H Street works to balance old and new development
This past weekend, a tour led by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Councilmember Tommy Wells offered a chance to see and hear how H Street NE is coping with its new status as an up-and-coming hotspot.
H Street would not become another Adams Morgan, Wells made abundantly clear. Instead, the city and the neighborhood are putting a framework into place to foster a diverse cultural, retail, and residential district.
Despite the dreary Saturday weather, about forty people turned up for the walking tour of H Street NE. Wells led the group through the burgeoning neighborhood with Charles Allen, his chief of staff, and Anwar Saleem, head of H Street Main Street.
A zoning overlay creates 3 distinct sections in the neighborhood. The area between 2nd and 7th Streets NE is designated for "urban living," 7th Street to 12th Street encompasses retail shopping, and 12th to 15th Street is an arts and entertainment district.
In the corridor, over fifty new businesses, including many bars, have opened in the midst of the economic downturn. Streetcar tracks and stations have been installed. It is this development that has sparked apprehension that the neighborhood might become a single-use nightlife district.
In order to diversify the businesses, the city is now looking to support small businesses through a grant program called the H Street NE Retail Priority Area Project. The grant program, exclusively for businesses with H Street frontage, will provide awards up to $85,000 each to foster growth of small businesses. Service businesses such as restaurants, bars, liquor stores, hair salons, and barber shops are ineligible for the grant.
Its intent is to develop businesses such as home furnishings, apparel, books, art, groceries, and general merchandise goods to specialized customers. Successful applicants can use the funds to improve the property or purchase equipment, but not to purchase inventory.
Bars are being actively discouraged. The local ANCs, 6A
and 6C, are considering a moratorium on liquor licenses.
Wells discussed new financial disincentives for vacant properties. The Vacant Property Disincentivization Amendment Act of 2010 went into effect October 1 of last year. It enabled the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to tax vacant properties at rates of either $5 per $100 of assessed value. Those that are literally falling apart will be billed at $10 per $100 of assessed value (the "blighted value"). There are currently 11 properties with an H Street NE address on the vacant properties list.
The newly constructed streetscape features planter boxes, Capital Bikeshare stations, and bike racks. The bike infrastructure is already insufficient for nighttime demand. A performance parking zone was recently created to better handle the high demand for parking on nights and weekends.
The new residents and entertainment venues of H Street are attracting other business. In the urban living zone, the impending development will include a new "urban model" Giant on the north side of H Street between 3rd and 4th Streets.
H Street is trying to balance recent and future development with the existing historic character of the built environment and social fabric of this neighborhood, before moving forward with the next stages of development. The most significant challenge for this development strategy is reclaiming vacant property and opening the corridor's streetcar line.
According to Councilmember Wells, the streetcar won't happen until 2013. While the wait is disappointing, perhaps it will give the neighborhood a chance to come to terms with this first wave of new development.
Correction: ANC 6C previously considered a moratorium but rejected the proposal. 6A, which represents the eastern half of H Street, will be discussing a moratorium this fall.
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