A nonprofit arts group has signed a five-year lease with the District to remake a long- abandoned trolley station beneath Dupont Circle into an underground showcase for art exhibits, theater performances and other cultural events.
The Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground will pay the city $30,000 annually to use the 75,000 square feet space but must first bring the dank station — the last streetcar pulled out in 1962 — up to code with new lighting, a new ventilation system, running water, bathrooms and improved entrances and exits.
A coalition spokesman said an opening date for the first 23,000 square feet of what will be called “Dupont Underground” will depend on how quickly the group can raise money to clean and modernize the defunct station platform and tunnels.
Coalition board member Braulio Agnese said the group of architects, developers and entrepreneurs envisions 600 to 800 people gathering for art and architecture exhibits, fashion shows, concerts, theater performances and lectures. People also might eat at pop-up restaurants or shop at pop-up stores. Tenants will be temporary, from one night to a few weeks, he said.
“There’s absolutely nothing else like it in the city, just from a physical space standpoint,” Agnese said. “It’s 75,000 square feet not being used. Why couldn’t that be something that people halfway around the world say ‘That’s cool. I want to go there’?”
The 66-month lease culminates a decade-long campaign by Washington architect Julian Hunt, the coalition’s founder, to use the mothballed trolley station as a hub for the city’s cultural arts.
With a rapid increase in new residents, amenities and investments in D.C. neighborhoods, Hunt and his cohorts are striking at a time when Dupont Circle could attract enough of an audience to make an underground concept financially viable.
The popularity of other makeovers of previously industrial spaces — such as New York City’s High Line Park and Washington’s Union Market off Florida Avenue NE — have demonstrated the public’s willingness to seek new, out-of-the way experiences.
There is plenty of work to do. The arts coalition now has “a few thousand in the coffers” from private donations, Agnese said. It hopes to raise $50,000 through its first crowdfunding effort now underway via Fundable.com, but it will take more than $350,000 to refurbish it enough to open the first part, he said.
The cold, eerily quiet tunnels and station platforms lie 25 feet below ground and have the earthy smell of a cave, according to those who have toured the space by flashlight. Trash and rubble litter some areas, amid once-glossy white subway tiles and aluminum lettering displaying street names for exits.
The station has lain largely dormant since the trolley line that connected Mount Pleasant with downtown from 1949 to 1962 shut down.
Agnese and city officials eyeing the project are well aware that the last attempt to use it — the short-lived Dupont Down Under food court — failed miserably in 1996.
The city won’t contribute any money toward Dupont Underground, said Rodney George, a project manager for the deputy mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Even so, George said, the $30,000 annual rent is a “nominal amount” to allow the arts group to spend its money developing the site.
George said he’s comfortable that the relatively short lease will allow the cultural space to succeed where the food court didn’t because the arts group plans to rotate different uses — an art exhibit one month, perhaps some pop-up stores or restaurants another — to see what clicks.
“The whole idea is we’ll try different things,” George said. “We want to make sure it can be sustained financially.”
Agnese said enticing people to spend time underground will be a “challenge,” but the coalition will focus on high-quality lighting and keeping the feel of a trolley station.
“We’d like the space to have that raw industrial aspect it has,” Agnese said. “How you maintain that and still make it comfortable and attractive — that’s the design puzzle we face.”
Mike Feldstein, an ANC commissioner for Dupont Circle, said he hopes it will draw people to the area.
“I think that space could be just absolutely brilliant,” Feldstein said. “It’s unique, interesting and draws on the history of the Dupont Circle area.”
Noah Smith, chair of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said he’s glad the city and arts group are both being “realistic” by testing the demand for an underground space before making any long-term investments.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to be successful yet,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to take some work definitely to transform the space into something people are going to seek out.”