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Capitol Hill creeps into a new era

(Published Nov. 6, 2000)

By KATE ALEXANDER

Staff Writer

Out of the shadow of the Capitol dome, "the nation’s neighborhood" is creeping its way into a new era with a little help from the Navy.

Nestled between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River, many residential sections of Capitol Hill have long been known for their alarming crime rates and dilapidated buildings. But like many neighborhoods in the District, the old burdens of this historic community are giving way to new investments and opportunities.

Many neighborhood leaders point directly to the Navy’s 1995 decision to relocate its Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters to the Washington Navy Yard from Northern Virginia’s Crystal City as the catalyst of the area’s revitalization.

"That Capitol Hill is thriving is tied inextricably to the goings-on at the Navy Yard," said George A. Didden III, chairman and chief executive officer of National Capital Bank of Washington, which is based on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Those "goings-on" — a $200 million renovation and expansion of existing historic facilities — will bring 4,100 naval employees to the area when the relocation is completed by July 2001. It also will tow along all of the Navy’s private contractors who are required to be within five minutes walking distance of the admiral’s office, raising the total number of workers affiliated with the Navy Yard to 10,000, said Eric Rogers, a development specialist for Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6.

Thanks to the economics of supply and demand, the new office spaces are commanding handsome prices "in an area that wasn’t at all an office market," said Marc A. Weiss, a former D.C. housing official and now an economic development expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Those economics are also inspiring a new willingness among business owners to invest more resources in the community, Weiss said. And now, he says it is "time to ride the wave while we have the chance."

Of the new projects riding that wave, the most sweeping is the effort of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals to establish a Business Improvement District that encompasses multiple commercial corridors within the Capitol Hill area — with Pennsylvania Avenue SE and Massachusetts Avenue NE at its heart and arterials at H Street NE, Eighth Street SE and M Street SE. Expected to come up for approval by the City Council next spring, the Capitol Hill campaign would create the fourth such district in the city, joining Georgetown, downtown and the so-called "golden triangle" near Dupont Circle.

Businesses within the designated district agree to pay an additional annual tax to pay for more trash pick-up, beautification efforts and information guides on the streets. These services are intended to supplement those provided by the city and make the area cleaner and safer, said Didden, who is chairing the effort to establish the business district.

He also said the governing principle of "clean and safe" will enable new revitalization projects, such as the Barracks Row "MainStreet" project along Eighth Street SE, to thrive.

Barracks Row was the city’s first commercial district back in the early 1800s and its vibrancy has been inexorably linked to the activity of the Navy Yard, said Linda Parke Gallagher, co-chairman and president of the "MainStreet" effort initiated by the Barracks Row Business Alliance.

Plans call for an enlivened streetscape — with globe lamps, brick sidewalks and historic signage — and rehabilitated facades for the 112 buildings along the commercial corridor. The "MainStreet" project aims to create a historical and commercial destination for the new Navy Yard workers as well as the hordes of tourists who regularly visit the Navy Museum and attend regular concerts by the Marine Corps Band.

Gallagher said they also hope to attract new retailers, particularly food and entertainment establishments, that will serve the needs of the customers drawn to the "inviting, charming and interesting" look of the renovated streetscape. She anticipates the renovation project will take two to three years to complete.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, residents are anxiously working to ensure that new development does not destroy the character of their community.

Fighting against a proposed BP-Amoco Super Service Station at H and Third streets NE and big-box, auto-oriented retailers, they are striving to protect their "pedestrian-friendly" environment, said Drury Tallant, a Stanton Park resident and head of the area’s neighborhood association.

"If you’re going to re-develop a corridor that abuts two very stable neighborhoods, you have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water" by bringing in the wrong type of development, Tallant said.

To guard against the unwanted kind of development, Tallant and his neighbors recently initiated an effort with the D.C. Office of Planning to establish an H Street corridor "overlay" — a guide for future developers and homeowners that outlines the type of development the neighborhood wants.

"The overlay signals to the developers and property owners that if you’re going to do something on H Street, we want you to do something that fits with the urban commercial fabric," Tallant said. "We don’t want to limit development, but we don’t want the development to kill the residential feel of the neighborhood."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator