What's next for the Uline Arena?
- Western view of the Uline. (Photo by Alia E. Dastagir)
And getting in there is only the beginning. The inside of the Uline is an open shell, and lack of basic maintenance over the years has led to severe deterioration. Swampoodle’s acoustical challenges were noted in every review: “acoustically impossible” said TBD’s Maura Judkis; “any time the actors attempt to speak plain dialogue, no one can hear a word,” said DCist’s Brett Abelman; “the dialogue was frequently unintelligible, lost inside a deafening echo,” said City Paper’s Chris Klimek.
- The Uline is now a parking lot.
On top of present-day challenges, the Uline’s architectural history reveals that performances were always problematic. “It wasn’t ever really a performance space,” says Justine Christianson, local historian and author of “The Uline Arena/Washington Coliseum: The Rise and Fall of a Washington Institution,” which ran in Washington History magazine. “It was a sports space, and in order to keep it booked and making money they had other various kinds of performances there.”
Christianson says there were always grumbles from the audience. “People were complaining about how uncomfortable the seats were, there was no air conditioning, and even then they complained about the acoustics,” Christianson says.
Andrew Gregos is an engineer at Maryland-based Metro Technical Services, which specializes in professional audio and video services. Gregos says because of the echo, the Uline is better-suited for music than speaking events.
"The big difference between music and speech is that with music it's not critical to understand every word," Gregos says. "With speech it's all about the consonants. You can miss all the vowels and still understand everything, but you have to hear the consonants." It's why he says, "In cathedrals, music directors love the space, because the sound just rolls around, but the pastor usually hates it."
Gregos says that rolling out a carpet would do wonders for the sound, getting the speakers as close to listeners as possible is important, and the number and type of microphones used is critical.
But it’s unclear how long groups have to heed his advice.
In 2006 the Historic Preservation Review Board carved out official protection for the Uline, thwarting any plans for demolishment, and in 2008 they approved Douglas Development's preliminary plan to transform the arena into a mixed-use complex. Millstein says the approved design is still on the table.
The vision, penned by Maryland-based GTM Architects, preserves the Uline’s iconic exterior and maintains its airy grandeur. It includes a multi-level atrium with skylights between the ribs. Steel and glass are used to complement the building’s industrial character, making interior facades look like exterior masonry.
The designs are flexible and could accommodate arts programming.
Whatever the owners settle on, the property’s redevelopment will significantly impact its surrounding neighborhood. For many years the Uline languished in the blighted area now known as NoMa. But the area has rapidly grown, escalating the anticipation around the Uline’s revival.
Anne L. Corbett is executive director of the D.C.-based Cultural Development Corporation, a nonprofit that specializes in integrating the arts into community development and revitalization. Corbett says if Douglas Development does decide to redevelop the former Uline Arena to include arts programming it would be a smart development choice. She says development efforts in the area, with the help of NoMa BID, are already working to leverage the creative economy.
“The Uline building is an enormous space rich with cultural history, and one could envision a variety of suitable arts uses for its next life,” Corbett says. “I could see creative commercial space or artist live/work housing in the icehouse side or a music venue in the barrel. Tenants could connect to the strong media arts presence to the west in NoMa proper or the funkier music, theatre and performance venues to the east on H Street.”
Charles C. Wilkes, chairman of the D.C.-based Wilkes Company, says that several years ago his company and Douglas Development spent time together thinking through ways that their properties — Wilkes owns nearby 300 M Street NE — might be redeveloped in a manner that is sympathetic to, and supportive of, each other.
"I know that Mr. Jemal has great affection for Uline Arena and a deep understanding of the important role that Uline played in the life of the city,” Wilkes says. “So I expect that he will do something great with the property."
In the meantime, Alemayehu continues to operate a parking lot with a taste for the arts. He didn’t even try to make money off Swampoodle, he says, but in the future he’d like to figure out more lucrative creative uses. It’s evident that he, too, is humbled by the extraordinary space he currently uses to house cars.
“Even as it is now,” Alemayehu says. “It’s so beautiful.”
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