Developers of Dupont Underground are far from the light at the end of the tunnel

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 Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 8:53 PM

It's a tough sell: Showcase art or open a restaurant 20 feet below ground in tunnels once used for trolley service and a fallout shelter.

It was tried once before, in the mid-1990s with a food court called Dupont Down Under. Within a year that experiment failed.

District officials and developers are now moving ahead with new plans to convert tunnels beneath Dupont Circle into art galleries and possibly a restaurant and a winery, akin to several subterranean public parks and retail spaces in Manhattan and France. But officials and artists are skeptical about whether tenants will flock to a space so hidden and removed from the heavily trafficked Connecticut Avenue NW corridor.

"It's dicey," said Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "The businesses at Dupont have been promoting the outdoors and events at the circle for years and this is really unproven stuff."

The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground, a nonprofit made up of artists, businesses and developers, recently released some of its initial plans for nearly 100,000 square feet of space beneath Dupont Circle and are awaiting the go-ahead from the city to begin lease negotiations, officials said.

The two parallel tunnels run beneath Connecticut Avenue NW and wrap around each side of the circular park. Financing for the development would come from a mixture of private donations and restaurant leases. No public money would be used.

Officials with the deputy mayor's office for planning and economic development say they are reviewing the underground plan and will issue a decision about how to proceed by December. Other ideas that have been tossed around - a gym, strip clubs, a mausoleum - have failed to gather steam.

The trick, community leaders say, is billing the project as a hype-worthy public attraction.

"The business owners want something that will attract people to the neighborhood and not compete with them," said Paul K. Williams, an area historian and author who serves as executive director of the nonprofit Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets group. "They want to see something substantial, and we're still looking at what we have in front of us."

Developers say that even with approval they are at least two years away from any type of opening and that the project's success would depend on the rental rates, estimated to be about a third of the price of their above-ground counterparts.

"We are first trying to prove the financial viability," said Julian Hunt, a D.C. developer who serves as chairman of the arts coalition's board of directors. "This is an institution that will put the city on the map."

Another key to the success of the project will be the hiring of "a nationally recognized arts administrator with deep experience in managing and curating exhibitions," the developers said in a statement. A search is ongoing.

Most of the white-tiled tunnels beneath Dupont Circle have been vacant since 1962, when trolley service ended. The space was used as a fallout shelter until 1975 and a much-ballyhooed food court was started in the mid-1990s.

Dupont Down Under was phenomenal in its failure. Its chief architect, entrepreneur Geary Stephen Simon, won an exclusive 20-year contract with the city to build the below-ground retail arcade there. But city officials didn't know Simon had been convicted three times of fraud and other business crimes and had spent the better part of the previous two decades in jail or on probation.

When it opened in 1995, the project had 12 tenants, including food court staples such as Sbarro and Schlotzsky's. But within months, the project was in trouble, with issues ranging from broken air conditioning and unfinished entrances to lawsuits against Simon seeking more than $200,000 for allegedly unpaid bills.

"That proposal was totally incompetent," Hunt said. "We were much more careful and much, much more professional."

Among Dupont Underground's 22-member advisory board are officials at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Corcoran College of Art and Design and the Art in Embassies Program at the State Department.

Developers will be meeting Monday with members of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association to discuss the plan.

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