by Mark Lieberman
Current Newspapers Staff Writer
More than 30,000 cars pass through Van Ness every day, but few of them stop to take advantage of what the area has to offer. Neighborhood leaders, in concert with the D.C. Office of Planning, want to change that.
Goals of the long-term project, outlined in the Office of Planning’s Commercial District Action Strategy document, include expanding retail and business options along Connecticut Avenue NW, integrating the neighborhood’s cultural diversity into events and other programming, and beautifying landscapes to emphasize green space and sustainability.
Through Dec. 14, residents can submit feedback to the Office of Planning on the ideas presented in the document.
The city’s strategy builds on the efforts of a grass-roots visioning committee that sprouted a couple of years ago from the local advisory neighborhood commission. That group recently formalized to become the Van Ness Main Streets organization, winning a $200,000 grant this month, available thanks to the efforts of Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh. The organization, which is now working to hire an executive director, hopes to play a key role in Van Ness’ development moving forward.
“We’re an underperforming commercial district. We have huge potential,” said Mary Beth Ray, president of the board of directors of Van Ness Main Streets. “People really want to see Van Ness live up to its potential.”
The Office of Planning’s strategy branches off into four focus areas: public space, retail, commercial opportunities and sustainability.
Goals for public space include taking advantage of large sidewalks to add greenery; adding new streetlights and bike parking; and adorning streetlights with banners marked with the Van Ness name. Sustainability efforts include replacing streetlights with LED equivalents, incorporating stormwater management strategies, and encouraging property owners to install green roofs and other environmentally friendly features.
For retail and commercial opportunities, the document outlines possibilities for courting a more diverse array of restaurants, developing a coordinated marketing approach and reinforcing retail clusters on different blocks of Connecticut Avenue.
Ray suggested that one addition in particular would have a positive effect.
“What everybody is suggesting is a brew pub,” said Ray, also an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “If we could attract a craft brew pub to Van Ness, I think we have really made it.”
Newcomers to Van Ness such as the WAMU radio station and the Bread Furst bakery point the way forward for what Van Ness can provide, said Ray. But there’s still more work to be done, she said, and she believes the support from the D.C. government will be crucial.
Ray thinks the years-long construction projects at the University of the District of Columbia’s Student Center and the Park Van Ness complex have left a bad impression of the neighborhood’s commercial fortunes. And empty retail space, of which Van Ness has plenty, can often be difficult to fill. Ray suggested that pop-up events, like an art gallery in the vacated Walgreens building at 4225 Connecticut Ave. NW, could help.
Susan Kimmel, who chairs the Ward3Vision group, sees the work of the Office of Planning and the Main Street groups as a “great foundation and ‘hook’” for the Van Ness community, she wrote in an email. “We expect that the Main Street leadership will provide the focus to expand on that base and Ward3Vision is happy [to] help support their vision in realizing success in an area that is prepared to move beyond a stultifying past to a vibrant future,” she wrote.
Kimmel said her organization wants to focus on afternoon and evening activities to support retailers along Connecticut Avenue.
Ray also wants to see the community embrace multicultural events that pay tribute to the diversity of the residents and the neighborhood’s many embassies.
“We have a wonderful opportunity to start more cultural programming, bringing in the embassies and hopefully people from other neighborhoods as well, so that ultimately Van Ness becomes the cultural destination in Ward 3,” said Ray.
Ray has lived in Forest Hills, just up Connecticut Avenue from the neighborhood’s epicenter, for 14 years. She’s watched the commercial area’s deterioration with disappointment.
“There’s nowhere to go to buy a birthday gift,” she said. “Where would I go? I’d probably get in the car and drive up to Periwinkle or Write for You in Chevy Chase. I want people to be able to do that [here] again.”
Some of the bigger planning endeavors will take years to complete, but the city’s action strategy also includes goals that could be completed within a year, such as adding more outdoor seating and installing branded awnings for an upgraded design.
The draft strategy will be finalized in the weeks after the public comment period closes, according to Office of Planning spokesperson Edward Giefer.
“The Action Strategy is primarily geared towards strengthening Van Ness’s ability to more successfully serve this local market,” Giefer wrote in an email, adding that “a successfully repositioned Van Ness Commercial District” could also lure in “destination visitors” to enjoy the neighborhood’s signature identity.
The full action strategy document is available at tinyurl.com/van-ness-vision.
© Current Newspapers. Republished with permission from the December 2, 2015 issue of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.