- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

The place was packed. The sidewalk, too. On a recent evening, the patrons at Justin’s Cafe looked like an extension of the crowd at nearby Nationals Park, where the surging Washington Nationals were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There were baseball fans in Nationals T-shirts and jerseys. Office workers in ball caps and button-down business attire. There were full tables and empty beer glasses and half-cocked debates about the season-ending shutdown of Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Replace baseball with hockey or basketball, and the entire scene could have been Chinatown’s cluster of bars and restaurants on a Washington Capitals game night — with one important difference.

“Things have been awesome, and we’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” said Joseph Gonzalez, the assistant general manager of Justin’s Cafe. “But we’re surprised that we are basically the only operation down here in terms of a bar, restaurant, gathering-type place.”

Mr. Gonzalez shook his head.

“That’s kind of sad,” he said.

Ghost town

Following four seasons of losing baseball at Nationals Park, the Nationals appear to have turned a competitive corner, fielding a young, exciting and winning team that boasts star players such as Strasburg and Bryce Harper and figures to be a championship contender for years to come.

As for the neighborhood surrounding the ballpark, dotted with new residential and office buildings and pegged for a massive redevelopment effort even before city officials announced their original plans to bring baseball back to Washington?

When it comes to entertainment and nightlife options, the area has a lot of catching up to do.

“I went with some friends to the [Bruce] Springsteen concert [at Nationals Park] the other week,” said Brian Frederick, a D.C. resident and executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, a Washington-based fan advocacy group. “Afterward, we walked all around looking for food. There was only Justin‘s, and their little porch was packed with people. There’s nothing else to do in the neighborhood.”

Exit Metro’s Green Line at the Nationals Park/Navy Yard stop, and the first thing you see are well-dressed young professionals cavorting on the rooftop of a sleek, modern building, above a sidewalk crammed with chairs, umbrellas and cafes.

Of course, the above image is literally a picture — a banner depicting a planned development, hanging on the side of a shipping crate.

The shipping crate is part of the Fairgrounds, a makeshift entertainment complex. Located across the street from the main gate of Nationals Park, the Fairgrounds offers food, beer, a concert stage and cornhole tossing; constructed out of shipping containers and wooden beams, it has all the aesthetic appeal of Guantanamo Bay, albeit with food trucks and longnecks.

Beyond Justin’s Cafe and the Fairgrounds, Nationals fans and neighborhood residents don’t have many — read: any, unless you count Starbucks, Subway and Potbelly — food and drink options within convenient walking distance of the ballpark.

“It’s very ghost townie,” Mr. Frederick said. “The problem after a game is that you either have to get on the Metro with the masses, which is not much fun, or you have to hike all the way to Capitol Hill or Eastern Market. That’s a 20-minute walk, and once you get there the restaurants are shutting down.

“I think more people would come to Nats games if there was a better bar and restaurant district. You get the baseball fans out there, but not the people who just want to hang out. And it’s unfortunate, because it’s a really great stadium.”

When the city broke ground on Nationals Park in 2006 — a nearly $700 million project that included new roads, sidewalks and parks, plus the demolition of more than 100 buildings — then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the ultimate goal was to revitalize the entire Anacostia River waterfront, an area best known for industrial blight and a group of adult nightclubs and video stores.

Private developers reportedly spent more than $2 billion on residential and commercial buildings in the area, including a new headquarters for the Department of Transportation. Planners envisioned something akin to Chinatown, a thriving, mixed-use neighborhood — restaurants and retail, condos and offices — anchored by a sports stadium.

Just months after the Nationals opened the new ballpark in the spring of 2008, however, the financial crisis erupted. A deep recession followed, derailing expected development.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Why aren’t there more places to eat and drink around the ballpark?’ ” said Michael Stevens, director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. “People don’t understand that you can’t just want to open a restaurant and go do it. It involves finding the appropriate space, negotiating a lease, getting a loan to finance operations.

“Well, banks were not lending money over the last three years. Most projects got put on hold.”

Among the casualties was Monument Reality’s $350 million Half Street project, located directly above the Navy Yard Metro station.

While one office building is finished, most of the planned 775,000-square-foot development — featuring street-level retail, residential towers and a hotel — remains a gaping hole in the ground, surrounded by a tarp-covered fence.

“The thought was that when the ballpark was built, the development in the surrounding neighborhood would coincide with the beginning years of the park,” said Andrew Feffer, chief operating officer of the Washington Nationals. “That didn’t happen because of the economy and the real estate market.

“But this is the only spot on water here in Washington other than Georgetown that is being developed. There’s no reason not to think that this could become a similar, really cool, hip place to live, work and play.”

The future is soon?

Mr. Stevens concurs. Over the past five years, he said, his organization has made more than 200 presentations to restaurant brokers and retail organizations, traveling to business conventions in New York and Las Vegas, encouraging investment in the ballpark neighborhood.

His pitch? It involves more than just, well, pitches.

The Nationals are now drawing more than 2 million fans a year,” Mr. Stevens said. “But a baseball stadium that does 81 games a year, that alone can’t be the reason for restaurants to open.

“We tell people we have over 35,000 daytime employees and nearly 4,000 full-time residents. We have brilliant new parks. Great Metro accessibility. Capitol Hill is part of our trade area. We like to say we had an initial wave of development, and then 2008 happened. But the next wave is going to come.”

By Opening Day of the 2013 baseball season, Mr. Stevens said, he expects as many as 10 new restaurants to be opened in the area, including an Asian restaurant, a 3,500-square-foot tavern and a 24-hour diner.

New York City chef Michael White is expected to open an Italian restaurant in the Lumbershed, a building that is being renovated and overlooks the park and river walk that extends from just behind Nationals Park to the Navy Yard.

Similarly, the Navy Yard’s old Boilermaker building soon will host upscale shops and restaurants, including Buzz Bakery and Bluejacket brew pub — both operated by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which currently runs Churchkey restaurant in Northwest and Rustico restaurants in Virginia.

“You can’t ask for a better spot for a brewery than right outside Nationals Park,” said Megan Bailey, public relations director for the restaurant group. “We think we’ll be well-received. On any given night, we’ll be serving the home team fans, the neighborhood and hopefully fans of the visiting team as well.”

For Nationals fans such as Mr. Frederick and the team’s front-office staff alike, a future where Justin’s Cafe isn’t the only bustling neighborhood spot can’t come soon enough.

“Right now, we have to get in a car and drive eight to 10 blocks to the waterfront to go out as a group on a nongame day,” Mr. Feffer said. “Soon, you’ll be able to walk. So it becomes part of the social experience.

“It’s like Chinatown. Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t go out there. You’d go to Georgetown and Adams Morgan. Now the clubs and restaurants are there. Some of our players live there. It’s not unrealistic to think that the next great area in Washington will be by the ballpark.”

And in the meantime?

“We’re big patrons of Subway and Potbelly around here,” Mr. Feffer said with a laugh.