by Katie Pearce
Current Newspapers staff writer
Reprinted, with permission, from the May 6th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.
The effort to improve the look and feel of Van Ness is becoming more than a fuzzy aspiration, with gears in motion for an official “Main Street” group and the District’s Office of Planning laying out suggestions for the area.
Late last month, the planning office released an update on its work to create an “action strategy” for the Connecticut Avenue corridor between Albemarle and Van Ness streets – an area widely panned for its concrete mazes, lack of vibrant retail, and hostile pedestrian conditions. Among other focuses, the report points to the potential for more density and more public gathering spaces in Van Ness, identifies three distinct “retail clusters” as ripe for improvement, and suggests an overall “softening” and greening of the area for the sake of both sustainability and accessibility.
The presentation (shared at an open house April 28th and at planning.dc.gov/vanness) is one step of the planning office’s ongoing study of the commercial district. Next up, officials have told community members that a draft “action plan” should be released this summer with full recommendations. [Until then, OP continues to seek public feedback. See “Help the Office of Planning fill out its ‘Vision Framework’ for Van Ness.”]
The city’s work also builds on the efforts of the grassroots Van Ness Vision Committee, which sprouted about two years ago from the local advisory neighborhood commission.
“It’s really exciting that the city has built on the momentum that the Van Ness Vision Committee has started, and that the ANC 3F has started,” said Mary Beth Ray, a member of both groups.
But Ray, who chairs the Vision Committee, said questions of funding and scheduling remain uncertain. Leaders hope private-sector funding will supplement seed money or grants from the city.
As far as the 10-year timeline the city has referred to for implementation, Ray said Van Ness residents are hoping to see tangible improvements sooner.
“They’d like to see something that shows excitement and change and… vibrancy,” she said. One task for her committee is finding concrete actions in the near term “that show something positive is happening in Van Ness” while the city continues its own planning efforts.
Edward Giefer, spokesperson for the Planning Office, wrote in an email that as soon as a final “action strategy” is released, the city will begin work immediately on short-term goals, with the long-term target of implementing “most items… within ten years.”
Those who are involved in the process now agree that achieving all of these goals will require creating a formal structure in Van Ness that can participate in the city’s Main Streets program, which targets money and other resources toward revitalizing commercial districts.
Vision committee member Marlene Berlin said her group has been talking with Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh about designating Van Ness as an official “Main Street” focus area through legislation. The group aims to establish a board and hire a full-time staffer by the start of the next fiscal cycle in October, when members hope to receive city funding.
The visioning group is “already doing a lot of the activities that a Main Street program does, but at a low level,” Berlin said. “A full-time executive director will really ramp up that effort.”
The Planning Office’s report last week also emphasizes the importance of establishing such a “management organization” in Van Ness.
For retail, that document suggests maintaining a family-oriented “small town feel” in the area just south of Albemarle Street. Near the western Metro entrance, more food/beverage spaces could be developed, while the Metro plaza itself could incorporate public art and become more of a gathering spot.
The document notes opportunity for more development in Van Ness, pointing out existing sites – like the one housing Wells Fargo and Potbelly – that could be transformed into taller, mixed-use buildings. This echoes past recommendations that Van Ness explore its full zoning permissions to add density at other low-scale sites, like the building housing Calvert-Woodley Wines & Spirits and the area including the Burger King and Zips Dry Cleaners.Throughout the corridor, the report suggests enhancements like outdoor cafe seating; more engaging, accessible storefronts; and a buffer zone of greenery separating pedestrians from Connecticut Avenue’s car traffic. The Planning Office also recommends activating the dead-end Windom Place, following up on a recent community effort to re-imagine that spot as a public “hub.” On sustainability, planners point to a “green infrastructure” study of Van Ness, funded by a grant from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The Planning Office’s previous reports on Van Ness, such as the commercial district profile it published last January, have analyzed the area as flawed but primed for improvements and attention from developers. The population in the area is 11,326, expected to grow by 11 percent over the next five years. The average annual income is $91,000 per year, and 59 percent hold master’s degrees or higher.
One constraint, the January profile notes, is that much of the population is split between “young, single professionals and retired couples,” so retailers face the risk of alienating either group. But consumer reports show “a strong preference for dining out and spending on home décor and improvement,” the document notes.