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; C01

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.

If that seems a rose-colored hope, there is abundant evidence that it is more than a possibility.

Plans to revitalize H Street from Third to 14th streets have been discussed for years, and city planners long ago envisioned that the Capitol Hill populace would creep north to H Street. The new businesses, wedged between empty storefronts and carryout joints where a wall of protective plexiglass separates patrons from workers, reflect that the anticipated migration has occurred. So does a short stroll south on any of the numbered streets that intersect with H.

Little things tell the tale of change: Three years ago, it was tough to find a cab at night on H Street. Now there are moments when the street teems with them.

The neighborhood blog, Frozen Tropics ("Everybody reads it," sandwich shop owner David Mazza says), provides running commentary and a rich glimpse of the hip side that keeps H Street bustling with nightlife once the lights go out under the Capitol dome.

Bars, the deli, the sandwich shops, the coffee shop, fitness, massage and yoga studios -- the same sort of attractions that drew young people to Adams Morgan when Georgetown grew too expensive for many of them.

Mazza lived in Adams Morgan for a while before moving to an apartment above his sandwich shop -- Taylor Gourmet -- on H Street.

"There's no real sense of community in Adams Morgan," he said. "H Street is a small, little community. Neighbors know neighbors."

Even as Mazza said he hopes for the street to become "like 14th Street Northwest, a 24-hour district" with its bustle of shops, restaurants and bars, he wants H Street to retain the old as it absorbs the new.

Just as the storefront that now is Taylor was resurrected from a dilapidated shell, so, too, was the Sidamo coffee shop that now has a tranquil garden oasis out back.

"The neighborhood is so good. It is like you live in a small town," said Kenfe Bellay, proprietor of Sidamo. "So many moms with strollers, they meet here. So many of them, we know."

Tucked behind Union Station and partitioned from the city's epicenter by tracks that spread north toward Baltimore, H Street is described by an e-mail group list as having "long been ignored as a vital element to the health and economic viability of Northeast Washington."

Still burdened with more empty lots and shuttered storefronts than it has veteran business owners or hopeful new entrepreneurs, the street has retained a distinctly urban vitality that defies the economic segregation characteristic of many District neighborhoods.

The young and affluent of Capitol Hill mingle with the less well-to-do who live just to the north and farther east, and among them sit those who have no home at all.

The tigers, however, are long gone.

They came into the world at 15th and H streets. The Barnum and Bailey circus had arrived in town and set up there. When the tiger cage was opened, "there were four husky cubs mewing and pawing about the floor."

That was a century ago, when H Street was host to the "Greatest Show on Earth."

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