When Patrick Lally moved onto 3rd Street NE just south of H Street 16 years ago, he wasn’t thrilled by the idea of living in an area fraught with the clichés of inner-city blight. Almost every house on his street sat emptysome were abandoned in the wake of the 1968 riotswhile around the corner on H Street, vacant storefronts and boarded-up buildings gave shelter to drug dealing and a you-name-it list of crimes.
One particular magnet for police activity: the Amoco station on the corner, which became the site of at least three shootings during the next 15 years, including the wounding of an off-duty District firefighter in the summer of 1995.
Still, for Lally, a lifelong Washingtonian, the good far outweighed the bad. Lally, now a lobbyist for the D.C. office of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was able to fulfill his dream of buying and renovating a Victorian town house in the cityand doing it in a neighborhood that seemed ripe for revitalization.
“It was an investment in the future for me,” Lally says. “When I bought my house, I knew the neighborhood wouldn’t be rough forever, that someday my kid would be able to walk around the corner, sit down in a cafe somewhere, and drink a Coke.”
Now that long-dreamed-of resurgence finally seems to be on the horizonbut not the way Lally imagined (see “The Merchants of H Street,” 9/29/00). Although nearly every town home along the streets of Lally’s Stanton Park neighborhood has been purchased and renovated, the 300 block of H Street itself, once envisioned as a gateway to a thriving urban business and shopping district, looks to be transformed instead into something straight out of strip-mall suburbia: a gas-’em-up megastation.
Just over the Hopscotch Bridge from Union Station and adjacent to the Capital Children’s Museum, BP-Amoco, pending city approval, plans to build what the company describes as a “gas station of the future,” a petroleum fantasy of bombastic proportions extending the length of an entire city block.
Called the BP Connect, the 24-hour-a-day station will offer not only the car-centric details of a gas station, such as a car wash and a minimart. If all goes as planned, it will alsoto the astonishment of more than a few H Street neighborsoffer Internet kiosks right at the pump, where drivers can scroll through news headlines and even check their e-mail while gassing up the family ride.
In November, the company closed its Amoco station at 316 H St. NE, having quietly bought up the rest of the city block surrounding the 3,000-square-foot station. The planned megastation will be at least 10 times larger and will be only the third such BP-Amoco superstation worldwide. (The other two are in London and Atlanta.) Early last month, the entire block was fenced off in preparation for demolition, even though the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals recently postponed a hearing on the company’s building application until March 20.
That has Lally and some Stanton Park neighbors up in arms, not only because they believe BP-Amoco appears to be thumbing its nose at city regulators, but also because they hope to preserve at least one of the handful of existing H Street storefronts slated for demolition: a 19th-century wood-frame house built by Irish immigrants during the Civil War era.
“There aren’t many pre-Civil War buildings left in the District of Columbia,” explains Drury Tallant, chair of the Stanton Park Historical Preservation Society. “This building merits recognition, though honestly, at this point, I don’t know that we have a shot at saving it.”
But for most people in the area, it’s not a question of historic preservation. The biggest issue is how to prevent H Street from simply becoming a commuter highway between the District and the Maryland suburbs and, at the same time, boost the area’s economic prospects.
There is nothing particularly attractive about the 300 block of H Street NE. On a cold afternoon in late December, the old Amoco station, its exterior run-down and its lot filled with broken beer bottles and trash, sits empty behind its temporary chain-link fence. The gas pumps have been dismantled, their nozzles and hoses removed. Plastic signs advertising the store’s specials remain, including one touting a promotion on cartons of Virginia Slims cigarettes.
Along the adjacent buildings, windows and doors have been boarded and reboarded up, though it’s hard to spot a naked piece of wood beneath the posters advertising everything from Jennifer Lopez’s album to the new Catherine Zeta-Jones film, Traffic.
Smack in the center of the block sits what Tallant and the Stanton Park neighbors now call the Timothy Allen House, in honor of the Irish immigrant who built the edifice that, they hope, could save the city block from total demolition.
“We think it might have been built around 1860,” Tallant says, noting that wood-frame houses like it were outlawed in the District in 1874 to make way for sturdier metal-frame and brick buildings. Back then, the H Street neighborhood was known as Swampoodle, an enclave populated mostly by Irish families.
Allen, according to a history of the building prepared by the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association, first built the two-story house as a residence, but later the lower level was used as a grocery store, and Allen continued to live upstairs. The history gets sketchy from there. Lally and Tallant last month petitioned the D.C. Preservation Review Board to designate the Allen house a city landmark. The board refused to do so, though it did note that the building had historic merit.
That ruling may not prove to be much help in negotiating with BP-Amoco over its new gas station. The company, in several meetings with the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association and local officials, has offered little in the way of compromise over the scope of development, despite a damning review of the proposed station last month by the District’s Office of Planning.
“This proposal is not the type of development appropriate for [H Street],” District Planning Director Andrew Altman wrote in a 15-page evaluation of the project. “A development this large should be incorporating a mix of uses including office and residential uses….Development of a large portion of the corridor for a gas station will deprive the neighborhood of space for uses needed to revive the neighborhood.”
In closing his review, Altman noted that BP-Amoco, in meetings with the Office of Planning, was “unwilling to change the site design. BP-Amoco ‘only sells gas’ and would not consider putting other preferred uses or structures on the site.”
Neither officials with BP-Amoco nor the company’s lawyer, John Patrick Brown, returned phone calls seeking comment for this story. However, Jeff Folks, the company’s director of government and public affairs, told the Washington City Paper in September that the company simply wants to locate its new gas station on a busy thoroughfare near the Capitol and in a place with prospects for revitalization. And it hasn’t hurt that the old station was BP-Amoco’s most lucrative in the Washington area.
“One way to look at this is that we’re one of the largest corporations in the world, and this is a place we want to grow and invest,” Folks said. “That’s got to be a positive.”
Should BP-Amoco move forward with the design of its new gas station on H Street NE, Christopher Hunter will be able to walk out his front door on 4th Street and head almost directly into the new car wash planned for the site. That may not be his ideal front yard, but, like many in the neighborhood, Hunter is torn between hating the idea of a huge gas station on the adjoining block and wanting something more than decrepit buildings on the property.
“I feel like we really need change, and I don’t have a problem with a gas station,” Hunter says. “It’s just going to be so big, and that’s a concern of mine. How is that going to affect the neighborhood?”
But Hunter, who searched for months to find the perfect town house before settling in Stanton Park two years ago, says a bigger worry is that H Street could somehow be left behind in the District’s development boom should the gas station idea stall. “It’s a tough call to make sometimes,” he says.
Indeed, Tallant and others arguing against BP-Amoco’s BP Connect say they aren’t opposed to a gas station on the site, as long as it’s on a smaller scale.
“I just fear that people will settle for this, taking anything they can get for the property instead of pushing for building something that’s more appropriate for the neighborhood,” Tallant says. “This isn’t just about a gas station. It’s really about dictating the entire future of the neighborhood.” CP