Friday, August 3, 2012

my look at d.c. underground

This is the stuff spy movies are made of: abandoned underground tunnels; secret entryways; a surreptitious effort by a small coalition of people to slowly garner support for their plans. Well, this was my reality yesterday, when I and a handful of my colleagues were led along the Connecticut Avenue underpass, through a steel door, and into the abandoned streetcar station beneath Dupont, one of D.C.'s prime neighborhoods. Built in 1949 to reduce congestion from the old trolley system, the streetcar station virtually mirrors the traffic circle above. It was closed in the 1960s when public buses largely replaced trolleys in the city and has sat for more than 30 years without serious investment. For the past two years the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground (which includes members from the successful High Line project in New York City) has been quietly working with the city government and National Park Service to possibly transform the 75,000-square-foot space into a hub for the arts. Their proposed plans, I think, are fantastic.


Inside the tunnels were hot, and the air stale, still, and musky. Graffiti marred the walls, and broken glass and newspapers from years past littered the dusty cement floors. You couldn't hear the traffic above; the concrete walls were very thick and, said our guide, some suspect the underground area was built to double as a place to dismantle atomic bombs if need be. Strings of industrial lights guided our way ... until they didn't, leaving us to our weak flashlights (or iPhones) to ensure we didn't go off the wrong trolley trail. It was spooky. 

When we reached the center of the station, where passengers got on and off their trolleys, a platform appeared and the walls switched from bare concrete to orderly tiles, making the space a little more friendly for pedestrians. Old lettering marked entry- and exit-ways where passengers once rushed up stairs to catch buses or navigate the city afoot.


Before long, we were seated and 10-minute slideshow was projected onto the walls. In three phases (for a reported $15 million), the group hopes to transform the space into a venue for exhibitions, events, and entertainment. It would become "D.C.'s center for the arts," as our guide called it, replete with an arts gallery, a restaurant, lecture hall, bookstore and cafe, and--my favorite--wine cellar and tasting bar. They're also rethinking the public spaces above ground with new plazas, cobblestone streets, and a designated space for the popular Dupont farmers market. Sounds awesome, right?

Well, there's always a catch: While the city owns the tunnels themselves, many of the entrances to the underground station lay in the middle of small island parks. The project requires a consolidation of National Park Service property and District of Columbia property. Cap it all off with the need for Congressional approval, my friends, and this arts hub, as our guide said, could take years before construction could even begin. Welcome to the District, I guess. 

In any case, I'm a big fan of the proposal. I think it would invite a fresh scene into the Connecticut Avenue axis between Florida Avenue and the Mall--an area currently populated by law firms, lobbyists, and a Cosi on every corner. If it does ever come to fruition--call up the babysitter!--as there's no doubt this would be a go-to date-night destination for Jon and me. Crossing fingers...