Nothing elevates the status of a burgeoning district in Washington DC like a visit from the president and first lady of the US. Back in March, the Obamas held a fundraising dinner at Boundary Road – a new restaurant on H Street Northeast, just behind Union Station and not far from the Capitol Building. While the event raised thousands of dollars for Obama’s re-election campaign, the real beneficiary was H Street itself – a 1.5 mile-long thoroughfare increasingly packed with upscale restaurants, bars and real estate.
“You certainly wouldn’t have seen an American president dining on H Street a decade ago,” says former Washington DC mayor Anthony Williams, who moved into a 2,150 sq ft H Street loft in 2008. “But with new stores and restaurants constantly cropping up, H Street is now luring a different kind of clientele.”
Set just beyond the H Street overpass, directly east of Capitol Hill, the H Street area’s history is typical of many American metropolises. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, H Street – from 3rd to 15th Streets – was a thriving commercial and cultural corridor, home to Washington’s first Sears Roebuck store and the gleaming Art Moderne-styled Atlas Theater. But like other predominantly African-American neighbourhoods, H Street was devastated by the nationwide riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The middle class vanished, 30 per cent of H Street buildings were abandoned and the district – labelled “a riot corridor” – entered more than three decades of economic decay.
The area’s turning point came in 2003, when then-mayor Williams proposed a comprehensive revitalisation scheme featuring new shops, restaurants, housing units and a $13m streetcar system connecting H Street with Union Station. Almost a decade on, the trolley – delayed and over budget – should finally come into operation next year. But with everything from yoga studios and pet salons to big-box retailers and a recently restored Atlas Theater now in place, much of the rest of Williams’ vision has clearly come true. “We wanted to create an area that’s physically, economically and spatially well designed,” says Williams, who served as mayor from 1999 to 2007. “A place that benefits from urban renewal and links emerging parts of the city.”
For homebuyers, however, H Street’s greatest draw is its value. Typically white and often working on Capitol Hill, the newcomers arrive at H Street unwilling – or unable – to buy in more well-known “transitional” neighbourhoods such as Columbia Heights north of Dupont Circle. What they find lining the corridor’s side-streets are colourful two- to three-storey row-houses still attainable on middle-class salaries. Indeed, while average H Street sales prices increased 94 per cent from 2005 to 2012 to $479,000, according to real estate data tracker MRIS Matrix, one- and two-bedroom homes can still be purchased at half that figure along the area’s eastern fringe.
“This is one of the best affordable areas in the city ... with prices 20 per cent lower than in city centre areas like Logan Circle,” says Lindsay Reishman, principal broker at Reishman Real Estate, whose H Street area listings range from a $1.875m loft to a $546,000 three-bedroom row-house to a two-bedroom private home for $274,000. With demand beginning to overwhelm supply, Reishman says property values should continue to rise – particularly once the H Street rail system enters operation. And buyers, many already renting in the area, are typically long-term investors looking to establish families and roots in the community.
These are people such as lobbyist Jeff Blackwood, who purchased a three-bedroom 1920s row-house just off H Street in 2009 after renting nearby for more than a decade. “I had a good sense of the neighbourhood because I was already living here,” says Blackwood, whose home has risen in value by 20 per cent since he bought it. “The area is walking distance to work, but still has this interesting, edgy energy.”
This mix of energy and proximity also appealed to Jim Abdo, whose firm Abdo Development helped redevelop another “riot corridor” – Columbia Heights’ 14th Street – almost a decade ago. Adbo says he saw in H Street many of the same elements that had proved successful on 14th Street. “Although crime and homelessness were a problem, the area had managed to retain much of its historic fabric and authenticity,” he says. “But more importantly, H Street is directly connected to halls of power such as Capitol Hill and lobbying firms on K Street with none of the boxy, high-density housing that typifies these areas.”
Backed by $220m in private funding, Abdo embarked on a huge 2.4-acre development project near Union Station that saw the construction of the Senate Square apartments – two towers that provide space for 432 units – and converted the former Capital Children’s Museum into the Landmark Lofts at Senate Square – 44 high-end lofts set in a red-brick, neogothic building that dates back to 1870. Loft residences range from 900 sq ft to 2,500 sq ft and include high ceilings, open-plan layouts and 24-hour concierge services – a first for the area.
Priced between $470,000 and $2m – or $550 to $800 per sq ft – the lofts sold out upon completion in 2008, according to Abdo. Buyers included mayor Williams and media mogul Sheila Crump Johnson – the US’s first female black billionaire, whose three-bedroom, 3,276 sq ft home was sold for $2.475m, reportedly the highest price ever recorded east of Capitol Hill. With its limited supply and pricey inventory, Landmark Lofts is atypical of most H Street offerings. But its success “helped demonstrate the area’s viability and draws wealthier people”, says Reichman.
Almost five years after the Landmark’s completion, several residential schemes are now under construction across the H Street corridor. On the large scale are rental developments such as 360-Degree H, which opens late this year with 215 apartments and the area’s first major grocery store, along with the newly completed 257-unit Flats at Atlas.
Despite the bullish developers and high-profile presidential dinners, H Street is still a work in progress. Many basic services – from gyms to gourmet grocers – remain scarce, though the 40 vendors at the new Union Market should appease hungry foodies. More worrisome, however, is the potential for a community backlash if – and when – wealthier arrivistes begin to displace their far-poorer neighbours.
● Central location close to Capitol Hill, Union Station and Washington’s business district
● Attractive and affordable housing and vibrant, multicultural population
● H Street is lined with new bars and restaurants
● Despite a handful of new businesses, the area’s retail mix remains poor
● Crime is still higher than more gentrified neighbourhoods
● Occasional tension between H Street’s predominantly African-American oldtimers and mostly Caucasian newcomers
What you can buy for ...
$375,000 A two-bedroom/two-bathroom condominium with hardwood floors close to Union Station
$500,000 A four-bedroom/two-bathroom renovated rowhouse with rear garden and front porch directly off H Street