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What's wrong with 17th Street? The northern end

Dupont's 17th Street continues to puzzle observers and generate lively debate. On the one hand, businesses keep leaving; the Washington Business Journal just wrote about a gay-focused art gallery moving eastward, following other businesses that have followed gay residents to greater 14th Street. (Unfortunately, the rest of the article is behind a pay wall.) The article is now publicly available.

When you cover up the CVS, the southern end of 17th is beautiful. Photo by katmere on Flickr.

Others argue there's nothing wrong. After all, 17th still has a grocery store, hardware store, and CVS; the MBA-hatched froyo-serving Mr. Yogato draws significant crowds each evening. June's InTowner editorial, entitled "What's Wrong with 17th Street? Nothing" quotes an unnamed neighborhood blog's criticism of 17th, citing the arrival of Tranquil Space Yoga, the expansion of Coldwell Banker, and restaurants supposedly in the works.

I've now lived on both ends of 17th, and I think I've figured it out. The problem with 17th? The northern end. When approaching it from the north, as I did before, one's first view is of the 7/11 and a liquor store. Then, at 17th and R, we have the architecturally ugly Steam Cafe building, the run-down Swift Cleaners, and the horrific Indian-themed Cobalt building. The intersection is way too wide and has too few trees. If you're a resident of the northern part of Dupont, walking down 17th to the shops there is not an especially pleasant experience.

From the south, it's entirely different. Other than the visually terrible yet extremely convenient and delicious CVS/Sushi Taro building, 17th is a pleasant strip of mostly attractive row houses and apartment buildings. The trees and street widths make for an enjoyable walk.

Perhaps I'm more attuned to architecture than your average resident, but everyone responds in subtle ways to the environmental cues. From Riggs to Corcoran, the cues are off-putting; from Church to Corcoran, they're inviting. Maybe the 17th Street Streetscape will fix these problems; if only we knew what was going on.

Update: Rob Halligan pointed me to this video from WBJ, discussing the same topics as their inaccessible article. The article also says the streetscape project has been delayed until at least 2010. Perhaps by 2010 DDOT will see fit to reconstruct the recently-redone 17th and R intersection into something more pleasant.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Huh. Never thought of it that way.

Maybe that's why I was wondering what all the hubbub was about. Other neighborhoods would kill for that kind of a retail district - but I guess I've only approached it from the South.

by Alex B. on Jul 29, 2008 9:10 am • linkreport

one's first view is of the 7/11 and a liquor store

You don't even need to justify that as a "subtle response", a 7/11 and a liquor store, at least to me, is big bold text.

by chiggins on Jul 29, 2008 10:09 am • linkreport

The article used to be behind the pay link, but now it's on the front page and I read it this morning without paying. Try this link.^1673367

by inlogan on Jul 29, 2008 10:48 am • linkreport

Oops it cut off the end of that link. Copy and paste that entire link (including after the carrot) and it'll work.

by inlogan on Jul 29, 2008 10:50 am • linkreport

Mr. Yogato is not "MBA-hatched"

by Yogurt Lover on Jul 29, 2008 10:50 am • linkreport

I didn't mean it pejoratively—I'm really glad it's there—but aerospace worker involvement aside, it was created by some recent MBAs. Most businesses are, anyway, and if a business education makes one better able to run a good neighborhood store, more power to them.

by David Alpert on Jul 29, 2008 11:01 am • linkreport

As an ANC Commissioner along 17th Street, I'm beyond frustrated that after gaining momentum and hosting a series of very involved community meetings, DDOT has decided to postpone the rennovation of 17th Street for another two years. It needs to happen, both for the residents of 17th and for the businesses located there.

by Jack Jacobson on Jul 29, 2008 11:57 am • linkreport

17th is changing because the city is changing and making better use of its other resources such as the wide and more easily accessible 14th Street (and U Street?). 17th is at a point where it can either revert to "neighborhood serving businesses" as it probably was when zoning was instituted ... or it can turn into a high end restaurant row serving neighbors and visitors alike. Personally, I'd like to see it be a mixture of both. Working on the streetscape was a great way to focus neighbors' attention on the issue, but we probably need to do more than just that. For example, we're finding that to fit in its new role, west P Street (which is at least 5 years ahead of us in experiencing this city wide change) has found that it needs more liquor licenses to accomodate more high end restaurants. We ought to work at leading where the street will go ... It's changing and remorse for what was won't help. But guiding where it's going will.

by Lance on Jul 29, 2008 12:45 pm • linkreport


The P Street redevelopment happened as quickly and smoothly as it did because you had at least one new merchant on that street who really wanted to see it happen ... and spent a lot of his time making sure it happened and it happened right. 17th Street doesn't yet have a similar advocate. 17th Street is also not yet at the stage that P Street is at ... so maybe it's a blessing that the streetscape has been pushed off. In a couple of years we'll better know whether we need a streetscape that best serves "neighborhood retail", "high end restaurants" a combination of both, or maybe something totally different. We can spend these next two years helping steer the direction that the street goes in. For example, along with the high end restaurants popping up along west P, we also have at least one new night club serving a broad segment of the metro area ... like the ones that are normally found only "downtown" along L Street. We can learn from what west P has experienced and act now to steer where we want to go with 17th. Two years to get a better streetscape in place isn't that far off. It'll be here before we know it.

by Lance on Jul 29, 2008 2:59 pm • linkreport

Mr Jacobson-

I like the work you have done with the ANC, but one particular issue sticks in my craw (don't ask me what a "craw" is, it's just a saying my dad used to use ;)... Your opposition to brick sidewalks. I think that brick sidewalks have made otherwise dreary streets really come to life, making streets like more handsome and quaint. It's a luxury one should never turn away. I will say that it requires some amount of upkeep, but I have lived in areas with brick sidewalks before and it's never been a real problem. No more than concrete sidewalks shifting due to tree roots... Will you reconsider your position on this? I think if you had an informal poll, the vast majority of Dupont residents (though perhaps not ANCs) would want brick installed.

by Scott G on Jul 29, 2008 5:32 pm • linkreport

Brick sidewalks are harder to maintain than the ugly concrete sidewalks ... No doubt about that. What I find amazing though is that rather than address the issue of lack of maintenance, we're (or at least the ANC) is taking as a given that maintenance can't be improved and we should thus be stuck with concrete sidewalks.

by Lance on Jul 29, 2008 6:18 pm • linkreport

That "Traffic Guru" article ( offers ideas that I think would work well for 17th St. I would love to see the street become 2-way, with a more pedestrian orientation. I think the crosswalk at Corcoran St is already the city's safest. I have never cars (and taxis!) slow down and yield to pedestrians so consitently. They even stop for me when I cross on my bike. Why there and not elsewhere?

And the brick-vs-concrete sidewalk debate needs its own entry. Folks have to realize there are many variations of concrete: some good, some bad. Dupont's sidewalks were once predominently the squares of pebble aggregate - think of Meridian Hill's textured concrete. There are still some patches left. DDOT has replaced it with the cheaper/easier flat concrete, which looks totally different.

P St was scheduled to get textured concrete, but Jack Evans stepped in and made them switch to brick.

And re postponing the renovation of 17th St. There should be some actions that can be done this year. My priority would be to create an entry to Stead Park from Church St.

by Michael on Jul 30, 2008 11:44 am • linkreport

Michael- I think there's an old(ish) site that promotes the idea of a "pedestrian mall" on 17th. Ah, here it is:

While I think this idea has a snowball's chance of becoming reality, I think that if it could work anywhere in the city, it would be here (or Barracks Row). Especially since NO commuters in their right mind would use 17th. I would fully support the idea. I believe it would make 17th instantly the most attractive street in DC.

by SG on Jul 30, 2008 4:08 pm • linkreport

SG: That would be fantastic. I think loading might be a problem, however. The businesses along 17th don't have alleys, and therefore load off the street (a factor which also makes the Safeway especially ugly since it devotes much of its frontage to the loading dock).

One of the arguments made against making it two-way is that the loading, which blocks a lane, would prevent traffic from going in an entire direction. (Taking away any street parking for loading isn't something they will consider).

It might still be possible to do if the pedestrian promenade were still passable by trucks at certain hours, or we could keep it as a street but put in barriers in the middles of various blocks so trucks could get from the side streets to businesses, but not go through.

by David Alpert on Jul 30, 2008 4:18 pm • linkreport

Have you looked into any of the pedestrian malls that used to be downtown? Those eliminated after it was quite clear that they didn't work. The businesses along those streets that were closed to traffic and landscaped as pedestrian malls languished. Sometimes, it is useful to know what has been tried in the past, and determine whether it worked or why it didn't.

by J on Jul 30, 2008 4:33 pm • linkreport

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