U Street Dirt: “NOT Ballston” for 14th & U

by Borderstan.com June 30, 2011 at 12:33 pm 3,451 52 Comments

Yums, 14th Street NW, Borderstan, Luis Gomez Photos

The proposed building that would replace the current one-floor structures at the southeast corner of 14th and Wallach NW caught the attention of some neighbors. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Matty Rhoades

Borderstan would love to hear from you on the subject of development and other subjects related to the Dupont-Logan-U Street area. Got an idea for a column? Email us at [email protected]

The battle lines over local development and new businesses close to residential areas often elicit a vehement yes or no. What you don’t always get is a yes, but or no, and here’s why.

When we found out that Doug Johnson was part of a new local blog, U Street Dirt, we wanted to find out more about the site and the reasons behind it. Was this a “no more development around 14th and U” gauntlet being thrown down, or something else? Johnson says he wants good development (a subjective term to be sure) and that he is not against density. Decide for yourself; we used a Q&A format.

Johnson and his partner, Craig Brownstein, are among the founders-editors of the site, Who Murdered Robert Wone? and and are also the creators of Puck Buddys. They live on Wallach Place NW, a block of row houses and back gardens that runs from 13th to 14th — just one street south of bustling U Street NW and right off the 14th Street corridor.

Johnson on a vision for the neighborhood: “NOT Ballston [an area of Arlington]. It seems that some people — a few I think, and mostly not residents — want to turn what is a genuine neighborhood into a phony one. One that’s more about chain restaurants rather than a dingy but useful Post Office…”

Borderstan: Can you define for us the mission of your new site? Is the focus on business and development?

14th & Wallach NW

Click for more information: The architect’s rendering of the proposed building at 14th and Wallach NW. (Image via scribd.com) 

Johnson: Probably the most common complaint we hear from our neighbors is that there’s just too much happening that they don’t know about. This was really catalyzed when we were nearly caught off guard by a massive new building proposal at 14th and Wallach. The developers (Level 2), architect (Eric Colbert), ANC 1B and neighborhood association (U Street Neighborhood Association) never once reached out to any of us around the Wallach/T/14th area — and probably wouldn’t have before all their boxes were checked and it was a done deal.

It was just the latest of a string of proposed developments that nobody but the developers and a select few know anything about. So at first, we’ll be focusing on what these proposals are and where they stand — sort of a one-stop site for this particular hood — but we really hope this becomes a very active micro-blog for our neighborhood. So “U Street Dirt” means literal and figurative dirt.

Johnson: I think the conversion at the new Room and Board building (14 & T) works very well, precisely because it genuinely respects the history and scope of the neighborhood, but makes an old space very relevant and productive. I do like the Studio Theater’s redesign (14 & P) of a few years ago, and I think the Ellington (13 & U) is a great success.

Borderstan: What’s your vision for the area?

Johnson: Whew, that’s a big one! Just from my standpoint: NOT Ballston. It seems that some people — a few I think, and mostly not residents — want to turn what is a genuine neighborhood into a phony one. One that’s more about chain restaurants rather than a dingy but useful Post Office, one that’s about seriously high-turnover and high density living rather than people who want to stay and invest here… one that’s more about ugly ‘contemporary’ architecture that serves economics and not the neighborhood’s needs.

There is a rolling rush for development here that doesn’t respect our homes or the history of this place. In fact, some of these developments actively turn their backs on us, like we can be ignored. Ballston is just about as ugly and dis-spiriting as a place can get. It’s more like a warehouse for people transiting through than anything like a neighborhood. You can smell the greed of those who built it up and then fled, leaving behind a shiny, empty mess. It seems pretty clear to me there are those who want to Ballston-up our neighborhood, and I don’t want that at all.

Borderstan: What type of development do you want for the 14th and U area?

Johnson: Rather than being defined by the negative, I want this area to be a place that’s built by and for those of us who live here, and have invested serious amounts of time, and those who want to join us. Do me or my neighbors want a “Matchbox” on the corner, or parking on the street? Do we want another $10-dollar martini, or a vet our dogs can walk to?

I, and I think most of my neighbors, want to see development where it makes sense, and where it respects us. Not a huge building that is built in-scale to another proposed behemoth, but a scaled building that lives in harmony with the neighborhood. Buildings and residents that actually want to be here — not those that are just passing through — that’s my vision for this neighborhood. But that’s just me. I’m really much more curious to hear from my neighbors about what they think, what they want, and what their vision is.

Borderstan: Can you point to examples of buildings along 14th or on U Street that you like? What about ones you don’t like?

Johnson: Again, just me personally — I think the conversion at the new Room and Board building (14 & T) works very well, precisely because it genuinely respects the history and scope of the neighborhood, but makes an old space very relevant and productive. I do like the Studio Theater’s redesign (14 & P) of a few years ago, and I think the Ellington (13 & U) is a great success. It’s a large building, but the street level is very porous and engaging, the significant set-backs create a pleasing visual rhythm and keep the building from looming over the neighborhood, and the setting — with Harrison Playground in the back – makes it work.

None of these buildings dominate or diminish the neighborhood… large or small, old or new, good design will always succeed. As for buildings I don’t like, there are several of them. I’ll decline to say which ones, but I think any resident would point them out as developments that don’t work — they age poorly, they look tatty, and they feel like a drag on the neighborhood.

Borderstan: Is it the increasing population density that concerns you, or the way the development is being done?

Johnson: Much more the way development is being done. You can have high density in a smart way — and responsible developers and architects really work at creating something that will contribute to the neighborhood for decades to come. Poor developers and architects are merely looking to make bank on our backs. There’s not a soul in our area — at least not one I’ve met — who doesn’t welcome new people and a lively neighborhood. But poor development often leads to warehousing of people who have no connection to the hood other than passing through for a year or two. And that’s exactly how you get a disaster like Ballston.

Borderstan: Do you have a background in architecture or urban planning? If not, will you be talking to people in these areas?

Johnson: No, I have no training in architecture or urban planning, but if you saw the books on our shelves you would learn that we’re both — Craig especially — very passionate about this stuff.  He’s probably the one with the better eye. I might be a bit more sensitive to how people move and flow. And yes, we definitely will be talking with others who do this stuff for a living, although we’d both say that urban design is too important to be left just to the professionals.

Borderstan: Have you talked all this with neighbors and other people in the area? Will you be forming an actual group or association?

Johnson: We’re talking to our neighbors every night — or more like, they’re talking back! Last night it was leafleting, and chatting with people on the street or in their homes — doing that, I met a charming woman who has roots in the neighborhood that go back three or more decades. How cool is that? The night before it was phone calls, or web posts or whatever. Whether people need to form a group, rather than working with the organizations that already exist… well, that’s their call. I’m not interested in new groups. I’m interested in making sure the groups that already exist hear what we have to say, and that we all operate in a more cooperative fashion.

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