An irregular feature pitching urban ideas big and small

I: Putting China Back into Chinatown

The D.C. government has long practiced a sort of trickle-down approach to development, focusing on the individual large project rather the overall tenor of the surrounding neighborhood. One problem with this is that the touted development frequently doesn’t materialize; a related difficulty is that the megaproject, unsupported by a comprehensive strategy, often unravels. Take, for example, such downtown “festival marketplaces” as the Pavilion at the Old Post Office and the Shops at National Place; both thrived for a time, but lost their vigor after the city declined to institute zoning that would have required a critical mass of downtown retail around them.

One downtown redevelopment area that’s livelier than most—at least so far—is Chinatown, which has two megastructures (Verizon Center and the Gallery Place mixed-used project) and also benefits from historic-preservation requirements that saved numerous small-scale buildings; the latter are far more amenable to retail uses than is the standard downtown office building, which usually just provides tiny spaces for luncheonettes and copy shops. Yet despite the landmark arch and a profusion of new businesses with bilingual signs, the neighborhood’s ethnic character is quickly evaporating. Slapping Chinese pictograms on Starbucks and Fuddruckers is beside the point if the adjacent Chinese restaurants and shops close.

The city should have made plans years ago to compensate for the development pressure on established neighborhood businesses, but it’s not too late. There’s still one—and only one—street that can save Chinatown: the 600 block of I Street NW, which runs parallel to the block of H Street that was once the neighborhood’s heart. By day, it could be a bustling retail strip, and in the evening it could become one the liveliest possible urban spaces: a Chinese night market.

There’s no other place for Chinatown to go. H Street is rapidly changing, 7th Street is basically redeveloped, and 6th Street—although it retains a strip of small Asian restaurants in the 600 block—is yielding to new office blocks. To the south is the recently remade “Penn Quarter”; north is the barrier of Massachusetts Avenue and more redevelopment. But I Street’s 600 block is close to ideal: low-rise, adjacent to what’s left of Chinatown, and ripe for some sort of remake.

There’s actually one Chinese eatery on I Street now, and there used to be more. A modern two-story structure, currently for rent, held a upper-level restaurant before it yielded to a now-closed sports bar, a failed attempt to capitalize on the nearby arena. Newly built or renovated commercial structures sit at the 7th Street end of the block, and a recently reclaimed synagogue anchors the southwest corner of 6th and I. In between is a string of three and three-and-half-story 19th-century rowhouses, most of them apparently used for offices. (Bargain bus companies are among the tenants.) Three of the townhouses are boarded up, and there are four vacant lots. These alone constitute enough blank canvas to paint a new Chinatown.

With a package of zoning incentives, tax abatements, low- or no-interest loans, and simple information-sharing, city planners could fill I Street with Chinese retailers and restaurants. Those who can no longer afford H Street—such as the recently closed China Doll restaurant—would be a priority, but other businesses should also be encouraged, notably some sort of Chinese or Asian market (to replace the Da Hua that vanished from H Street). Low-rise retail buildings would fill the empty lots, and converting the lower floors of the existing houses to eateries and shops would be encouraged.

Such a redefined street would certainly do well at lunchtime, attracting workers from nearby office buildings. But I Street might seem a block too far from the Verizon Center to attract crowds at night. The answer is to create an area whose appeal is as much theatrical as it is also serve as a pedestrian mall—would be opened to vendors. The newly assembled array of restaurants would set up food stalls, serving Asian street fare to browsers who don’t want to commit to a sit-down meal. It remains to be seen if the sort of discount vendors who flourish in Chinese cities would draw sufficient business in downtown D.C., but noodles, skewers, and other simply prepared foods would surely do as well as at any local street fair.

At first, the night market would operate on Fridays, Saturdays, and nights when the Verizon Center is booked. That might be enough to establish the 600 block of I Street as the new Chinatown, but perhaps the market would become a nightly occurrence; maybe it would even draw crowds in the colder months, as such markets do in northern Chinese cities. However often it operates, however, the night market will always require the city’s attention. Much like a suburban mall, the I Street bazaar would need continual fine-tuning. Unlike the megasolutions D.C. has long indulged, true urbanism is an ongoing process, not a one-shot product.