Scope, cost of planned NW arts district questioned

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.
By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The plan to rebrand about 100 city blocks in Northwest Washington as a new arts district, hailed as a potential boost to economic development, has left some arts organizations and business owners questioning the scope and cost of a project that has been limited to marketing.

The deputy mayor's office allocated four Neighborhood Investment Fund grants totaling $200,000 for the rebranding effort, which aims to convince residents and tourists that the area -- which includes Logan Circle, parts of Dupont Circle, Shaw, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the 14th and U Street corridors -- is an arts district. Proponents of the effort say the MidCity Arts District will build on the diversity of the neighborhoods, which contain 20 galleries, 6 major theaters, more than 70 restaurants, 50 music venues and more than 16 home furnishing stores.

"We are trying to establish this part of the city as the place where everyone should be coming to enjoy the arts," said Alex Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, one of the project's supporters. The community can "decide this is what you want to be known for and then you make the sale," he said.

Padro said the arts overlay district, which was the result of a four-month rezoning process in the neighborhood, originally didn't include the area south of Rhode Island Avenue, but because that is where many new businesses and organizations are growing and could use the economic boost, the area was expanded. The new district is currently bounded by Florida Avenue, Seventh Street, Massachusetts Avenue and 16th Street.

"We were waiting for this development for five years," said Azeb Desta, owner of Azi's Cafe on Ninth and O streets. "It is very, very slow. That is why we welcome anything."

But some people who stand to benefit from the new arts district said they worry that the area's size is daunting, that there is no specific plan to support the arts beyond basic marketing and that the $200,000 could be used in other, more tangible ways. A community meeting to discuss the project is scheduled for Monday night at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street.

"I don't understand how they think they can get people to walk 17 blocks up, 17 blocks over and 17 blocks down. . . . It is just a strange idea," said Siobhan Gavagan, an art consultant for Longview Gallery on Ninth Street. "There needs to be an overall plan. . . . There needs to be a unified vibe to make one unified arts district."

Jean Homza, a vice president with the MidCity Business Association,which has worked to promote the 14th and U streets corridor, said she is concerned the project is "creating an area for development's sake" and not focusing enough on the arts. "What are you doing to bring in artists?" Homza said.

Organizers hope to develop a business plan in coming months as part of the branding campaign, but the city's grants have been restricted to marketing and branding, said Carol Felix, owner of Felix Design. Felix, who also does marketing and branding for her husband's firm, Blake Dickson Real Estate Services, said she hopes the project leads to an influx of funds for the arts and local artists.

"This one first grant can't do it all. It is not feasible," Felix said. "It is a harsh reality, but it is a reality we have to deal with."

The $200,000 in grants grew into a nearly $500,000 budget, supplemented by in-kind services people working on the project have donated. For example, Felix is paid $49,500 and is donating $54,000 in services.

The largest chunk of the grants, $75,000, is budgeted for street banners to identify the area, Felix said. That includes consulting fees, production and installation costs, and advertising. The rest of the money is slated for community meetings, facilitators, a public relations firm and developing a Web site that will take the place of the group's current blog.

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