The entrance to the space from New Hampshire Avenue NW, on the northeast side of the circle
The entrance to the space from New Hampshire Avenue NW, on the northeast side of the circle

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A remnant of the failed food court from the mid-1990s

If the dark tunnels under Dupont Circle feel eerie, it’s because they’re haunted by the specter of failure. First, there was the streetcar, which stopped running along the tracks there in 1962, after just 13 years. Then there was a stint as a fallout shelter that never had to be used. In the 1970s, there was talk of using the space for the 1976 bicentennial, but the plans never materialized. After more than a decade of vacancy, the space launched its most spectacular failure, a food court run by a man who, unbeknownst to the city, had been convicted of multiple crimes and spent much of the previous 20 years in jail or on probation. That lasted all of a year.

Now, after nearly two more decades of darkness, a group is attempting to bring the space back to life—-and avoid the mistakes of the past.

The Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground signed a 66-month lease with the city last month to begin transforming the former streetcar platforms and tunnels into an arts staging area, with the potential for additional uses like a hotel or a theater. The lease covers the entire 75,000 square feet of what’s now branded the Dupont Underground, but the Arts Coalition is starting with a certificate of occupancy for just over 20,000 square feet. Most of that space comprises the former streetcar platform along the east side of Dupont Circle, which measures 500 feet long by 30 feet wide. The group is aiming to launch the project this fall, but hopes to hold a few preliminary events beforehand to generate interest in the project.

The Arts Coalition is paying the city $30,000 a year for its lease, with payment deferred until year five. It’s not much money for a space of its size, but then again, from the city’s perspective, after decades of vacancy, something is better than nothing. “They see the value in experimenting,” says Braulio Agnese, a director of the Arts Coalition.

There’s plenty of experimentation involved in the project. Patrick Pendleton Smith, the director of real estate development for the Arts Coalition, got involved after independently pitching a 41-room hotel for the space, a project that’s still on the table for the long-term Dupont Underground vision, if not in the next few years. It would feature a linear design, with compact rooms shooting off a long hallway that traces the streetcar platform. Each room would be just 180 square feet, with virtual windows and skylights showing outdoor scenes on displays.

An inside view of the New Hampshire entrance

After winning the rights to the space from the city in a competitive bid in 2010, the Arts Coalition was in talks with Apple about opening a store there, potentially using the Books-a-Million space above. Those discussions have ended, says Agnese, but the group plans to reach out to the company again.

For now, it’s still not clear exactly what will occupy the space. The Arts Coalition recently gave tours to a local musician who might set up a light and sound installation, and to the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. The Phillips Collection has expressed interest in a partnership, according to Agnese. “The whole point is to create a blank shell to begin to experiment,” says Agnese.

The main goal is to attract people and make it a true community space. That starts with branding. The Logan Circle-based branding and design agency Ripe is volunteering its time to come up with a brand for the project, which it will unveil soon. The logo will feature a “DU” stencil in negative space inside a red circle. The goal is an “approachable feel,” says Ripe Creative Director Tomás Snoreck—-much like the early stage of the project itself, it’s intended as a blank canvas onto which users can project different ambitions.

A preliminary design for the site’s website shows the DU logo over the Dupont Circle fountain, with the motto, “75,000 Square Foot Creative Space, That’s Right Under Your Feet.” Ripe started a Pinterest board to gather ideas for the project back before Pinterest allowed private boards; it’s titled “Code Name Sub Rosa.”

The name captures the feel of the Dupont Underground tunnels as they are now. Other than the Arts Coalition and people they’ve shown around, most of the visitors have been uninvited. The night before I toured, a vandal broke the lock on one of the entrances and tagged much of the space with graffiti. Everywhere, there are signs of the homeless population that’s inhabited the tunnels: scattered blankets, empty bags of chips, a Sierra Nevada six-pack holder, a copy of the Washington Post from 2011, a big bottle of lotion, a porn magazine in the corner, and piles of wire casings that people presumably stripped to sell the copper wires for scrap.

Except near the entrances where some light comes in, much of the space is pitch black. In the tunnels where the trains once ran, there’s a steady whooshing sound reminiscent of the ocean. It’s the cars passing by, just feet away, through the underpass under Dupont Circle.

The first hurdle for the Arts Coalition is fundraising. The group launched a Fundable campaign last month, with the aim of raising $50,000. On the morning of my visit, a $25,000 donation from a promoter had just pushed the total to $35,000. Later that day, it topped its goal.

An artist installed this work at the Massachusetts Avenue NW entrance in 2012.

Getting the project launched will be a challenge. But keeping it operational could be even harder. “One of the biggest challenges with a space like this is, how do you continually generate interest?” says Smith.

Here are a few more views of the space the Arts Coalition has to work with:

A Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission once planned to open an office in the underground space.


Correction: This post initially misstated the number of years by which the lease payments will be deferred.

Photos by Aaron Wiener; GIF courtesy of Ripe