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The New York Times: Project Mends a Gash in the Street Grid of Washington
October 26, 2016
By EUGENE L. MEYER
WASHINGTON — The depressed highway is a road from nowhere, the remnant of an Interstate once planned to cut through residential neighborhoods. Activists blocked the larger plan for the freeway in the 1960s, so this small segment close to the Capitol is left to feed traffic from city streets to other freeways, leading south over the Potomac to Virginia and east across the Anacostia River.
The scuttled plan left an open gash — a six-lane trench — that divided Capitol Hill from downtown Washington’s East End. Now, a large air rights project is underway to cover the trench with five buildings, bringing with them 2.2 million square feet of offices, apartments, public spaces, shops and restaurants.
Covering three square blocks, it will bridge a divide in the city and restore Pierre L’Enfant’s original street plan for the nation’s capital.
The seven-acre project, called Capitol Crossing, also entails moving an 1876 synagogue, Washington’s oldest and more recently a museum of local Jewish history.
Initially, the old synagogue is being shifted only a short distance, a move scheduled for next week, but it will eventually move again, at the developer’s expense, to another location atop the new deck and adjoining a new Washington Jewish history museum to be built there.
“The city has just changed tremendously the last 16 years, and I feel we’re becoming part of that change,” said Stuart Zuckerman, a past president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington and a member of the building committee.
The developer, Property Group Partners, is paying up to $500,000 for the synagogue moves and, according to Robert Braunohler, regional vice president for the developer, is also contributing $9 million toward the new museum, about a quarter of its estimated total cost. The museum is scheduled to open in 2022.
Meanwhile, the huge platform is nearly complete, and the first office building, at 200 Massachusetts Avenue NW, on the east side, is rising quickly. Scheduled to open in 2018, it is more than halfway to its eventual 12 stories, with 430,000 square feet, including 25,000 for ground-floor retail.
None of the space is leased, but Property Group Partners, known as P.G.P., has a letter of intent from one potential tenant and is negotiating with others, Mr. Braunohler said. Negotiations are also underway with a first-floor food service tenant, after Eataly, an Italian food market chain, decided not to locate there. (It left open the possibility of renting in a future Capitol Crossing building.)
“In a project such as this, people don’t believe it until they see it,” Mr. Braunohler said. “We’ve been talking about it for so long. Now they can see it.”
Brian T. Kenner, the District of Columbia’s deputy mayor for economic development, expects the project eventually to generate $40 million annually in property tax revenue, as well as benefit the community at large.
“Capitol Crossing is unique, refilling in a city grid that used to exist, also reknitting neighborhoods back together,” Mr. Kenner said. He oversees four current or former city-owned properties with 325 acres that are being converted for private redevelopment.
Capitol Crossing, one of them, is coming to fruition at a time of seemingly unbridled economic prosperity for the District, coupled with a net increase of 100,000 new residents since 2000. Emblematic of this growth are the ubiquitous cranes soaring over the city’s legally set height limits.
The $1.3 billion Capitol Crossing project has been years in the making. At various points, it has been stalled by shifting ownership and financing problems.
The local developer T. Conrad Monts acquired the air rights in 1989 with the hope of luring federal agencies to the site, then called Capitol Square. But Mr. Monts and the city became mired in seemingly endless litigation, and Mr. Monts died in 2009.
P.G.P., formerly known as the Louis Dreyfus Property Group and based in New York, picked up the option to buy the air rights in 2012. Founded in 1971, the company has projects in London, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Manhattan, where it built 860 Washington Street, adjoining the High Line in the meatpacking district. Its projects in Washington include the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.
Capitol Crossing will be the District’s largest air rights project to date; a larger one planned for the railroad tracks abutting Union Station is years away. Mr. Braunohler compared his project in size to covering Hudson Yards in Manhattan, now under construction.
The lack of air rights projects in general, he said, is tied to the fact that “land values in most cities, aside from New York and D.C., don’t justify the cost.”
A ceremonial groundbreaking for the project was held at the edge of the highway in May 2015, with the promise of 4,000 construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs. But before work could begin on the deck, major infrastructure problems had to be dealt with, including the location and relocation of electrical cables. Then came the columns, girders and beams to support the platform.
Altogether, Mr. Braunohler said, infrastructure costs totaled $100 million and the decking some $200 million. To speed the process, P.G.P. sought to close a freeway entrance ramp but met overwhelming resistance. Instead, it closed one lane after evening rush hour.
A similar scheduling problem arose over when to move the synagogue. Wolfe House and Building Movers, a Pennsylvania firm owned by Sabbath-observing churchgoers, did not want to move it on Sunday. Also for religious reasons, the Jewish society objected to a move on Saturday. The parties compromised on a day and time that would not conflict with either.
The synagogue had been dedicated, with President Ulysses S. Grant in attendance, as Adas Israel, three blocks from where it now sits. The congregation moved in 1908 to a much larger downtown building, and in 1954, to a fashionable Washington neighborhood off Connecticut Avenue NW.
Metro, the mass transit agency, planned to tear down the original building to use the site for its new headquarters, but Jewish leaders and donors had it moved in 1969 to its current location. “We like to move our historic synagogue once a century,” joked Laura Apelbaum, who was the society’s executive director for 22 years.
The moving company is now bracing the old synagogue for next week’s move, with steel girders underneath. Its final move is expected in about three years.
P.G.P. is also assisting the 103-year-old Holy Rosary Catholic Church, on Third Street NW, adjoining the deck. The church, once the center of the city’s Italian immigrant community, was to have been razed for the freeway decades ago, but Congress intervened to save it.
P.G.P. plans to demolish the old rectory and to rebuild it and a new annex on the deck behind the existing church, at a cost of $10 million. P.G.P. has also pledged to expand Casa Italiana, a cultural center attached to the church.
On the opposite, east side of the deck sits Georgetown’s law school, which has worked closely with P.G.P. to minimize disruption from the construction. “The complexity of this is unlike any project I’ve seen before,” said Wallace Mlyniec, a law professor who has worked closely with the developer and monitored the project.
Capitol Crossing’s second office building is to include underground parking for 1,150 vehicles. By 2020 or 2021, there will also be a residential building, Mr. Braunohler said. It will have 150 units, including 50 deemed affordable, he said, adding that all will most likely be rentals.
Further burnishing its location, Capitol Crossing will be just a few blocks from two Metro stops, Union Station to the east and Judiciary Square to the west, and its location has Mr. Braunohler bullish.
“D.C. is a great market and real estate investment,” he said. “It doesn’t have the wild swings other cities do.”
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