D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) last week unveiled a multi-year plan for turning the forlorn storefronts and vacant lots of H Street NE into a 21st-century version of the bustling neighborhood thoroughfare that thrived there 50 years ago.
The draft Strategic Development Plan calls for more than $300 million in investment, much of it private, along H Street from Second Street to Maryland Avenue NE. It emphasizes new housing between Second and Seventh streets, retail development from Seventh to 12th streets, and arts and entertainment venues, including restaurants, from 12th Street to Bladensburg Road.
Creation of more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, as well as lots of off-street parking, is a priority. So is the establishment within five to 10 years of a light rail or trolley system to transport patrons from H Street to downtown and back. The remade boulevard would be anchored on the west by two major office-retail developments just behind Union Station, one of which is under construction and another of which is proposed; and to the east, across Maryland Avenue, by the Hechinger Mall and a new project on the old Sears site -- most likely a combination of as many as 300 apartments with first-floor shops and restaurants, or a large retail store.
The plan, drawn up over the past six months through a series of public meetings, will be submitted to the D.C. Council for approval within six to 10 months, a spokesman for the Office of Planning and Economic Development said, after specific proposals for traffic management, public transit, parking and streetscape are completed.
Many residents and community leaders who live near H Street say they strongly support the redevelopment plan. But some -- leery of decades of broken promises from the city and fearful that successful revitalization would mean displacement of poorer residents -- remain skeptical.
"People have been waiting for it for a long time . . . since the riots. They're hungry for it," said beauty salon owner Anwar Saleem, who is heading an effort to revitalize H Street through the national Main Streets program. He called the draft plan a template for what needs to be done and said the city, the neighborhood and the private sector will come together to make it happen.
But Wanda Harris, 46, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and lifelong resident of Near Northeast, said she remains unconvinced that revival of the corridor will benefit those who have been there through the toughest years.
"I'm not against revitalization of H Street. It's my home," Harris said. "As long as the revitalization is inclusive, that's all that matters to me."
The plan is the first of several underway in the D.C. Office of Planning that will focus specifically on struggling neighborhood commercial strips. City planners also are drawing blueprints for change on Georgia Avenue in Petworth; Minnesota Avenue NE near Benning Road in Ward 7; and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Good Hope Road SE in historic Anacostia.
"These were the great commercial corridors of the city," Planning Director Andrew Altman said. "Really, the question that we're trying to answer is, how can we bring them back?"
H Street NE, an east-west thoroughfare a few blocks north of Capitol Hill, separates the mostly affluent Stanton Park neighborhood to the south from Near Northeast, a working-class enclave north of H Street that is just starting to attract upwardly mobile urban pioneers. In the middle of the last century, H Street ranked among the city's top three commercial districts, with shops, restaurants and theaters that drew neighborhood residents and patrons from across the city.
But competition from the suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s took a toll on H Street merchants, as families moved outside the District, and new suburban shopping malls beckoned city dwellers and suburbanites alike.
Civil unrest after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 led to riots and looting along the corridor. Shops closed down, and empty buildings eventually crumbled. Many lots remain vacant, and city planners say more than 60 of 218 existing storefronts are unoccupied.
Construction of the "Hopscotch Bridge" -- so named for the playful mural that decorates it -- behind Union Station in the 1970s, primarily to speed the commute downtown from Maryland, made it more difficult for neighborhood residents to access H Street, and greatly increased high-speed vehicular traffic from drivers who had no intention of stopping to shop or eat.
"In 1968, everything changed," Ward 6 D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D), who represents the area, said at the unveiling of the plan at the Children's Museum on March 5. "And it has not been the same since."
The District's plan calls for economic development officials and community activists to work with retail brokers to attract bookstores, bakeries, coffee shops and other amenities not currently on H Street. They would discourage additional beauty salons, discount fashion stores, food carryouts and liquor stores, all of which are over-represented on the street.
One key challenge will be how to involve the H Street Community Development Corp., which for years has received city and federal funds for projects intended to revive the corridor. But the CDC has a spotty record of success and chilly relations with Williams's economic development team. Neighborhood residents are sharply divided over whether the CDC's difficulties are its own fault or the result of a lack of support from city hall.
In the District's plan, dozens of H Street buildings are targeted for new uses. The Murry's grocery and an adjacent parking lot in the 600 block, for example, would be redeveloped to include a more expansive urban grocery, plus additional storefronts, housing or small offices on the upper floors and a public garage. A boxy building across the street that houses the D.C. Department of Employment Services would be revamped to create new storefronts that could liven up the streetscape. If the city agency could be relocated, D.C. officials would urge the owners of the site to raze the building and construct an attractive apartment complex.
The plan proposes about 800 new residences in all, either above storefronts or in new, four- to eight-story buildings; dozens of new shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants to complement the year-old H Street Playhouse and the long-closed historic Atlas Theater, which an arts group is working to reopen; and a renovated or rebuilt R.L. Christian Library.