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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

H Street NE Commercial District Revitalization | H Street Festival

H Street Festival crowd shot, September 20th, 2014
H Street Festival crowd shot, September 20th, 2014, looking east from 4th Street NE.

With others of course, I was one of the lead organizers of the H Street Main Street commercial district revitalization program in 2002.

The effort developed out of an initial organizing initiative around 2000, which focused on stopping the construction of a 50,000 s.f. BP gas station on the 300 block, at the so-called "gateway" to the corridor.

Revulsion at the proposal brought together predominately white residents living south of H Street together with predominately African-American residents living north of H Street together with the H Street Merchants and Professionals Association/

Intersection of 3rd and H Streets NE.  In upper left of photo, apartments being constructed on the 700 block of 2nd Street/200 block of H Street.  In the middle right, the Landmark Lofts and Senate Square Apartments on the north side of the 200 block of H Street. In the lower right, the 360 apartment building.

Over time, not only was the BP venture scuttled (at that time with support of the DC Government under Mayor Williams--a similar type of support was not provided by the Fenty Adminstration in comparable situations later), residents started working with the Merchants group in order to foster nire systematic improvements to the commercial district.   See "360 Apartment building + Giant Supermarket vs. a BP gas station, which would you choose?"

It took thirteen years but instead of a gas station, the corridor has an apartment building with a Giant Supermarket on the first floor!

Simultaneously, the then Councilmember, Sharon Ambrose, secured funding and a commitment from DC City Council for a new revitalization plan for the corridor. The previous plan, mostly realized, was developed after the 1968, which devastated the corridor, and was very much big project/urban renewal oriented.

Despite the realization of most of the projects from the H Street Urban Renewal Plan (three sets of rowhouses built in place of frame houses or light industrial property, two senior apartment buildings, a strip shopping center, a shopping mall, a bridge over the railyard, a garden apartment complex and a garden condominium project) the corridor continued to languish.

The new plan, serendipitous developments (the renovation of the Atlas Theater and the sale of the Children's Museum and its conversion to housing) and other coordinated investments (primarily an investment in the streetscape and bringing streetcar service to the corridor, which will begin service within the next 3 to 6 months) and I would argue, the opening of the NoMA Metrorail station in 2004, which made living north of H Street a reasonable choice for people who wouldn't have considered it before, unleashed the changes that we see today.

Of course this was helped by the corridor's location proximate to Union Station and a short trip to Downtown and the US Capitol.

My line about our efforts is that we didn't have consensus about what we wanted to see, but we did have consensus that things needed to change.

In any case, and certainly evidenced by yesterday's H Street Festival, none of us could have imagined the actual changes that have come about in the last 14 years.

This building at 406 H Street NE has been vacant for the 27 years that I have lived in Washington, although the building is finally being renovated currently.

Definitely not people putting H Street tattoos on their backs or H Street being a nightlife destination.

As far as yesterday's street festival was concerned, the fact that maybe as many as 100,000 people attended was also unimaginable if not shocking.  I couldn't really believe it what I was seeing, thinking back to when I first moved to that area in 1987.

In terms of what the festival offered, I probably wanted more participation by nonprofits and government agencies--although the DC Streetcar had three streetcars open for people to check out, and a few agencies, like the Urban Forestry Administration, had booths.

I was impressed with how the bar-restaurants used their sidewalk access to leverage the presence of festival.  And a few of the retail and service businesses like Daily Rider bike shop and the TEFCU Credit Union had booths as well.

There were a number of booths touting various apartment and condo buildings, which definitely would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.

Changes in street festival logistics.  There's no question after attending the Adams-Morgan Festival last weekend and H Street Festival yesterday, that the city special events protocols have changed somewhat to ensure emergency access, simplify crowd control and minimize crowding.

At AMF, they ended the use of large stages at Columbia Road and U Street that had for the most part blocked the entire street.

They shifted the Columbia Road stage to a side plaza and the U Street stage was shifted to the ground, with stages at Marie Cooke and offset on 18th Street.

The H Street Festival did something similar. Stages were not placed perpindicular to H Street in a way that would have blocked the street.  

Stages were offset and placed partly on the side streets.  Mostly smaller stages were used instead of the larger trailershad been typical in past festivals..

In both cases the center of the street was not obstructed with booths--booths were pushed to the sides--providing for a wide walking zone and making impossible the kind of unsafe crowding that was experienced at the east end of last year's H Street Festival .

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At 5:13 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

When they first put up the construction scaffolding on 406 H I thought of you and how you always mention that bldg. Better renovated late than never huh?

At 5:25 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Absolutely... however, if you looked closely at the "sign line" for the first floor, at least there used to be what you'd think of as marquee style lighting. It was set up for lightbulbs, not unlike how it looks under the Atlas marquee now, but one row only. I can't imagine they'll retain that element.

not exactly like this, but somewhat similar (the bottom side of the sign only)

and there was an old 7UP sign too.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

I never noticed that about the "sign line"... very interesting.

I'm still sad that they tore circa 1870s 3 story row houses (for no reason) at 8th and H... one of the worst nhood decisions ever.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

that was one of the things that made me a long time nemesis of the H St. CDC and a serious critic.

2. But the city condemnation laws and procedures do the same thing. On the 800 block of 10th, just up on the west side of the street there is a beautiful frame Italianate house from the 1870s probably. There was the same type of house next door, but it got tied up in nuisance property laws. Instead of curing the nuisance, they tore it down.

The lot is still empty, it's been about 10 or 11 years... Think how much the property would be worth today!


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