A New Adams Morgan

January 3, 2014

The 18th Street retail strip in Adams Morgan, long regarded as a loosely organized mix of ethnic shops and drunken nightlife spots, may slowly but surely be morphing into a new type of destination.

Over the next few years, a few significant development projects will be emerging in the area: Perseus Realty will be breaking ground on a 40-unit condo project at the site of the Exxon Station at 1827 Adams Mill Road, the Sydell Group is bringing a 220-room hotel to the First Church of Christ Scientist building near Columbia Road and 18th Street, and right down the street, Peterson Companies has already started work on an 80-unit condo development at the site of the former Ontario Theater. The hotel will likely be run by the Marriott and will have a restaurant; the Perseus and Peterson projects are also expected to have high-end retail components.

Lisa Drazin, a commercial landlord in the area, has high hopes that these developments and others will create a new atmosphere for the retail corridors in the neighborhood.

“A major transition is happening,” proclaimed Drazin, who owns the currently vacant space at 1850 Columbia Road NW once occupied by Comet Liquor and Deli, her father’s shop. After Comet closed down, Drazin rented the space to Foot Locker. Now, however, the storefront is empty and she is hoping to find a high-end eatery as a tenant. “I think that once all of these projects are complete, Adams Morgan is going to be nicer and more charming than Georgetown.”

Bold words, but there are already a few examples of the area’s changing face. The stretch of Columbia Road between Biltmore Street and Mintwood Place is home to high-end eateries like Cashion’s Eat Place and the relatively-new Mintwood Place, which both buck the trend of the alcohol-fueled spots that the neighborhood has long been known for.

Some also point to Jack Rose and The Carriage House on 18th Street as examples of newer options that are leading to a posher Adams Morgan. The Carriage House is from the owners of Tom Tom, the nightclub and bar that used to be at the same location. When the owners were deciding on a new concept, they decided to go with a more sit-down restaurant feel on the first floor.

“There does seem to be a shift away from the idea of a hodge-podge of lower-renting users to higher quality retail,” said Jeffrey Schonberger of Altus Real Estate, who owns the building currently being leased to the gym Mint, the cafe Locolat, and a handful of other shops at the intersection of 18th Street and Florida Avenue.

But what about the bars on Adams Morgan’s main strip that fill with drunken revelers on weekend nights? For many, the neighborhood’s reputation is inextricably tied to the inebriated pushers-and-shovers who fill the sidewalks during certain hours. Will the old guard fit in with the changing times?

“They are going to get pushed out,” Drazin believes.

Schonberger cites the liquor license moratorium as one reason why Adams Morgan may take longer to transition, however. As a Greater Greater Washington article from earlier this year pointed out, “a moratorium means that the kinds of businesses that might mitigate [the noise, trash and crime]—like higher end restaurants—aren’t able to move into vacant spaces unless they wish to purchase an existing liquor license, something that can cost up to $75,000.”

“The moratorium is horrible,” thinks Schonberger. “It’s a barrier for better options to come in.” In effect since 2000, the moratorium is coming up for review next March.

While new, trendy restaurants and shops are becoming more prevalent in Adams Morgan, Schonberger doesn’t see it morphing into a 14th Street or H Street scene.

“14th Street is a major thoroughfare through the city. 18th Street is a thoroughfare, but it doesn’t have nearly the traffic and the activity, so it has a little bit more of an intimate feel to it.”

Still, when discussing the transition of a downtown neighborhood, it is difficult not to make comparisons to the two examples that have regularly been part of the conversation in recent years.

As published in Urban Turf (8/2/13) byline Shilpi Paul

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