Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Urban revitalization as a process: part 1, H Street NE

Last week, Whole Foods Supermarkets officially announced that they would be opening a store on H Street NE in Washington, DC ("Whole Foods Market signs lease for H Street NE store," Washington Post), although the deal had been underway for months.

It's fascinating to me, not only because I used to live on that block (if only I would have kept my house...) but because of how it illustrates that the process of urban revitalization--even in the better of circumstances--takes a long long time, decades.

Ironically, I had a conversation probably in 1992 with the director of the H Street CDC who said that my particular block was ripe for development--and it appears to be a 24 year process for that particular block (the development is supposed to open in 2016).

The effort that culminated in the H Street Main Street commercial district revitalization organization started in 2000 in response to the proposal by BP to build a very large gas station at the entrance to the corridor.  I wrote about that recently, when instead an apartment building with a ground floor supermarket opened on that site instead, 13 years after the original proposal for the gas station.  See "360 Apartment building + Giant Supermarket vs. a BP gas station."

And the Main Street effort was merely another iteration in a long list of programs designed to "fix" the H Street NE corridor, after it declined first due to suburban outmigration and later after many blocks were destroyed in riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.

There was lots of skepticism by merchants and property owners who had seen other such programs get announced and touted only to fade away with changes in government.

After the riots, an Urban Renewal Plan was created for the corridor, the "H Street" "Community Development Corporation" had been organized, and by 1988 most of it had been realized (a strip shopping center, a couple office buildings, two senior housing apartment buildings, some new rowhouses in the place of frame buildings, garden apartments, Hechinger Mall--which ended up drawing to an off-street mall most of the successful retail that remained on the corridor, a bridge over the Union Station Railyard) but the corridor still languished.

I joke that my interest and involvement in urban revitalization matters is in part "blowback" to the H Street Urban Renewal Plan and the CDC because I tried to figure out why H Street hadn't improved despite all the plans being realized and all the money spent. 

I was always surprised that H Street languished considering it abuts the very popular Capitol Hill neighborhood, comprised of similar residential building stock, is about one mile to Downtown, and abuts Union Station with subway and train service, plus is not too far from I-395 and National Airport, and New York Avenue to BWI Parkway and I-95 and points north.

Of course, there was that pesky languishing commercial district which meant that the area "did not show well."  See "The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?"

First phase:  the five most important triggers for the first phase of H Street's more recent improvement:

• the agreement to build what is now called the NoMA Metro Station was announced in November 2001, and once the station opened in 2004, it changed people's willingness to live north of H Street;

•  the commitment by the city to create a revitalization plan, which started in 2002, and finished in 2003, which was followed immediately by a transportation study in 2003-2004;

•  the commitment in 2001/2002 by the Sprenger-Lang Foundation to buy and rehabilitate the Atlas Theater into what became the Atlas Performing Arts Center (it reopened in 2006);

•  the sale of the Children's Museum to Abdo Development for conversion into condominiums and the construction of two new apartment buildings on the block;

• the selection in 2005 of the H Street corridor by nightlife impresario Joe Englert as the place to create a concentrated set of experience-oriented nightlife establishments as what he calls (I still don't like it) the "Atlas District" ("Joe Englert: The Life of the Party," Washingtonian Magazine).

You could even add a sixth, which is equal to the importance of the NoMA Metro Station--the construction of the Station Place office development on the east side of Union Station.  This "filled up" a large, empty and forlorn piece of land, and was a large development "that jumped the railyard tracks eastward.  This increased the profile of the area for developers. 
Argonaut, DC
Argonaut weekend brunch.  Flickr photo by Eddie Welker.

The second phase triggers include:

the opening of various nightlife establishments, started by Joe Englert's crew but also built upon by other entrepreneurs, and the successful marketing of the "Atlas District" as a night time destination--in fact, I argue that Joe's efforts accelerated the improvement of H Street by at least 5 years, places like the Atlas are cool but don't generate the same kind of visit intensity and repeat business;

• the opening in 2008 of the Landmark Lofts and Senate Square in the former Children's Museum;

• the construction of a revitalized streetscape for H Street, including commitment to include a streetcar in the plan (which has taken about 9 years since then ANC6A Commission Chair Joe Fengler put forward the idea that if a streetcar was proposed for the corridor anyway, why not include the construction of the rail tracks in the streetscape);

Third phase triggers include:

• the Clark Realty apartments on Bladensburg Road across from Hechinger Mall which are are now called the "Atlas Flats," (they opened in early 2012);

• the opening of 360º H Street apartments with the ground floor Giant Supermarket in 2013;

• the coming of the streetcar on 2014 (the electricity infrastructure is starting to be installed this week);

• the success of a relaunched H Street Festival, which now is probably the #1 locally-oriented street festival in terms of attendance;
Atlas Theater marquee
The future

These developments set the stage for the various announcements of new projects on the 600 block north and south side, the 500 block, the 300 block south side, etc.  Also see "Velocity of change, streetcars, and H Street."

It is an accretive process that takes decades and needs many different components: housing; retail; nightlife; cultural facilities (while the Atlas continues to move forward the H Street Playhouse moved to Anacostia); and transit; to fully work.

Ironically, Joe Englert sees the coming of Whole Foods as an augur of a less interesting place.  See "Joe Englert on Whole Foods Coming to H Street NE: “It's Sad in Some Ways"" from the Washington City Paper. From the article:
Y&H: It would be sad?

JE: It’s good if you’re looking at it from a holistic point of view. Maybe ultimately it’s good because the schools would improve for the smaller kids. More money into the neighborhood perhaps means more empowered people would advocate for better schools and better education. That’s a good thing. But the sameness and the cookie-cutter branding I think would be depressing…Right now, you know you’re on H Street because it’s unbaked, it’s unfinished, it’s not slick, it’s still sort of rough. It would be a shame if it’s just like Columbia Heights.
Some quick lessons

1.  Save small buildings to support "grit."  Joe Englert has some justifiable concern.  H Street is "unbaked" because much of its building stock is still comprised of small (eligible for historic designation) buildings.  Places like his can co-exist with Whole Foods type places SO LONG AS THIS SMALL BUILDING STOCK IS PRESERVED.  Small buildings support independent concepts, big buildings do not.

But H Street isn't a historic district and there are no other substantive protections for the small buildings, as witnessed by Ben's Chili Bowl demolishing two buildings last month.  See "Ben's Chili Bowl demolishes 1001 H Street NE: Illegal demolition illustrates failures in DC's regulatory system."

2.  Change the property tax methodology for small commercial buildings to encourage their continued use.  Demolition of small buildings and a preference for chain businesses as tenants is encouraged by property tax assessment methodologies taxing the buildings as if they can be large buildings.  That needs to change too.  See "Revisiting the issue of neighborhood commercial district property tax methodologies."

I was remiss in not writing about how the DC Tax Revision Commission had a hearing for public testimony on Tuesday.  I wasn't able to go but there is still time to submit testimony and there may be future hearings.  This issue needs to be addressed better than it has been so far.

3.  Successful revitalized districts need a balanced approach in order to be successful  Nightlife was great for getting people comfortable with "sampling" the district and repeating their visits.  But adding retail and other attractions provides multiple reasons for coming back.  Places that are mostly tourist focused need more frequent and expensive updating (e.g., see "Inner Harbor 2.0: A deeper dive into what's being proposed" from the Baltimore Business Journal).

The Atlas block (1300 block south) in the 1970s, showing a Safeway supermarket.  Historical Society of Washington photograph.

The H Street plan should probably be updated already.  E.g., I criticized the original plan for stating that the eastern end should be housing only.  I pointed out that proximity to Union Station made this area ripe for certain kinds of retail.  And with the Giant and Whole Foods Supermarkets, my point is proved.   And of course, over the coming decades, as Burnham Place is built over the railyard and Union Station is expanded (see "Union Station Master Plan: Washington DC") this reality will be accentuated.

4.  Adding population is key to the success of adjacent commercial districts.  I am not sure how many total housing units will be added to the area via condominiums and apartments in multiunit buildings (interestingly, I laid out a proposed housing agenda for H Street Main Street back in 2003).  All told, eventually, it will be at least 2,000 units.  That's upwards of 4,000 more people.  That adds customers, positive activity on the street, more riders to support transit, etc., and allows for the development of a more balanced commercial district.

5.  Transit helps a lot.  Definitely the addition of the NoMA Metro Station was key.  Having the first "modern" streetcar on the East Coast will further sweeten the district and make it easier to get to its far reaches, which are up to twice the "normal" easy walking distance (3/4 mile) from a subway station.

Labels: , , , ,


At 7:05 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

You left out some peripheral factors like the office explosion in NOMA (leads directly to housing demand for Near NE) and apt buildings nearby but not directly on H St.

Great article though.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

funny thing. I wrote a piece covering those issues on the old anc-6a list in 2001...

It would be interesting to be able to do a zip code study of where people live, of the people who work in NoMA. It isn't that many buildings... but you only need a marginal increase in demand to make a difference in a residential submarket.

So I don't know how to handicap NoMA as far as H St./the neighborhood goes. I do remember being amazed once H-T opened and thinking about how the people living in the upper neighborhood could walk to a new full line grocery store!

But u r absolutely right about the apartment buildings off the corridor making a big difference in terms of adding the population that the commercial district needs to be able to support retail.

... and I didn't talk about the real estate crash, which delayed things for a couple years (e.g., the project at 4th and I NE).

Thanks as always for your comments.

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Good points. It would be interesting to see how many NOMA employees live in the neighborhood. Anecdotally I don't know any. Either way it's a positive.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Evan said...

You can use Census data to look at where employees in NoMa live. Here's the link:

It's an awesome too. Hopefully it helps you guys answer some of your questions.

At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

will try to check it out. Thanks for the tip.


Post a Comment

<< Home