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Dupont Circle’s New Business Improvement District Getting Going; Director Hired and Underway

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the September 2018 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

 Colleen Hawkinson is a woman with a mission. The newly appointed executive director of the Dupont Circle Business Improvement District (BID) asserts a clear-eyed view of what’s ahead when the BID officially opens on October 1st — to buff up the neighborhood’s major commercial areas and the challenges therein she is likely to face.

In a wide-ranging interview with The InTowner, Hawkinson expressed pragmatic enthusiasm and an optimist’s approach to taking charge of the Dupont Circle BID, which, as was reported in our February 2018 issue, was some 10 years in the making.

On day one, Hawkinson says, a BID “clean team” will be in place to remove trash, graffiti, and to maintain an overall clean and safe environment for the new district which stretches north on Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle to California Street, west on P Street to 22nd, and with 19th Street as the eastern boundary.

“I’ve sent out the proposals [for the clean team],” she says, and “business owners and others will notice them starting day one because of the distinctive colors of their uniforms.”

And that’s important, not only as a signal that the BID is in place and functioning, but to show action and progress to the people who are paying for it — business and commercial property owners who have agreed to a special assessment collected with their DC real estate taxes. The Dupont Circle BID includes improvements and services such as enhanced streets and sidewalks and public amenities, most notably a new pedestrian plaza to be created over the gaping traffic underpass in the middle of Connecticut Avenue between the circle and Q Street.

This new plaza will serve as an event and gathering space. Planning is about 30 percent complete for this part of the BID, Hawkinson says, and it will next move to the design phase.

The Dupont Circle BID was spearheaded by commercial real estate developer Michael Kain of Kain & Associates, a major property owner on Connecticut Avenue, including the Caravel Building.

A key function of the BID will be to increase traffic and awareness of Dupont Circle businesses, events, and organizations.

In recognition of the varied initiatives that the BID will be engaged in, Hawkinson’s selection in light of her professional background appears to be just what is needed.

Hawkinson most recently served as the manager of strategic planning at the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) where she led the development of DDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Plan. She has 20 years of experience in urban planning focused on economic development, strategic initiatives, and capital planning. Prior to working at DDOT, she worked in the nonprofit and private sectors.

A major issue she confronts, Hawkinson says, is the troubled business climate for brick-and-mortar retail — which is true nationwide and by no means limited to Dupont Circle. Still, storefront vacancies along Connecticut Avenue are obvious, she says, and to that end, her full strategic plan for the BID includes a retail strategy.

First,  Hawkinson says, she wants a thorough investigation and survey of the business climate in Dupont Circle and an understanding of the challenges retailers face: “I want to react to facts.” She says it would be a mistake to assume, for example, that rent for commercial space might be too high, without taking a good look first.

Leasing for commercial space is much more expensive in other parts of the city,  Hawkinson says, and yet retail is thriving. She also says she wants to take a creative approach and look at how more recent phenomena in retailing such as pop-up and temporary stores and an eclectic mix of restaurants might become part of a more fully realized business scene in Dupont.

Asked what she envisions for Dupont Circle in a city where “destination neighborhoods” — Adams Morgan and U Street in Northwest, H Street in Northeast, The Wharf in Southwest, to name just three — surely vie for attention and business,  Hawkinson rejects an oversell approach.

“We are not looking to re-create or to make Dupont Circle something it’s not,”  Hawkinson says of the broader vision contained in the BID Rather, she wants to draw people with the renewed streetscapes and pedestrian plaza, for sure, but also with the idea of building on what has always attracted people to Dupont Circle.

“It has a European feel,”  Hawkinson says of Dupont Circle. There is a strong international presence with the many foreign embassies in the neighborhood, and the nightlife, cafés, and restaurants have also been longtime features.

There is a strong sense of place among Dupont residents,  Hawkinson says, many of whom have dedicated themselves to preserving the neighborhood’s special character and history. The many community groups are another strength, she says, and the BID strategy is to work with those organizations.

Hawkinson is forthright about some of the special challenges ahead — ongoing problems with rats, street crime, bikes and scooters, and so on — but she is confident that equitable solutions exist through planning, community involvement, and fact finding.

“We have to make sure there are accommodations for everyone,”  Hawkinson says. “It’s not going to work by simply changing policy in a vacuum.”

And then there is homelessness in Dupont Circle where people living in the street or creating encampments in public spaces have become both a growing human welfare and business concern.  Hawkinson said this reality registered with her on a recent walk around the neighborhood, including Connecticut Avenue, where the problems that arise from people living on the street — sanitation, panhandling, blocking business entryways — has become acute at times.

Hawkinson says she will work with the city and any social service organizations that can help people who are living on the street while she also pursues the goals of the BID. “We want to do it the right way,”  Hawkinson says.

Hawkinson says she will also be working to shield businesses from the impacts of construction and streetscape improvements that will be rolling out under the BID. “We need to have a plan in place,” she says, to minimize the fears of business owners and to ensure construction projects stick to their timetables.

“Our goal is to have more people come to Dupont Circle,” Hawkinson concluded.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.