Losing Far East flavor in D.C.


WASHINGTON - From his family's tiny basement grocery store in the heart of Chinatown, William Chin has watched his community change over the past 50 years.

The throngs of Cantonese-speaking people milling about H Street in the 1950s have disappeared, and many Chinese restaurants and stores have moved to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Today, Chinatown's regulars tend to be tourists, nearby office workers and more tourists. And along with the new crowd, Chin has watched a wave of Chinese businesses move out in recent years to make way for a new breed of commercial activity in his neighborhood - the MCI Center, chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and, come September 2002, a 21-screen AMC movie theater.

"I think Chinatown is a lost cause," said Chin, 58, whose family has owned Mee Wah Lung grocery store on H Street since his grandfather set up shop 65 years ago. "I feel sad. But it's not your place to feel anything if you can't do nothing about it."

As this new century begins, Washington planners face a challenge - how to revitalize the Chinatown area without destroying a historically ethnic community's character.

In the three-square-block neighborhood between Washington's monuments and the Capitol, city planners and developers see a prime location for retail and entertainment projects that would jump-start economic growth in the downtown area.

But others worry that using Chinatown as a catalyst for growth by bringing in big-chain stores will destroy a community once populated with thriving local businesses and restaurants. The high rents that property owners can now command have forced out several Chinese businesses.

"This is going to completely suburbanize Chinatown," said Alfred H. Liu, president of AEPA Architects Engineers, which compiled a study of the area for Washington planners in 1988. "Chinese people are going to lose their presence in the nation's capital."

Developers and planners emphasize that they are just trying to find the best use for a Chinatown that had been declining in recent years, with several vacant rowhouses and large parcels of land available for new projects even before the chain stores started moving in.

"The important thing is, what is the appropriate role for Chinatown in the 21st century," said John Fondersmith, a city planner with the District of Columbia government. "Yes, some of the uses and activities will be different than they were in the past. ... Different areas have different roles all the time. All downtowns go through that."

Washington's Chinatown got its start in the 1880s when Chinese immigrants set up general stores, restaurants and gathering places on Pennsylvania Avenue between Third and Fourth streets. In 1890, as the federal government began buying Chinatown buildings for offices, the Chinese moved to the area around H and Seventh streets, N.W.

Chinatown flourished at its new location until 1968, when Washington was struck by rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. By April 5, several stores in Chinatown had suffered major damage during the riots. Many closed permanently or moved to the Virginia or Maryland suburbs soon after.

The area never fully recovered from the exodus and didn't expand like its counterparts in New York and San Francisco, which kept growing due to those cities' continuous influx of Chinese immigrants. In Washington, Chinese immigrants who start out living in Chinatown often relocate to the suburbs soon after, said Yeni Wong, who owned Golden Palace Restaurant on Seventh Street for more than 20 years before shutting down in December 1998.

"Everybody comes to America and then changes to a better environment," said Wong, president of Riverdale International, which owns eight buildings at Seventh and H streets. "Once they establish themselves, they move to the suburbs."

City officials began exploring the revitalization of Chinatown in the early 1980s. Fondersmith said city planners began looking at Chinatown as a key area to link two downtown areas popular with tourists and visitors - the monuments and Capitol Hill.

Planners set up a committee to oversee architectural design and developments in the community and commissioned the building of an elaborate Chinese arch in 1986. In the early 1990s, planning began for the MCI Center on F Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. The 20,000-seat arena was originally expected to draw new crowds to the area, attract retail stores and restaurants, and bring customers for existing Chinatown restaurants.

But some Chinatown business owners said the MCI Center took away as much business as it brought. Jennifer Lee, whose father has owned Da Hua Market on H Street for more than 15 years, said she lost several regular customers because of limited on-street parking around the arena during events at the MCI Center.

"MCI Center is not helping us at all," said Lee, who sells groceries and Chinese trinkets in her two-story store. Longtime regulars "are going to the suburbs because they cannot park here."

Lee said her store currently has more groceries than trinkets for sale. But since the MCI Center was built, sales of groceries have gone down while more non-Asian customers have come by seeking Chinese souvenirs. To stay in business, Lee said, her family is considering concentrating on trinkets instead of groceries.

The success of the MCI Center drove up rents in the area, inspiring property owners to boot out longtime tenants and renovate to attract high-end clients. Just across Seventh Street from the MCI Center in a row of freshly refurbished rowhouses, a Ruby Tuesday opened in May, and a Legal Sea Foods will open July 31.

Chinatown's transformation will be capped in two years with construction of Gallery Place, a 250,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex next to the MCI Center that will feature a Borders bookstore, a Chevy's restaurant, Jillian's, a three-story upscale chain restaurant, and an AMC movie theater. The $195 million project includes 173 upscale rental apartments and 850 parking spaces.

John Viglianti, development director for Western Development Corp., which is building Gallery Place, said his firm hopes to introduce billboards and ads a la New York City's Times Square to liven up the neighborhood.

"We want to push the envelope in terms of retail identity ... turn up the whimsy of the project to give it more interest," Viglianti said. "Hopefully, it's going to make people say, 'Oh, we have to go see this.'"

Herbert S. Miller, president of Western Development Corp., said he understands the concerns that his project might rob Chinatown of its character. But he said his architects have made sure to include elements of Chinese design in the building's faM-gade, which the city requires of all new developments in the Chinatown area.

"I think the key is to have good projects that reinforce a Chinese Chinatown, projects that reinforce the growth of the city," Miller said. "The goal is to be the true downtown of metropolitan Washington. If the heart of the city beats, the rest of the city thrives."

Ultimately, many long-time Chinatown store owners and activists agree that their community needed an influx of new businesses to keep it alive. Yeni Wong suggested that long-time Chinese-owned businesses may have to take on a new role as being part of a "cultural showcase" in order to survive in the new Chinatown.

"A lot of people think the Chinese are getting beaten up and pushed out," Wong said. "But I'd rather have people come in and change it than have it be a ghost town."

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