Get our free newsletter
Nov. 8, 2019 wasn’t an especially cold night in Dupont Circle, but everyone inside the unheated Dupont Underground tunnel kept their hats and coats on. The opening of the 2019 World Press Photo Exhibition had brought hundreds of people deep below D.C. to celebrate journalism, art, and Dupont Underground itself. Attendees milled around, viewing photographic prints and projections. By the time Dupont Underground’s CEO Robert Meins got up to the stage at the tunnel’s end to speak, it was so crowded and noisy with the echoes of footsteps and conversations that it was at first hard for him to be heard. Meins, who had only been on the job since March, thanked the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Rotary Club, and Dupont Underground’s volunteers. “As I will get into later this evening, there are some difficulties around the space,” he said. The crowd murmured as he moved on to introducing the night’s speakers.
Later, Meins took to the stage again. “It was a group of D.C. residents who decided that this space could be used for an event like the one we’re having tonight,” he explained. For years, Dupont Underground had done so, hosting exhibitions, live theater, a fashion show, and other programming. Now, they wanted to turn the still-abandoned west platform, the mirror image of the tunnel people were gathered in that night, into a permanent gallery for photojournalism. World Press Photo had expressed major interest in partnering. DU was ready to move ahead. “Then we got in touch with the city—or we started to try and get in touch with the city,” Meins explained. “And a week went by. And another week went by. And a third week went by … Eight months, it took, and the intervention of someone who means a great deal to us, to be able to actually have a telephone call with the people at the city who are responsible for the space.” It didn’t go well, and he was worried: “That conversation lasted about 20 minutes … At the end of that call, it was quite clear that the city was looking for alternative uses for the space. When I say alternative uses for the space, I mean they would like to hand it over to a developer,” he said. The crowd booed.
The major issue facing the group, Meins explained, was that their lease was expiring, and for an arts organization that books programming six months in advance, the spring 2020 expiration date was effectively kneecapping them. “We are a small community organization and we have a small voice. Many of you have a much larger voice,” he said. “Help us amplify our goal to keep Dupont Underground the underground heart of Dupont Circle.” The crowd clapped wildly. Meins walked off, and the reception continued.
That November opening led to a small flurry of media coverage on the uncertain future of the space. But though months have passed, Dupont Underground has yet to extend its initial five-and-a-half year lease with the city, and it expires in May. The hectic tone of the last few months isn’t uncommon for the group. In the last five years, DU has struggled to realize their vision for the notoriously hard to activate space, and their accomplishments have been accompanied by stumbles. Now, despite ongoing negotiations and renewed optimism from the team, nothing’s guaranteed for Dupont Underground’s future.
Six years before that night, the old trolley tunnels underneath Dupont Circle sat untouched. Originally built in 1949 for D.C.’s streetcar system, the tunnels went out of use after the system was shut down in 1962. They were briefly used as a fallout shelter, then abandoned for decades until the disastrous Dupont Down Under project, which attempted to bring a food court into the tunnels, opened in 1995; it lasted less than a year. By all accounts, it’s thanks to the efforts of one man, architect Julian Hunt, that the space is in use today.
After living and working in Barcelona for a decade, Hunt returned to D.C. in the late 1990s and founded his architecture practice, Hunt Laudi Studio, in 2001. Around that time, he started to notice abandoned stairways around Dupont Circle, he says. After asking around, he realized they led to the former streetcar station. Hunt was fascinated by Spain’s transformation of public spaces during the nation’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, and he wanted art and public space to do the same kind of transformational work in D.C. He contacted the city about potentially using the tunnels. Then the uphill battle began.
Getting a lease took nearly 10 years: Hunt and Lucrecia Laudi, his wife and partner in Hunt Laudi, founded the 501(c)(3) Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, the organization that runs the space today, in 2005. In 2010, after years of pushing the city to recognize the space, to resolve outstanding litigation from Dupont Down Under, and to get an agency to take responsibility for it, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) issued a request for proposals, which the Arts Coalition won. They still didn’t sign a lease for the space until 2014.
And that lease—the one that expires this spring—had plenty of problems. Chief among them was that the lease was only for a period of five years and six months, which, as Meins explains, is a problem for an artistic organization. The typical horizon for an arts grant is five to 10 years, he says. No funders will offer a grant to an organization with just a few years left on its lease, as there’s no guaranteed return on investment. It took a year and a half for Dupont Underground to even begin offering programs because of how much work the tunnels needed. By the time the organization had proven its concept enough for grantmakers to be interested, there was so little time left on the lease that no one would hand over the money.
When signing, the Dupont Underground team “agreed to something that was indeed punitive,” Meins says. “And it contained a poison pill at the end, either because one, the city was looking at this as a real estate deal with a commercial entity, because that’s what DMPED does, or two, they didn’t quite understand that this was an arts organization. But either way, this was never a realistic contract to have signed then and expect to be able to execute, I think,” he explains.
That “poison pill” was a nearly $150,000 payment due to the city on the five-year anniversary of the lease’s signing in November 2019. Part of DU’s worry at the World Press Photo Exhibition opening came from the fact that they did not have that much money to hand over. It also seemed that, five years later, the balloon payment didn’t make much sense. Dupont Underground had invested major time and money—clearing debris from the east platform and electrifying the space—for the last five years, and paying that much back rent when the future was uncertain was a big ask.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and then Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans agreed in a letter of support they sent Interim Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio on Nov. 14, writing “We request that DMPED review the existing balloon lease payment to determine whether it would be best to allow the organization instead to contribute that payment to significant capital improvements it has committed to make to the tunnels for code compliance.”
In a two-page overview of Dupont Underground’s situation at the end of 2019, the group wrote “The current focus is on a single $150k balloon payment, but we believe investments of +/- $150k will need to be made each year for the next five years to bring the space up to code and commercial viability as an arts space.” Funding has always been a struggle for Dupont Underground. It began 2019 with a balance of about $5,000 and between $10,000 and $15,000 in arrears, which have since been paid or settled, the group wrote in the overview. Money has been tight because its revenues come from programming and community support. At the end of 2019, the two-pager claimed that 80 percent of DU’s revenues came from programming—ticket sales, space rentals, bar sales, etc. In 2017, according to its IRS Form 990, the most recent available, Dupont Underground raised nearly all of its revenue that year—a little over $300,000—from fundraisers. It spent the money mostly on program service expenses, and things like advertising, insurance, Square transaction fees, and business registration (none of the board members drew a salary), and ended 2017 with $262 in net assets. This situation is abnormal for arts organizations, which often run largely on grant money. By late 2019, DU had raised about $70,000, but it hoped to spend it on needed upgrades, not the balloon payment.
Some of the most pressing upgrades the space needs are fire safety improvements. Initially, the team wanted to install a dry pipe—“basically a pipe that goes from outside into the space that the fire department can pump water into if there’s a fire,” Meins explains—which would have cost about $60,000. More recently, a firm offered to install a full sprinkler system for about $40,000, which Meins hopes will happen by the end of the month. That installation must occur before the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) will grant a permanent Certificate of Occupancy. The still-temporary certificate expires April 13. Without the sprinkler, DCRA will only issue certificates on an event-by-event basis. But DU and the city are caught in a standoff. “Without knowing whether or not the negotiation would work, it makes no sense to invest … when it would be shut down the next day,” Meins said in January. But without the sprinkler and DCRA’s sign-off, the space can’t continue to operate. And the balloon payment is still up for negotiation: The DU team met with DMPED in November and discussed using the rent payment for capital improvements, but renewal was still far off.
The lease offered the tunnels on an “as-is” basis and made no guarantees that the space would be suitable for its intended use. The space had to be electrified and had no easily accessible water or sewer connections—as of today, the space still has no heat or running water. Both the east and west platforms were full of debris and damage from neglect and years left unsecured. Despite these issues, the lease contained a prescriptive schedule of development milestones. By June of 2015, the group was to obtain a building permit for building out one side of the platform, as well as launch a fundraising campaign; construction was to start no later than November of 2015 and be completed in June of 2016. A final certificate of occupancy was slated for September of 2016 and the first public event on the premises was scheduled for no later than Halloween of 2016. DMPED says that it’s standard for the office to lease property as-is, including long-vacant spaces, and that when a tenant executes a lease, they commit to take responsibility for its needs.
Dupont Underground’s first exhibition, Raise/Raze, which re-purposed hundreds of thousands of plastic balls from The Beach, an exhibition at the National Building Museum, opened on April 30, 2016, beating the final milestone by more than half a year. Tickets to Raise/Raze sold out almost immediately, and it received warm reviews, including from City Paper critic Kriston Capps. But DU still has yet to obtain the final Certificate of Occupancy it was supposed to have gotten nearly three-and-a-half years ago. DMPED acknowledges that Dupont Underground did launch its fundraising campaign and held its first public event by their deadlines, but according to a spokesperson, “it’s the District’s position that the remainder of the milestone, obligations, and responsibilities to which they committed to in the lease have not been met.” The space looks much the same as it did when it first invited the public inside.
Other terms of the lease have also been violated over the last years, notably in the summer of 2017. In a June 23, 2017 email City Paper obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, former Dupont Underground managing director David Ross alerted DMPED’s director of real estate, Sarosh Olpadwala, to a host of issues a month after he left the organization.
“I only gradually came to realize that the founder and/or board would approve/sanction events without regard to code compliance or the terms of the lease,” Ross wrote. “As you will see below, where violations did come to my attention, I took immediate steps to rectify the situation and bring DU into compliance. Those steps were often thwarted by the DU founder and at times, members of the board.” Ross goes on to mention a host of Fire and EMS Department requirements that had not been fulfilled, including events held without the requisite fire watch, a lack of insurance on file with the city, being behind on the lease milestone requirements, and DU’s failure to pay the Commission on Fashion Arts and Events the 40 percent profit share they owed after hosting a fashion show in the space on April 15, 2017.
“After my exit from DU, the organization told CFAE that they were unaware of my contract with Fashion Commission [sic]. Several members of the staff and Julian Hunt were fully aware of the financial arrangement for the event, which was a profit sharing agreement.” Hunt told City Paper that “[Ross] did not inform us of any contract agreements; there were no written agreements anywhere we saw … that type of contract should have gone through the board.” Ross also asserted in the email that many members of the board in 2017 hadn’t closely read the lease and were unaware of its stipulations. (“I would say that’s not true,” Hunt said.)
Ross met with Olpadwala after sending his email, and other emails from 2017 and 2018 show DMPED following up with Dupont Underground about having insurance coverage on file, CFAE following up with Dupont Underground about a payment plan, and Susan Corrigan, Dupont Underground’s former CEO, reaching out for insight into the fire watch process. DMPED says the agency worked in good faith with Dupont Underground to correct these issues. “On matters that affected life safety issues, such as Dupont Underground’s resistance to using a Fire Watch Officer, DMPED compelled them to make the changes to ensure the safety of the space per Fire Code,” a department spokesperson says. David Ross also returned to volunteer with Dupont Underground after his departure in May 2017; in January of this year, he helped organize an underground art market in the space.
The whiteness of Dupont Underground’s leadership is a stumbling block for the organization in a historically black city. Ross, who is black, says “If Dupont Underground wants to stay in D.C., they need to learn how to exist in D.C.—recognize the past, think towards the future, and be culturally sensitive, the way we’re forced to be with them.” Jared Bileski, who worked with Ross to design and execute projection mapping in DU’s 2017 exhibition Make it Work and volunteered in the space in that year, also said the organization was very homogeneous. “I’m white, so I don’t know if I noticed things as anybody of color would, but definitely at a hierarchical level, it was very white at the top. Everybody of color was sort of down on the ladder,” he said. That’s still true of the board, which is entirely white after the late 2018 departure of Antwaun Griffin.
In the group’s day-to-day operations, Ken Brown, the front office manager, is black, and the group’s current jazz ambassador, D.C. singer Changamiré, who is also black, is joining soon as DU’s engagement manager, Meins says. “In terms of our programming, it is highly diverse. [Last year] we had everything from an interpretation of women’s issues through cello events to go-go to LGBT issues in a drag-show-gone-wrong-slash-dance-performance,” he says. As for Ross’ comments, Meins says “he’s absolutely right, and it’s something that we’ve discussed with the board.” Once the organization’s future is clear, he says, the board hopes to address diversity in leadership head-on.
Another obstacle has been the high level of turnover both at Dupont Underground and at DMPED. Meins and Laura London, the chair of Dupont Underground’s board, both only began their roles in the early spring of 2019. Hunt is also less involved in the day-to-day running of the organization than he was at its beginning. At DMPED, the project has had at least three points of contact in the last five years, and its current manager took over the project as recently as May 2019.
That manager, Patrick Pendleton Smith, is a curious choice. Smith was Dupont Underground’s director of real estate from February of 2014 to June of 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile. During that time, he oversaw the organization’s contact with DMPED and pushed for further development—including a potential hotel in the space, which is mentioned often in early press coverage. In fact, much of the early writing about Dupont Underground’s opening mentions Smith or draws on interviews with him. Smith applied for an open job with DMPED in April of 2016, according to emails acquired by City Paper, and began working there that summer.
In an email to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability on Jan. 4, 2017, five months after he started at DMPED, Smith wrote that he “terminated [his] relationship with [Dupont Underground] as of June 7th, 2016.” He also asked for guidance from BEGA regarding his role: “What am information [sic] may I provide, as I am the current DMPED ‘Expert’ on the site itself regarding zoning, construction issues, community issues, etc.,” he wrote. “What are the potential ethics issues?” Brian K. Flowers, BEGA’s then general counsel, replied that another BEGA attorney would contact him to follow up.
But on Oct. 29, 2018, Hunt wrote an email to then DMPED chief of staff Andrew Trueblood, frustrated with the agency’s lack of movement on renewing the lease. “Countless individuals have dedicated long hours to reviving what was a dead space (not even a cold, dark space, but one without even the minimal utility connections) into one of the most innovative cultural venues in the city. Yet, we have had to work under impossible terms, a short-lease, bureaucratic inertia (try getting a building permit under these circumstances), and even, dare I say, a certain inert hostility and incomprehension at DMPED,” he wrote. “I want you to understand that before Susan Corrigan became our Director, Patrick Smith (now a Project Manager at DMPED) occupied that post and was fired under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
Trueblood replied to Hunt, writing “I will engage the team, but also want to state unequivocally that District law and policy have required Patrick Smith to recuse himself from this project. So I can assure you that his time with the organization and any circumstances related to his employment and end of employment will have no bearing on DMPED’s course forward.”
About seven months later, on May 29, 2019, Esther Ezra, DMPED’s associate director for real estate, told Laura London in an email “FYI, the project has been re-assigned to another project manager on my team, Patrick Pendleton Smith. I will coordinate with him to find a time to meet.” Later down the email chain, London replied “Patrick is very familiar with the Underground so I’m looking forward to speaking with him when he returns!”
Hunt declined to comment on the circumstances of Smith’s departure from Dupont Underground, citing the nondisclosure agreement. “Regardless, it’s an appearance of conflict of interest, just on the face of it,” he says. “I find it very odd that they would put someone on the portfolio who was previously involved with this,” Meins says.
The District Personnel Manual states that newly hired employees must disclose their previous employment relationships and that employees are restricted from participating in the D.C. government’s decisions regarding renewal or awards of contracts or consultancies with the previous employer for one calendar year. The head of an employee’s agency may separately allow them to serve as a liaison between the District and the former employer or participate in the oversight of a former employer’s performance.
In a statement, a DMPED representative said “The DMPED employee’s involvement in this project is in compliance with the District Personnel Manual (1805.4 and 1805.5). The DMPED employee’s supervisor authorized the employee to communicate with Dupont Underground for an information request on July 5, 2017. Therefore, it was not a conflict of interest as per BEGA, the District’s authority on such matters.”
DMPED did not make Smith available for comment.
Dupont Underground’s leaders say the group’s greatest obstacle has been the city’s perceived lack of interest in working with them, despite interest and support from grantmakers and other arts organizations. Meins characterizes Dupont Underground’s relationship with the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities as extremely positive. DU also had a working relationship with the Alliance for New Music-Theatre, which served as its company-in-residence, installed a stage and lighting in the space, and hosted a run of The Havel Project in late 2019. The space has hosted exhibitions by a bevy of contemporary artists and collaborated with successful arts organizations like Solas Nua, Washington Performing Arts, and The Choral Arts Society of Washington. And in the fall of 2019, when the group was trying hard to push the city for lease renewal, officials from organizations like the Phillips Collection, the Austrian, Czech, German, and Indonesian embassies, the National Building Museum, Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, and CulturalDC wrote letters of support.
As Meins told the crowd at the 2019 World Press Photo opening, after World Press Photo expressed interest in turning the still-defunct west platform into a year-round, permanent gallery space, the group attempted to contact DMPED for the first necessary step WPP needed to commit to the project: lease renewal.
“It’s been on our mind since the beginning—I think almost since the beginning of the time when this lease was signed, and I wasn’t around for that, but a five and a half year lease is crazy to begin with,” says London, the board chair. “It’s kind of never stopped, although, of course, it amplified a lot over the last year. But I know even my predecessor and people who have been involved for years have been trying to have productive conversations with the city about how to make this a sustainable future.”
DU kept following up on their requests to meet with the team at DMPED throughout 2019. London emailed asking for a meeting with Sarosh Olpadwala for the first time on March 6, 2019. She continued to follow up with the office in the succeeding months, providing information on Dupont Underground’s status and asking to meet about the project. “As things stand, our lease ends in April 2020. Is not only unlikely, it is by any measure impossible, for us to get significant funding when we risk losing the space in a year. Mind you, this is not unique to us—any organization, public or private, would have considerable difficulty get [sic] sizable funding with only one year left on its lease,” she wrote to Esther Ezra, associate director of real estate, in April. “It would be immensely helpful if DMPED would provide us with clarity. It doesn’t make makes sense [sic] for us to continue spending our time and effort if we continue to be ignorant about a future that is not under our control.” London says she showed up at DMPED’s office at the Wilson Building multiple times to ask for a meeting, to no avail. “DMPED was in touch with Dupont Underground throughout 2019, by email, phone and, as warranted, in person meetings,” a spokesperson says.
Finally, in October, the group got their desired meeting scheduled—not in person, as they’d hoped, but as a phone call, scheduled in advance for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 4, 2019. At 12:59 p.m. on the 4th, Olpadwala emailed the group, saying “Hi, can we do this call at 1:10 p.m.? I had a meeting added at 1:30 p.m.” The Dupont Underground team was able to accomodate the request but the 20-minute call was tense, according to multiple sources, and largely unhelpful. “To have someone in charge of the space who isn’t a partner and isn’t an ally is really challenging,” London says.
While the city government has yet to guarantee DU’s lease will be renewed, it’s aware of the deadline and has been looking to the future. On Nov. 6, 2019, Patrick Smith emailed a draft request for proposals for the Dupont Underground space to colleagues, asking for feedback. By Nov. 18, DMPED’s communications director told the Washington Post that there were no plans for DMPED to issue an RFP at that time. “DMPED develops and maintains draft RFPs for properties in its portfolio, whether they are slated for disposition at the time or not,” a representative for the department says. “However, DMPED had no plans to issue an RFP while Dupont Underground had an active lease for the space.” On Nov. 22, 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser submitted a resolution to the Council that would change the West Dupont Circle zoning to allow the space to acquire a nightclub license.
When news first broke that Dupont Underground might close, Falcicchio told reporters that officials “remain committed to keeping this unique space as an asset of the creative economy” and reaffirmed that at the end of the month. This week, Falcicchio gave City Paper a statement reiterating that point. “It is important that this unique space is activated as part of DC’s creative economy,” it reads. “We remain in active negotiations with the operators of the Dupont Underground as they attempt to overcome their previous challenges, to become financially viable and to fulfill the commitments of their existing agreement and potential lease extension.”
“You know, there’s a saying: ‘Where you sit determines where you stand.’ I think that’s what it is,” Meins explains. “They have a certain interest, and that is in commercial real estate. And we have certain interests, and that’s in the arts, and those are just two different fields. I think a lot of the communication issues sort of stemmed from that. I mean, that’s a natural thing. But I mean, from my perspective, this space was abandoned by the city entirely before D.C. residents came in and activated it.”
Although Dupont Underground very much wants to remain in the space, Hunt said in January that if the city offered them the same short-term lease, they wouldn’t take it. “If we did not receive the basic, viable terms and make partnership possible with philanthropic organizations? No, we’re not going to continue,” he said, even though if they vacate the space, per the lease, all the physical improvements they made to the long-abandoned tunnels revert to the city. Still, more recently, Meins says he’s feeling good about negotiations. “I’m very optimistic about the fact that we’ll come to an agreement. It’s not a guarantee,” he says.
In a November 2018 email, Olpadwala told Smith “I have always been extremely clear when speaking with [Hunt’s] organization that DMPED seeks only to ensure that any leaseholder is long-term viable and financially self-sufficient. It is the same test we applied to the Franklin School and that we continue to apply to all of our dispositions.” (The Franklin School is home to the upcoming Planet Word museum, which is opening in May after a delay due to the removal of legally protected historic interiors during its renovation.)
When read that statement, Hunt reframed the issue. “We had to work under impossible terms—a five year lease. When we got that first five year lease, we felt like it was a trap, that it was simply impossible for us to procure philanthropic money or any kind of loan from the bank. And so internally, we decided we could just do whatever we could to make it work. Now, what we did was probably the only operation that has actually worked in the Underground,” he said. “With no water, no electrical service, and a lease that was impossible to work with—to then say ‘Oh, you can’t make it work, my fiduciary duty requires me to basically not take you seriously’ … I can’t say we were ‘financially viable.’ But we haven’t stopped operations, and operations have been increasing. In terms of dumb financial formulas that can’t reflect realities outside of commercial development, no, we couldn’t do it. We instead did what we could, and in fact with growing success.”
On Jan. 25, the tunnel was chilly again, but the sheer number of people in the space helped make it comfortable. The Below Zero art market was bustling—over the course of the day, it had 4,000 attendees, Meins says. The pop-up market, organized by David Ross, included around 50 vendors selling a colorful variety of art, crafts, clothing, and snacks. People posed for photographs with the colorful murals on the tunnel walls. In places, it was so packed that it was hard to move through the crowd.
Despite usually closing from December to March, since the space is not heated, Dupont Underground will continue hosting weekly markets, including future ones organized by Art Rave, to increase community engagement and to prove the high level of interest in the space. Still, time is of the essence: The lease expires in May, and the sprinkler installation is still required for occupancy beyond April. Meins is hopeful, but until the ink is dry, the space’s future is up in the air.