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America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but


Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgracefix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconicbut grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvaniamost notably the FBI Buildingare openly hostile to pedestrians.


The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.

Architecture


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

Retail


Hungry for neighborhood eateries, Anacostia could get a Busboys & Poets

Neighborhood restaurants can be the foundation of a community. In Anacostia, plans to bring popular local chain Busboys & Poets to the area are moving forward, while residents remember one sub shop that was the "spot to come to" before closing a generation ago.


Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

In recent years, restauranteur and mayoral candidate Andy Shallal has hinted he intends to open a Busboys & Poets in Anacostia. In response, residents launched a marketing campaign to woo the restaurant.

At last night's Washington City Paper debate, Shallal publicly confirmed he is in negotiations for 2 possible locations in Anacostia: the former American Furniture store at 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and the city-owned Big K lot in the 2200 block of MLK. Community sources say Shallal is exploring "franchising" the Busboys & Poets brand to a black-owned management group that would run the restaurant in the former furniture store.

A block away, long-time resident Melvin Holloway stands on the corner of the lot at the junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Pleasant Street, and Maple View Place SE and points to a sign.


Miles Long in 1984. Photo from the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

"See: March 27, 1961," he says, singling out a date on the side of the neon sign's illuminating shell. "That's about when the Miles Long opened. It closed, probably, in the late '70s. But their memory is still strong."

The reverence that still exists in the hearts and stomachs of Anacostians for the Miles Long, decades after its closing, is a testament to the yearning both long-time and newer arrivals have for landmark neighborhood eateries. When discussing Anacostia in recent years with my Uncle Gary, who worked for Goodyear on Railroad Avenue in the 1970s, he always mentions the Miles Long.


Melvin Holloway stands in front of the former Miles Long. Photo by author.

According to Holloway, Miles Long "was the spot to come to at night, the spot to come to when it opened up early in the morning, and anytime in between. You could smell the fried onions they'd put on the steak sandwiches blocks away."

The Miles Long building had a brief second life in 2012 when a couple from Bethesda opened Mama's Kitchen, a pizzeria that the Washington Post highlighted as one of the first sit-down restaurants to open in the area in years. Since then, Mama's Kitchen moved to 2028 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and became Mama's BBQ, Blues & Pizza.

A neighborhood dining scene is slowly returning. In recent years, Uniontown Bar & Grill opened at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and W Street. On Good Hope Road, Nurish Food & Drink recently opened in the Anacostia Arts Center, housed in the old Woolworth building and down the street from local mainstay Tony's Place.

Changes are coming for hungry Anacostians. Time will tell what neighborhood eatery future generations will get to remember.

Development


St. Elizabeths East could become a community hub, but it'll take time

In January 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams announced plans to reimagine St. Elizabeths East Campus as a new community hub. Over 10 years later, it's beginning to materialize, but the private investment and new opportunities neighbors were promised have yet to arrive.


The Pavilion at Saint Elizabeth's East awaits activation. All photos by the author.

Neighborhood residents, community leaders, and local business owners participated in the first planning process for the District-owned campus in Congress Heights. Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is doing it again. After decades of disinvestment in the area, his administration is building new schools, new recreation centers, and the St. Elizabeths Pavilion, a new community center that opened last year.

While a planned vendor market hasn't started yet, a series of temporary events have positioned the pavilion to become an established rental venue, says Catherine Buell, Executive Director of St. Elizabeths East. To attract activity to the site, the city opened a free ice slide, hosted a free performance by a Grammy-award winning R&B artist, held fitness classes and has drawn a line-up of popular food trucks.

"The Pavilion has been a success," says Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia, noting that over 10,000 people from across the region have come to St. Elizabeths East, a former mental health institution that was previously closed to the public. "And they are comfortable here," she adds.

Confirming city officials' desire to make the Pavilion a family-friendly destination, on a recent weekend, its meeting space hosted a community organization, while in the next room a group of small children played games under adult supervision.


Rendering of what an active Pavilion might look like one day.

Officials admit there's still work to do. "There were areas we needed to do a better job of tending to," says Buell. "We knew starting up an enterprise was going to be hard, but we have developed and built up a dynamic brand."

Last month, Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, disclosed the city had prematurely terminated its relationship with a management company that the city had paid over $250,000 to assist with marketing, booking and event planning at the Pavilion. The next step will be soliciting "successful third-party rentals" that can begin making the Pavilion a place of commerce. "Vendors are interested," Buell affirms.

Elsewhere on the campus, redevelopment plans are slowly moving forward. St. Elizabeths East Chapel, where Mayor Williams first announced plans to redevelop the campus in 2003, could soon become the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, a business incubator that "will bridge the gap between the innovation field and local community" until a more permanent space is built. The permanent space, the 500,000-square-foot St. Elizabeth's Innovation Hub, can't proceed until 2016, when important infrastructure improvements are built.

In a press release, District officials said they "expect to create" a Demonstration Center with a "Digital Inclusion Center" with a state-of-the-art computer lab where residents can receive computer training, classrooms for job training and placement services, community meeting space, and "entrepreneurship and career conference areas." It should open this summer.

But the key phrase is "we expect to create." In conversations with community members in and around Congress Heights, many expressed a fatigue over the past decade in attending meetings and reading stories that foretold a new day of private investment and opportunity was round the corner. That day has yet to come.

Development


Citizens band together to make Kennedy Street NW a retail destination

While new investment and street life arrive in Northwest DC neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, and Takoma, Kennedy Street has been slow to respond. But a group of local citizens seeks to change that.


A woman walks down Kennedy Street NW. All photos by the author.

Shuttered storefronts define Kennedy Street today, despite its population with rising incomes, newly-arrived young families, and relatively low crime. Folks who arrived in the neighborhood ten, five, or one year ago all say they thought the same thing when they first arrived: "Kennedy Street will arrive any time now." Long-term residents also complain about the lack of services, and are resigned to driving to other neighborhoods for restaurants, groceries, arts and entertainment.

Growing weary of hearing complaints and disappointments, a group of citizens and I started the all-volunteer Kennedy Street Business and Development Association (KSBDA) in January help hasten the evolution.

Geography and the street experience hold Kennedy Street back

Challenges beyond supply and demand explain why Kennedy Street has been slow to change. The street is oriented east-west, against the grain of the city's main north-south commuter routes, and it is bisected by the imposing four-lane Missouri Avenue, isolating the eastern end of Kennedy Street from the rest of the corridor closer to Georgia Avenue.


Retaining walls pinch the sidewalks, making it hard for stores to thrive.

The area's public transport connections are not ideal, as much of the street is just beyond walking distance of the Fort Totten, Takoma, and Petworth metro stations. Except along Georgia Avenue, bus service is limited outside commuter hours.

The street itself creates a difficult environment for thriving retail. Fortuitously, Kennedy Street is zoned C-2-A between Georgia Avenue and North Capitol Street, permitting a mix of housing and commercial uses. But many of the true commercial buildings are clustered around corners with row houses in between, creating gaps in potential retail clusters. In some places, alleys, the sides of houses, wooden fences, and back yards break up the street wall.

Meanwhile, the sidewalks are narrow, with retaining walls and telephone poles creating bottlenecks. Though there are few places to plant, residents and business owners alike lament the street's general lack of greenery. Some commercial buildings have no alley access at all, requiring business owners to leave waste receptacles on the sidewalk.

Limited support for Kennedy Street

The city's support for the street appears uncoordinated and uneven. After a model effort in community buy-in, the Office of Planning issued a Revitalization Plan for the street in 2008. The plan is as valid today as it was six years ago. But few of its recommendations have been implemented.


Shops along Kennedy Street.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) offered $3.75 million in funding for streetscape improvements, but it's tied up a separate $3.1 million fund to reconfigure the intersection of Kennedy Street with Missouri and Kansas avenues, both of which are behind schedule. Quick fixes like new parking lines, street furniture, and bike racks have been generally unrealized. City programs to improve building facades and invest in businesses have barely touched Kennedy Street.

Oddly, the eastern portion is not eligible for several city incentives, though the commercial buildings there are in worse shape. Pepco has refused requests to bury or even reduce the number of overhead wires, citing the cost and reliability of the existing infrastructure.

Businesses are determined to make it work

Still, some current businesses are determined to grow with the neighborhood. Culture Coffee, a community-oriented cafe at 7th and Kennedy streets NW, has fast become the neighborhood's third space. A block away, a new outpost of Taqueria DF will add patio seating for tacos and cervezas this summer. Local take-out favorite Andrene's, at 3rd and Kennedy, has pledged to remove its plexiglass windows and open up to the street.

KSBDA has found some businesses who seek locations here, but would need to buy and invest in a space. Most owners are only looking to lease, but don't have the capital to install commercial kitchens, quality floors or new facades. Some owners are speculating on appreciation, but their marginal tenants or unavailable vacant storefronts hold the street back.

More than a few prime commercial locations are shuddered and their status is entirely unclear: are they operating irregularly, defunct, or hiding from city regulators? Other owners are absent, often elderly, and have little faith that the street could ever change. Two owners have even tried to talk me out of starting a business on the street!

So how do we overcome these challenges to help Kennedy Street fulfill the potential that residents and businesses all see? How can a movement of volunteer residents and true mom-and-pop businesses help the street become a walkable, welcoming destination, without turning to major outside developers with no attachment to how we define our neighborhood?

Many of us are ready to take action to help grow the street from the bottom up, but we need your help, your lessons, your advice, and your resources to get it done.

Retail


Flyer says "say no to corner stores," but makes a convincing case for them

Some residents have received this flyer, which urges them to "SAY NO! TO CORNER STORES" in the DC Zoning Update. But on closer inspection, it's hard to tell how the flyer is arguing against corner stores.

Almost all of the text (and the photo) come directly from the DC Office of Planning's fact sheet which lays out the case for corner stores: more potential access to healthy food, ability to shop nearby without a long drive, and rules to ensure the stores don't harm neighbors.

Rather than argue against these, the flyer just repeats the same rationale, with a few comments sprinkled in like "DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?" and "YOU DECIDE."

Is this for real? Or, as David Garber mused, "genius marketing *for* corner stores and the DC Zoning Update"?

Mark Bjorge pointed out, "It's a Rorschach test. Answers will depend on where one lives." What he means is that in many neighborhoods, the basic word "corner store" conjures up images of a run-down store that just sells junk food and liquor and cigarettes and the like from behind metal gates or thick plexiglass, and with folks hanging out in front up to no good.

I've spoken to people from some neighborhoods who immediately thought of that the moment they heard about the proposal. In fact, the address on the flyer is from a section of Petworth where some corner stores have looked like that. Within that context, reading the OP fact sheet one might well have exactly this reaction of disbelief.

Perhaps this is another example like this exchange from a year ago where zoning update opponent Linda Schmitt posted a photograph of an alley accessory dwelling. To her, it perfectly illustrated what residents should fear. But to me and many others, the well-maintained, attractive, clean little brick building was instead an ideal example of why accessory dwellings sounded great.

In neighborhoods with higher-quality stores, the idea of bringing in a small grocery within walking distance sounds great. Residents of the Navy Yard neighborhood can enjoy Cornercopia, the store pictured in the OP fact sheet and the flyer, which embodies what people want in such a store. Those who feel confident that looser restrictions on zoning might bring in a desirable amenity instead of blight, therefore, are excited about zoning opening the door to such an asset.

To help ensure that new stores are only positive and not negative, OP has dialed back the corner store proposal so that now any store, except a grocery, will need a public hearing and a "special exception." It is also fair for people to demand that DC enforce the rules that limit the amount of trash and noise a store could generate.

If you think that corner stores aren't automatically a bad thing for every neighborhood, you've got one last chance to let the Zoning Commission know. There are three more public hearings on the zoning update this week.

Development


Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business

Walmart's foray into urban format stores officially begins today, with stores on H Street and Georgia Avenue opening for business. The H Street store marks the first time in 18 years DC has had two downtown department stores.

I stopped by the downtown store and snapped a few pictures.


H Street Walmart. Photos by the author.

The main entrance leads into a small ground floor lobby. The actual store is one floor up. I was surprised to discover that aside from the lobby, the whole store is a single level.


Walmart layout. Photo by BeyondDC.

Up on the store level, it looks like any other Walmart. Perhaps with slightly narrower aisles.


Walmart interior. Photo by BeyondDC.

Outside, smaller stores will line H Street. A Starbucks and a Capital One bank branch will be first.


Walmart front sidewalk. Photo by BeyondDC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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