August 1, 2011


August 1, 2011

By Sharon Bosworth

Summer of 2011: Barracks Row’s Transformation Heats Up

As August 2011 arrives, Eighth Street, SE, continues its phenomenal trajectory.  Once a blighted urban shopping strip off of Pennsylvania Avenue, today Eighth Street/Barracks Row is Capitol Hill’s go-to hot spot for ages three and up.  Amusements for kids can be found at our two play spaces: the brand new Be With Me Playseum, 545 8th Street, SE, (202-543-0051), as well as neighborhood favorite, The Family Room, 411 8th Street SE (202-640-1865). For those old enough to go out without being accompanied by parents, our street is a “United Nations” of restaurants with something for everyone, especially lunch or dinner. From gourmet hot dogs to authentic Belgian waffles to a wide selection of fresh oysters to hand-made pasta to breakfast twenty four hours a day, visit Barracks Row any day or evening without reservations and you are guaranteed a culinary adventure.

Interstate 295 Overpass Gets New Look

At the south end of Eighth Street, SE an infrastructure transformation has begun. After many years in the permitting phase, Barracks Row Main Street’s long awaited mural designed by CityArt’s Byron Peck is now being installed on the east side of the tunnel under Interstate 295.  Already a coat of sunny yellow paint has been applied to the tunnel walls. Visible from blocks away at Pennsylvania Avenue, the north face of the freeway overpass is now painted in shades of deep rust red and warm tan. By Saturday, September 24, this year’s annual Barracks Row Fall Festival, the earliest mural images may be visible to fairgoers for close up inspection. Watch for spring 2012 completion of the mural.

Also, familiar green signs, featuring the internationally recognized giant “P” for parking will soon be installed by the DC Department of Transportation at the under-the- freeway parking lot as well as along 8th Street north and south of the lot, alerting drivers to the presence of the parking lot ahead. DDOT has posted the lowest meter rates in DC at the lot: seventy five cents per hour for two hours from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.  After 6:30 p.m. rates are the same but 3 hour parking is available. Parking is free on Sunday.

Barracks Row’s Video Stores’ Technicolor Past

Eighth Street’s transformation seems even more dramatic this summer because we bid goodbye to two iconic video stores, now overcome by competition from Netflix and on-line options. In recent years, the most prominent video store on the row was Blockbuster at 410 Eighth Street, SE.  As soon as Blockbuster closed last month we began to watch closely for hints of their replacement.  As we go to print, owners of the building will neither confirm nor deny rumors that a national menswear retailer has leased the space.

One day recently on our daily walk to view the demolition in progress inside at 410 Eighth Street, SE we were amazed to see that while dismantling the huge blue and yellow Blockbuster sign, a remnant of an old entrepreneurial saga reappeared. The Erol’s Video Club sign which was encased for years inside the Blockbuster sign is now visible.  Newcomers like me don’t remember Erol’s but Erol’s is a local legend, a great bit of lore I may have missed out on if the sign had not been uncovered. Like so many success stories, Erol’s Video Club began with an immigrant and a good idea.

Erol Onaran was born in Hungary in 1934 and moved to Turkey with his parents where he studied electronics. He immigrated to the DC, found work repairing radios and TV’s and soon started his own business, an electronics sales, repair and video rental shop in Virginia.  After his son joined him they grew Erol’s Video Club into the largest independent electronics and video rental chain nationwide, eventually selling to Blockbuster. Using the 30+ million dollars from the sale of Erol’s, in 1990 the Onarans started up a computer sales and repair business. They paused on their way to an IPO, reconsidered going public, and eventually sold to a competitor.  Erol Onaran retired to Turkey, an American success story.

Erol’s competitor on 8th Street was Capitol Hill Video Sales at 515 8th Street SE, an entirely different operation but not a bit less colorful.  Apparently the owners of this single-site operation had to search hard for a niche in order to survive in the shadow of Erol’s- Blockbuster. They found it in adult entertainment.  Upon entering the store customers saw a small scale video rental shop with all the usual titles. But, as one of their former employees recently noted, behind the double doors to the back of the store was “another world.”  The building that housed Capitol Hill Video Sales mimics this split personality. It was once a car dealership, with a showy sedan often parked on the roof to lure in riders of the Eighth Street streetcars. Then the building was divided in half with space for two businesses at one address. Today, the side that once housed Capitol Video Sales is now being converted into a restaurant, with a roof top patio planned for the spot where cars once perched.

From Sedans to Swordfish Tapas on the Roof

According to Xavier Cervera, the Capitol Hill restaurateur spearheading the project, the new restaurant will be named Pacifico with a menu reflecting the many Latin American countries on the Pacific Ocean.  Cervera and his design firm, ODC Studio, released a sketch of an early concept for the restaurant which is expected to open in early 2012. The roof top patio will be positioned above both Pacifico and next door neighbor, Belga Café.  Both restaurants share the 515 8th Street, SE, address which may make for some real GPS merriment in the future.

Back on the first block of Eighth Street, directly across the street from the former Blockbuster store,  513 Eighth Street, SE, will soon be home to Chipolte, opening in yet another split address building. The new owners of the building cannot give us a precise opening date for Chipolte, which is still in the permitting phase, but we do know that Dollar Express + Continental now at that address, will be closing in August.  Somehow this building was divided and a new address to the south, 515 Eighth Street, SE was created years ago. Presently 515 Eight Street is home to China Wall.

At this year’s Barracks Row Fall Festival the most amazing act will be the street itself. Every block of 8th Street is changing with new businesses opening each month.  Loyal fans of the Fall Festival who return year after year to see the Military Chef’s Cook-Off or watch the performance of the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon will be astonished and, no doubt, as pleased as we are with their new options as our historic corridor marches on into its best-yet third century of operation.