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Neighborhood Near Ballpark Slow to Evolve

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Fans attending ballgames at Nationals Park don’t have much to see or do in the surrounding neighborhood. More often than not, the neighborhood, to put it charitably, seems like a work in progress.

The only bar next to the new Nationals Park is a tent over a section of parking lot, with a few picnic tables for patrons to sip their 16-ounce aluminum bottles of Budweiser.

It’s far from the original vision of the “Capitol Riverfront,” where business owners and residents hope condos, offices and retail will one day create a busy urban center around the ballpark.

Today, visitors to the stadium emerge from the Metro onto an almost empty street flanked by tall fences. Billions of dollars of real estate is planned for the area, but for now, it only offers a few half-empty buildings and the occasional fast-food restaurant.

“Everything’s been slowed and projects have been put on hold because the market is so soft right now,” said Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. “There are very few restaurants expanding in this economy. It’s difficult.”

Indeed, restaurants in the vicinity of the stadium are limited to a Five Guys, Subway, Starbucks and a few sandwich shops. A beer can only be found at the stadium, a nearby Marriott Courtyard hotel or the Bullpen — the new bar across the street from the ballpark.

Opened by the owner of Smith Point and Surfside taverns, the Bullpen exudes a college atmosphere, complete with cornhole boards and a makeshift stage for bands. Bottles of beer are a reasonable $5 apiece and hot dogs go for $2.75.

But even such a simple setup costs more money than most business owners currently are willing to spend. Owner Bo Blair shells out $25,000 a month in rent for his slice of parking lot, and he opens on game days only.

Eventually, the company that owns that lot — Akridge — wants to transform it and other land on Half Street into almost 450,000 square feet of retail and office space and hundreds of apartments.

It will be a long time in coming. Development was first delayed by a lawsuit between Monument Realty and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, after WMATA sold Akridge the space. Akridge and Monument ended up splitting the Half Street area, but now the economy has hindered most of their plans.

That halt in development is perhaps more noticeable because of the flurry of construction in the neighborhood in the past few years, said Jacqueline Dupree, whose blog at jdland.com follows development in Near Southeast.

The $611 million stadium shot up in less than two years, and many D.C. residents expected that the surrounding area would follow suit and sprout up quickly, she said. But transforming 500 acres of neglected streets into 16 million square feet of new office space takes time.

The recession has just slowed down a 20-year development plan, Dupree said.

“I thought there would be more than there is now, but I didn’t expect a complete tableau by Opening Day 2009,” she said. “You gotta grow into it a little bit.”

Dupree argues that the area is not a “ghost town.” Construction scheduled before the economic downturn continues, she said, and the city is pouring millions of dollars into parks and public spaces.

Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, four residential buildings and two office buildings have gone up. Four additional projects are currently under construction, and the city is in the middle of creating Diamond Teague Park. Costing $16 million, the park is located on the river and will have a pier for ferries and water taxis, though no company is signed up yet to provide ferry service.

The buildings aren’t all empty. BID estimates that about 1,600 people live in the area, leasing about half of the available apartments. Office buildings hold about 35,000 workers; Opus East, for example, has leased 50 percent of the units for its new building at 100 M St. SE.

But development beyond that is uncertain. Financing is now harder to get, with some banks insisting that companies pre-lease 70 percent of their buildings before handing over the funds, Stevens said.

So while buildings are going up now, that won’t be the case a year from now, even if the economy recovers. Permits need to be filed, advisory committees notified and plans drawn up. It takes time for projects to start.

“Rather than continuing the rush that was happening with the ballpark, now everyone is waiting,” Dupree said. “Nothing is going to get built in the next year.”

As construction slows, business owners are focused on bringing crowds to the area and recruiting retailers. The downturn, Stevens said, is “the perfect time to position ourselves for the next upswing.”

Throughout the summer, BID will host afternoon concerts on Wednesdays at Tingey Plaza, an open space near the new Department of Transportation building. On Thursday nights, movies from the 1980s will be shown in the same location.

In at least one case, developers have turned an empty building into a vehicle for bringing crowds. Artomatic, a free arts show, took over a new building at 55 M St. SE in late May and will remain until July 5. Stevens estimated the event would draw about 70,000 people.

The building it occupies is perhaps more troubled than most in the area. Monument Realty built it in partnership with Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy in September. Other Monument properties are behind schedule; instead of the planned residential and commercial construction, Half Street is mostly holes of dirt.

But Stevens expressed optimism that the area will grow in coming years. The next two years will be the most difficult, he said, and building a “brand new city on the river” takes time.

But he argued that the area’s location on the Anacostia River and proximity to Capitol Hill and Eastern Market make it a valuable venture.

“I ask people to take the art of the long view. This city was not built in five years,” he said. “These things aren’t going to happen overnight.”

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