- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

A local real estate developer is jumping into her highest-profile project yet with the recent purchase of the last undeveloped corner of the intersection at Seventh and H streets Northwest.

Yeni Wong, who entered the business nearly 15 years ago to spruce up her restaurant’s neighborhood, owns nearly all of the buildings in the northwest corner of the intersection.

But her new project, in the northeast corner, calls for a 10-story complex of residential, office, retail and possibly hotel space — her largest and most diverse undertaking to date. She has sued the current tenant, CVS/pharmacy, after serving it an unsuccessful eviction notice.

“This is a high-exposure area. I want to improve it,” she said. “Whatever I have, I want to make it beautiful.”

The area was far from beautiful when Ms. Wong, president and chief executive officer of D.C. development firm Riverdale International Inc., got into commercial real estate in 1992.

As part-owner of the Golden Palace restaurant, formerly on Seventh Street Northwest, she said her dinner business was dismal because no one wanted to come to the run-down neighborhood at night. So she borrowed money from family and friends and bought the nearby building at the northwest corner of Seventh and H streets Northwest and decided to start developing it.

She persuaded Starbucks Corp. to lease the space in 1994. With that move, a new career was born.

She turned down liquor stores and other unwelcome tenants, and instead courted retailers and restaurants such as Adams National Bank, the first to loan her money, and Fado Irish Pub.

Ms. Wong’s empire slowly grew to include 12 buildings — from Matchbox on H Street around the northwest corner to Fado Irish Pub and from Kam Fong Seafood Restaurant on Seventh Street around the northeast corner to China Doll Gourmet.

Her current project has potential to further reshape Chinatown, said Steve Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, a public-private organization charged with attracting and retaining businesses for the city.

“[Gallery Square] could be the landmark for that corner of the city,” he said. “It could set the tone for everything from H Street all the way to Fourth or Third Street.”

In January, she bought the Gallery Square building, at 801 Seventh St. NW, for $12.5 million. Over the summer, she purchased the adjacent Lei Garden and China Doll Gourmet buildings.

The outside of the Gallery Square building would be preserved because of its historic facade. But the interior of that building, as well as the restaurant buildings, would be demolished and replaced by the proposed residential, office, retail and possible hotel space.

In August, she filed suit against CVS for failing to leave the property after serving it an eviction notice in January. The parties are scheduled to meet for a court-ordered conference next month.

The retailer did not return calls for comment, but has said that its lease allows eviction only for a demolition. Ms. Wong said it is legal because she is renovating and she plans to bring CVS back — in 4,000 square feet on the ground floor and 10,000 on the first floor below ground, doubling its current size.

“My guess is CVS has a great prescription business at that store and they want to retain it,” Mr. Moore said. “Their lease probably has very favorable terms and they’re going to negotiate as hard as they can.”

Ms. Wong’s vision is for what she calls a “21st-Century Chinatown” — a modern entertainment district, not the stereotype of old, dirty and crowded neighborhoods, she said.

But some in the community say development in the area has stripped it of its Chinese heritage.

“Some people complain that all that’s left is the signage on restaurants with no relation to Asian culture,” said Ward 2C Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro.

The rise of non-Chinese chain restaurants has hurt profits at the Chinese restaurants.

That was part of the reason China Doll Gourmet restaurant’s owners sold their building to Ms. Wong this summer, said Toon Lee, whose family owned the building and restaurant.

“If you’re not making any money, or losing money, there is no way to be able to keep it up,” he said.

At the same time, they said that selling their building would contribute to improving the neighborhood.

“I think we are looking for a better Chinatown, for the future,” said Dr. Lee, a physician with an office in the neighborhood.

Ms. Wong, who came to the United States from China in the mid-1960s to study chemistry at Kent State University, attributes part of her success to determination, being a resident of the community, and good timing — she started buying the buildings more than a year before the Verizon Center, formerly the MCI Center, was publicly discussed.

But she’s modest when asked what role she played in redeveloping the Chinatown area.

“People later came who had a bigger influence,” she said, referring to Abe Pollin, who in 1997 opened the MCI Center. “They are the movers and shakers.”

And she claims to not be focusing on dollar signs. She has turned down offers, some more than three times what she paid, for her buildings.

“If I don’t lose money, I’m fine,” she said. “Money is not the driving force.”

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