Thousands built, but will they come?

Buzzard Point Condominium? H Street N.E. Luxury Lofts?

Such oxymorons would have been a joke only a year or so ago, but both are soon to be built, as the city’s wild love affair with “luxury condominium” living continues — much of it on the Hill — even while doomsayers talk of glut and a cooling market.

The gnawing question for Hill residents as they see new units (47,000 are reported to be built or in the pipeline for the Washington area) is simple: Are there enough rich people to go around?

Common sense says there simply can’t be enough individuals able to buy “luxury” with $350,000-$500,000 for the handsome new buildings going up everywhere, even if interest rates remain reasonable.

Census data, which the Williams administration is correctly challenging, state that the city is still losing population and may now be below 500,000 people. And the District, because of its high taxes and constricted space, is the most expensive place to live in the metropolitan area.

And yet, and yet, there are other reasons why they may come. Here are some of them: The city is making efforts to encourage incomers, with Mayor Anthony Williams (D) leading the way, confidently predicting that 100,000 more people will make the leap. The $5,000 first-time-buyer tax incentive is also important. Because a condo is a fully owned piece of property with a title, condo buyers get this direct tax gift for buying D.C.

Then there is the who. Industry experts say there are several types of people eager to buy. There are baby boomers who are downsizing, kids gone, cash in hand from a home sale. There are people who are freshly drawn to cultural attractions and city living to whom fresh, modern buildings in the center of things are a magnet. There are people who want a convenient second home — not in the boondocks, but in the metropolis. There are young couples, aware that they can’t or don’t want to buy a house with a lawn and a roof and a basement during their years of maximum ambition. There are people who see in condos, with their guarded entryways, elevators and anonymity, safety against burglary and crime.

And there are a growing number of commuters who are frustrated and exhausted by Washington’s unpredictable major-route traffic jams, particularly in Northern Virginia.

There are also undeniable condo advantages: the ability to lock up and leave for extended periods. The inducement of on-site gyms, pools, tennis courts, terraces, spas, even wine cellars and parking. There is the expectation that a condo will be easy to sell when the time comes, like a known commodity, not a house with all its quirks and peculiarities.



Baseball clouds New Year’s vision

One day we will look back on baseball as a minor blip.

One day we will see how hysteria over 81 game days and where they might be played clouded the last year of the city’s most successful modern mayor, swayed a vital election, drained the city treasury.

One day we may regard the fast-fading Nationals and their sojourn here as a footnote.

If, like a growing number, you are sick of the baseball drama, you will have to wait until midmonth, when the D.C. Council votes on the latest package, and then wait some more, because it is now almost certain that the new stadium, wherever built, will be delayed for another year, until 2008.

The corollary, of course, is that the price of the project will exceed the already-expanded $660 million.

But meanwhile, the baseball cloud of confusing claims and hype has hidden the city’s much more vital agenda (schools, healthcare, infrastructure) like a desert dust storm.

Few objective observers can blame Mayor Anthony Williams (D) for trying his hardest to push a deal through. Baseball is his passion (along with the riverfront) and his legacy, and he has proved he will not spare political capital in a cause he believes in.

The other players, however, have far less clarity.

It is hard to see why leading mayoral contender Linda Cropp (D), the City Council chairwoman, brags of her leadership ability. Her council is more and more divided. Against the baseball deal are David Catania (I-At large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). It’s ominous that the council’s most respected member, the indefatigable Catania, is strongly opposed. Votes for the stadium deal are Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) and the Hill’s Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).

Leaning against are Carol Schwartz (R-At large) and Kwame Brown (D-At large); apparently still undecided are Phil Mendelson (D-At large) and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7).



Crime? Some haven’t heard of it

My sister lives in London, and on a holiday visit she said, “I can’t believe you left your car unlocked. We could never do that!”

The comment brought me to a new recognition that in many parts of Capitol Hill crime has simply disappeared.

I had used two popular techniques with the car thing. First, I never have bought a new car or a good car, basing my buying decisions partly on what car would be the least favorite choice of a thief. Second, as a result of incredibly annoying minor break-ins (typically through a vent window to rifle the car’s glove compartment), I had begun leaving the car unlocked to allow the petty thieves to come and go as they wished. But now they don’t even steal the change.

Usually one to bewail the good old days, this is one shift in the urban tectonic I applaud. And there are good reasons why it’s happened.

First, by living on a large alley I’ve discovered that everyone, without exception, has installed electronic-intrusion devices. Whether or not they work anymore or are even turned on is beside the point. The signs are there, and Metropolitan Police officers say the signs warning of electronic devices are the single best deterrent.

Second, as the Hill has gradually gentrified the residents are older and more likely to gaze gimlet-eyed at strangers on the street and in the alley and call police. Retired city dwellers, who are likely to shop at all times and walk the streets and alleys, seem to stop crime. On the other end, the younger people, those with young children, have populated the alleys and side streets with strollers, nannies, mothers and dogs — all of which are tiny, cumulative effectives against crime.

Density has been part of the change. More people more of the time, day and night. If only the city would now relax the outdated legislation that forbids building small apartments over alley garages. That too would help.

The result of these small social shifts may me minor, but is it not likely that they contributed to the 2005 continuation of fewer and fewer homicides each year? Think of it: In 1991, there were 482 killings in the District, which won it the “murder capital” title. Last year, there were 194. That is the lowest death count in 20 years, according to D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey.

At times things happen in city life that make one truly afraid — not of personal harm but that the social fabric itself is crumbling, is fragile and liable to fade, and that around the corner, or in the dark, the predator is winning. But as this new year dawns, it seems that society and the forces of order are actually quite strong and perhaps gaining every day, on the strength of old men’s eyes, young mothers quick steps, the sweep of a rake or a broom.



METRO

• Barry Watch: Former Mayor Marion Barry proves himself again as the city’s top political phrasemaker with a jaunty jab at the moguls of Major League Baseball: “We stopped the stickup in its tracks.” Unfortunately, Barry did not have the last word; the D.C. City Council is headed to a final vote on the stadium proposal midmonth. ...

• Smokers, stoutly defended by gravel-voiced City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz (R-At large), have one last year to puff away under D.C. legislation headed for a final reading this month. D.C. restaurateurs and bar owners fought this losing battle tooth and nail. …

• Look to oft-maligned Buzzard Point at the mouth of the debris-strewn Anacostia River as the site of the first (and allegedly “bold and dramatic”) big (90 units) condo building spawned by the proposed Nationals baseball stadium. Developer Walnut Street of Fairfax, Va., is holding a design competition for the structure. ...

• Howard University, which is still hoping for a partnership with the city in a $400 million “National Medical Center” on the old D.C. General Hospital site, lost $17 million operating its own hospital. The red ink is bad news for City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, Mayor Anthony Williams’s point man for the ambitious project. ...

• Richest folks, where do they live? Washington Business Journal just published its list of the 50 wealthiest ZIP codes. No, 20002 and 20003 were not among ’em. Great Falls, Va., topped the list, with a median income of $193,000; D.C.’s richest ZIP? 20057 in far, far Northwest with a median income of $125,000. ...

• Scoop during the break: newly reorganized Hill newspaper Voice of the Hill (renamed The Capitol Hill Current Voice of the Hill) zinged often-praised Hine Junior High School for evicting the well-respected after-school tutoring program NorthStar, which served close to 40 low income kids. The reason? Red tape about a room-use permit, though NorthStar has used the site for 10 years. ...

• D.C. needs more grocery stores, according to a survey, but the survey by Delta Associates counted food outlets in shopping centers. The Hill’s numerous corner markets were left out of the count.