A BRIEF HISTORY OF H STREET
Live • Work • Eat • Shop • Play
Stand and Speak
Many stood and spoke that this must be saved. And so, we did.
It seemed an improbable wish born on a fire-charred street where empty buildings and cracked sidewalks had loomed for half a lifetime. Yet in our persistence, we grew to love H Street NE as far more than a symbol of broken-window urban decay which was frozen in time and left behind. This place became a frontier for our collective imaginations to flourish and for the doubtful city itself to stand up and take notice.
Here, we would re-inhabit nearly 300,000 square feet in partly or fully empty buildings for new purposes. Savvy business owners who had operated on the street for generations would be joined by others. Fifteen acres of underused parcels would be where our more bold dream of localized self-sufficiency and vibrancy would rise to replace the ashes that once filled the night air some four decades before. And just when we were well on our way, we would welcome the world in to see and share just how beautiful and special this place can be.
H Street NE was transformed in the extraordinary span of a single decade by all those who stood and spoke and who continue to stand and speak. The more recent history of this remarkable urban transformation began in living rooms and small community discussions between the years 2000 and 2001. Funding was then eventually secured in Mayor Anthony Williams’ fiscal year 2002 budget so that the District’s relatively new Office of Planning (“OP”) could help the communities surrounding H Street to establish a vision and a prioritized series of recommendations for this place that held so much charm and history.
The vision for H Street began at a time when change was desired and at a time when there was skepticism about the definition, purpose, and beneficiaries of change and about who would lead a “new” change process. Neighborhoods around H Street had already begun to change in the late 1950s as federal highway policy made it easier for some to abandon the central city for surrounding suburbs. This process was further exacerbated by the 1968 urban riots after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The riots left physical and indelible memories of an H Street which no longer was vibrant nor one of the top highest grossing retail districts after F Street NW in downtown Washington, DC. The following two decades (1970s to 1980s) were periods when disinvestment exposed the corridor to a variety of nefarious activities. In the mid to late 1990s, change began to happen again with renewed interest in central city living. With this influx of new residents joining longer-term, existing families came debates about the demolition of architecturally-distinct properties (some by public funding) and the potential for reuse of places like the Atlas Theatre. At this juncture is where OP enters at the request of the Mayor to work with communities and other stakeholders to develop what be-came “REVIVAL: The H Street NE Strategic Development Plan.”
A Community in Action
The Office of Planning began immediately to network with each of the key corridor and neighborhood stakeholders. The corridor was divided into Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (“ANC”) 6A and 6C. Each commission had multiple commissioners and most had a direct interest in the future of the H Street NE corridor. OP met with each commissioner individually and then within each Single Member District (“SMD”). There were several neighborhood and civic associations in the surrounding neighborhoods. In 2002, the District launched the DC Main Streets program and designated the H Street corridor one of the programs initial seven corridors. OP met with each organization multiple times and also reached out to other District agencies, the development community, retail associations, and forums for local artists and the arts. After hearing their varied perspectives and where there was significant agreement about land uses, OP formed an advisory committee of representative stakeholder groups and then solicited and contracted the professional consulting services of a multidisciplinary team led by the HOK Planning Group. In September 2002, OP and its advisory committee launched a robust and comprehensive public planning process under the logo “It’s All About US!!!” to solicit input from the wider community. Over 500 stakeholders participated in the year-long planning process.
The planning process was framed by key challenges and supporting analysis, opportunities and assets, and technical data regarding the development market, historic preservation and transportation analysis. The key challenges included the following:
Guiding growth to enhance H Street’s competitive advantage locally and regionally;
Redeveloping vacant land and buildings strategically;
Attracting and maintaining retail uses preferred by the community;
Establishing quality cultural facilities and needed joint parking; and
Creating urban development and design guidelines that do not prohibit reinvestment.
At the beginning of the planning process, it was assessed that of the 232 buildings on H Street, 51 were vacant, 30 percent of storefronts were vacant, and 47 percent of upper floors were vacant. Fifty-four parcels had no construction on them. Of the storefronts that were occupied, there were a number of redundant uses. Additionally despite having 2,600 parking spaces on the overall corridor, only 446 of those spaces were accessible to the public on street. The corridor, however, did have significant people-flow with 24,000 vehicles daily and over 35,000 Metrobus passengers. These transportation numbers were not substantial enough to dramatically shift the development focus on the corridors larger sites and the Union Station Metrorail only closely benefited a relatively small portion of the corridor.
Overarching themes began to emerge as the discussion about revitalization of the corridor expanded. Those themes included:
Improving transit connectivity and pedestrian use;
Generating new and rehabilitated mixed use housing opportunities;
Enhancing neighborhood retail;
Building on cultural assets; and
Creating a dynamic destination.
The corridors existing physical and locational assets began to lend themselves to these themes and sub-areas on the corridor began to emerge:
“The Hub” – North Capitol Street to 2nd Street NE;
“Urban Living” – 2nd Street NE to 7th Street NE;
“The Shops” – 7th Street NE to 12th Street NE;
“Arts & Entertainment District” – 12th Street NE to 15th Street NE; and
“Arboretum Place” – 15th Street NE to 17th Street NE.
At the plans completion in 2003, it estimated the buildout of the plan to be approximately $1.38 billion. This plan would ultimately be adopted by DC Council in April 2004.
Immediately following approval by DC Council, the District embarked on a number of activities to advance the implementation of the plan. OP worked with the ANCs and others stakeholders to rezone H Street in accordance with the development guidelines of the plan. The DC Zoning Commission approved the initial rezoning in March 2006. Concurrent with the rezoning, the District Department of Transportation (“DDOT”) would design and implement a new $53 million streetscape which includes new streetcar service on H Street. Construction of the streetscape was completed in 2010, and streetcar service is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2013. These implementation items alone have resulted in approximately $2.5 billion in completed or planned investments in approximately ten medium to large scale residential or mixed use development projects.
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (“DMPED”) was selected by the District’s City Administrator in 2006 to create a program following the successes shown on the H Street NE corridor at that point in time. From this appointment, the Great Streets Initiative (“the GSI”) was launched. The GSI was an interagency effort run primarily by DMPED, DDOT and OP in partnership with other District and federal agencies. The objective of the GSI was to use public tools and investments in real estate and business development as well as infrastructure and public art to leverage private and cultural investments on seven major corridors simultaneously. H Street NE was among the inaugural seven corridors. Two more corridors were added by Act of DC Council in 2008.
Each agency was authorized to fund improvements within its respective purview and to coordinate collaboratively with other agencies to realize tangible change on corridors where investment had not happened since the late 1960s. DMPED received an initial capital authorization of $16.6 million to provide development assistance, multiple property owner grants, technical assistance, loans and credit enhancements to projects like those happening on H Street. DC Council also authorized DMPED to issue up to $95 million in tax increment finance (“TIF”) notes or bonds to support retail projects within six retail priority areas along the initial GSI corridors. Up to $25 million out of the $95 million was authorized on H Street NE. In 2010, the TIF authorization was reprogrammed by Act of DC Council to a grant pool to allow DMPED to fund a $5 million real property tax abatement to support retail parking for a new Giant Supermarket in the new 360 H Street project at Third and H Street and to provide the $20 million balance as direct grants through fiscal year 2014 to existing and new retail business owners on the H Street NE corridor in accordance with criteria in the enabling legislation.
DDOT leveraged a number of sources to fund their transportation, streetscape, and other infrastructure investments on the GSI corridors. Almost all of the GSI corridors were also federal highways running through the District of Co-lumbia so that enabled DDOT to match available federal highway funds with local capital funds and other sources to implement its impactful infrastructure improvements. H Street NE was a beneficiary of this funding match and will soon receive enhanced transit connectivity due to a local capital investment in new streetcar service.
The past decade on H Street NE was simply extraordinary for the speed, creativity, and diversity of the changes that have occurred. Having been a part of the journey that the corridor has experienced and will continue to experience has set a very high bar for collaboration with a broad base of stakeholders, willingness to think outside of the box or conversely to embrace the uniqueness of each property on the corridor, and ability to build upon a truly compelling history for a new and exciting future.
It took an extraordinary “village” of like-minded folk who believed that “It Is All About US” working together.
Continue to stand and to speak. There is more to do. And so, we will.
Written by Derrick Lanardo Woody