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Development Wave Has Brought Historic U Street Back To Life — But At What Cost?

Virginia Ali has witnessed the roller coaster ride of U Street's last 50 years firsthand. The co-founder of Ben's Chili Bowl has watched the block around her business transform from a 1950s cultural hub to a dangerous, drug-infested area, only to emerge again as a coveted address where some apartments sell for over $1M. 

Ben's Chili Bowl founder Virginia Ali in front of her iconic restaurant

"It's really interesting, our busiest time back [in the 1950s and 1960s] was 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday night," Ali said. "And it's gotten back to that again. It's a nightclub town again. There's music everywhere and food everywhere." 

Once nicknamed "Black Broadway," U Street served as an epicenter of entertainment for the African-American community before being destroyed by the 1968 riots. It has since emerged from the squalor that followed the riots to become a bustling corridor again, but now it is becoming so expensive that many residents who persevered through decades of decline cannot afford to stay through the resurgence. 

Home values on U Street have risen from $451K in January 2009 to $594K, according to Zillow, a 32% increase in less than a decade. New apartment buildings on the corridor charge some of the highest rents in the city, with one new luxury building asking over $10K per month for its top units. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner John Green, who represents a section of U Street, said the escalating cost of living is among the top concerns he hears from residents. 

"There are folks in the neighborhood that are either on fixed incomes or are living with vouchers that, if they don't get renewed, they need help," Green said. "People really want to stay in our neighborhood, and it's becoming a struggle more often. It's an issue." 

The U Street corridor, one of D.C.'s most popular restaurant hubs

Black Broadway

Walking down U Street today, one can still see signs of its cherished past. The Lincoln Theatre, where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz legends once played, still has lines spilling out onto the sidewalk on Saturday nights.

Those lines often mix in with the crowds next door at Ben's Chili Bowl. The U Street institution turns 60 this August and remains as busy as ever. Ali, who founded the restaurant in 1958 with her husband, Ben, has vivid memories of U Street in its heyday. 

"It was a very classy and thriving, robust community at that time," Ali said. "We had jazz clubs and music halls and theaters ... It was a close-knit community. Most of us went to the same bank, we went to the theater and would run into each other, going to a club or concert you would see the same people. It just felt like part of a big, huge family." 

Rick Lee in front of Lee's Flower Shop at the corner of 11th and U streets NW

The longtime owner of Lee's Flower Shop on U Street, Rick Lee, also remembers the atmosphere of U Street in the 1950s. His parents founded the shop in 1945, and he ran it for over four decades before turning it over to his daughters about five years ago. 

"U Street was really a festive place," Lee said. "We had parades every Saturday over the summer. Folks had a real sense of ownership. On Saturdays and Sundays, everybody dressed up, they wore suits and hats. It was really festive and happy and just a good place to be." 

The Riots 

But in early April 1968, nearly 50 years ago today, all of that changed.

A U.S. Army truck patrolling 14th Street, near the U Street corridor, during the 1968 riots

The riots that erupted following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination lasted four days and destroyed 1,199 buildings across the city, with much of that concentrated around the U Street corridor. Ben's Chili Bowl did not sustain damage, and even stayed open to feed protestors and police, but Ali remembers it as a frightening time. 

"It was devastating, it really was," she said. "There was so much damage and so many fires and the looting was extensive ... when we would go home, we wouldn't know if we're going to get a Molotov cocktail thrown through our window. It was scary."

The damage from the riots reverberated for years down the road, and during the two decades that followed, U Street hit a low point.  

"After that period those businesses never reopened that had been destroyed," Ali said. "And middle class African-Americans began to move away. A few years later, heroin moved in. And a few years after that, crack moved in. And this beautiful, conservative neighborhood went downhill for 20 years and became a serious ghetto. A drug-infested, crime-ridden ghetto.

"People were afraid to come to U Street. You would drive your car down and park a few blocks away, and it was probably broken into by the time you got your chili dog." 

The U Street Metro station

The Metro

The neighborhood would remain in rough shape until the Metro opened its U Street station in 1991. But building the line and station required digging up U Street, presenting serious difficulties for the businesses that remained on the corridor. 

"That was more challenging than the riots because they closed off the street," Lee said. "That was very challenging and we had a tough time. The streets were all dug up, it was very tough. A lot of businesses didn't make it." 

Lee's Flower Shop and Ben's Chili Bowl persevered, and after the station's opening they were joined by a host of new businesses opening along U Street. 

Jair Lynch, the former Olympic gymnast who founded his real estate development company on U Street in 1998, said he saw the corridor as poised for growth once the station opened.

"I had to think forward 20 years to say well one, Metro is opening, two, you're 1 mile from K Street, which had been the center of business transformation in the '80s, and three, the neighborhood had plenty of history," Lynch said. "You knew this was going to be a place that was going to shine."

Development has continued for the two decades since, and the neighborhood emerged as one of the city's top destinations for young residents and new businesses. Lined with bars, restaurants and music venues, U Street today is teeming with activity on Friday and Saturday nights. 

The view down U Street with JBG Smith's 13|U on the left and The Ellington on the right

The Cost of Living

Neighborhood residents have also witnessed the construction of several tall apartment and condo buildings along the corridor, creating a residential base that did not exist in the past. But as U Street became a coveted neighborhood for people to live and spend time, the rents on the corridor began to skyrocket.

A penthouse condo unit behind Ben's Chili Bowl at the luxury 2020 Lofts building resold in 2014 for $1.5M. That price tag amazed Ali, who remembers drug dealers congregating on that site back before the development began.  

One of the first large apartment buildings constructed on the corridor, The Ellington, now fetches rents above $2,500 for one-bedroom apartents and over $3,500 for two-bedrooms. The luxury 13|U apartment building JBG Smith delivered across the street last year cost over $3K per month for the cheapest unit, and four of its largest units cost over $10K monthly, among the most expensive in the city.   

"With the Metro construction, the unfortunate thing was a lot of those people didn't own their own homes, they were renting," Lee said. "People who own those places saw the Metro as a gold mine, so property values went up and taxes went up, so the rents had to go up. People couldn't afford them, so they had to leave." 

The ZIP code that contains part of the U Street corridor, 20001, was ranked the No. 2 most gentrified ZIP code in the U.S. by RentCafé. Between 2000 and 2016, the area's median home value rose 207%, its median household income grew 163% and the share of its residents holding a bachelor's degree or higher increased 212%, according to RentCafé. 

"It's definitely become gentrified," Ali said. "It's definitely not the African-American section of town that it was at one time. It's definitely not that anymore, but the world has changed." 

The District has tried to encourage affordable housing development, Lynch said, but it is difficult to keep rents from rising when a neighborhood becomes hot.  

"There was a commitment for affordable housing in some of the public land that was developed early," Lynch said. "But as you can see, market forces can just run right by that and the need becomes great. And the need becomes great because people who didn’t want to live here before now want to.

"It’s a nice place everybody wants to live there regardless of income. It’s just much harder to effectuate the creation of affordable and workforce housing deeper into the maturation of a place."  

The new Portner Flats affordable apartment building on the U Street corridor

Some developers have been able to put together deals to create more affordable units and to allow renters to become homeowners. Lynch in 2005 worked on a deal to allow dozens of renters in Capital Manor, a 102-unit apartment building near U Street, to put down deposits and buy their units. More recently, the redevelopment of the Portner Place Section 8 housing complex has helped create dozens of new affordable units. 

Somerset Development, in partnership with Jonathan Rose Cos., is preparing to deliver a 96-unit affordable apartment complex. In mid-March, 48 longtime residents of the dilapidated Portner Place complex will move into the new, amenity-filled building, and the remaining units will be set aside for those making up to 60% of area median income. The developers were able to double the number of affordable units by selling a portion of the site to Trammell Crow/High Street Residential, which is constructing a 288-unit, market-rate building. 

"If the market were left to its own devices, 48 residents would have been displaced," Somerset's Jim Campbell said. "There's no way the market would be providing anything that would achieve economic diversity and social diversity in the neighborhood."  

Throughout the neighborhood, buildings such as The Ellington, The Louis and others remind residents of the jazz legends who graced U Street's past, but Green said those homages to Black Broadway ring hollow if the buildings do not foster diversity. 

"If you really want to honor the history, we need more new apartments that aren’t as segregated and are more inclusive to mixed-income living so we can increase housing stock of affordable units instead of trying to preserve and barely making a dent," Green said. 

CORRECTION, FEB. 28, 10:10 A.M. EST: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jair Lynch was formerly an olympic figure skater. Lynch was an olympic gymnast, winning a silver medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics. The story has been updated.