2007

Outdoor plazas. Affordable housing. A revamped Metro station. An infamous nightclub turned into luxury lofts.

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer

Promises have been made before on Georgia Avenue.

Plans to revitalize Washington's longest commercial corridor -- tattered by time, drugs and neglect -- have been thrown away like the unlucky lottery tickets that litter the street each day. Back in 1992, President Bill Clinton moseyed along the avenue, sampling fried scallops and greeting beauticians, and residents and business owners saw even that as the beginning of a renaissance.

It never came.

Much of Georgia looks like it has for decades. "The Avenue," as people like to call it, has 70 beauty salons, 40 barbershops, 13 liquor stores -- a beer and a haircut seem as perfectly matched as vanilla ice cream and warm apple pie. The street has too-many-to- count corner dives that sell single beers in brown paper bags just big enough to hide the vice. Residents have learned to live with the redundancy of retail, to navigate the crime.

But now it looks like the renaissance is about to be real: Over the next decade, the District and private developers will spend millions to pump new life into the historic section between downtown Silver Spring and downtown Washington. For its part, the city is contributing funds from the $100 million Great Streets Initiative and other programs to redevelop neglected corridors, a legacy of former mayor Anthony A. Williams.

One of the biggest projects, the one District officials hope will be the catalyst, has been started: Park Place, a $60 million development of 156 condominiums and townhouses at the Georgia Avenue- Petworth Metro stop, near the midpoint of the four-mile road. A Mocha Hut and a sit-down restaurant will top the station, catty- corner from a check-cashing store. One Metro entrance closed Dec. 11 for the construction, which should be completed in two years.

As the shovels go into the ground, residents and merchants have a range of emotions. Excitement and anxiety pierce the blended scent of Jamaican beef patties, Chinese takeout and fried fish. Careful what you wish for.

"There's an ambiance that inspires people," said Henri Edmonds, a Howard University theater professor who recently published "The Georgia Avenue Bus," a book of short fiction about people on The Avenue. "There's a quality about black life that's on Georgia Avenue. The cooking odors. The way people greet you. I don't care what problems you have, there's always laughter.

"Pennsylvania Avenue is the intellect. K Street, that's the business of Washington. But Georgia Avenue, that's the heart and soul of the city."

The lottery ticket is about to be cashed. Who will pay? Who will win?

A city planning map that shows the future of Georgia looks like a Monopoly game board. In sketches, condominiums, upscale shops and grocery stores replace neglected rowhouses, abandoned storefronts and empty lots. The envisioned blocks are filled with outdoor plazas, Victorian street lamps and sidewalk cafes.

Nothing in the plans shows how the mom-and-pop and family-owned businesses fit in -- the ones that stayed through the 1968 riots, the '70s heroin scourge and the '80s crack epidemic.

There were starts and stops to several plans to revitalize Georgia Avenue. The plans got lost in a lack of city funding and poor organization. But somehow, timing and economics have finally reached Georgia. The city's downtown space has been tapped, and neighborhoods such as U Street and Columbia Heights are also reaching capacity. Private developers see Georgia Avenue as an untouched resource, another frontier. Williams made the Great Streets project a priority for his administration, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) made cleaning up Georgia Avenue a campaign pledge as a council member.

With the help of the city, residents are trying to ensure that Georgia continues to have the mix of people that make it Georgia. Most of the projects are on schedule to be under construction this year and completed by 2008 and 2009. Land deals, permits and other factors that often hold up development are in place so that this time, the renewal of Georgia Avenue is real.

The city plans to turn the Park Morton public housing complex, a few blocks south of the Metro station, into 348 affordable and market-rate homes.

To the north, the notorious Ibex nightclub at Missouri Avenue, near where, in 1997, a police officer was gunned down by a man who had been rejected from the club, has been transformed into 32 luxury lofts, selling for $258,000 to $391,000, and an upscale restaurant. At Taylor Road, the same developer, Neighborhood Development Co., will start construction this year on the Residences at Georgia Avenue, which will have 72 affordable apartments and an organic grocery store. Lamont Street Lofts, another 38-unit loft project just off Georgia at Lamont Street, is open.

On lower Georgia, Howard Town Center is expected to follow at Howard University: a $60 million project of 322 apartments, a 24- hour grocery store and shops. Where Georgia turns into Seventh Street, Radio One Inc. has plans to return to the city from Lanham and build $110 million in offices, 202 residences and stores at S Street.

City leaders said they are disappointed that the Army has decided to sell Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which takes up 113 acres and has entrances on Georgia, to the General Services Administration and the State Department. The hospital will close in 2011, but city officials are trying to see whether they can get some land for development.

"You put all these things together, and you have the true new Georgia Avenue," D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said.

How people feel about that depends on where they stand.

At one community meeting, someone asked former planning director Ellen M. McCarthy whether Georgia Avenue would someday look like Wisconsin Avenue, upscale development nestled in predominantly white neighborhoods.

"It will," McCarthy blurted.

She instantly regretted it. "When I said that, I realized I shouldn't have said that," she said later. "Georgia Avenue is its own street."

How much will survive? The street pulses with sound. Gossip at the beauty salon. The passing of knowledge at the row of Afrocentric bookstores just north of Howard. The giggles of students from Banneker High. Go-go blasting from stores that specialize in local music. At Amazyn Hair Design, the air smells of hair singed by hot combs and curling irons. "That's that old smell from a long time ago," said Mary "Pee Wee" Jeffries, a hairdresser. Older women get their hair pressed and watch Martha Stewart on a small television.

At African Hairbraiding, Arlette Canel danced to a song by Guinean artist Sekouba Bambino blaring from a portable stereo. Originally from Ivory Coast, she and Fatu Dembaga, a native of Mali, have found a steady business in braiding hair.

The Avenue is not one homogenous street. It twists and turns out of the upper- and middle-class neighborhoods of Takoma Park and Shepherd Park, into the middle- and working-class community of Petworth, into the dicey alleys and walkways of the Park Morton housing complex. It rests at the red-brick sidewalks near Howard University.

Georgia's only true constant is the screech of the crowded 70 bus.

"Race doesn't matter here. Socioeconomic status doesn't matter here," said Robb LaKritz, who owns the Temperance Hall bar, which opened early last year just south of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Station.

His bar, which replaced an abandoned house that had become a heroin den, was seen as one of the first signs of gentrification. But Temperance Hall is gradually becoming part of the neighborhood. It's the place that sells fancy mini-sloppy Joes and shiraz.

Georgia is not the suburban-inspired Connecticut Avenue, it's not the new faux-Manhattan U Street, LaKritz said.

"It's so much more raw. This is much more real," he said.

Georgia can be dangerous. Robberies, sometimes at gunpoint, are listed in weekly crime reports. District police have identified three areas of Georgia as "hot spots," meaning the neighborhoods are known for open-air drug sales and other crime. A combined 139 robberies, assaults and other violent crimes made Georgia as dicey as hot spots in Southeast last year.

A better Georgia Avenue would be without guns but would keep its grit, LaKritz said. It would be clean but not sanitized.

Chris Donatelli and Larry Clark, developers on the Park Place project, stood one day last year on the roof of a high-rise and looked out at the Georgia vista and talked about what could be.

"I just love this view," Clark said as he looked into the distance at the Washington Monument to the south, a spire at Catholic University to the east and the clouded high-rise buildings of Rosslyn to the west.

The city originally planned to put the Department of Motor Vehicles on the site, but residents, with the help of Fenty, who had just become Ward 4 council member, intervened. They picked Donatelli to develop it.

"My mother grew up here," Donatelli said. "She lived on Varnum Street. She remembers when there were shops and then it went into sort of a decline," he said as a homeless man approached him for money on the sidewalk in front of the Metro.

The developer is reserving 20 percent of the condominiums for low- income residents, and some of the units will be limited to residents earning 30 percent of the median income or less.

"Do you have a buck to give this guy?" Donatelli asked Clark, reaching into his wallet and giving the man a dollar.

In a planning department sketch of Park Place and its future surroundings, there are families, couples, a blind man, people eating at a sidewalk cafe and others crossing a fancy brick walkway.

No one looks homeless.

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