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Jemal takes over Atlantic Building

New plan for troubled development to be aired March 28

(Published February 25, 2002)


Staff Writer

Scaffolding holds in place the remaining facades of the Atlantic Building and three other historically protected buildings in downtown

Both city officials and their critics, who say that the officials permitted developers to demolish one of the downtown area’s most historic buildings and then walk away from the site without re-building, expressed at least cautious optimism last week as a new developer stepped in to take over the project.

Douglas Jemal paid $10.5 million for a four-building lot on which now stand the brick facades of the Atlantic Building and three other historically protected 19th century structures at 920-930 F St. NW.

Jemal bought the properties, located two blocks from MCI Center, from the Clover and Bernstein companies – local developers who in November 2000 demolished all but the buildings’ facades under a special redevelopment deal reached with the city. But Clover and Bernstein soon lost their financing and stopped work on the project for 15 months, causing neighborhood residents, merchants and other critics to loudly rebuke city officials for not only tearing down a beautiful, historic building, but also creating a lingering neighborhood eyesore.

Jemal, who already owns all of the buildings on the block between the Atlantic parcel and, to the west, the corner of F and 10th streets NW, said he plans to combine the four newly acquired properties with his previous holdings into a single 300,000-square-foot retail, office and entertainment complex, incorporating all of the original buildings’ facades.

The new project would be almost three times the size of the project planned by Clover and Bernstein.

Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, applauded Jemal’s purchase of the property.

"Doug Jemal is a good developer," Evans said. "He does good historic preservation.

"The other people seemed to be botching the job," he added. "Doug at least gets things built."

Charles Docter, president of the Downtown Housing Now Committee and a prominent critic of the city’s handling of the project, also praised the new owner. "Jemal has a good record with historic properties," Docter said. "I think now we’ll be seeing some progress at that site."

But not everybody agrees that the sale to Jemal resolved the recent controversies.

"(The city) seems to think that the sale is a cure-all," said Terry Lynch, head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a downtown advocacy group. "But I don’t see how the sale of the property changes the situation one iota," he said.

"I have full confidence in Mr. Jemal to do a good restoration – to clear up what little is left of the Atlantic Building," Lynch said.

But, he said, "I’ve been astounded by how little interest the city and its historic preservation officials have shown in the historic infrastructure of the city. Their attitude with developers seems to be, ‘Let ‘em do what they want to do.’"

Lynch noted that before the sale of the properties to Jemal, the city had responded to its critics – and intensifying media coverage of its fumbling of the project – by scheduling a hearing on April 4 to consider revoking Clover and Bernstein’s building permits. City officials said last week that the hearing will go on but now will examine Jemal’s proposals for redeveloping the site.

"I believe we can raise questions [at the hearing] which I would hope we’d get answers to. I would hope that the city would explain to the community how they’re protecting our historic buildings," Lynch said.

Jemal said last week that he will appear at the April 4 hearing, before the official who struck the original deal with Clover and Bernstein, an official known as the mayor’s agent.

"Yes, we’re going to be at the meeting," Jemal said last week. He said he also would present his plans for the site at a meeting of the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board on March 28.

But he declined to give details of the plans he is developing. "Candidly, it’s too early to talk about that," he said.

Jemal said that in broad outline the new building complex would contain retail stores at the street-level and substantial space for commercial office-leasing above. Many developers believe that office space is the most lucrative use for downtown buildings.

Jemal seemed to rule out a suggestion from both Evans and Docter that he devote a chunk of the expanded project to housing.

Asked about the possibility, he replied simply, "No" – and cut off an attempt to elaborate with another curt "No."

But, he said, "We’re bound by the mayor’s agent agreement."

That deal specifies that the project contain at least 125,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a nightclub or other similar entertainment venue. Those parts of the agreement seek to preserve the 900 block of F Street’s character as a part of the city’s original retail and entertainment hub.

The agreement also requires the developer to re-create much of the original Atlantic Building’s distinctive floor plan, as well as to preserve interior design details.

The Atlantic, built in 1887, was in its day the tallest building in the city – called by one architectural historian a "proto-skyscraper." The graceful, architecturally detailed eight-story building contained one of the city’s first elevators.

Ellen McCarthy, deputy director for development review in the D.C. Office of Planning, said she is optimistic that the sale to Jemal will expedite the project. "He’s indicated that he wants to move quickly on this," she said.

She said she foresees no problems with Jemal’s plans.

"As long as he’s complying with the letter of the law, we’ll support him on the project," she said.

But she also acknowledged that the city made a bad deal with Clover and Bernstein.

"We’d assumed nobody would have the temerity to take down a building without being able to complete the project," she said. And when that happened, she said, "We saw what few tools we had to work with."

McCarthy said the Office of Historic Preservation, which she oversees, has asked the city’s corporation counsel to add enforcement provisions – such as performance bonds or a drop-dead time limit – to future development deals that the city strikes.

"We’re definitely using (the Atlantic Building) experience to enlighten our revisions of the mayor’s agent agreement," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator