The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


New residents and arts spaces could spark Ward 4's 14th St.

Can 14th Street north of Columbia Heights become a lively and successful commercial area once again? A new plan suggests finding spots to catalyze development, possibly including the WMATA bus barn or surrounding properties, and making a piece of the corridor into a place for artists to live and work more cheaply.

The 14th Street bus barn. Photo by the author.

This part of DC boomed in the mid-20th century, spurred by population growth and easy access to transit via the 14th Street streetcar line. The corridor began to decline after 1970, as the District's population decreased. As a result, the commercial nodes of central 14th Street have struggled for several decades.

Now, as the city's population begins to grow once again, DC's Office of Planning studied ways to make the area more attractive for residents and businesses, both old and new. After a series of community workshops in 2010 and 2011 with residents and stakeholders of the central 14th Street corridor, OP has released its draft plan and is looking for public comment until February 3.

The plan covers the 20-block stretch of 14th Street NW from Spring Road to Longfellow Street. It includes three distinct commercial nodes: Spring Road to Shepherd Street, Webster to Decatur Street, and Jefferson to Longfellow Street. (This portion of 14th Street has been referred to as "upper" 14th Street for as long as I can remember, but the Office of Planning is now referring to it as "central" 14th Street.)

The 2010 population of the study area was 14,370, showing an increase of about 300 people since the 2000 census. The population growth is encouraging, but the plan notes that because the population hasn't reached the level of the mid-20th century (the high population was 16,736 in 1960), the corridor has too much commercial space for the number of people that the spaces are meant to serve. That means greater density is necessary to make new businesses viable.

The plan points to Longfellow Flats, a newly renovated 14 unit condominium at 14th and Longfellow Streets, as one of a few projects that will help to attract more residents to the corridor. The site of the CK Motel, and 14th and Quincy Streets, is also slated for residential redevelopment.

Can the bus barn move?

The site with the largest potential for both commercial and residential redevelopment is the WMATA bus barn, along the eastern side of 14th Street from Buchanan to Decatur Street. Redeveloping the bus barn as a mixed-use project would likely catalyze the rest of that node and perhaps the rest of the corridor, but to redevelop the barn, WMATA has to find another location for the 175 buses that are currently housed there.

One idea, to construct a new bus barn on the site of the old Walter Reed hospital, has been an issue of much contention between residents of Ward 4's 14th Street and Georgia Avenue corridors. Both Mayor Gray and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser have voiced opposition to that idea. As an alternative, the plan recommends excavating a level beneath the existing bus barn to house the buses, allowing for the above-ground structure to be redeveloped.

Another complication is that the bus barn is quite an attractive structure. Constructed in 1907 and designed by the prominent Washington architect Waddy Wood, the building is likely eligible for historic designation. Between this and the dilemma of finding an alternative for WMATA, the bus barn is likely to stay for at least the next decade.

In lieu of redeveloping the bus barn, the plan identifies 3 sites in the Webster-Decatur node that could serve as catalysts.

  • The WMATA bus barn parking structure on the northern end of the bus barn property. This is not eligible for historic designation and therefore could be redeveloped for mixed-use within the next 5 years.
  • DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which owns the entire 4500 block of 14th Street with the exception of the Exxon gas station, has plans to construct a new sanctuary that will face 14th Street. It will include an Ethiopian cultural center on the Buchanan Street side.
  • The Value Furniture store, the former home of the Park Theater, which opened in 1924 but shut its doors just four years later. As the second largest site (75,000 square feet) in the study area with single ownership, it has the best potential for redevelopment within the next 5 years. It could easily become 2 or 3 floors of residential space above ground floor retail, an ideal spot for a neighborhood-serving grocery store.
The plan recommends focusing on attracting unique retail, such as second hand shops, specialty food shops, and culinary incubators (the plan includes a photo of Boston's Crop Circle Kitchen culinary incubator as an example of what could be). The goal is to fill niches between the chain stores to the south in Columbia Heights and the proposed Walmart to the north in Brightwood.

Affordable space for artists?

The Jefferson-Longfellow Street node has its wide sidewalks, some as wide as 20 feet, that are perfect for pedestrian-oriented activities, such as a farmers' market. However, there's also a high commercial vacancy rate, which the proposed Walmart store on nearby Georgia Avenue will likely exacerbate.

The plan recommends focusing on arts-related uses in this area, with a focus on artists who have been priced out of other neighborhoods and who might be attracted to the area's relatively large spaces. OP recommends designating this area as an Arts Cluster and listing the node's vacant commercial spaces in the DC Creative Retail Space Bank in order to advertise their availability.

The area can build on its existing positive features, such as the mature tree canopy, attractive housing stock, and walkable neighborhood atmosphere. The plan makes several recommendations for improving the area's aesthetics while strengthening pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, as well as connectivity between the three commercial nodes.

Better transportation

A number of recommendations would improve mobility, including:

  • Upgrade bus service. 14th Street is one of WMATA's Priority Corridors. Improvements like making traffic signals adapt to the buses, having people pay before boarding the bus, and more could speed up travel and make buses more reliable and productive.
  • Add Capital Bikeshare stations. OP recommends placing a Capital Bikeshare station at or near the intersection of 14th and Kennedy Street during DDOT's next round of station installations.
  • Increase car sharing options. To give residents a choice not to have to own or drive personal vehicles, OP recommends collaborating with DDOT to target off-street locations for car sharing companies. Two possible locations are the parking lot of DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the parking lot of the Children's Medical Care Center (14th and Kennedy Street).
OP plans to create a task force of community residents and stakeholders who will help determine which recommendations are the highest priority. Community and business associations can also help find resources, programs, and grants to bring specific recommendations to fruition.

To give your comments on the plan, mail them to OP or (more likely) email by February 3, 2012.

Cross-posted at The Brightwoodian.

Rebecca Mills is a past resident of Brightwood, DC and current resident of Stronghold, DC. She tweets news for Ward 5 with a focus on the North Capitol Street corridor @Stronghold_DC. 


Add a comment »

How about affordable living spaces for federal employees? Artists can live anywhere. Feds have to live here, this is the capital.

by Steve S. on Jan 11, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

Re-building the trolley line would do the trick. Have it go up 14th street and shoot diagonally onto Luzon Avenue into the Walter Read sight. Use that stop as the nucleus of the redevelopment and hook up with Georgia avenue on to downtown Silver Spring. This would avoid freaking out the Georgia Avenue car commuters for the majority of its DC stretch, and bring all these beautiful commercial strips on line again.

by Thayer-D on Jan 11, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

Funny, my response is that this space should just be developed as housing and call it a day. Adding additional activity destinations in areas without fixed rail transit, given the overabundant capacity of space elsewhere such as on Georgia Avenue merely further deconcentrates desirable activity rather than concentrates it.

by Richard Layman on Jan 11, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

My wife and I own a house near the bus barn. I would love to see it turned into something akin to Philadelphia's Redding Terminal Market. Eastern Market on Capitol Hill is obviously tremendously successful, and a second public market - one in Northwest DC - would most likely be just as successful. Ideally it would be situated within walking distance of a Metro station, but the bus barn isn't a bad location - 52, 53 and 54 buses stop directly in front of it, and you can easily walk from 16th St. stops for the S1, S2, S4 and S9 as well as a future light rail line along Georgia Ave.

by Matt on Jan 11, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

I love the idea of turning it into a DC version of Philadelphia's Redding Terminal Market!!

by RosRes on Jan 11, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

I'm with Thayer-D and Richard Layman. I live on 14th Street in the CH, and I find it much, much easier to travel south than north. Yes, you've got the Ss and 50s buses going north, but going south you have the Ss, 50s, H1, 42, 43, 64, the Circulator, and the green line! If the 4000 block of 14th is going to get as busy as the 3000 block of 14th, it needs more infrastructure.

by tom veil on Jan 11, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

Quick question.

Population now is 16K, vs 14K in 1960.

We know that we are a lot "richer" and spend a lot more money than in 1960. We are also richer.

Also, a lot of the population decrease was families leaving. One or two kids don't add income.

The small change in population and much larger increase in wealth doesn't being to explain why retail died here.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2012 3:24 pm • linkreport

People also buy a lot less at local retailers than they did in 1960. There are big boxes and malls, and the Internet. So we need more people to sustain the same level of locally-serving retail.

A few places like Georgetown can basically be the urban form equivalent of a mall, but you can only have so many of those, and DC has been making it harder by constantly subsidizing big box retail in Ward 5 (and now the Walmart on Georgia Ave).

Families might not add income, but kids need a lot of stuff and eat a lot, so families buy a lot more food, clothes, toys and other items than a childless couple.

by David Alpert on Jan 11, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

WMATA initated a priority corridor study of the Metrobus 14th Street (50s routes) Line in December 2011. On January 10th, riders were surveyed on the 52, 53 and 54 routes to obtain their comments and concerns about bus service in the corridor between the Takoma Metro Station and downtown. A public meeting to share the survey results with riders is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, February 23rd at the Northern Bus Garage at 5:00 PM. The projected completion date of the study is July 2012.

The purpose of the study is to examine ways in which service along 14th Street can be improved. Constraints to bus operations including congestion and restricted street rights-of-way will be studied. Consideration will be given to establishing limited stop service similar to the Route S9 service on 16th Street and Route 79 service on Georgia Avenue. Ridership potential from all of the new commercial and residential projects proposed and under construction in the corridor will be considered in the analysis.

by Douglas Stallworth on Jan 11, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

David basically answers Charlie's question. In 1960, there were fewer suburban shopping destinations, and regional supermarket chains (Giant, Safeway, but then there were others) hadn't yet refocused on creating much larger stores dispersed throughout the city's commercial districts and closing smaller, neighborhood located stores. Not at that district, but as tv developed, neighborhood cinemas lost business and ceased to be as strong anchors for neighborhood commercial districts.

So as the scale of retail and people's behavior changed, the number of people needed to support retail districts changed too.

The rule of thumb I use, based on ICSC numbers, for 50,000 s.f. of retail, which is typical of a neighborhood commercial district, is 30,000 people. In _Cities in Full_ on p. 12, Belmont says you need 10,000 people within immediate walking distance. He doesn't define that but it usually means within a 1/4 or 1/2 mile radius.

Note that in 1962 (or was it 1964), Ourisman Chevrolet left H Street NE for Marlow Heights, so that is an indicator of the shift in prominence and importance of suburban locations. By then, the local department store chains had stores in Silver Spring and in various NoVA locations, and major regional shopping centers were being developed, and Giant especially began refocusing on suburban locations.

by Richard Layman on Jan 11, 2012 5:58 pm • linkreport

@Dalpert, Rlayman; thanks.

So, it wasn't a population shift that killed retail. It was a retail shift.

I doubt very much mothers in 1960 bought as much crap/junk for their kids as today. Or food. And I strongly suspect some gay dude living alone is spending more on "retail" than a mother with three kids, although what they are spending it on is very different.

Why should move theatres be anchors? Does "retail" in Rlayman's calculation include restaurants?

by charlie on Jan 11, 2012 6:06 pm • linkreport

yes, but there weren't as many as today. Out of home food purchases have skyrocketed in the last 40 years, but were miniscule back then.

At the same time with changes in retail sector and shopping behavior, typical convenience goods (food, gas, hardware, housewares) and specialty goods (like apparel) categories aren't really competitive at the scale of a neighborhood commercial district.

Neighborhood commercial districts usually reposition by selling stuff people don't need (housewares, beads, gifts, second hand items, etc.) with a couple restaurants.

Lately I have referred to places like H St. as entertainment districts rather than commercial/shopping districts.

In theatres heyday, people saw movies up to 3 times/week (4 different movies would be shown on a weekly basis at a neighborhood theater) so they frequented the districts a lot, and stores would even stay open later closer to cinema hours.

Plus, people had fewer options, and bought more stuff locally. Places like H St. or 12th St. in Brookland had Safeways at each end. Etc.

Of course, the Internet/WWW wasn't even a dream then...

It happens I am 2/3 of the way through _Downtown America_, a superb history of U.S. commercial districts in the 20th century. It's worth your checking out. It won lots of awards. It's slow reading though. A lot is packed in every sentence, and the footnotes are voluminous.

by Richard Layman on Jan 11, 2012 7:12 pm • linkreport

What's so bad about the car barn being a car barn (or a bus barn)? It's a handsome building that has an actual function other than, say, serving overpriced mediocre food. Virtually every wishful fantasy here muscles out useful functions.

Upper 14th is doesn't have to become some new stereotypical haven to be a useful, popular place to live. Georgia Avenue which has intensive retail, such as it is a better candidate for extensive new uses of its commercial space and would be a natural for some kind of gallery district if that's what can fill the marginal retail there. Certainly after W-M kills what's left of retail there, a lot of space will come open. There have been efforts to revive parts of upper 14th, such as around Colorado. It''s too far off the radar screen and people who live not far away (Takoma or SS) are comically unable to find it. Maybe the right destination restaurant could make it happen or perhaps, the area could change enough to support a decent c-store and some simple service businesses and a decent cafe or two.

by Rich on Jan 11, 2012 7:46 pm • linkreport

WMATA could easily shutter this garage as soon as their new bus garage at Shepherd Parkway opens.

Shepherd is a facility designed to accommodate 250 buses and is replacing a facility that stored 110. That suggests a capacity of 140 additional buses. Second, they closed the Southeastern garage before the Shepherd Parkway facility opened up. This means that they were able to relocate 110 buses throughout there existing facilities without building another storage space - suggesting that have capacity for at least 110 buses. That means when Shepherd Parkway opens up they will have space to store 250 buses (140 at Shepherd Parkway and 110 throughout the rest of the system). They could close Northern when the Shepherd Parkway facility opens and still have space for 80 buses (250 spaces - 170 buses). They would still have have the space to close Royal St (80 spaces) and build their Cinder Bed Road facility.

They would make the argument that the deadhead would cost too much. My rebuttal - the increase in property tax, income tax, sales tax, etc would more than offset the cost of deadheading.

Point is, if Muriel Bowser is listening, force WMATA to close the garage this summer and redevelop the site.

by A dude on Jan 11, 2012 11:12 pm • linkreport

Also of interest: a neighbor told me that WMATA has been distributing surveys to riders of the 52, 53, and 54 bus lines, which serve 14th Street. Paper surveys are being given to riders at the beginning of their trips, and many of the questions are written with the notion that the person surveyed is actually on the bus, but a Surveymonkey version can be found here:

by Rebecca Mills on Jan 12, 2012 9:55 am • linkreport

Someone I know goes to the newly opened gym on 14th in close proximity to the area being discussed here.

Second Wind Training

I am all for businesses opening in that area that are more than just residences and re-purposing existing structures when possible.

by LuvDusty on Jan 19, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport is the URL for the gym mentioned above, sorry...

by LuvDusty on Jan 19, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us