In Transformed Community, Waiting for a Promised Plaza

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

After years of planning, Columbia Heights is now home to a block-long shopping center, hundreds of units of new housing and dozens of new restaurants and shops.

Yet a central promise of the neighborhood's redevelopment remains incomplete: a triangular civic plaza that community leaders hoped would serve as a gathering spot for residents and shoppers.

The District Department of Transportation is responsible for building the plaza, part of a $20 million reconstruction of neighborhood curbs and sidewalks that includes installation of benches and tree plantings.

But DDOT officials say that the construction in the neighborhood has delayed their work on the plaza, and that no date has been established for starting the project.

They also said that the District must resolve who will be responsible for maintaining the plaza: the government or a business improvement district that has not yet been formed.

The plaza, between Kenyon Street and Park Road, across from Target, is to include benches, trees and a fountain in which children can play.

"DDOT wants to make sure that the maintenance of the fountain is addressed and who is responsible is decided before we do the work," said Karyn LeBlanc, an agency spokeswoman.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose district includes Columbia Heights, said DDOT should have completed the plaza by now and that its failure raises "issues of follow-through."

"No question about it, it has its complexities and it has its nuances," Graham said of the delay. "But to cut to the essential: The work wasn't done."

The civic plaza was a key part of District and community leaders' vision for the neighborhood as they planned the redevelopment of the 14th Street corridor over the past decade.

In addition to major retail and housing, they envisioned a civic plaza with a kaleidoscope-like design to reflect Columbia Height's diverse population. A bit more than half the neighborhood consists of black residents, according to the 2000 Census, and the rest are a mix of Hispanic, white and Asian people.

"We need a civic plaza to bring the citizens together," said William Jordan, a neighborhood resident and member of the advisory panel that drafted a plan to create public space in the neighborhood. "We need that public space just to manage the number of people who are visiting and who live there. People need a place to hang out."

The fact that the plaza remains a pebbled lot, he said, even as the shopping center and a condominium building have opened, sends a message that "the commitment to building community is not there."

"What we have gone from is a diverse community that would be inclusive, to a community that's only interested in gentrifying itself," he said. "The longer it drags out, the commitment to doing it changes. They might finish it. They might just throw some grass seed down."

The plaza's design is to be echoed in the streetscape along 14th Street, between Park Road and Irving Street, including around the two entrances to the Columbia Heights Metro station.

LeBlanc, in an e-mail, said that DDOT remains "committed to continue to work with the community as we move forward with these continued improvements."

Once construction on the plaza starts, she said, the work would take between nine months and a year.

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