After developer Charles D. Sager built a new neighborhood of rowhouses near the mud flats on the western bank of the Anacostia River in the late 1920s, he set about trying to sell them. “Kingman Park,” announced the cover of a 1930 brochure he published to promote the newly christened neighborhood, “a model community with modern brick homes for colored citizens.”
Sager had initially tried, and failed, to market the homes to white residents, so he quickly rebranded the neighborhood as one “restricted to colored citizens of the better class.” Its residents, the brochure boasted, were “citizens whose thrift, prudence and desire for ideal homes have caused them to locate here.”
One of the key selling points was transportation. Geographically, Kingman Park was relatively isolated: In 1988, an elderly resident told the Washington Post that when he’d bought his house on 24th Street NE for $6,174 in 1928, it was the only block in the neighborhood, surrounded by mud heaps, shrubs, and the city dump. But Kingman Park was adjacent to Benning Road, and Benning Road meant connectivity.
“All centrally located business establishments,” noted the brochure, “may be reached in fifteen minutes by street cars.”
The demise of D.C.’s streetcar network in 1962, exactly a century after the trolleys first started running, coincided with a broader urban decline in the city and the country. People and wealth fled to the suburbs as cars became the principal mode of transportation and crime began to climb. The “in-town suburb” that Sager advertised fell victim, along with so many other neighborhoods, to the farther-flung ones that prospered as the city withered.
These days, while the rowhouses of Kingman Park continue to attract middle-class families, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare of Benning Road is unlikely to draw the “model community” label. But it’s arguably a model corridor for a streetcar line to work its magic: a historic commercial strip that, with the economic boost a streetcar’s supposed to bring, could see its vacant storefronts and lots returned to productive use.
Leif Dormsjo, the acting director of the District Department of Transportation, told the D.C. Council earlier this month that the long-anticipated streetcar line along H Street NE and Benning Road, with its tracks laid and its safety certification ongoing, was no longer guaranteed to open at all, as the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser reviews the project. Streetcar critics pounced. The Post’s Clinton Yates urged Bowser to scrap the project, arguing that H Street “is walkable enough as is, so a transit plan trying to turn it into more of a tourist trap and nightlife district is misguided.” CityLab staff writer (and Washington City Paper contributor) Kriston Capps took a victory lap on behalf of a story he wrote last year titled “The Streetcar-Minus-Streetcar Plan Worked for D.C.,” in which he argued that the mere anticipation of the streetcar had stimulated enough growth along H Street that the eternally delayed trolley itself was no longer needed.
The causality here is questionable, even if the conclusion—that H Street will be just fine with or without the streetcar—is probably correct. H Street is an attractive and once-flourishing commercial corridor surrounded by handsome rowhouses that are walking distance from Union Station and the U.S. Senate offices. Joe Englert, the restaurant/bar magnate credited with sparking the corridor’s growth, has told me he started opening his venues there before he had any idea that a streetcar would follow. In other words, H Street probably didn’t need the streetcar—the idea of it or the real thing.
But Benning Road does.
“H Street has already seen some growth,” says D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie of Ward 5, which encompasses the north side of Benning. “Benning Road is likely going to be the beneficiary of the streetcar program, to the extent that we have a plan of action to nurture retail on the Benning Road corridor.”
Signs of the streetcar are everywhere along Benning. On the west end of the street, where it emerges from H Street at the “Starburst” intersection with 15th Street NE, Bladensburg Road, and Maryland Avenue, stands the first Benning streetcar stop-to-be, with two white pillars declaring “D.C. Streetcar: coming soon.” On the east end of this section of Benning is a construction site, where banners in front of the excavator inform passersby that the streetcar barn and training center is “coming in 2016.”
Across Benning from the barn site is the street’s most bustling hotspot, at least on a recent evening. “Welcome to 7-Eleven,” says Bob Coomber, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for Kingman Park, “our most successful venture.”
Coomber has lived in the neighborhood since he bought a rowhouse on 21st Street NE in 2009. “It was what we could afford at the time,” he says as we stroll westward on Benning. We pass the former DC Soundstage, which operated as a pool hall until five people were shot there one night in early 2013. Crossing 24th Street, we come to a MetroPCS store. “This place used to be a check-cashing place, but then that guy was shot, too.”
Coomber adds, “Crime on this strip, it’s an issue.”
An eastbound streetcar passes by, on one of its many test runs. Apart from the driver, the train is empty. On every door is a “do not board” sign.
When an X2 bus passes a minute later, it’s full of passengers. This is the streetcar’s central conundrum: Since its first phase basically duplicates part of the X2’s route, it’s not clear what transit benefits the trolley will actually bring. Yes, the streetcar holds more people and runs more smoothly than a bus, and it doesn’t have to pull to the side or kneel to pick up passengers. But it also will run in mixed traffic, and if a delivery truck gets in the way or a vehicle breaks down, the streetcar is stuck.
And yet everyone expects a major boost from the streetcar. In other cities that have built modern systems, like Portland, Ore., a development boom has lined the rails, although various studies have reached mixed conclusions about the efficacy of the streetcar alone, if not accompanied by zoning changes to promote higher density. Still, with so much vacancy along Benning, a spiffy new streetcar is likely to send a signal to developers that the corridor is an attractive place to invest.
“That’s what I was counting on, that businesses will see the benefit of the amount of traffic that will come through,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who represents part of the eastern portion of Benning, which is split between three wards—a political divide that Coomber blames in part for the lack of advocacy for Benning as neighboring H Street flourishes. “That we could have almost an extension of the vibrancy of H Street: That’s what I’m counting on.”
There are plenty of spots crying out for development. Between 20th Street and 21st Street, there’s a grassy vacant lot where rowhouses once stood; across from that stands a boarded-up coal power plant that’s been inoperative for more than 30 years. Apart from the gleaming white Hip Hop Fish & Chicken, most of the retail that does exist looks worse for wear, consisting largely of check-cashing spots, carryouts, liquor stores, and nail salons. Many of the shops are separated from the street by small parking lots—vestiges of an era of auto-centric isolation that the streetcar aims to undo.
The most glaring example of this obsolescence is the Hechinger Mall, just east of the Starburst intersection. The 1981 facility is an island in a sea of surface parking. It made sense at a time when its developers could barely lure retailers to that underserved part of town. Now, it looks out of place; with the arrival of the streetcar, its clock will be ticking. When it opened, it included a hardware store, a pharmacy, and the largest Safeway supermarket on the east coast. Today, the retail roster of the mall, now owned by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition, includes the likes of Dollar Tree, Dollar Magic, Ross Dress for Less, and Ace Cash Express. McDuffie, whose ward includes the mall, says it has “quite frankly outgrown its utility at this point.”
The question is what comes next—and what effect it has on longtime residents. The city estimates that the streetcar will bring an increase in nearby property values of 5 to 12 percent. That’s great news to people like Alexander, who sees it as a reward for residents who have invested in their homes, but worrisome to others, like McDuffie, who says the city will need to entice developers to build affordable housing as part of new projects and to try to preserve existing affordable housing where it’s threatened. (Much of the low-income housing along Benning belongs to the sprawling Langston Terrace public housing complex, run by the D.C. Housing Authority. But it’s the private apartments, like the two big complexes on the south side of Benning, that could be at risk as developers eye larger profits.)
According to a 2012 streetcar land use study by the D.C. Office of Planning, displacement is “most likely to appear where streetcar corridors pass through neighborhoods with lower household incomes, lower housing prices, and higher proportions of renters. Although residents in these corridors would benefit from reduced transportation costs and greater access to jobs—which could offset increased housing costs for some households—the District should monitor these areas and be prepared to step in with active measures to promote affordability.” Benning is listed among the areas where the planned 22-mile streetcar network could have the greatest impact.
“There’s still some neighbors who live in Trinidad and Carver-Langston and Kingman Park who remember as kids growing up when H Street and Benning Road was more of a thriving business corridor,” says McDuffie. “I can see a shift back to a more pedestrian-friendly corridor with more foot traffic along Benning Road. But I think the key to ensuring that it’s possible is to make sure, as we focus on the streetcar, that housing affordability exists. That is instrumental to me.”
But first, the streetcar has to start running. The ball’s in your court, Bowser and Dormsjo. And the future of Benning Road hangs in the balance.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery