Department of Phantom Projects: When Will Catholic University’s Conference Center Finally Get Started?
District residents are used to seeing empty pieces of land and learning of the plans that existed for them before, you know, the economy. Usually, with a few notable exceptions, they stalled out in the last crash, and started coming off the shelf again as D.C. emerged as an island of safety in a sea of despair.
Some projects, though, have been on the books for decades. Such is the case with a massive conference center and residential development inside the curve of Irving Street at Michigan Avenue NE near Catholic University, which first got rolling in 1989—and is now looking for yet another extension.
Let’s quickly run through the history, which really starts in 1959, when the federal government transferred jurisdiction of the 5.48-acre property to the District. It was used as a “fringe parking lot” for people commuting into the city until the 1970s, when development of the Metro made the commuter function “obsolete,” and the District began looking for better uses for the site (the parking is currently used by the Washington Hospital Center).
That's where Catholic University came in. Then-president Bill Byron wanted a conference center and hotel to support the school's activities, and long-established District architect Ted Mariani—designer of the Unversity of the District of Columbia's Van Ness campus as well as D.C. General hospital—came up with a plan. Along with Catholic, the development team included D.C. powerbroker Delano Lewis and Medlantic Healthcare. In March of 1991, they got approved for a 300-room, five-story hotel and conference center.
And then, nothing. The zoning approval was extended again and again, and the development agreement expired.
"We tried to move forward with it," says Mariani (who, in the mean time, was designing D.C.'s new downtown convention center and shopping a proposal for the adjoining hotel). "It seemed about every time we had it about ready to go forward, soemthing would happen with it, the market would go bad, or the administration would change."
Nevertheless, in 2000, the Department of Housing and Community Development decided to give Mariani another chance. He reshuffled the development team, bringing on hotel developer Hospitality Partners and the H Street Community Development Corporation, which got an equity stake in exchange for handling the local employment aspect of the development.
By the mid-2000s, something else had changed as well: The District's willingness to tolerate low-density, single-use developments like the one Mariani had drawn up originally. The Office of Planning pushed for something bigger, with housing as well as hospitality. So in 2008, the team came back with a WDG Architecture-designed complex twice as dense as the old one, complete with a 233-room Marriott Springhill Suites hotel, white tablecloth restaurant, banquet facility, and structured parking, with market rate apartments to follow in a second stage. They got their signoff, projecting the hotel would be open in September of 2011.
Well, it's been more than two years again since that approval was issued, and Conference Center Associates is asking for yet more time, saying that they hadn't been able to find a financial backer. That seems odd, considering how much money's floating around for hotels in the nation's capitol these days, and the momentum near Catholic with Jim Abdo's big project getting started just down the way. On Monday, the Zoning Commission granted an extension for the first phase, and postponed consideration of the whole request to a later date.
Couldn't the District have prodded this forward before now? Surely Mariani would've moved faster if he had any reason to believe the land might be given to someone else if he didn't fulfill his obligations—just like LuAnn Bennett might have developed the Walmart site faster if her political connections hadn't allowed her to sit on it for decades, leading to accusations that the lot had been land-banked.
But that was never a serious danger. Every time an approval expired, the relevant authorities reasoned that yanking it would lead to another few years of delay, which ended up happening anyway. Furthermore, the lease signed in 2007 has a "quiet enjoyment" clause, which entitles the developers "to hold, occupy, and enjoy the Land and all rights relating thereto, during the term without hindrance, ejection, or molestation by Landlord." The rent is set at $264,000 per year, but payments don't start until the development is all finished, giving the team little real reason to get moving.
"We're very hopeful that we'll be able to pull it together this year," Mariani says.
If not, though, they'll probably just get another chance.