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D.C. art activists see old trolley station as buried treasure

Once an underground trolley station at Dupont Circle, this abandoned, dusty tunnel could become a social nexus for Washington's arts community and the general public.

Hunt said underground galleries and events would better connect the Washington area's arts and architecture communities with the general public.

"D.C. is a very challenging place for the visual arts in general because they're not centralized at all," said Adam Griffiths, a project supporter and membership director for the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts. "There's no arts district here. You might have galleries clustered in groups of two or three, but there's no place to go to help the arts spiral out into the surrounding area."

Creating a destination

Under Hunt's plan, the city would lease the space to the arts coalition.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the proposal has support from the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission, citizens association and businesses.

"Everyone is intrigued by the idea," Evans said.

The challenge, he said, would be in luring large numbers of people below ground. "It needs to be a destination place that people will come to," Evans said. "If there's a draw there and the overhead is low, you might be able to pull it off."

Connecting it to the Dupont Circle Metro station would improve the chances for success, Evans said, but "no one has any money to do that."

Hunt said he estimates it would cost $500,000 to "sweep it out and turn on the lights" to open as a bare-bones space and up to $5 million to add "elegant, beautiful lighting" up to museum standards, a high-quality ventilation system and a freight elevator to carry heavy, delicate pieces of art.

Hunt said his group plans to fund the project primarily with private donations. The site could cover its operating costs by charging admission for some events, he said.

Light and safety

Hunt said he has thought through solutions to the obvious potential problems: Security? Lots of people and good lighting. Handicapped access? A wheelchair lift along the stairwell entrances and, eventually, a new elevator. Claustrophobia? Flood the stairwells with natural light and install artificial lights that give the space an open feel.

And what if the city revives the streetcar line that once connected Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan with downtown? The art galleries would simply have to move, Hunt said. "We'd have a light footprint, so it would be easy to do," he said.

Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, said his 70 members want whatever happens underground to draw more foot traffic to the restaurants and stores above.

"We've already experienced one failure," Grandis said, referring to the short-lived food court. "We're not interested in another feel-good idea."

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