P Street Beautification Project Puts Some Restaurants on a Tough Diet

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chef Luigi Diotaiuti was his usual exuberant self on a recent evening at his Dupont Circle restaurant. He greeted diners with a booming "Buona sera" and kissed ladies' hands. He even planted a big smooch on a fresh rombo to show customers how much he loves this Mediterranean species of turbot, on the night's list of specials.

But even this irrepressible business owner, whose Al Tiramisu has anchored P Street's restaurant row for 12 years, is a little bit worried.

The regulars are on vacation. Most expense account business is in recess. And the city-sponsored construction mess outside Diotaiuti's door -- which has scared off weekend diners from the suburbs and local foot traffic as well -- has been, and will be, there for months to come.

"I know this will be beautiful, and we will get a lot of benefit when this is over," Diotaiuti said as he leaned on the restaurant bar in his starched chef's whites. "I can't wait for the time this is finished."

P Street NW, west of Dupont Circle, is in the middle of the latest District Streetscape project, part of a Department of Transportation program that beautifies business corridors with brick sidewalks, greenery, old-fashioned globe lamps, modern underground infrastructure and freshly paved streets. City officials like to call the disruption "short-term pain for long-term gain."

But some activists are concerned that not all P Street businesses will survive the $3.5 million project, which broke ground in January and is scheduled for completion in April. They want District government and economic development groups to help tide over the merchants with grants and small-business loans.

"The goal is to set up procedures that would provide some immediate relief to businesses and that could be utilized in the future where similar impacts are affecting small businesses," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Streetscape projects are slated for commercial strips along U and 18th streets NW and four major commuter routes.

August brings the doldrums to many Washington restaurants, but some P Street restaurateurs are reporting drops in customers -- of 20 to 60 percent -- that are more than seasonal. Parking spaces have been eliminated, and sidewalks have been narrowed to footpaths in spots. Instead of four traffic lanes, there are two, and storefronts are obscured by a concrete wall. As for atmosphere: Goodbye, Muzak; hello, jackhammer serenade.

Residents have been passing out leaflets at the Dupont Circle Metro station entrance and weekend farmers market on behalf of the nearly two dozen sit-down restaurants and more than a half-dozen fast-food eateries and coffee shops in the two-block strip.

The nascent "I Love P Street" crusade reminds locals, as well as tourists, that behind the cloud of concrete dust can be found Mark and Orlando's daily offering of four homemade butters (garlic, tomato, mango and regular on one recent evening), Pesce's grilled octopus with basil tomato polenta and Montsouris's duck confit.

It's not a call to arms, exactly. "This is a call to dinner," said Mike Silverstein, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Lynch's organization and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association are pushing for sales tax relief for the restaurateurs for the duration of the project and long-term, low-interest loans of $50,000 to $500,000.

Tax relief would require approval of special legislation by the D.C. Council, said Jeff Coudriet, clerk of the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue. But the mayor's office could move money from various agencies to promote P Street businesses, he said. Proposals under discussion also include using church and school lots for valet parking and decorating empty storefronts with public art.

Last year, there were meetings with neighborhood residents, business owners and D.C. Transportation Department officials to discuss the project's impact. From the meetings emerged a consensus on project work hours, traffic detours and lane closures.

"Still, this hit us a little harder than we thought," said Mark Medley, co-owner of the two-year-old Mark and Orlando's. "Ten to 20 percent down on a weekend, we could survive. But 45 to 60 percent is what we're losing on a weekend."

Transportation Department officials continue to meet regularly with P Street residents and business owners to resolve problems and to assure them that the project remains on schedule.

"We're trying very hard to maintain accessibility to businesses. . . . When construction is done, areas are so vibrant, and it just changes the whole atmosphere" said Karyn Le Blanc, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. But for now, "it's construction, and construction is loud, noisy and messy."

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