Stalled D.C. merchants look with optimistic eyes toward blossoming of H Street

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

In a city renowned for its grandiose boulevards -- some with names such as Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street that resonate beyond their reach -- the wide swath of H Street northeast of the Capitol hasn't captured the limelight much since the four tiger cubs were born there.

There is a belief that's going to change, once the dust clears.

Right now, however, there is plenty of dust as progress has turned the street into a massive construction zone, knotting traffic, stealing parking spaces and causing financial trauma for many fledgling businesses attracted by the lure of what's to come.

Within a year -- two snow-bedeviled months played havoc with the region's construction deadlines -- a proper boulevard is to emerge from the construction cocoon, with wide sidewalks, granite curbs, freshly paved traffic lanes and new landscaping. Tracks are being laid for six trolleys, expected to arrive in 2012, that will run from near Union Station to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue, in the shadow of RFK Stadium.

"We're looking forward to the progress it brings, but it has hurt a lot of small businesses," said Chef F. Tate. "No one comes to a construction zone to eat."

Tate closed his lunch counter for six months last year when construction ate up his sidewalk, leaving a board to bridge the distance from curb to entrance.

Alita Brown opened her fitness studio, Fitness Together, in the 400 block just before work began in 2007. The plan was to build in phases, a few blocks at a time, but one phase has blended into the next until most of the street is under pick and shovel.

"The only reason I looked at this block was because the city promised this development," Brown said. She expects the work to be finished this year and says businesses continue to suffer, particularly because there is no place to park.

The D.C. Council allowed H Street businesses to defer real estate tax payments until September, but Brown thinks they should be exempted from paying taxes during the construction period.

"We're pushing to get this done by the winter of 2010," Karyn Le Blanc, spokeswoman for the District Department of Transportation, said Friday. "And we've just reached an agreement to open up 30 additional parking spaces in a lot at 13th and H, because we know parking has been a problem."

There seems to be a consensus among the merchants of H Street that if they can weather the disruption, they will emerge with something a bit closer to an urban utopia than recent history has allowed.

They see the best of upscale Capitol Hill to the south merging with the middle-class sensibilities of the Trinidad neighborhood to the north, blending in the ethnic and cultural diversity of Adams Morgan but with the fabric of community woven in a tighter knit.

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