by Mary Beth Ray
The date was June 21, 1999. Bill Clinton was president. Borders Books and Eddie Bauer were hot retailers. Cher, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were on the Top 40. And Van Ness was disparagingly called “Van Mess.”
The Washington Post Business section covered “The Psychology of Shopping Centers: Why Ballston Is Starting to Flourish. Why Van Ness Continues to Flounder.” Reporter David Segal emphasized the brutalist architecture and wrote, “Van Ness is home to a handful of Washington’s most unloved buildings.” With a “lousy mix of stores” and “nowhere to splurge on a fancy dinner,” Segal characterized our commercial corridor as “like a hospital patient on life support.”
Flash forward. A walk organized in 2012 by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Forest Hills Connection founder and editor Marlene Berlin also identified our overbearing architecture and set back buildings. But from that walk evolved the Van Ness Vision Committee of ANC 3F, which later incorporated to form Van Ness Main Street.
In short, Van Ness Main Street provides the management structure that helps run the engine of change, along with a dedicated team of property owners, businesses, developers, institutions, and neighbors.
Thanks to Council member Mary Cheh, the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development and a mighty band of neighbors, we pushed past the negatives to accentuate the positives and develop a plan to address the problems. We won a city grant that enabled us to hire VNMS Executive Director Theresa Cameron.
We still grapple with outdated architecture and vacant retail space, but we’ve come a long way, and exciting changes can already be seen.
The two most visible improvements are the UDC Student Center and Park Van Ness, both of which have been nominated for architecture awards by the Urban Land Institute. UDC’s student center is not only a beacon of LEED platinum design, but it is also our “state” university’s front porch to the neighborhood. The large lawn invites students and community members to gather, perhaps listen to a band or read a book.
The fabulous new Park Van Ness echoes our Art Deco past, while reminding us of the natural beauty of Soapstone Valley Park, just through its Yuma Street peephole.
Even more exciting than the visual changes are our fantastic new neighbors that give Van Ness the “original character” we lacked. WAMU, headquartered across Windom Place from Calvert Woodley, brings us the nation’s number one public radio station. Bread Furst, a James Beard Award-winning bakery, offers the best bread and baked goods in the city. Soapstone Market, the new satellite conference room for numerous neighborhood groups, offers delicious prepared foods, outdoor seating, and a vibrant bar scene. And of course Sfoglina raises the bar on dining, bringing world-class pasta, and hospitality worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Thanks to our new management structure, and the hard work of Van Ness Main Street board members, we’ve been able to assist our local businesses with grant applications, resulting in over $150,000 in grant money invested in capital improvements at Bread Furst, Acacia Bistro, and Italian Pizza Kitchen.
Come see for yourself the changes and challenges in Van Ness, at our Annual Meeting at Soapstone Market, Saturday, April 29 at 1 p.m. The changes won’t happen without you though, and for more information about how to get involved, please visit vannessmainstreet.org.
Mary Beth Ray is the president of the Van Ness Main Street board.