Around 10 every morning, while custodians in face masks polish the railings inside the Old Post Office Pavilion with white cloths, Lilia Tuvilla takes a green covering off her kiosk on the mezzanine level of the cavernous building, puts the racks of inexpensive jewelry in order, and waits for vacationers in sandals and fanny packs to arrive. It’s a cyclical living, the tourist business. Tuvilla does relatively brisk sales during the hot months, which helps tide her over the dead winters, when she spends a lot of time doing word searches.
“Here is the only time when you are making money, during the summertime,” Tuvilla says. “It’s busy for six months, and then it’s slow for six months.”
The Old Post Office is something of a home base for Tuvilla, who first arrived there in 1988. As the building’s fortunes declined in the mid-’90s, she relocated for a while to Pentagon City. But the rent there got too high, and she returned to paying $1,250 a month at the Post Office—a comparative bargain.
Most of Tuvilla’s immediate Filipino family is there, too. Larry’s Cookies, downstairs, is owned by her sister and brother-in-law. Another sister owns the burrito place, and a niece runs a gift shop called I ♥ D.C. They all know the other shop and kiosk owners well enough that they might as well be related, too. Small children scoot around between the stores, sometimes manning the register while the older women run errands elsewhere.
They know, however, that pretty soon that comfortable coexistence will change. The building has long been a money loser for the federal government—it cost $12.4 million to operate in fiscal year 2010—and under pressure from a budget-cutting Congress, the General Services Administration issued a request for proposals for the building’s redevelopment in March. Rumors fly among the shopkeepers. One person claims to have heard the building might be flattened for a parking lot, and everyone gossips that Donald Trump might turn it into one of his eponymous luxury palaces.
The latter, as outlandish as it might seem, could actually happen; the Trump Organization was one of a handful of groups to submit bids for a 60-year lease on the 112-year-old building, effectively volunteering to pour some $80 million into renovations, plus whatever price the GSA might command for the right to do so. Whomever the GSA chooses in mid-November, though, Tuvilla knows the era of family-owned independent businesses inside the Old Post Office is probably almost over.
“It’s a big loss for the people who are having businesses here,” she says. “For small people like us, it will be a hard thing to get in. It will be a big change if they acquire this place, and I’m thinking only big businesses will be here.“
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Despite the best intentions, reinventions of the Old Post Office have never met expectations for long. The first major renovation, after preservation activists saved the building from the wrecking ball in the late 1970s, was celebrated as nothing less than the linchpin of Pennsylvania Avenue’s rebirth. In addition to burnishing the grimy exterior, GSA punched a hole through the floor of the building to create a multilevel shopping arcade. In 1983, the new mall opened fully leased—to handpicked high-end boutiques, as well as several full-service restaurants.
But though businesses did well there, the whole enterprise couldn’t sustain itself, burdened by the high cost of operating the building. In an attempt to lift the pavilion’s flagging fortunes, the company contracted to manage it decided in 1992 to build a large glass-and-steel annex for even more shops, with the idea of eventually welcoming a movie theater. Although the addition was built, the theater deal never came through, eventually driving the management company into foreclosure. The debris-strewn, light-filled mall has been locked and empty since 1993 but looks eerily like its former tenants only left last week, with festive watermelon-pink signage and a bagel menu still intact.
Sept. 11, 2001, an earth-shaking date for the entire tourist business in Washington, hit few places harder than the Old Post Office. The already forbidding entrances were barred further by metal detectors and security guards, creating lines to get in—not just for tourists, but also for all the building’s employees, as well as for workers from nearby federal offices on their lunch breaks.
In the mid-2000s, according to an internal GSA PowerPoint presentation weighing what to do with the facility, tenant satisfaction here was lower than in any other administration-run building in the region, and the shops were generating no net income. After GSA floated the idea of private redevelopment, receiving 20 responses from developers to a call for expressions of interest, occupancy declined even further. Tenants figured renovation was just around the corner, but the process was called off. Meanwhile, a modern food court in the newer Ronald Reagan International Trade Center siphoned off customers. Making matters worse, shopkeepers say, management stopped advertising the businesses inside the Post Office—print ads disappeared from newspapers, and there’s almost no signage on the outside of the building that would indicate you can get a sandwich for $5.25 inside.
Operations dragged on, with most tenants on 2-year or month-to-month leases at way-below-market rents. And even though tourists had started to come back, this year has been worse than ever.
“What business? The business is nothing!” says Mohamed Hossain, owner of the Chocolate Gallery. He started with a flag shop at the Post Office 16 years ago, after having saved up money working in an Indian restaurant in Union Station. He figures the end is near. “When this one close, what do I do? Unemployed,” he says, throwing up his hands.
The stamp-collecting place across the way, Postal Expressions, might make it into the mall’s next iteration, given its historically appropriate theme. But it would be hard to say the same for Jawahar Shah’s Indian Delight restaurant, which is the only enterprise to have endured through all 27 years of the quirky mall’s existence. Shah is scouting other locations, hoping to stay within walking distance of his regular customers. It’s not 1983 anymore in downtown real estate, though.
“I say it’s a sad thing, because we like it here,” he says. “The problem is that now we have to find another place.”
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The retailers might be on their way out.But the good news, from the public’s standpoint, is that passersby will likely still be able to wander through the iconic space. Right now, the building’s biggest draw is a free ride up the glass elevator to the clock tower, where signs that haven’t changed since they were installed in the 1980s don’t dull the thrill of panoramic views from the second-highest structure in the city. That’s not going away, per GSA’s requirements; the request for proposals has ironclad rules for continued public access.
Also, the Post Office likely won’t remain a secure office building. Last time around, 16 out of the 20 proposals generated by developers included a hotel, meaning the building could go the same way as the Old Tariff Office building*, which became the Hotel Monaco. Former D.C. Preservation League President Sally Berk helped with that process, and she believes turning historic buildings into hotels is the best way to keep them accessible to the public. For an example, you need only look across the street to the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, with its constant activity and sprawling sidewalk café.
“The most important thing is that in order to succeed, it needs to have a more cheerful, more open, and more welcoming presence on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Berk says. “There is this misunderstanding that preservationists aren’t in favor of that kind of thing, which I think is very unfortunate.”
So far, the known bids for what to do with the place include Trump’s luxury hotel, a bid from JBG (which last time proposed a hotel, too), a pairing of a Park Hyatt hotel and a Daniel Libeskind–designed National Museum of the Jewish People, and a hastily pulled together plan from Monument for a media center that sounds like a hybrid of the Newseum and the National Press Club. Out of those that fit all of GSA’s qualifications—a tall order, given the specificity of its historic-preservation guidelines—the feds will probably pick the one that’s likely to return the most cash: The developer’s financial fitness and revenue model will account for 50 percent of what GSA considers in making the decision. (The rest is based on design concept and the developer’s background.)
Does that mean, after some developer pours in the $80 million GSA estimates the renovation will cost, the building will finally be successful? Not necessarily. D.C.’s hotel market is nearing a saturation point, with the 1,175-room Marriott Marquis well underway next to the new convention center and several other projects in the works around the city.
Hotels, though, are adaptable. Another one of the District’s very tall buildings, the Cairo—also, like the Post Office, reworked by celebrated architect Arthur Cotton Moore—started out as a hotel before going residential in 1979. That way, even if he doesn’t win the building, Donald Trump could always buy a multimillion-dollar condo with views onto the White House. The old postmaster general’s office, on the fifth floor’s southeast corner, might do quite well.
* Correction: Not the Old Patent Office, which became the National Portrait Gallery.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
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