Miracle on 14th Street
by Jackie Spinner, Washington Post Staff Writer
For 31 years, the Quick Electric machine shop at 1807 14th St. NW was just another abandoned commercial building on the edge of Washington's Logan Circle neighborhood. With its boarded storefront and padlocked door, it was a grim museum piece from the race riots that wiped out entire blocks in April 1968.
The Hawkins brothers, William and Jerry, closed their shop a year after the riots. Over the years, the rats and pigeons invaded as the roof caved in and chunks of wall crumbled. The homeless relieved themselves outside the door that led to the upstairs apartment, the incredible stench of it seeping inside.
Jerry Hawkins, who turns 66 this May, hasn't been to 14th Street for years. He stopped coming around for the same reason he closed his shop. The prostitutes and the dope dealers had taken over.
He was eager to sell the old building last year when 39-year-old Greg Link asked to buy it. Hawkins, who lives in Calvert County, has a hard time imagining what Link has done to his old shop, and an even harder time imagining it being successful on a street even Link calls "the edge of nice."
That old 14th Street that Hawkins remembers and that commuters pass on their way to and from downtown office jobs, that old 14th Street between Rhode Island Avenue and U Street NW, is finally being reconstructed three decades after it was disassembled. More than 4,000 homes and 270 of the 320 businesses along 14th Street between Thomas Circle and Park Road were destroyed in the turbulence that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
And while the nonprofits and the theaters have helped restore a block here and a block there in recent years, big business, and even small business, has been slow to follow--until now.
A Fresh Fields is under construction in the 1400 block of P Street, a CVS drugstore is opening in the same block, and speculative developers are buying one lot after another, hoping to cash in on the transformation.
"Fourteenth Street was a sleeping giant between Dupont and Logan Circle," said Jim Abdo, one of the developers buying property in the area. "It's a game of catch-up now. People don't understand what's lurking here."
Ironically, this five-block commercial strip has not been targeted for economic development like some other areas of the city. No big tax incentives were in place to lure Link here to open his Home Rule store in September. It's not the hot East End. It's not even NOMA--for "north of Massachusetts Avenue," where the new convention center is being built.
But this gritty commercial strip has benefited from a roaring economy and a real estate market that is forcing businesses and home buyers to scavenge underdeveloped neighborhoods for the right price and the right amount of space.
So it has become a thoroughfare on the verge, with all the challenges and expectations that brings. There are dozens stories on every block between Rhode Island and U that tell what is happening to 14th Street. Here are some of them....
...Real estate brokers said one of the biggest selling points on 14th Street is the size of the commercial buildings. This used to be auto row, with car dealerships located up and down the street. When they closed, they left behind huge showrooms that are attractive to national retailers who have a hard time fitting their big box cookie-cutter designs into small urban spaces.
The street also is littered with vacant and used-car lots where new buildings can be constructed. The arts overlay zone on most of the street requires retail space on the first floor.
Developers and civic leaders credit Fresh Fields for being the catalyst for much of the new business activity taking place in the corridor. Abdo, the developer, owns the European Motors building next door. He has signed a deal with CVS for a store with a full-service pharmacy.
"Although Fresh Fields is not on 14th Street, its impact is certainly going to be felt on 14th Street," said Abdo, who recently bought the 7-Eleven and three other buildings on 14th Street between Rhode Island Avenue and P Street. He plans to put an outdoor cafe in the space now occupied by the 7-Eleven....
Excerpts from "Miracle on 14th Street" in Washington Post March 27, 2000