Small businesses concerned about uncertain future as GW plans investment project

Media Credit: Max Wang | Staff Photographer

The University plans to transform 2100 Pennsylvania Ave., combining it with Rice Hall, to create an investment property generating revenue for academic projects.

The line used to be out the door at Neelan Toteja’s cafe on Pennsylvania Avenue, but since major chain coffee shops moved to Foggy Bottom in recent years, the crowds are gone and she only makes enough money to cover the rent.

Now, after about two decades in business, Toteja may be forced to close her Capitol Grounds Coffee store in Foggy Bottom and move from her beloved location in 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. as GW prepares to redevelop the building into a major retail and commercial investment property.

“I’m going to miss this place when I’m gone,” she said. “It’s my baby store. That’s why I’m hanging here still.”

Boston Properties, the real estate developer running the project, has not announced the retail outlets that will open in the new building, but long-time small business owners said they are preparing to leave by the end of next year with little hope of returning. Owners and community leaders said the development could further diminish the character of the surrounding neighborhood, which has seen an influx of brand-name chain businesses in recent years.

The University plans to transform 2100 Pennsylvania Ave, combining it with Rice Hall – GW’s central administrative building – to create an investment property generating revenue for academic projects.

University spokesman Brett Zongker said the 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. tenants were given “ample notice” about the redevelopment but declined to say when they were told. Officials are working with businesses to guarantee they are moved out by the start of construction.

The building now contains a TGI Friday’s restaurant, GW’s Buff & Blue Technology Center, an allergy treatment center and four small businesses.

Zongker said Boston Properties will decide what retail will open in the new building.

“The University is confident they will further their excellent record of attracting merchants that serve the community and further enliven the neighborhood, as was done at The Avenue,” he said in an email.

Jake Stroman, an assistant project manager at Boston Properties, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Zongker said that the campus plan, which regulates how and where the University can launch construction projects, is designed to accommodate small businesses in the area. GW has brought small businesses like Teashi, Point Chaud and Sol Mexican Grill to campus in the last year, Zongker added.

Stephen Paik, the owner of Esteem Cleaners in 2100 Pennsylvania Ave., said the store, which has cleaned University Police Department uniforms for more than 20 years, has not yet found a new home. Paik said he hopes to remain close to the current location, where he has built a base of reliable customers over decades.

“We’ll miss this place very much because we’ve been here so long and have a lot of loyal customers here,” he said.

While trimming a student’s hair last week, Antonio Puglisi, the owner of Puglisi Hair Cuts and another 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. tenant, said he hopes GW will help him find another location in the area because rent prices are so high elsewhere in the city. But after about 21 years in the building and 57 years in the area, the shop faces potential displacement, Puglisi said.

“If I had to leave the area, I’m not going to reopen the shop,” he said.

Puglisi said officials attempted to find him a new location, but it was not affordable for his business. He said he hasn’t heard from officials about the move in about three to four months.

Over the course of several decades, he said his barbers have cut the hair of the past four University presidents – including University President Thomas LeBlanc – as well as that of students, doctors and faculty.

“If we move, yeah they lose something,” he said. “The neighborhood – they lose something.”

Officials have raised millions of dollars in recent years converting GW-owned property into various investment projects. Boston Properties redeveloped the Avenue on I Street, which opened in 2011 and helped fund the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall.

Officials have forced business owners to vacate in preparation for large campus projects before. Several small businesses, including the campus token bar Froggy Bottom Pub, were pushed off the street in 2014 when GW began the redevelopment of 2112 Pennsylvania Ave.

But while some businesses are leaving 2100 Pennsylvania Ave., the University is also bringing in new shops to its other retail properties. Indian restaurant Bindaas and dumpling shop Laoban Dumplings both plan to open in The Shops at 2000 Penn, a GW-owned complex.

In recent years, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue near campus has undergone a transformation as several businesses converted to office space. The changes have left the neighborhood without the vibrancy and community-feel it once had, Patrick Kennedy, the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood commission, said.

“It was really more of a neighborhood street than an office canyon which is what it is now,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot lost for the neighborhood and for the University community, even with that progression being what it is.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.