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Is P Street Stagnating or in Transition? Recent Trends & Investments Indicate Positive Outlook; Streetscape and Building Upgrades Good Indicators

Accompanying images can be viewed in the February 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

The District of Columbia is booming, welcoming approximately 1,000 new residents each month. Many neighborhoods are popping to the point of being unrecognizable. Examples include Brookland, H Street, Southwest Waterfront, NOMA, U Street, Mt. Vernon Square, among others. The District has seen an overall two percent growth rate since July of 2014; 12,392 new residents were added to DC’s population over the past year, now totaling 672,230, according to a December 2015 report in the Washington Times. The last decade has seen population growth in the city for the first time in 50 years.

But, what is happening — or not happening –- in Dupont West where P Street between the Circle and Rock Creek Park is the neighborhood’s “main street? Is it in transition or forgotten?

Is it forgotten? The former Japone restaurant space at the southeast corner of 21st and P Streets has been empty for years, though now to be again another restaurant soon to open. Also empty for years is the commercial space a couple of doors from Books for America on the 22nd Street side of the Westpark residential building, as has been the former Badlands nightclub in what had originally been a carriage house across the alley farther south on the east side of 22nd Street; according to an agent at Rock Creek Property Group. They are trying to sell the property.

For decades, many neighbors have characterized the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) as anti-business and anti-liquor leading to the West Dupont liquor license moratorium. Whether this is a fair characterization or not, many business owners have said it is challenging to operate in the neighborhood. In a recent development, the Dupont Circle ANC has voted to close down the Fireplace and Marrakech for liquor license violations.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, this strip was DC’s gay social and entertainment epicenter, with Mr. P’s (the city’s oldest gay bar, having lasted 27 years), P Street Station, and dance bars Badlands and Omega.

In the 1990s landlords began raising rents, bringing about the departure of retailers and service businesses like Rock Creek Clothing, Fairfax Market, the hardware store and the bicycle shop — all now long gone.

Now, however, there is investment and things are looking up for this two-to-three block neighborhood commercial strip; the two hotels, Marriott Residence Inn and Palomar appear to be thriving.

The CVS on Dupont Circle doubled its space by expanding into its heretofore unused second floor, made easily accessible by escalator and elevator. This $2.2 million expansion and renovation project, designed by architects Shalom Baranes Associates with construction by the James G. Davis Corporation, was completed in seven months. The 80 year old building required a façade renovation including limestone installation, new sprinklers and skylights.

Nowadays, this compact part of Dupont is home to two large bookstores, Second Story Books and Books for America; 12 restaurants; two independent, family-owned groceries that have both endured for 35 years; tailor and shoe repair; three hair salons, a nail shop, massage parlor, and a Pilates studio. Also in the mix is the unusual Thomas Foolery, a 1980s-themed fun spot in which one can, as characterized on its website, “embrace your inner child . . . [and partake of] “food for little kids, drinks for big kids, toys for everyone!” As for those “drinks,” featured are 40 kinds of beers.

Also of note is the internationally recognized Gold Leaf Studios, located in a former stable in a nearby alley, founded in 1982 by William Adair who maintains an inventory of more than 3,000 antique frames.

In addition to Soho Tea & Coffee, a Starbucks and two bagel shops, the restaurants offer a wide range of cuisines — Thai, Indian, Japanese, Afghan, Latin, and Mediterranean. And, there is now the 1950s-style Z-Burger which was opened last Spring by owner Peter Tabibian and reviewed by The InTowner.

Several of these restaurants are “gold standard,” including Obelisk (Italian) in a “nonfussy” townhouse setting and the four-star Ezme (Turkish) with its celebrated zucchini pancakes. Also noteworthy in the basement of 2016 is the favorite Bangkok restaurant with its drunken noodles.

Neighbors seem to love the two liquor stores in the 2000 block — State Liquors, which has been at the same location for 40 years, and 1 West Dupont Circle Wines & Liquors which opened about seven years ago featuring an extensive selection of premium wines and where every weekend they host a wine tasting event.

Along with the wide variety of restaurants and shops, there are many professional services offered along P Street, from accounting, legal and dentistry, and even a veterinary clinic; also several nonprofits are present, including the Latin America Working Group.

Seemingly confident the appeal of the neighborhood is growing, the owners of the Westpark have spent over $2 million to upgrade the building’s one and two-bedroom and studio apartments, along with the fitness center and pool deck.

There are other noted investments in the area. The National Park Service spent $200,000 renovating the mini-park at 22nd and P Streets where its centerpiece is a statue installed in 1960 honoring Taras Schevchenko, the famous Ukrainian freedom fighter and poet.

The Embassy Sunoco gas station at 22nd and P, entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 by its original name of “Embassy Gulf Service Station,” still fascinates tourists and neighbors alike. The Gulf Corporation built this station in 1936 with the theme of making their stations look more like monuments or libraries and less like service stations. The Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service approved the construction as long as it was built with the same white stone as was used for the construction of the Church of the Pilgrims Church across the street.

Not to be overlooked is the long stagnated Dupont Underground revival. For those with long memories, the name Gary Simon will recall the failure of his attempted “Dupont Down Under” food court development in the old trolley station below the Circle and the subsequent fallout and finger pointing directed at both him and the DC agency which had entered into a contract with him despite many questions about his true financial and operational bonafides. Many in the community at the time were convinced that the food court’s failure after only nine months of operation was mostly a result of a ban on the issuance of liquor licenses; the ban was imposed largely because of opposition by the Dupont Circle ANC to even limiting to just on-premises beer and wine sales.

Now preparing to open the space with an entirely new concept, the non-profit Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground has announced plans to launch its public programs later in the Spring with a site-specific installation exhibition that will feature the re-use of the hundreds of thousands of translucent three-inch plastic balls that were part of the National Building Museum’s blockbuster “BEACH” installation of last summer. (See, “Dupont Underground Soon to Re-Open With an Arts and Community Focus; DC’s Lease Terms Generous,” InTowner, January 2016 issue pdf, page 1. <http://tinyurl.com/j9au3nn>

Anchoring this stretch of P Street at 20th Street where P and Massachusetts Avenue meet the Circle is a tidy little building built in the early 20th century that originally served as a “comfort station,” though by the 1960s had devolved into a filthy, trash-strewn and odorous place.

Back in 1998, much to the delight of neighbors, the National Park Service undertook a major renovation for the purpose of creating what is now the Dupont Resource Center, where the ANC receives its mail and its committees often hold meetings and where the Dupont Circle Citizwns Association and Dupont Village receive mail; the space is also used by Park Police and MPD officers when needing a place to complete paperwork or other tasks.

Probably the building’s most active use is by Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets (HDCMS) which maintains its office there. Started in 2003 for the purpose of creating along the commercial streets (Connecticut Avenue north of the Circle, P Street west of the Circle, 17th Street between P and R Streets) a strong neighborhood identity and to promote the area’s distinctive historic character, its clean and well-maintained public spaces, and as a safe and attractive environment with a balance of small, independent businesses and national chains. (To learn more about HDCMS, see “Dupont Circle Main Streets Organization Credited for Programs Helping Merchants,” InTowner, February 2008 issue pdf, page 1.

As a sign of how far along P Street in Dupont West has come back to life, for the past few years 22nd and P has been the kick-off point for the annual Gay Pride Parade. In 2015, the parade was bigger than ever with huge crowds of onlookers and almost every relevant DC politician involved plus many major corporations. (See, “Saturday, June 13: Gay Pride Parade Big Hit With Thousands Along 22nd & P to U St. Route,” InTowner, July 2015 issue pdf, page 1.)

Helene Bloom, who for the past 20 years has owned and operated the popular Soho Tea & Coffee internet café at 22nd Street, asserts that P Street could be “the Tribeca of DC.” While this part of Dupont Circle is not necessarily the heart of DC, it is very accessible and with a nice balance of businesses and residents.

*Larry Ray is Senior Lecturer at The George Washington University School of Law and a mediator, arbitrator and executive coach. He has been elected four times as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and served on the Taxicab Commission and Police Commission. He resides now in Columbia Heights but previously did live in the Shaw, Logan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods.

[Managing Editor P.L. Wolff contributed to this report.]

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.

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