Housing Complex

Has the Reeves Center Become a Second Hoover Building?

The Reeves Center in 2011

There's lots to unpack in the reported deal to build a D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point: the implications for the riverfront neighborhood, the potential pitfalls following criticism of the city's (more expansive) funding of nearby Nationals Park, the ability to pull off all the necessary swaps and arrangements, etc. But one aspect that may get overlooked as the city goes into soccer frenzy is what the city's giving up far from Buzzard Point—namely the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW, which the city will reportedly trade to developer Akridge in exchange for land at Buzzard Point to complete the soccer deal.

When the Reeves Center opened in the 1980s, it was a harbinger of revitalization for the 14th and U corridors. The area had been ransacked in the 1968 riots and had never fully recovered. The Reeves Center meant jobs and stability, a sign that the city hadn't forgotten the once-vibrant neighborhood altogether and was committed to its comeback.

That was then. Now, the area has come so far that most D.C. residents can no longer afford to live, really, anywhere near there. The Washington Post published a story this week headlined "Gentrification in overdrive on 14th Street," detailing the 1,200 condos and 100,000 square feet of retail that are currently being built or have been completed in the past nine months. This paper's Young & Hungry blog recently counted nine restaurants that have opened so far along the 14th Street corridor in 2013, with 14 more on the way.

And yet the Reeves Center has mostly stood still—and slowly disintegrated. In 2011, then-Loose Lips columnist Alan Suderman described the chaos that had taken over parts of the building where city agencies once worked, before decamping to more modern buildings elsewhere in the city. "The Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at the corner of 14th and U streets NW," he wrote, "is an eight-story, 500,000-square-foot basket case that stands as a symbol of wasted opportunity and government dysfunction." On rainy days, buckets in the lobby collected water. On the seventh floor, occupied by the District Department of Transportation before it moved to Capitol Riverfront, Suderman found a trash heap that included old prescription bottles and a not-so-hot 2004 performance review of a lackadaisical street sign installer who had probably long since been fired. There were reports of various sexual acts in the crumbling offices.

Across U Street from the Reeves Center, the Louis at 14th is rising up. (Its website says it all: "The avant garde in D.C. have long sought an urban oasis to call home, a place where District decadence meets cool convenience. At last, Louis has arrived.") Across 14th Street from the Reeves Center, The Gibson serves up $15 cocktails. But the Reeves Center, in addition to having lost many of its former government functions, doesn't do much in the way of neighborhood-serving retail. On U Street, there's no retail at all; on 14th, there's a large shoe repair shop and a few weirdly hidden storefronts under the offices.

It almost brings to mind The Building That Shall Not Be Named, the Dark Lord of the downtown streetscape—the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The city has long wanted to rid itself of the FBI headquarters, the very definition of a street-deadening edifice. For an entire city block, pedestrians hurry past the cold, imposing facades of the set-back, retail-less fortress, with nothing to draw them in. Now that the FBI is seeking a move from its obsolete headquarters, the city senses a major opportunity to bring in a mixed-use development that makes the streets that much more friendly and vibrant—not to mention lucrative, since the FBI pays no property taxes to the District.

The Reeves Center really isn't in the same category as the Hoover Building, in terms of aesthetics or function. But still, its architecture looks dated, its retail presence is limited, and it simply seems to be out of a different era, when anything that offered jobs and stability was welcome. Like the Hoover Building, it isn't bringing in nearly the revenue it could be; a private building there would send property tax—and, presumably, more sales tax—dollars flowing into city coffers.

Meanwhile, the city is sending its government agencies to parts of the city that, well, aren't all that different from 14th and U in 1985. DDOT helped jumpstart development in Capitol Riverfront; the Reeves Center agencies may be headed to Anacostia, joining the Department of Housing and Community Development at the heart of a neighborhood that's struggling to break through its historic struggles and attract new retail and residents.

Perhaps in 25 years, we'll be having this same conversation about Anacostia, and the city will be trying to trade its government buildings there to a developer hungry to capitalize on the high demand for mixed-use development in the neighborhood. For now, though, we're not there yet—and the D.C. United deal appears to offer the city an opportunity to call it quits at a building that's long past its prime.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Chris hauser

    Avant garde urban oasis decadent convenience.

    Retro pop quiz: what would Jimmy durante have to say about this?

  • Tom

    J. Edgar Hoover has been dead for decades and his reputation has certainly not grown more rosy with time. At the Reeves Center, it is not Frank Reeves' name that matters. It is the one in equally large letters: Marion Barry Jr. Unlike Hoover, Barry is still on this side of the sod (at times it seems, barely) and there is NFW he is going to let that building fall unless serious tribute is paid. (Like Hoover, however, Barry's reputation has not improved with time either.)I'm not sure that exporting more DC bureaucrats to Ward 8 will cut it for the ex-Mayor-for-Life or even generous contributions to Barry's, uh, "constituent services." No, Barry's going to want something much bigger. Marion Barry Stadium, anyone? Say it without choking.

  • DC Resident

    While the Reeves Center is certainly not the highest and best use for that site, let's not forget in our rush to create trophies for little boys and building a publically funded stadium for a private owned sports team that housing government workers in government owned facilities costs less for District taxpayers than paying for leased space. Evaluating any land swap deal involving the Reeves Center should include what it will cost in added office rent. Also be leery of economic development offset arguments, as DC government employees don't spend widely at adjacent retail establishments.

  • Corky

    Alan Suderman is an idiot. First of all, the building is not crumbling. Much of it has been restored in the past two years. Secondly, just in the past 2-3 weeks both the Deaprtment of Corrections and Fire and EMS moved INTO the Reeves Center from other locations. The building still houses many functions vital to the city, like ABRA, which holds hearings on liquir licenses. The city should think long and hard before giving up this parcel of land--and not rely on any reporting by The City Paper.

  • dcvoterboy

    @Corky: DC FEMS and DOC moved to Reeves center from the school at Vermont and U street that DC government and the neighborhood has been trying to get them out of for years. Since DC owns the Reeves Center, unlike some other leased space, its an easy place to move Departments and Agencies into. ABRA moved out of leased space as well. Just because someone's moving into the building doesn't mean the building is in all that great of shape. The Reeves Center leaves much to be desired in terms of design...

  • Corky

    The buildings at MLK are, to my knowledge, leased space. This will not be a cheap endeavor to move some of the larget DC agencies (DGS, FEMS, Corrections) to leased building space. As for design--who cares? There's a freaking storage building across U Street. If you want Taj Mahal style government office buildings, then voluntarily raise your own taxes.

  • Tom

    And moving the Department of Corrections in is not exactly a ringing endorsement by the DC government that it views the Reeves-Barryplex as prime space. The top-tier agencies left a long time ago.

  • Kevin

    Today's press conference included the mayor announcing that a new Reeves Center will be built in Southeast.

    @DC Resident: What "publicly funded" stadium are you referring to? This proposal essentially has Akridge giving their land in SW to the city in exchange for the Reeves Center. The city contributes the land to the deal, and United pays for 100% of the stadium. Akridge redevelops the Reeves site. No money leaves the city treasury. No new taxes or bonds.

    The city WILL pay to build a new Reeve Center in SE but that seems to be a reasonable expenditure to spur the kind of economic growth that the current Reeves Center contributed to at 14th and U.

    I know some are always against stadium no matter the merits of the deal, but this deal is smartly put together. I hope they can get it done and that the City Council will approve it. This is NOT the Nationals Stadium deal all over again.

  • Anon2

    "No money leaves the city treasury"

    instead a valuable property leaves city ownership, one that could have been sold for cash, for the city treasury.

    Do you ever play Monopoly? do you hand over Park Place more casually than you hand over $25?

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