by Cuneyt Dil
Current Newspapers correspondent
Tenleytown and Van Ness have their faults, some say: Advisory neighborhood commissioner Tom Quinn once called the former an “architectural nightmare,” and his colleague Jon Bender says it lacks a cohesive identity and brand. Meanwhile, Van Ness commissioner Mary Beth Ray says the latter is a “concrete canyon” better known for its traffic problems than as a thriving destination for retail and events.
But neighborhood leaders are betting on the city’s Main Streets program to change all that. The two neighborhoods will join eight other D.C. communities with similar groups that, according to the program’s website, promote “the revitalization of traditional business districts.”
New groups will promote areas as destinations
For Tenleytown, leaders hope the program will help attract businesses and beautify the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, in addition to building on neighborhood successes such as the 3-year-old annual Tenley WinterFest.
“A little cleaner, a little prettier,” says neighborhood commissioner Anne Wallace, who will be president of the Tenleytown Main Street organization. “One of the things that Main Streets typically do is work on the basics of infrastructure.”
The potential is there for both neighborhoods, leaders say. Ray points to the dozen-plus embassies in Van Ness, along with the University of District of Columbia and the leafy Soapstone Valley Park as attractions. Wallace talks about Tenleytown’s history, which dates back to the late 1700s. Commission chair Bender says the many schools around Tenleytown can help provide a good blend of civic and business engagement.
“It brings people to an area, and it enriches the people and enlivens the commercial district,” Wallace said. “They act as the advocate and cheerleader for the neighborhood.”
Wallace said board members are going door-to-door to draw interest from businesses. Already a handful have engaged with the board, according to Bender. The group’s first community meeting, open to residents and businesses, will be held Aug. 13 at the American University Washington College of Law, 4801 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
Both neighborhoods originally looked into forming business improvement districts, which are funded by a mandatory tax on businesses within the area, but they ran into the same problem: There aren’t enough merchants to make it economically viable. After a few years exploring possibilities, leaders went to Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh with the idea of forming business groups in their neighborhoods.
In the latest budget, Cheh included $400,000 in startup funding for the two Main Street programs, which will operate as nonprofits.
“She really went to bat for Tenleytown, and without her work this would not be happening,” Bender wrote in an email.
Revitalization is top priority
In Van Ness, the Main Street fits a broader goal of revitalization. A 2014 report by the Van Ness Vision Committee — a part of the area’s neighborhood commission — suggested that a management structure such as a Main Street organization would be necessary to realize the neighborhood’s goals. Ray hopes signage and marketing tools can help businesses better connect with the community. Her ideas also include funding programs, such as concerts at the University of the District of Columbia’s amphitheater, and even dedicating each month to a different embassy’s country.
“There’s a wealth of opportunity to connect the embassies with our community and to connect the beautiful [Soapstone Valley Park] with people,” Ray said.
The D.C. Main Street program was created in 2002 through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The concept began in the late 1970s as a reaction to the decline of downtowns and urban centers across America, amid a shift to a suburban lifestyle. Its website touts the program as a powerful tool for economic revitalization.
Both groups are currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status.
The Tenleytown Main Street boundary will be roughly from Tenley Circle to Fessenden Street, with Wisconsin Avenue as the dominant corridor; for Van Ness, it will be on Connecticut Avenue between Van Ness and Albemarle streets.
This article was originally published in the July 29th, 2015 edition of The Northwest Current. Republished with permission.