What's next for the Uline Arena?
- Western view of the Uline. (Photo by Alia E. Dastagir)
The Uline Arena has a vivid history, but its current use is maddeningly mundane. Located between 2nd and 3rd and L and M Streets NE, the building has played an important role in the cultural and political life of the District. The Beatles performed their first concert in the United States there. Red Auerbach coached the Washington (basketball) Capitols in the building where the ABA’s Washington Caps would later forge their legacy of futility. Its original owner, Miguel L. Uline, once insisted upon a segregation policy that catalyzed civil rights activists in the District. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Currently, the space operates as an indoor parking lot.
Taweke “Bennie” Alemayehu has the lease on the Uline. His D.C.-based Tag-B Group runs a number of parking lots and garages throughout the District, but none with the Uline’s pedigree.
To promote his business, Alemayehu hopes to call attention to the property by putting on more events like Swampoodle, the innovative play that featured ghosts, vaudeville dancers, and jugglers at the Uline last month. The play, Alemayehu says, was a test run.
"We wanted to see what the place could offer," he says.
The Uline’s owner, D.C.-based Douglas Development, has been planning to rehabilitate the site since it purchased the property in 2004. The company says it’s waiting on construction money to move forward with redevelopment. Alemayehu says as long as he holds the lease groups should approach him with creative ideas for using the historically rich and notoriously neglected space.
Linda Murray, artistic director at D.C.-based theater group Solas Nua, which co-produced Swampoodle, says that without Alemayehu the production would never have happened.
“Once Bennie signed off, then Douglas Development was on board,” Murray says.
As the leaseholder, Alemayehu’s buy-in is critical, but Douglas Development has final say on short-term uses for the Uline.
Philippa Hughes, a local leader in the D.C. arts community who specializes in activating vacant spaces and runs an online arts calendar and blog through her brand the Pink Line Project, approached Douglas Development a few years ago to inquire about using the space for her signature Cherry Blast event.
“I know they are committed to supporting the arts, but I also know they are very busy people,” Hughes says, noting that after a couple of good conversations, she never heard back from Douglas Development and moved on.
Hughes has some inspired ideas for an event she would like to put on in the Uline this fall.
Douglas Development’s Paul Millstein says the company is willing to listen to proposals.
“We’re open to short-term creative uses as we wait for development,” Millstein says.
Alemayehu’s encouragement and Douglas Development’s openness are promising, but organizations interested in the space should prepare for serious challenges.
Like Hughes, Swampoodle’s organizers found that Douglas Development is not an easy group to connect with. It took approximately a year to get approval to use the Uline.
"They are all incredibly busy businessmen, and an arts project in one of their buildings, while nice and teary, is not their priority,” Murray says. “To get into the space you really need persistence and patience in equal measure.”
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