Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights Prosper With Old-Fashioned Marketplace Community
As hubs of commerce and life, marketplaces have always been central to human settlements. Whether they be ancient Arab souks where dates and camels were bartered at desert oases or modern strip malls in suburban America, marketplaces are nexuses tying communities together socially and economically.
Furnishing neighborhoods with thriving markets has been key to redevelopment efforts in Washington, D.C. Two clear examples of communities that have thus been transformed by the market — the old-fashioned kind — are Columbia Heights and the area surrounding Eastern Market in Capitol Hill.
While each has a contrasting feel, due in large part to the differing nature of the markets at their core, these places have managed to attract new interest, investment and residents over the past decade. In their own ways, the shopping leviathan of the DC USA retail complex at 14th and Irving Streets in Columbia Heights, as well as Capitol Hill’s historic Eastern Market have become emanating points for real estate and retail activity in once-neglected areas.
Capitol Hill Converges Around Eastern Market
It was Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the federal city that breathed life into Eastern Market. Originally, the market stood near the city’s main port at the Washington Navy Yard, providing a trading place for arriving goods. In 1873, Eastern Market followed commerce stretching northward and moved to its current location in Southeast at C Street and 7th Street in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. The imposing, single-story brick structure erected by the German-born architect Adolf Cluss became a place where vendors sold goods from open stalls to people from all walks of life.
The market’s new location also helped stitch together Lincoln Square — a public plaza embanked by some of the city’s grandest manors — with the bustling commerce along 8th Street closer to the Anacostia waterfront.
As the Capitol Hill neighborhood waned in the mid-20th century, however, Eastern Market gradually fell into disrepair while struggling to compete with grocery stores. At one point, it was suggested that the market be razed to create a parking lot for the adjacent Rumsey Aquatics Center. Luckily, preservationists rallied to save the historic site.
Today, Eastern Market’s value is clear.
“It has become so well known and popular that it’s arguably the epicenter of Capitol Hill,” said Pam Wye, a realtor with Long & Foster Company who has focused on the area for the past four years. Wye, who grew up nearby, said these days proximity to Eastern Market is a major factor for clients looking to move to Capitol Hill. “It’s just such a marketable feature,” she said.
Wye said she has marveled at how what was once an outmoded place to buy foodstuffs and browse the adjoining flea market has blossomed into a major attraction.
“It is a trendy thing now. On weekends they close the streets to traffic and I see 20-somethings walking around all dressed up and looking cute to go have brunch and be seen. It’s just changed drastically.”
Sharon Bosworth, who leads local history tours and works as the marketing manager at Barracks Row Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the neighborhood’s enhancement, said, “Eastern Market gives the whole Southeast a real sense of place. It’s become a symbol of the renovation and improvement in the entire area.”
Other positive changes have also been underfoot. Barracks Row, the area a few blocks away on 8th Street, for example, had been largely abandoned by businesses not that long ago. But today the strip boasts fashionable restaurants, boutiques and nightlife.
“The community has recognized that the vitality generated by Barracks Row needs to connect with the vitality of Eastern Market to create a synergy,” said Mark Weinheimer, vice president of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.
Weinheimer cited two ongoing projects he believes will assist in that effort: the renovation of the Old Naval Hospital into a community center, which is due to open this summer, and the redevelopment of Hine Junior High School, which was shuttered by the city three years ago.
Different visions have been proposed for the Hine space, which resides on 8th Street in between Eastern Market and Barracks Row. While the most recent plan was scaled back in February, it still calls for a 557,000-square-foot mixed-use project creating offices, at least 126 new homes and, possibly, a boutique hotel. Construction is set to begin in mid-2013, according to the developers EastBanc and Stanton.
“I’m optimistic it will happen but disappointed it’s taking so long,” said Weinheimer. “If the development is active and draws people, it’ll just create another amenity for the neighborhood and help connect Eastern Market with Barracks Row.”
In addition to Hine’s strategic location, community advocates and investors have noted the importance of the site because Capitol Hill has a dearth of land that’s available for development. The preponderance of historic buildings means there is little chance of replacing existing houses with high-rise condos, for example.
But, of course, Capitol Hill’s architectural heritage has also been a blessing.
Strolls down the shady, cobblestone sidewalks often reveal impressive buildings in French Renaissance Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne architectural styles, which date to Capitol Hill’s heyday during Victorian times. There are even some well-preserved wooden homes built shortly after 1800.
Gaining entry to Capitol Hill is tougher today for homebuyers compared to a decade ago. And while there are still good values in the area that allow homebuyers and renters to live in character-filled buildings for relatively affordable prices, other Hill properties command rates approaching the city’s top cost echelons. The median list price for homes in Capitol Hill was $669,000 at the end of last year, or $481 per square foot. Real estate agents say that given the area’s proximity to Congress, growing allure and limited ability to add housing units, prices seem poised to remain relatively high for years to come.
Because most of the historic buildings don’t have enough space for additional homes, the neighborhood also faces built-in challenges for attracting national retail chains. But that hasn’t prevented hotspots like Barracks Row from expanding.
“Our historic buildings are full of antique charm and this attracts a steady stream of potential new businesses from retailers to services to restaurants,” said Martin Smith, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street. “Many are undeterred by the quaint shapes and small sizes of spaces on the Row; they love the authenticity and jump right in and adapt their businesses to our spaces. There is an improvement boom all along 8th Street.”
At the same time, Capitol Hill’s historic constraints have allowed the neighborhood to retain its unique charm, according to Ari Gejdenson.
Gejdenson, 28, grew up on 3rd Street and A Street, Norththeast, and said of Capitol Hill at the time: “There wasn’t much here — not much commercial stuff, or places for families to go, and a lot of the houses were vacant.”
Still, he said, it always appealed to him.
For most of the past decade, Gejdenson lived in Italy working as a chef and restaurateur. He recently returned to his old stomping ground, however, to open a branch of the Florentine restaurant Acqua Al 2 across from Eastern Market earlier this year.
“When I saw that the neighborhood I grew up in was getting a lot nicer,” Gejdenson said, “I figured I better be a part of that.”
Columbia Heights Reaches for Retail Stars
Upon rising aboveground from the Columbia Heights Metro stop, passengers are greeted by dense foot traffic, bustling restaurants, children at play, newly constructed apartment towers and the city’s largest retail development, DC USA — a block-long, 890,000-square-foot, $145 million retail complex that stacks a two-story Target on top of other national chains. Newcomers could be forgiven for not realizing that only a decade ago Columbia Heights was still reeling from the civil unrest of the 1960s.
Rioting in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left 14th Street, Northwest, the neighborhood’s commercial artery, badly damaged. Many of the buildings that had been set ablaze were purchased by the city’s housing authority and leveled over subsequent years. What remained was a series of vacant lots.
“When the city put those empty properties up for bid … the community helped turn them into an asset,” said Oramenta Newsome, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC, a citywide nonprofit that works with neighborhood organizations to shepherd sustainable development.
Newsome explained that the first task for the neighborhood was to eradicate signs of urban blight by renovating neglected homes. In the 1990s, community groups sought to bring businesses and economic prosperity back to Columbia Heights, and they successfully lobbied the city to build a Metro stop that opened in 1999. But the most visible symbol of the revitalization effort’s achievement is DC USA, which opened in 2008 and houses Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, IHOP, Washington Sports Club and other recognizable brands.
At the time, some developers, planners and activists rejected the idea of a looming multi-floor shopping center as the best investment for Columbia Heights.
“There were people who said when we developed a Target, ‘Oh, we don’t shop at Target,'” recounted Robert Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights and a resident of the neighborhood for 19 years. They turned their nose up at the idea of Target coming to Washington, he said. “But if you go into Target today, they’re all in there.”
In fact, for many of the residents who have chosen Columbia Heights recently, DC USA has been part of the attraction.
“It’s not ideal living next to a big box store,” said James Chiong, a 33-year-old political consultant who resided all over the city before settling on Columbia Heights last year. “But there’s an appeal to having a Target right across the street — it’s really convenient.”
Chiong explained that when searching for his latest apartment, he “wanted a neighborhood that felt urban but with lots of amenities.” After living in New York City for a time, Chiong said he liked Columbia Heights because it reminded him of parts of Queens, one of New York’s outer boroughs that also offers up-and-coming real estate. “You have a gajillion things going on — it’s ethnically diverse, there’s an eclectic mix of people, good restaurants and everything is accessible.”
Public transportation is indeed a big draw today for Heights residents who enjoy easy Metro access on the Green and Yellow lines. It was the presence of streetcar lines, though, that was a main factor in bringing Columbia Heights its initial prosperity around the turn of the 20th century. The streetcars may be gone, but house hunters interested in the Mediterranean Revival, Romanesque Revival and American Arts and Crafts architectural styles that were popular during this period can still find plenty examples to admire.
The recent development frenzy in Columbia Heights, of course, has ushered in a wave of new housing options as well. Next to the Metro station at 14th and Irving Streets, Highland Park is a prominent 229-unit, eight-floor apartment complex that Donatelli Development opened in 2008. Advertised as offering one- and two-bedroom “upscale apartment homes” featuring luxury amenities and underground parking, it is almost completely occupied now, though one-bedroom apartments are listed as starting at $1,900 per month. This year, however, the Donatelli firm announced it had secured $116 million to build Highland Park II, a 144-unit second phase of the project. Washington City Paper reported in October that the new apartments — mostly one-bedrooms — would target price-conscious renters and cost about $1,600 per month.
Donatelli also developed the Kenyon Square building across 14th Street, which has 153 condos. Like Highland Park, 20 percent were set at “affordable” rates. The property is sold out now, but prices ranged from about $350,000 to more than $600,000.
Further up 14th Street, between Newton Street and Meridian Place, the 297-unit Allegro Apartments, which opened in 2009, offers similar amenities as Highland Park, but includes studio apartments listed as starting at $1,525 per month. At four floors, however, Allegro cannot boast the same rooftop views as Highland Park.
Because of rapid development in Columbia Heights, groups such as LISC have worked hard to make sure longtime residents are not priced out of their own neighborhood by pushing to require that new projects make housing affordable for different income levels. Newsome said that because of the groundwork local community organizers laid, prosperity has finally returned to Columbia Heights. “Now,” she said, “we must be vigilant to preserve a diversity of housing options that a wide range of people can afford.”
The transformation of Columbia Heights has been equally wide-ranging. Walking down 14th Street lined with vibrant dining, nightlife and retail options, the vacant lots of yesteryear are all but forgotten, overshadowed by the eminence of DC USA.
While their aesthetics may differ, as a marketplace, DC USA has become the cornerstone of a thriving Columbia Heights much as Eastern Market has served Capitol Hill, then and now. And although some still dismiss DC USA as an eyesore, it’s hard to discount the way it has rewoven an entire community, epitomizing the enduring yet evolving allure of the marketplace.
About the Author
Luke Jerod Kummer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.