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This isn’t exactly surprising, given the highly mixed feelings Ward 8 residents have expressed about the prospect of streetcars rolling over the 11th Street Bridge into their community. But I was still struck at a couple of meetings in Anacostia last night by how little positive anticipation there seems to be for something that has already had such a dramatic effect on one commercial corridor, years before the first line becomes operational.
First, the District Department of Transportation convened a meeting with local business owners, who have been largely missing from public planning discussions. The reception was less than enthusiastic. James Bunn of the Ward 8 Business Council seemed quite confident that “90 percent of Ward 8 has said they don’t want the streetcar, point blank,” and focused on how businesses were to be compensated for the disruption during construction, as well as lost parking. Butch Hopkins of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation reminded the DDOT staff how former director Dan Tangherlini had reacted to a public meeting at which Anacostia residents roundly rejected the idea of running a streetcar through their neighborhood.
“He said, ‘If you guys don’t want it, I’m going to give it to H Street,'” Hopkins recalled. “And we said, ‘God bless H Street.'”
Over the last several years of streetscape construction with no streetcar yet to show for it, Hopkins’ skepticism seems prescient—on the defensive, project manager Circe Torruelllas reminded businessmen present that H Street involved a lot of utility work and FIOS installation as well as streetcar tracks, and promised that construction in Anacostia would go much more smoothly.
Next, up the hill at the Anacostia Community Museum, a panel had convened to discuss the role of the arts in community development, and left me even more perplexed. There was a lot of soul-searching about top-down vs. bottom-up ways of encouraging creative expression, and why local artists are or are not being supported by large institutions, which is for the artistic community to sort out. But at one point, moderator Phillippa Hughes wondered: “We have a lot of small projects, and that’s great, but how do we make big projects happen?”
The biggest thing that will come to Anacostia in the next several years, next to St. Elizabeths, is the streetcar. But in the entire two-hour discussion, the word “streetcar” was not uttered once, even as artists talked about the need to bring people over from west of the river, and panelists ran through all of Anacostia’s natural assets for the arts (empty warehouses, lots of vacant space, low rents).
With no streetcars yet running anywhere in the District, of course their impact on Anacostia may seem too remote to even contemplate. But tracks have already been laid East of the River, and the federal NEPA process is underway to sort out the rest of it. Considering that, and the much-ballyhooed renaissance on H Street, I was shocked that not one person mentioned the idea of using eventual streetcar access to promote Martin Luther King Avenue, or even how arts organizations should prepare for the wave of new people and investment that typically comes in advance of a streetcar’s installation.
There’s already one example of an east-of-the-river arts institution failing to leverage access to mass transit: THEARC, the glistening facility on Mississippi Avenue SE that entertains 65,000 people in its theater each year, is a 10-minute walk from the Southern Avenue Metro station. By all rights, green line access should be a catalyst for nightlife, retail, and other arts-oriented businesses. To get there, however, you have to cross a wide and busy street, make a circuitous trek around Oxon Creek, and approach the facility from the back. A bridge over the ravine and prominent signage to create easy access from the station could bring that kind of development within the realm of possibility. But it would also cost millions of dollars, THEARC director Edmund Fleet told me. (To make matters worse, the station is in Prince George’s county, not D.C.).
Anyway, a streetcar is a very powerful thing, and it’s troubling that the business community just seems to be bracing for its arrival instead of looking forward to it, while the arts community doesn’t even factor it in to their discussions at all—I just hope it doesn’t mean they get caught unawares.
The next streetcar meeting is Saturday, March 26, at 10:00 a.m. at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church.