Turning Northeast's H Street Into Main Street

District officials are planning to turn the dilapidated H Street corridor into a bustling stretch with new trees, sidewalks, lighting and parking meters
District officials are planning to turn the dilapidated H Street corridor into a bustling stretch with new trees, sidewalks, lighting and parking meters "similar to what's in Georgetown." (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

The District is planning a makeover for the H Street NE corridor, the once bustling commercial strip now undergoing a transformation, with a new arts center and chic bars and restaurants.

Within a few years, that renovation could include a light-rail system and the remaking of a major intersection, just east of H Street, with a $2 million pedestrian plaza.

As millions of dollars in investment pour into the area, District officials plan to lay track for streetcars to travel from Union Station along H Street to Benning Road and then to Minnesota Avenue NE, a total of three miles.

The $13 million project, slated to begin in the fall and to take two years to complete, is part of a larger plan to renovate H Street's sidewalks and streetscape, as well as revamp Benning Road, all of it paid for by a combination of District and federal funds, said Karina Ricks, a program manager for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

"It's a corridor prime for that kind of investment," she said. "H Street will not be what you see now in two years."

Although the District has not set a date for streetcar service to begin, transportation officials want to complete the track work while the street renovations are underway, to avoid having to cut the pavement twice.

Anwar Saleem of the H Street Main Street program said business owners generally are welcoming the plan but worry about construction disrupting traffic and parking. They're also concerned about trolleys making it difficult for cars to travel along the route, he said.

"The only thing I have a problem with is if they break down, how long will they be there?" he asked.

Stacy Barnes, the administrator of a foundation that funds the Atlas Performing Arts Center, on the 1300 block of H Street, said streetcars would make it easier to get to the theater, which is 1.3 miles from Union Station.

The arts center, which opened last year, offers theater, art and poetry readings, in addition to classes in jazz and dance. Two 250-seat theaters are planned for the fall.

Barnes, who moved to the neighborhood from Los Angeles, said new bars such as the H Street Martini Lounge and the Phish Tea Cafe on the strip make it less necessary to travel to other parts of the District for dining and entertainment.

"It's nice to be able to stay in the neighborhood," she said.

H Street is among six dilapidated corridors that the District is planning to make over, a list that includes Pennsylvania Avenue from the John Philip Sousa Bridge to Southern Avenue; Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE; Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE; Minnesota Avenue NE; and Georgia Avenue and Seventh Street NW from the District border to the Washington Convention Center.

On H Street, Ricks said, the District will plant trees, build sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and install new lighting and parking meters "similar to what's in Georgetown."

The District also plans to reconfigure what is known as the Starburst intersection at the eastern edge of H Street, a crossroads that includes Florida Avenue, Bladensburg Road, Maryland Avenue, Benning Road and 15th Street.

DOT planners hope the new intersection will improve pedestrian safety. It will include the $2 million plaza on a half-acre on the eastern side of the intersection with trees, flower beds and park benches. A design plan is 90 percent complete, and construction is scheduled to begin in 2007.

The improvements to the area, Ricks said, will not only stir interest in H Street, but help businesses reach new customers. "They need people to come to them so they can grow beyond what they are," she said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company