Posts about Dupont Tunnels
Dupont Circle is considered to be a fully-developed neighborhood, and certainly during the District's tough years it was ahead of other areas. Yet there are still parts that are ripe for improvements.
Dupont Circle is surrounded by shops, cafes, and hotels, but the park itself is difficult to get in and out of. Its four lanes of counter-clockwise traffic are divided into two parts, with the inner part serving as Massachusetts Ave, and the outer part working as a typical traffic circle for the other four streets intersecting the park.
Pedestrians can connect from the three avenues (Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire) but not the two streets (19th and P). At the Connecticut and New Hampshire crossings, pedestrians have to wade through two levels of traffic signals, waiting for the second on a narrow concrete median, not wide enough for bikes, and without room for more than a single wheelchair.
In 2006 the Project for Public Spaces put Dupont Circle in its Hall of Shame, saying "the road around the Circle is two lanes too wide, and the connections from the interior park to the edges could be dramatically improved."
To make the park more accessible, Massachusetts Ave's inner roadway should be removed, with Massachusetts Ave traffic merging in a simpler two-lane circle.
This blog has already suggested we put a lid on Connecticut Avenue. The block of the underpass north of Dupont Circle and south of Q St should be decked over to give us a new park.
The new park would connect the two distant halves of Connecticut Ave, expand the circle's green space, and might even provide a better home for the farmers market.
The biggest missed opportunity is under our noses. Where planters fill the Connecticut Ave medians, we once had trolleys that dipped below the surface, and came to rest in two semi-circular (and unconnected) platforms. That underground space should be given a use that opens it to the public.
Last year a group called The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground (ACDU) presented the only submission for the city's call for proposals. The underground space is so vast, their art space would use up only part of the tunnels, so their proposal included a restaurant and a winery.
It is a shame the city can't take the initiative to clean the space up, so it can at least be used for temporary events while ACDU gathers funding.
Nearby, another vacant government space is showing how commercial and artistic organizations can team up to revitalize a dormant space: a building at 14th & Florida is being used by BYT and Art Whino to host Vitaminwater® Uuncapped Live. Dupont's tunnels could foster similar events. Residents have proposed many other alternatives, but without investors this is wishful thinking. Ideas have included a dance club, a gym, a storage facility, and a pool hall. And even a sex club has been given serious consideration.
A clean, empty space will give rise to many creative temporary uses.
I Wish This Were... is a series where contributors imagine a better use for vacant properties and poorly-conceived public spaces in the DC area.
The Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, which seeks to develop the old trolley tunnels into arts space, is the only eligible bidder and will likely soon begin lease negotiations, representatives from the coalition announced last night. Besides including arts space, they hope to include a restaurant and winery.
The coalition will seek a 50- or 100-year lease on the space from DC. To afford the ongoing costs, they plan to use some of the space for arts events and some for the restaurant and winery or other "concessions." A winery would use the underground space to actually make wine as well as serve it.
The first phase of the project would cost $10 million to build, including 20,000 square feet for arts and 20,000 for the businesses. The full space is 100,000 square feet. No money will come from the DC government as part of the deal.
Besides the concession revenue, they hope to rent out the space to other large arts organizations, like the Phillips, Corcoran, and Katzen Center, who sometimes need larger spaces than they have. They are also talking with the Corcoran about giving some space to artists as long-term studio space, similar to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.
There was one other bid, to operate a winery, from the group that owns Buffalo Billiards and other pool halls. According to architect Julian Hunt, DMPED extended the bidding deadline at the last minute so the winery group could submit a bid. However, Hunt their bid was ultimately found not to qualify. The Arts Coalition has reached out to that group to see if they would still like to run their business as one of the concessions.
There are two tunnels, one on either side of Connecticut Avenue, each with four stairways. The team expects to turn some into elevators including a freight elevator. Others may become openings for mechanical equipment like HVAC.
Some neighborhood leaders have asked about the possibility of returning the space to trolley use if one day DC builds a streetcar on Connecticut Avenue. Streetcars are unlikely to come to Dupont soon since it's already well served by transit, doesn't need economic development, and reopening the tunnels at the ends would require ripping out the existing medians. Still, it would seem to make sense to structure the deal so that DC could get the space back sooner, perhaps with some payment, if circumstances changed and DC determined it to be worthwhile.
There's no need to stay home Wednesday evening, since at least five fascinating and/or important events are vying for your time. First, tonight is the showdown over placing a Capital Bikeshare station at Lincoln Park.
The meeting starts at 7 pm in the Community Room of the Capitol Hill Towers, 900 G St, NE. If you live in the neighborhood, be there to make sure the ANC, DDOT, and other neighbors hear your voice. We've criticized DDOT for simply assuming a few complaints reflect the broader community; now we need to make sure DDOT actually hears the broader community.
There are four of Vince Gray's town halls left, Tuesday in Columbia Heights, Thursday in Barry Farm, next Tuesday in that area that few agree what to call it, the part of 14th Street north of Spring Road, and next Wednesday on H Street.
And Wednesday is a community meeting extravaganza. I wish I could split myself into five people that night.
The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground will discuss their plans to turn the old trolley tunnels under Dupont Circle into a performance and exhibition space. Up the Red Line, DDOT will discuss pedestrian and bicycle safety in their Rock Creek West II Livability study.
In the aforementioned hard-to-name 14th Street neighborhood, the Office of Planning will talk about revitalizing retail. And farther east, the Historic Preservation Office, HPO, and Councilmember Muriel Bowser will discuss the Takoma Theatre, a landmark that's become a controversial flashpoint on historic preservation versus development debates.
If the federal sphere is more your thing, NCPC is hosting White House officials to talk about how agencies are responding to President Obama's directive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GSA has done a lot; I'd like someone to ask why the Park Service, which ought to be one of the greenest agencies, isn't pulling its weight.
After years of inaction, DC economic development officials want to quickly find use for the long-empty streetcar tunnels under Dupont Circle.
At the Dupont Circle ANC (2B) meeting last night, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (ODMPED) representative Neil Goradia said that they have finally worked out the legal issues around the lease, and are eager to move ahead with an RFP for the site. So eager, in fact, that they are hoping to release the RFP this month and simultaneously collect community feedback between now and the end of December.
But why the sudden urgency? ANC representatives repeatedly asked why this process was being accelerated beyond the typical schedule for an RFP. Just a few weeks for community input isn't much, they said, especially with the holidays. Goradia could only say that he had been instructed to move this project forward.
Does ODMPED have a particular project in mind and is trying to rush the project through to minimize other submissions or opposition? We don't know, but it smells that way.
It doesn't help that many past bad experiences have built up substantial mistrust toward ODMPED. They have frequently passed over good projects with community support for bad ones and ignored the long-term public interest in favor of short-term gain, either financially for the city or for favored developers. That may or may not be happening here, but the timing and lack of explanation is suspicious.
While the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground had been pushing for an RFP so they could try to secure a lease, this came as a surprise to them as well, ACDU's Adam Griffiths said at the meeting.
Some people asked about the possibility of restoring the space as a streetcar station in the future. Goradia said that ODMPED is talking with DDOT about their plans and may go for a shorter-term lease to accommodate that. Griffiths said WPA would be happy to use the space on such a basis, as rehabilitating it for gallery and performance space doesn't require a very extensive buildout, unlike most other uses.
DDOT has no plans to build a streetcar on Connecticut Avenue, and with a Metro line there, the need has diminished a great deal since a streetcar last ran under Dupont. Still, this was built as a streetcar station and if a streetcar ever comes back to the area, it should certainly use the station.
ANC 2B asked ODMPED to follow the normal process and allow more time for input. Either way, what do you think should go in the space? I think the arts space would be terrific, and should get one of the two tunnels. Several of you also suggested a bike station in the past. If ODMPED wanted to link development to achieving some of DC's sustainability goals, it could ask a private institution using one tunnel to reserve space and one of the stairways for a bike station.
Beneath Dupont Circle lie two long, dank tunnels that were once a bustling underground streetcar station. A coalition of arts groups want to reactivate the space for arts exhibition and performance, but they need community support and action from the Deputy Mayor's office.
The tunnels became empty in 1962, as DC was dismantling its streetcar system. Today, the only remnant is the many covered staircases surrounding the circle, which now look more like utility shafts. In 1995, one developer tried to turn the space into a food court, but that project failed quickly and morphed into drawn-out litigation. As reported a year ago, a number of arts groups have banded together to propose renovating the space into a shared arts exhibition and performance space.
Arts space could succeed where fast food failed. Food establishments rely on foot traffic for much of their patronage, and a dark, cavernous underground tunnel is not exactly the ideal dining space. The tunnel is curved, reducing sight lines. But exhibitions and performances typically don't want outside light, and people travel to them purposefully rather than happening by.
Concept sketch for Dupont Underground. Image from Hunt Laudi Studio.
What's the holdup? The organization, the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground, has been waiting for city government to release an RFP for a new lease. Initially, an outstanding contract mandated that only adjacent property owners could bid for the space, according to coalition representative Adam Griffiths. But, of course, the adjacent owners already have space on Dupont Circle, and aren't necessarily interested in this. The DC Council passed a law voiding that requirement, but the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development has still not moved ahead.
Recently, DMPED officials also told Griffiths and the Coalition that they wanted to conduct community discussions about the future of the space. As a Dupont Circle resident, I think the arts would be a great use for this space where commercial enterprises are unlikely to succeed. Many other residents have expressed enthusiasm for this arts option. It's worthwhile to also consider other possibilities, but would any work?
Back in 2003, the Dupont Circle ANC discussed potential uses (DOC). Suggestions included a movie theater, DC permit offices, storage for nearby residents, and retail. Some suggested a gay and lesbian museum, but GLBT officials were unenthusiastic about the symbolism of locating a museum underground for a civil rights issue that spent too many decades in the figurative closet.
In any event, DMPED has still also not scheduled community meetings, and the coalition is still waiting for the opportunity to bid and begin real fundraising. If they can secure a lease, the coalition will still face obstacles. The tunnels are in bad shape from years of neglect and the water that inevitably collects in underground spaces unless actively removed. They hope to raise money to renovate a small portion of the space for about $100,000, then begin a capital campaign to fund the remainder of a Phase 1 build-out at a cost of about $500,000.
There are actually two tunnels, one on each side of the circle. The group currently proposed to use the western tunnel, which is closer to more of the existing galleries and the P Street commercial area. The tunnels are also much longer than just surrounding the circle, though all of the entrances are on the circle; they include long, straight segments along Connecticut from R nearly to N Streets. The coalition would use the circular section for programming and small pieces of the straight portions for storage. Conceivably, the eastern tunnel could go to another use, if another company or organization were interested enough and could afford to renovate that space.
Concept plan for Dupont Underground. Image from Hunt Laudi Studio.
A coalition of arts groups is trying to raise money and get a lease from the city to re-open the old trolley tunnels under Dupont Circle as a new art gallery and event space. Here's their flyer.
The tunnels form two semicircles on either side of the underpass. They were built in the 1940s for trolley cars to stop on their way up and down Connecticut Avenue. When trolley service ended in 1962, the tunnels became abandoned until 1995, when the Dupont Down Under food court tried to reuse the space. It closed within a year, and became tied up in litigation between the developer and the city.
In 2003, the Business Journal reported that a sports club was trying to reopen in the space. Nothing came of that. When ballpark construction displaced several adult gay clubs in Southeast, Councilmember Jim Graham suggested relocating some of them to the tunnels. Community opposition predictably killed that idea. WashCycle suggested a bicycle station for bicycle commuters to park-and-ride onto Metro. GGW commenters discussed the idea here.
An art gallery and event space could be a great use for the area. Galleries don't need so many windows, and the odd shape shouldn't be a deterrent. The space exists; we should take advantage of it to bring more life to Dupont Circle.
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