By: Mark Lee
Last week was the anniversary of the 1968 riots in D.C., following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. The ensuing five days of destruction that befell Washington and filled the sky with smoke scarred the city’s landscape for decades and cut a hole in the heart of commerce through the prominent local retail districts of the era.
Washington neighborhoods hollowed out by looting and fires are only now beginning to fully finish recovering as commercial and residential real estate development repurposes the remaining empty buildings and reconstructs many of the last vacant lots across a wide swath of the city. Nowhere has this transformation been more dramatic than along the 14th Street, N.W., commercial corridor, as it intersects with U Street and stretches northward into Columbia Heights.
A Washington-area native and lifelong resident, Franco recalls his father vividly detailing the riots of 44 years ago. Now 47, he remembers the pride and gratitude in the recounting of customers driving to the family-owned clothing store in downtown Washington at 12th and G streets, now a Macy’s department store in the former Hecht’s building, to stand in front waving on potential looters. Appreciative of the years of dedicated customer service conveyed to generations of families, “not this place” they implored in defending the business. The store remained untouched throughout the extended melee of anger and frustration.
Franco grew up understanding firsthand the importance of providing attentive and personalized customer service and engendering this type of loyalty. He would later infuse his own business activities with building relationships in the marketplace. A strong sense of ethics, a spirit of community-mindedness and dedication to the client experience and product provided were to become the trademarks of his future endeavors.
Following a three-year stint at the University of Maryland where he studied architecture, business and urban affairs, Franco continued working with the family enterprise, a successful local chain of discount department stores, until 1989. It was then that he became one of the investors backing the management team at the iconic nightclub Tracks that would dominate the gay dance scene through the next decade. He also partnered with the group in opening Trumpets restaurant and lounge on the 17th Street dining and entertainment strip near Dupont Circle.
Soon after, during the April 1993 weekend of the national March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, Franco would launch a clothing and accessories store with then business partner and commercial interior designer Keith Clark.
Universal Gear, located above Trumpets in a street level retail space at the corner of 17th and Q streets, quickly skyrocketed in popularity, outfitting many a gay man casually attired for work, play or the gym. The store would soon expand into a second level, nearly doubling in size with a complete interior renovation and striking new layout.
Franco would later explore market opportunities with since discontinued stores in Atlanta and Chicago’s Boystown, as well as opening a thriving Manhattan store in the heart of Chelsea and another in Rehoboth Beach. Universal Gear is adding a second New York location early next month in the trendy Hell’s Kitchen midtown west neighborhood at 9th Avenue and 49th Street.
In tandem with his development activities in the 14th and U area and following his customer base eastward, the local Universal Gear relocated to 14th and P streets in November 2007, becoming an expansive new neighborhood retail anchor.
Franco had earlier discovered that his passion for architecture and urban planning would lead him to residential real estate development, first renovating and marketing a 12-unit condo building on Chapin Street in Columbia Heights with business partner Jeff Blum, with whom he co-founded Level 2 Development. Excited by the then-booming pre-recession housing market, they started looking around for additional opportunities and set their sights on developing a larger project.
A Scorpio, Franco admits to “loving a challenge.”
This led Franco and Blum to undertake one of the largest and most prominent residential development projects along 14th Street.
Located at Florida Avenue and standing as the gateway at the sloping incline into adjoining Columbia Heights, the massive View 14 building and its 185 rental units and 30,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail space – replacing an auto repair garage and an unattractive array of satellite dishes and communication towers – became a harbinger and symbol of extensive change in the area. David calls one of the penthouse units with a south-facing pinnacle terrace overlooking the area home.
Construction cranes are once again jutting into the sky along the high-density thoroughfare. The outline of a large glass-clad apartment building across the street from View 14, originally designed by Level 2 and subsequently sold to another firm for construction following initial planning, is quickly progressing toward completion.
Level 2 Development will next begin construction of a 144-unit studio and one-bedroom apartment project on 14th Street at Wallach Place, only steps south of U Street. Groundbreaking for the yet to be named project, located at 1919 14th St., will signal the Level 2 duo’s next project in the District, undertaken in association with Keener-Squire Properties.
The long road to project approval was not an easy one, according to Franco. He compares the process to the infamously cumbersome regulatory obstacles experienced by restaurant and bar owners under the city’s liquor licensing regimen.
Acknowledging that some neighborhood residents are often skeptical regardless of the track record of a local business, he notes that an “overabundant sense of empowerment” by small numbers of frequently ill-informed neighborhood opponents of change and small citizens groups requires advance calculation of the substantial expense for both hard and soft costs related to project delays and extensive round-robin negotiations. This results in higher rental or sale prices and can endanger project viability.
Underscoring how challenging a place the District can be to conduct business, Franco longs for local entrepreneurs to be respected as shared stakeholders. He points out that better cooperation would yield greater benefits for all.
Franco does not hesitate to confirm that a new ethos has taken hold for housing construction and resident lifestyles in the most vibrant and developing areas of the city. “We’re betting the ranch on it,” he offers, describing a distinct consumer preference for smaller home environs with modern finishes and amenities designed for a diverse demography drawn to a life largely experienced outside the front door.
“That’s how we live now,” he adds, identifying retail stores and shops of all types, dining and entertainment destinations and social watering holes as current interactive magnets and contemporary gathering places. Franco points out that demand for such community spots will likely continue to outpace capacity as the area – already experiencing the city’s greatest growth and a dramatic recent double-digit percentage population increase – adds more than 3,000 new residents in the next year.
Despite the business hurdles and regulatory obstacles, Franco remains committed to pursuing additional projects and public/private partnerships with and in the city he loves and lives. Enlivened by the development process and passionate about the results is what continues to motivate and inspire his efforts to play an ongoing role in the creation of a livable and engaging urban environment.