Van Ness is changing, and it seems to be happening all at once.
Chick-fil-A plans to move into the space at 4422 Connecticut Avenue now occupied by Burger King. Meanwhile, the DC Office of Planning (OP) has released its Van Ness Commercial Strategic Action Plan focusing on Connecticut Avenue from Albemarle to Van Ness Street. And in the middle of all this is Van Ness Main Streets, Inc., which seeks to encourage developers to keep the public’s needs and interests in mind.
Chick-fil-A’s plans, as they are now, seem at odds with the vision OP and Van Mess Main Streets have for the area. Chick-fil-A wants to continue its car-focused suburban model with a drive-thru. OP and Van Ness Main Streets want to develop Van Ness into a pedestrian-friendly, vibrant neighborhood hub.
Chick-fil-A’s arrival will be only one of many changes in the neighborhood. Saul Center’s mixed-use Park Van Ness and UDC’s new student union will open soon. Roadside Development, a developer known for its mixed residential and commercial projects, recently purchased the buildings housing Potbelly, Wells Fargo, and Parklane Cleaners. The Calvert Woodley building’s recent sale to Arnold Polinger’s Polinger Shannon Luchs Co. makes Polinger the owner of the entire block at 4301 Connecticut Avenue. Across the street, Fannie Mae has put its building up for sale. And the new owner of the former Intelsat headquarters is grappling with what to do with the building.
Through it all, Van Ness Main Streets, the evolution of ANC 3F’s Van Ness Vision Committee, has worked in concert with the Office of Planning to lay out a community-led vision for Van Ness.
OP’s action plan states: “The Van Ness Commercial District will be defined by attractive activated and landscaped streets with spaces for retail, interaction and gathering for residents, students and workers.” Likewise, Van Ness Main Streets has positioned itself to work with developers and property owners in evolving Van Ness into a cultural and commercial district that is a draw for its residents.
OP’s plan was developed over past year with the Van Ness Vision Committee, as well as other stakeholders. It gathered community feedback during four office hour sessions in the neighborhood and a community workshop. We were asked to weigh in on four elements – public space, retail, sustainability and commercial opportunities – with a focus on how to improve the pedestrian experience and make Van Ness a place where visitors want to shop, dine and linger.
OP’s plan uses landscaping to soften the Connecticut Avenue streetscape. It creates areas to sit and gather; more outdoor café areas, public art, and shielding from the street. This dovetails with the design that evolved from community brainstorming sessions hosted last year by the Van Ness Vision Committee. Guided by noted architect Travis Price, for a Van Ness hub at Windom Place. Using the community feedback, Price drew up a plan to make a community center out of the area and visually connect the UDC Performing Arts Theater and green spaces at UDC on the west side of Connecticut to the Windom parklet and Soapstone Valley Park on the east.
Although these plans are not legislated or official policy, Ryan Hand, the Ward 3 planner, said they will carry much influence when developers ask OP’s public space committee to sign off on their permit requests.
So will Chick-fil-A play ball with Van Ness Main Streets, and become a partner in moving OP’s plan forward?
On Friday, November 13th, members of Van Ness Main Streets met with John Martinez, development manager of Chick-fil-A. Mary Beth Ray, the president of the Van Ness Main Street’s board came away from the meeting with hope the community and Chick-fil-A can work something out.
“Chick-fil-A seems eager to work with the community and they have expressed a willingness to meet with us to discuss design alternatives,” she told us in an email. “We appreciate Chick-fil-A’s desire to make a large, long-term commitment to Van Ness, and hopefully they will share our vision for a beautiful, walkable, sustainable and safe neighborhood. With a new store in Columbia Heights, and even Manhattan, clearly Chick-fil-A has the flexibility and resources to adapt to an urban setting.”
Here’s hoping, then, that Chick-fil-A revisits its plans for a suburban-style drive-thru, recognizing that Van Ness is not the same place it was when Burger King arrived in the neighborhood. We are an evolving urban community, one that values the pedestrian experience and wants to make the neighborhood more than a place to simply… drive through.