Best Hope for the Future of D.C.’s Arts Community

Union Arts
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Look, there’s no easy way to put it: The sale of a warehouse at 411 New York Ave. NE, which houses the Union Arts collective, is a huge bummer. When news broke that the developers who bought the building plan to turn it into a boutique hotel, it was like a page ripped straight out of the book of gentrification. Even though developers D.B. Lee and Brooks Rose’s plan for the hotel includes an arts program that will feature studio space for local artists, among other amenities, it’s still a tough blow for the local arts community. But the way the community has rallied in support of Union Arts is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation. At the first Zoning Commission hearing on the project (the developers need a zoning variance to build the hotel), dozens of people showed up en masse to testify against it—so many that the hearing spilled over into a second one. A third hearing is scheduled for later this month. This isn’t to say Union Arts can be saved. It can’t. The developers own the building and, no matter what happens after these Zoning Commission hearings, they’re going to knock down the building and replace it with something new and shiny. But these vocal protests by the local arts community have sent a loud and clear message to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration: She needs to do a better job at supporting local arts. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ most recent strategic plan states a need to identify “vacant and underutilized buildings” that can be sanctioned into affordable live-work spaces for artists. If the situation with Union Arts in any indication, it’s a something that should be made a priority.