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Revitalizing North Dupont Circle

To view the accompanying images start on page 1 of the February 2018 issue pdf & then click the link to the on-line jump page.

By Larry Ray*

I love North Dupont Circle but I wish there was more business variety such as a hardware store; 17th Street hardware is not too far away, though. — David, DC resident.

The Starbucks on Dupont Circle is a gem. It is cleverly designed to fit into the business with terrific views. — Greg, Dupont resident.

North Dupont Circle is “tired” compared to the newer areas of town. First Friday Art evenings are popular, though, and so is the Sunday[farmers] market — Beth, Dupont resident.

North Dupont Circle may be defined as stretching from the “gem” Starbucks on the Circle to the Hilton at T Street. It has been vibrant for decades. In the 1980s this was the place to be, spilling north and east toward to Adams Morgan. But today, there is competition.

First, the area at 14th and P Streets, NW soared with the expansion of Studio Theatre and opening of Whole Foods (originally, Fresh Fields Market) –- largely in response to the boom in restorations of the historic residences on Logan Circle and the surrounding streets. Then U Street from 15th eastward and 14 Street north to U and South to Thomas Circle began hopping. Then 7th and 9th Streets, anchored by Mt. Vernon Square with the Convention Center with its premier Marriott Marquis Hotel and the Captal One Arena (formerly known as the Verizon Center) became a focus. More recently, Union Market in Eckington a few blocks east of Bloomingdale, The Yards and The Wharf in Southwest are hopping.

Presently, scores of lively restaurants and bars line the 1600, 1700 and 1800 blocks of Connecticut Avenue, but many business owners are worried and dispirited. Several report up to 30% less business. Some customers complain about the restricted parking in the area. They all agree that North Dupont Circle needs a facelift. Russwin Francisco, president of Bite the Fruit, an independent retailer incorporated in DC, located at 1723 Connecticut Avenue, reflects the worry in his responses:

InTowner: How do you think the North Dupont business community is doing?

Russwin: “Businesses located north of Dupont Circle (along Connecticut Avenue) are not doing so well. The downward trend could be traced to the Washington Convention Center displacing attendees who used to meet at the Hilton or the Dupont Circle Hotel. In 2012, foot traffic all but disappeared in favor of new restaurants and businesses in Logan, 14th and U Streets corridor.”

InTowner: Any more bright prospects on the horizon?

Russwin: “Candidly, no. Restaurants and boutique shops are shutting down at an alarming rate. Landlords continue to insist on premium rents.” [Ed. Note: things are much more dire in Georgetown where empty storefronts seem to be alarmingly noticeable.]

InTowner: Have you found DC government, especially DSLBD [Department of Small and Local Business Development] to be supportive of small businesses?

Russwin: “I’m not aware of any of their programs for small businesses or initiatives. In broad terms, the DC government has spent a lot of money and attention on revitalizing 14th Street/Logan/U Street and other parts of DC (like SW and NE). Dupont Circle (north), Georgetown and Adams Morgan seem to have been forgotten. Businesses in Dupont are rarely consulted, i.e., they raised the parking meter charge without notice.”

InTowner: How will the new proposed BID [Business Improvement District] affect businesses?

Russwin: “As I understand a BID, it could have a positive impact on my businesses. It could also hurt more than help if the landlords unilaterally make decisions without input from their tenants. There have been rumors circulating about a Dupont Circle BID but I have not received any information or given any opportunity to express my concerns in any meaningful way. We were invited to participate in an ANC sponsored forum, but we were given no notice (but one day).” [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted about six weeks prior to the announcement of the formation of the BID.]

Strategic SWOT Analysis (SWOT = strengths, weaknesses, opportunities threats)

This is an excellent analysis of Connecticut Avenue from Florida Avenue to K Street. Though done 10 years ago, turns out to have been quite prescient.

Described is a commercial strip offering “an eclectic mix of bookstores, restaurants, boutique hotels, etc.” It is zoned for major business and as an employment center. The east side is much more active than the west side. The report describes the area strengths as being well known, walkable, and a multi-modal transit hub. It also describe the weaknesses: infrastructure at capacityl rising land and rent costs forcing unique retail east; Gay oriented niche vanishing; the Connecticut Avenue tunnel an obstacle. The biggest “threat” is of rental prices forcing out local specialty retailers in favor of national chain stores. A particular recommendation was in recognizing north and south Dupont Circle as two different entities h a BID for North Dupont Circle would be desirable.

Connecticut Avenue Highlights


A tour along the avenue north of the Circle might begin at the “gem” Starbucks, literally on the Circle. “Our coffee brings people together with a philosophy of community and environmental responsibility.” Customers tout this location for people watching and the large terrace.

This iconic, 10,000 square foot 1923 building at No. 1501 was purchased in March of 2014 by Harbor Group International –- which considers it one of its “trophy properties” — for a record breaking $16.25 million, or $1,672 per square foot. Starbucks occupies 3,700 square feet.

Dupont Down Under

Next stop is the art space in the tunnel below the Circle –- in what once was the eastern side of the DC Transit streetcar Dupont station – where, now, emerging and experienced visual artists, musicians, playwrights, performance artists, authors, architects, designers and others find a welcoming space to connect with the public through an array of varied programs.

For 100 years, horse drawn and then electric streetcars provided transportation in DC. This unique underground station was built in 1949 but closed in 1962 after DC Transit switched to busses which could not fit inside the tunnel. After sitting empty for nearly 10 years, the tunnel and station platforms were re-purposed to be a fallout shelter –- but after three or four years that was abandoned given that the realization that an A-bomb attack on DC was deemed highly unlikely.

It wasn’t until the mid-‘80s that Gary Simon, a small-time developer with ties to former Mayor Marion Barry was granted a contract to re-design and operate the west side platform space as a food court, dubbed “Dupont Underground.” Despite opening with great fanfare and optimism for success, it turned out that the venture was ill-conceived and lasted for less than a full year year before going bankrupt. Not many people saw the attraction of going into a dimly-lit underground place to purchase (mostly) fast food or, at best, limited menu fare and where there was no entertainment –- and no beer and wine allowed.

It wasn’t until 2010, following years of finger-pointing and lawsuits that the city finally started the process to solicit viable proposals.

<> Finally, a new — and deemed highly appropriate and promising for the neighborhood — use was announced and in 2016 the non-profit. 7,500 art space opened with a highly imaginative and much-admired art installation happening.

Farmers Market

Every Sunday of the year, between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., 20th Street between Massachussetts Avenue and Q Street (behind the PNC Bank complex on the west side of Connecticut Avenue’s 1500 block) is closed off for the local and regional farmers who sell at the FRESHFARM Market –- now in its 21st year serving the neighborhood and shoppers from all around.

Both The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times of London have named the market one of the top farmers markets in the country. During the peak season there are more than 40 farmers offering fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, cheeses, fruit pies, breads, fresh pasta, cut flowers and potted plants, soaps and herbal products

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café

Many view the independently-owned Kramer’s as the heart of the neighborhood. Since its founding in 1976 by Bill Kramer, Henry Posner, and David Tenney, Kramer’s, along with its popular adjoining eatery, has become a local institution and meeting place for neighborhood residents, authors, and politicians. It was one of the first bookstores in the country to feature a café, to which they added a sidewalk patio in 1984. A few years later, having outgrown their space in their building that had, when built in 1920 had been an automobile showroom, they expanded into the adjoining building which they purchased in 1991 allowing for a total of 4,500 square feet.. Then in 2016, Steve Salis, owner of &pizza bought Kramers with Tenney being an ongoing partner.

Leah Frelinghuysen, founder and president of Monarchy PR and spokesperson for Kramer’s, said about the current state of retailing in the area, “I can confirm that businesses around us have and are struggling as evidenced by the many vacant storefronts that currently exist. Landlords are out of touch and think Dupont is living in its glory days. I can tell you it is not. The recurring costs, such as occupancy, are not commensurate to what businesses can generate in the trade area. Past frequenters and new DC occupants tend to seek out newer communities that provide more amenities.”

Continuing, she observed, “I believe Kramer’s (pre-dating me) did and still continues to stay focused on the needs of our guests while the business leverages its nimbleness to thoughtfully evolve and morph to support modern needs, specifically around discovery, exploration, romance, and sophistication. Kramer’s is interwoven into the fabric of DC and has an enriched history.

Kramer’s new owner Steve Salis added, “We have significant plans with Kramer’s that I hope will provide a jolt to the business, the block and the greater community at large of northern Dupont Circle — not all that dissimilar from the role Kramer’s has played in this community for over four decades.”

La Tomate Italian Bistro

 Established in 1987, La Tomate has anchored the intersection where R and 20th Streets enter Connecticut Avenue. Proprietor Natalina (regulars simply call her Natalie) Koropoulos, opened the establishment with her late husband, George, 31 years ago. The bright bar with broad avenue views and expansive patio were added in 1992. A prosciutto bar and breakfast caffé were welcome additions in recent years. Its second floor dining room is a frequently used event space. Long-time manager, Jonathan ten Hoopen, who began as a server in 1993, is a favorite among the customers. Over the years, La Tomate has remained a popular neighborhood gathering space and an active supporter of all things Dupont.

 Cove Dupont

This shared work space facility, having recently moved to a great new and enlarged space at No. 1666, is, as stated on Cove’s website, its “newest and largest location [in DC] yet. Filled with natural light, this location features an expanded focused area, 8 call boxes, seltzer-on-tap, icated space for enterprises and an event space for off sites, training and classes.”

 Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets

From his office located inside the Dupont Resource Center, the small building situated on the 20th Street side of the small triangular space where Massachussetts Avenue and P Street come together to enter the Circle’s west side, Main Streets’ (HDCMS) dynamic Executive Director Bill McLeod engaged with us for the following Q & A:

InTowner: How do you think the North Dupont Circle business community is doing? Any more bright prospects on the horizon?

McLeod: “Retail is changing. Sales for widgets are moving on line, and restaurants and services a taking over. Dupont is having to reinvent itself, just like the rest of the country. And we are lucky to have a number of small retail spaces that can be incubators for startup restaurants and services. Some new neighborhoods have huge buildings with large retail footprints that create a gaping hole when a business closes. The suburbs are a good example of that where Macy’s or Walmart closes, leaving 100,000 square feet of empty space.

Circa closed at the end of December, but a new restaurant is lined up to open in the Spring -– Magnolia Kitchen. This new eatery will create a buzz with a new menu, interior, and fresh brand.”

InTowner: Have you found DC government, especially DSLBD to be supportive of small businesses?

McLeod: “DSLBD is a government agency and they are very supportive of small business. In my opinion, DSLBD is the most responsive and in tune with the small business community it has ever been.”

InTowner: How are DC’s nine other Main Streets doing? Your website is fantastic!

McLeod: “In 2017, we had our best year ever! We had the largest budget in recent history, and we accomplished some amazing things, thanks to our smart board, stable committees, and growing pool of volunteers.

“Our clean team sweeps up the sidewalks five days a week –- collecting an average of 900 pounds of trash a day. The clean team also weeds and mulches the 200 tree boxes in the commercial corridors. And they plant and maintain the Connecticut Avenue Median in the 1700 block. (It is a lot of work –- think of a giant flower bed!)

“We organize First Friday [events] every month, which now draws thousands of new people to the art galleries around Dupont.

“Art All Night attracted 20,000 people to 17 locations! What a night in September!

“The 17th Street Festival attracted 100 vendors and 7,500 people to 17th Street! And the restaurants were packed all day long!!!

“Taste of Dupont sold out again, drawing new people to discover all the great restaurants and taverns we have in this neighborhood.”

InTowner: How will the new BID affect businesses?

McLeod: “A BID can have a profound effect on a neighborhood. I know firsthand because I worked for the Mount Vernon Triangle BID before moving to Dupont, and we were able to create some dramatic changes in the six years I was there: reduction in crime, two streetscapes, streetcar planned for K Street, and spurred new development.

“There are probably two key things that a BID can do:

“1. [Provide] bigger budget for maintaining public space.

“Dupont has five parks and lots of sidewalks. With a bigger budget the parks could be pristine through a partnership with the National Park Service. And the street cleaning and maintenance could expand to seven days a week. Dupont was once a premier shopping and dining destination, and much of that attention has moved east to emerging neighborhoods.

“The complacency that comes with being a premier shopping and dining destination may have been what prevented Dupont Circle from forming a BID. Twenty years ago, people would shop in Georgetown and Dupont only. And then the Downtown BID started, and then Golden Triangle BID, and then the Georgetown BID, and the Adams Morgan BID. Now Dupont is surrounded by BIDs, and those organizations with large budgets are doing amazing things. With a BID, Dupont Circle could once again be a jewel in DC’s crown.

“2. [Provide] a seat at the table.

“As a BID, more prestige and legitimacy comes with that. Partners would listen to requests more seriously, and they also know the BID has the budget to maintain whatever is built. We would love to see a new streetcar line connect the National Mall to the National Zoo. Imagine if we had a streetcar running from the Ellipse up 17th Street to Connecticut Avenue past all the hotels and on to the Zoo. It would be a great connecter for tourists, which heavily patronize the businesses in Dupont.”

[Editor’s note: In an article published exactly 10 years ago, we reported on the work on HDCMS’ work  and its energetic community betterment programs; those have continued apace, with new initiatives added over the ensuing years.]

 Dupont Circle Main Streets is part of a national initiative chartered by Congress in 1980 and administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The program’s four-part approach focuses on design, promotion, organization, and economic restructuring.

Created by a Congressional charter in 1949, the National Trust is the leading advocate for historic preservation in the United States. Today, the preservation movement involves more than just saving historic buildings; economic growth, urban revitalization, and the creation of new jobs are all issues the National Trust addresses through the rehabilitation of historic structures and through its National Main Street Center.


For many decades North Dupont Circle was the place to be, the place to shop and the place to eat. For the past 15 years, DC has been booming and now there are scores of new, exciting places to go so North Dupont Circle has lost its luster. Businesses have great hopes that with the planned park to be built over the exposed traffic lanes leading into the underpass below the Circle and the proposed BID, Dupont will be “cool” again. Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Silverstrein summarizes: “It is always a challenge for an old neighborhood to keep fresh and relevant in a thriving, growing city such as DC. Fortunately, North Dupont Circle has strengths that include being historic, [having] accessibility, architecture, and dedicated people. The proposed new over-Connecticut Avenue park and BID should assist greatly.”

*Larry Ray, a former ANC commissioner for both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, is a Senior Lecturer at The George Washington University School of Law; he also serves on the Mayor’s LBGTQ Advisory Board.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.