Ride Recap: The WABA 12 Offices Ride

Or, “One Step Ahead of the Wrecking Ball”

by Peter Harnik

Everyone knows that Washington, D.C. contains 50 state-named streets and avenues, and many know that WABA sponsors a 63-mile route touching upon every single one of them. But did you know that WABA, over its 50-year lifespan, has occupied 12 different offices? And that an intrepid group of WABA alumni recently pedaled a route visiting (nearly) all of them?

The ride took place on Sunday morning, October 16, and attracted former WABA board and staff members from the late 1970s through the early 2010s. It involved visiting the actual places where WABA was housed as well as the sites of buildings that have since been torn down. 

Organized by former president Peter Harnik, the ride included former directors Eric Gilliland, Linda Keenan and Bonnie Nevel, former assistant director Heather Andersen, former education director Dorcas Adkins and former Bicycle Atlas editor Ken Moskowitz. At every stop along the 9.6-mile trip, someone recounted highlights that occurred at that particular site. Here is the route, laid out in chronological order of WABA’s evolution:

The starting point (from the year 1972) was 1666 Connecticut Avenue, the office of WABA founder Cary Shaw, who ran the organization out of his personal filing cabinet and the after-hours borrowed meeting room of his employer. At the time, WABA’s $2 memberships were solicited by paper flyers left in the brake levers of bikes parked on the street.

Once established, in 1973 WABA moved into a room in the Dupont Circle Building (whose address back then was 1346 Connecticut Avenue), the premier public interest location in the city. WABA didn’t have full-time staff, but there were volunteers and some paid interns. Eventually, the $107-a-month rent became too much. (The building still stands; after it was renovated and gentrified by moving out all the activist tenants and raising the rents, its number was upgraded to 1350 Connecticut.)

When WABA ran out of money in 1977, it sublet a portion of the small office of the Potomac Area Council (PAC) of American Youth Hostels, at 1520 16th Street N.W. This was primarily an apartment building; it’s unclear whether WABA’s tenancy was legal or not. (Notes from the period refer to a “landlord from Hell”; the building is still standing, but it’s been completely renovated). 

Then, in 1981, PAC moved into the downtown Youth Hostel building at 1332 Eye Street N.W., and WABA moved there, too.  This was a former hotel, so the bathroom became the supply closet and the file cabinet was placed in the bathtub. This location, facing Franklin Park, was, at the time, the heart of the city’s Red Light district, which made it challenging; one famous nearby strip joint, called This Is It?, was the site where a sting operation nabbed Mayor Marion Barry for cocaine use. On the other hand, Director Linda Keenan was once pleased to find a large pile of cash that had been dumped on the sidewalk near the office. She scooped it up, treating it as a badly-needed anonymous contribution. The Youth Hostel was soon condemned and torn down; the site is now the glittering headquarters of several high-end law firms.

Next, in 1985, WABA tried a Capitol Hill location – 530 7th Street S.E. – because we were able to arrange an inexpensive sublet with a friendly environmental organization. That was fine (other than bike theft and some scary moments of street violence) until our parent group needed its space back, so we moved, in 1988 to…

…Georgetown, at 1015 31st St. N.W. This rather cushy location came about through a sublet with a different environmental group, and Acting Director April Moore remembers biking to and fro every day from her Silver Spring home while four months pregnant (“my all-time power commute,” she says). But Georgetown also turned out to be a hotbed of bicycle theft, and the rent ended up being too high for our marginal finances. Although we had to move, that building is still there.

Not so for our next location, a plain but venerable office building at 1819 “H” Street N.W., where we sublet from SANE/Freeze, the premier group trying to prevent nuclear proliferation. The move started off ominously when a heavy filing cabinet fell off a dolly and sprained both thumbs of Director Bonnie Nevel. But ultimately the small office was nice (even though our volunteers had to squeeze out into the hallway for envelope stuffing parties), but we had to leave when the building was sold and torn down. (The fancy new edifice now houses a law firm so powerful that it managed to change the address to 1875 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., even though the building is still actually on “H” Street.)

Just at that time, in 1994, we were in another financial slump, so we sublet a truly tiny space (“about the size of two desks”) in the office of our accounting firm at 818 Connecticut Avenue. The building has a power view of the White House, but we didn’t know that because we didn’t have any windows.

Three years later, in 1997, we nabbed a terrific office in a terrific old building, 1511 “K” Street N.W. (The building was perpetually mobbed with reporters because it happened to also house the office of the lawyer for Monica Lewinsky; Heather Andersen was perpetually saying, “Can I get my bike out of the elevator first?”) Unfortunately, the too-good-to-be-true low rent was on a month-to-month basis because the building had been on the market for years – and it finally sold not long after we moved in. We were asked to leave pronto. (The fancily renovated building is still standing, but it was renumbered as 1501 “K” Street).

So, in 1999 we were forced to find a dilapidated (but large) suite at the Woodward Building, 733 15th Street. By this time the WABA staff had increased to four (plus many volunteers), so that office was perpetually hopping with activity. The location again almost overlooked the White House, but the windows were too caked with pigeon droppings to afford much of a view. That location witnessed two crises – first, when Bike DC was canceled because of a hurricane, we were left with 7,000 undistributed t-shirts and an angry t-shirt sponsor. Second, in 2001, during the 9/11 attack when it seemed that a plane might hit the White House, the staff frantically loaded critical documents and computer drives onto a hand-truck and fled up to Eric Gilliland’s apartment on U Street. Now known as the Woodward Apartments, the building was famous at the time for several ground-floor shops – a bikini place and a liquor store specializing in mini bottles of booze.

When the Woodward was slated for renovation and we were again asked to leave, we found a nice space north of Dupont Circle at 1803 Connecticut Avenue. It was this move that intrepid staff, volunteers and board members carried out entirely by bicycle and by using bicycle-powered trailers. Despite being located next to a strip club, the office was bright and airy with a nice view of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, and right downstairs was The News Room, the best shop for newspapers and magazines from around the world. Alas, WABA was finally growing, and the burgeoning staff forced the final move to larger quarters, in 2005.

The last stop on the tour was the current office at 2599 Ontario Rd. N.W. on eclectic Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan. At an elevation of 210 feet, it is the highest (i.e., steepest climb) of any WABA office; it is also by far the largest space – no one is really sure how many rooms there are in its two-level warren. This is also the longest-tenured of group’s 12 locations and the one that has witnessed the greatest flowering of bicycling facilities and culture in Washington, D.C. 

Bike lanes and memory lane – the two-and-a-half-hour tour was enjoyed by all. You can delight in it yourself whenever you have nothing else to do.