The Convention Center Hotel
Friday, June 26, 2009 1:51:18 PM
The Testimony of Harold Davitt
Past President of the
Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Association
Committee on Economic Development
Committee on Finance and Revenue
Joint Public Hearing
June 24, 2009
John A. Wilson Building
B18-310, the “New Convention Center Hotel Amendments Act of 2009.”
Thank you, Chairman Brown, Chairman Evans and Councilmembers. My name is Harold Davitt, and I am here today for as a private citizen who has lived for 30 years on the 900 block of M Street, which is one block north of the proposed Convention Center Hotel. I have also served from time to time as President of the Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Association, which is the association representing the neighborhood directly west of the new Convention Center.
Today, I would like to talk to you about the impact of the lateness of the Convention Center Hotel on the community immediately to the north of the proposed hotel.
When the groundbreaking for the new Convention Center took place in 1998, the impression of the community was that the commercial part of the neighborhood, Ninth Street between L and P streets, would finally bloom. It didn’t. There has been some commercial renovation, but not the serious makeover expected. The opening in 2003 has added two restaurants and some smaller retail, but that’s it. The development on Ninth Street has been essentially locally oriented, either to the neighborhood or to the District. Some businesses have have bought and renovated long vacant properties because it is in the central city, the neighborhood has a strong historical character, and it’s affordable gallery or office space compared to K Street locations. As the vacant properties become occupied, Ninth Street does improve somewhat. The neighborhood’s residential renovation has been in full swing since the mid-1980's and generally complete several years ago. The few vacant residentially zoned lots have been built out with condominiums.
If the redevelopment of Ninth Street proceeds as it is doing now, then Ninth Street will be of local flavor, oblivious to the possible tourist revenue across the street at the Convention Center. While interesting to the neighborhood, it should not be satisfying to parties concerned with maximizing revenues from the convention trade. Instead of getting the tourists out of their hotel rooms in various parts of the District and into local restaurants and points of interest on their way to and from their conventions, we will be leaving them to their hotel food and the cable channels.
This neighborhood would like to see serious renovation which includes orientation to the convention and tourist trade. It would add to the personality of the area, but it will not happen if the convention center hotel languishes. I have seen several real estate deals die because of the unpredictability of the “elephant in the room” at Ninth and Massachusetts. While the current economy is not helping, the problem of indecision with respect to the Convention Center Hotel impeding development has been ongoing over the last few years.
We have been through this before. Early in the 1980's I recall preliminary neighborhood briefings on proposed developments, which of course needed slight upgrades in the zoning map and thus needed community concurrence. Leaving aside the quality of the developments proposed, it showed that serious businesses with serious zoning lawyers considered the neighborhood interesting.
Then the proposals, the upzoning requests and other commercial feelers to the neighborhood dried up by the late 1980's. The certainty that a new convention center would be built here was in the air. I have talked with people who know that history, and the only obvious place in the late 1980's was where the current convention center is located.
The minuet concerning the construction of the Convention Center Hotel has done the same thing to the neighborhood over the last few years. It has certainly slowed the development of Ninth Street, but it has also forced developers away from thinking that they can profit by serving the conventioneers and they must now orient to local clienteles. This direction of locally-oriented renovation will take more time, but will happen. If that happens, then the influence of the Convention Center on the renovation of the neighborhood will be far less than envisioned.
We are a tourist town. When we build a convention center, it should be make money. There should be a return on our investment. We have interesting neighborhoods for the metropolitan population, but none outside of downtown which say to the tourist: Spend your money here. Because of the delay in the building of the Convention Center Hotel, we may have already lost the opportunity to nurture such a neighborhood right next to the Convention Center.
In poker terms, our new Convention Center was a large opening bet. If we are afraid to place the appropriate continuation bet, we must have decided that we have a weaker hand than we thought. And the other players will notice.
The new Convention Center Hotel is an expected adjunct of a big-league convention center. We do need it to start now, or the lot should be sold for near term development for other purposes. The opportunity costs of delay are very high.
Thank you very much.