When Michael Lowe decided to open the first distillery in Washington since Prohibition, he sought out an affordable location with industrial zoning as close as possible to downtown. He settled on renting a small warehouse in Ivy City, a Northeast Washington neighborhood tucked between New York and West Virginia Avenues.
Lowe’s New Columbia Distillers set a boozy trend in Ivy City after the distillery opened in 2011. Today there are four distilleries, a brewery, a cidery and a winery within a few blocks of each other.
“We were the first new business in quite a long time,” Lowe said about opening up shop in the neighborhood. “We think it was a good move on our part. Ivy City is beginning to move up.”
Ivy City retains its industrial feel despite its burgeoning nightlife scene. A web of railroad tracks leading into Union Station occupies the north side of New York Avenue, a main artery in Northeast Washington. More than a hundred school buses sit in a bus depot on the south side of the avenue, and several auto body shops are dispersed throughout the neighborhood.
The Hecht Warehouse is the industrial jewel of Ivy City. Glass blocks and glazed bricks line the perimeter of the six-story warehouse, which takes up an entire city block. On weekend nights the glowing glass crown molding that adorns the corner of the warehouse’s roof acts as a guiding light to yuppies who head east for a night of bar and distillery hopping.
The warehouse was built in 1937 in the Art Moderne style, which grew out of the Art Deco movement that preceded it in the 1920s, said Martin Moeller, senior curator at the National Building Museum and longtime District resident.
“Art Deco kind of morphed into this distinct form of Art Moderne, which tended to be simpler, less ornamented, but often would use industrial materials that were still often elegant and exuberant. The Hecht Company Warehouse is a perfect example of that,” Moeller said.
The building served as the warehouse for Hecht’s, a once-popular mid-Atlantic department store chain. For much of the 20th century, the Hecht Company and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were economic engines for Ivy City’s working class residents, many of whom live in row homes a couple blocks south of the warehouse.
The Hecht Warehouse became vacant in 2006 after Macy’s bought out Hecht’s department stores. Moeller said Ivy City has long been a neglected area of Washington, especially after Hecht’s closed.
“Staring into the New York Avenue corridor was always pretty grim back in the day before things started to get rediscovered,” Moeller said.
Douglas Development Corp., headed by “eccentric mogul” Douglas Jemal, bought the vacant Hecht Warehouse in 2011. Jemal and Douglas Development Corp. have found a niche in Washington by converting industrial buildings into hip locales geared towards millenials. In Shaw, Douglas repurposed an old Wonder Bread factory into a co-working space, and in Brookland the corporation turned a warehouse into upscale apartments called The Foundry.
Jemal has come under scrutiny for some of his financial practices like when he was convicted of defrauding a lender in 2007. He avoided prison for the crime in part because hundreds of Washington community members vouched for his character in court.
Initially, Douglas Development Corp. didn’t have any plans for the future of the former Hecht warehouse said Paul Millstein, Vice President of Douglas Development.
“When Douglas purchased the Hecht’s warehouse he had no idea that it would be an industrial themed apartment building,” Millstein said. “The only thing that he knew was that he loved the property.”
Hecht Warehouse is now a 335 unit apartment building with a rooftop lounge, a full-service gym, daily continental breakfast and a shuttle to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop. One-bedroom apartments at Hecht go for as much as $2,700 a month and two-bedrooms can go for $3,500. On the ground floor there is an Nike store, a T.J. Maxx, and a few bars and restaurants.
A neighborhood in transition
One Eight Distilling opened in Ivy City in 2015, the second distillery to arrive in the neighborhood after New Columbia. Cara Webster, marketing coordinator at One Eight, said Ivy City is undergoing a rapid transformation.
“The neighborhood is being gentrified pretty severely. The neighbors around us are part of the community, but I wonder how long they’ll be here,” Webster said.
Some community members are embracing the change. Sherman Crestwell is a native of Southeast Washington and stays in the men’s homeless shelter facing Hecht on Fenwick Street. Crestwell said the Hecht Warehouse redevelopment has helped diversify the neighborhood.
“It changed as far as ethnicity,” Crestwell said while pointing out Gravitas, an Ivy City restaurant that features a 15-course tasting menu. “A different culture of people are coming through here. It’s bringing people together in a positive way.”
Sai Davis, an Ivy City resident and custodian at a mosque in the neighborhood, also said the area is up-and-coming. Davis peered up at Hecht Warehouse from the stoop of the mosque, which is housed in a row home on Gallaudet Street. He doesn’t frequent the distilleries because he’s a teetotaler, but Davis said the redevelopment of the warehouse hasn’t yet affected the cost of living in Ivy City.
“Except for the bars, it’s a better appearance,” Davis said. “And it’s still cheap [to live] around here.”
The median asking price for homes in Ivy City is $615,000 at $350 per square foot, according to realtor.com. The corresponding figures in Shaw, where Douglas redeveloped the Wonder Bread factory, are $742,000 and $667 per square foot.
Douglas Development continues to buy property in this section of Northeast.
Just down the road from Hecht Warehouse is New City DC, a highly anticipated new development that is about a year away from partial completion.
Millstein said Douglas Development wanted to help revive Ivy City.
“This wasn’t a great area before Jemal purchased Hecht,” Millstein said. “It was known for crime and prostitution. He hoped to change this community.”
The site will include 422 apartments, 18 townhomes, 550,000 square feet of retail space, 156 hotel rooms and 2,900 parking spaces.
“We are about a little under a year away,” Millstein said. “New City will take at least 10 years to be fully finished and reach its full potential.”
New City is the latest wave of development bringing retail to this corridor which is known for its industrial vibe.
The developer is also planning a 130,000-square-foot grocery store, a separate 100,000-square-foot retailer, a five-story hotel, a host of restaurants and a movie theater.
National Building Museum curator Martin Moeller hopes any new development along New York Avenue will respect the area’s history, but also be cutting edge architecturally.
“I think we can have both. The corridor itself I really hope that we could look at it more as a boulevard and develop it as such,” Moeller said. “I would love to see development on the north side over the tracks. We could even build a new metro station right by those tracks and actually create a new node around there.”
It would be helpful to have more news on New City DC. At one point there was going to be Wal Mart. At another point, there was speculation about a Wegman’s. It’s hard to get excited about the development when there’s a dearth of information about any progress. I would settle for anything. If you google it, there’s absolutely nothing. I’ve had a colleague at work tell me that it’s a scam site, whatever that is.