A bevy of city economic development, planning and D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) officials gathered with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray on Monday evening last week at the landmark Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, N.E., to celebrate a special recognition with community leaders and residents.
Earlier in April, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had bestowed a 2013 Great American Main Street Award to the H Street Main Street organization for its efforts during the past 10 years to encourage and assist in the revitalization of the once languishing area.
The planned end-of-year launch of the District’s first streetcar line along H Street, from the backside of Union Station headed eastward, will serve as a symbol of the resurgent development progressively taking root. It will also mark a milestone in the long landscape claw-back from the devastation of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a transportation novelty, the streetcar project has sparked interest in the near Northeast neighborhood and spurred commercial and private sector development.
The H Street commercial district is undergoing an accelerating transformation. Near-daily announcements herald new hospitality and retail or service businesses planned or opening, along with residential and mixed-use development updates on hundreds of new construction housing units added or anticipated. A Giant Food store opened last weekend at street level beneath 215 new apartments at 3rd St. – the area’s first new full-scale grocery to open in more than 40 years.
The H Street Main Street group and tireless director Anwar Saleem, honored at the event, have spent the past decade encouraging preservation of existing thoroughfare buildings to protect its “small town” scale and historic structures. The organization has also aided legacy local small businesses with technical assistance bridging the gap to changing community demand, evolving retail needs and modern marketing opportunities. Partnering with DSLBD and other city agencies, Saleem and his community cohorts kept the vision of a renewed future alive when progress was plodding.
Mayor Gray touted the “renaissance and resurrection” of the H Street area, recalling the African-American, Irish, Russian, German and Jewish residents and shopkeepers when growing up only a few blocks away. Gray described the community at the time as “lively and diverse.” Today’s growing population of longtime and new residents, hipsters and homeowners, young and old portends a similar eclectic mix and vibrancy.
Harriet Tregoning, D.C. Office of Planning director, described the process as a “balancing act” necessary to “move to the future without forgetting the past.” She highlighted the “incredible growth in new restaurants and entertainment” venues as key to the area’s comeback.
One whirlwind force instrumental in that hospitality rebirth and instrumental in reacquainting H Street to past skeptics has been Joe Englert, the prolific creator of quirky nightlife establishments in Washington for the past 25 years.
A veteran of downtown, Dupont Circle and U Street, N.W., bars and restaurants with an edgy character and signature outlandish motifs, Englert shifted his investment focus to the Northeast strip in 2004. He opened eight watering holes and food-serving nightspots in quick succession. Englert’s commitment to what was then a forlorn 13 blocks didn’t go unnoticed.
Like the Main Street organization, Englert became a driving force in the neighborhood, encouraging business interest in its renewed potential and nurturing relationships with city politicians and agency officials. He promoted the moniker “Atlas District” and it stuck.
Due to the ongoing dedication of H Street Main Street in partnership with city officials, and the unique contribution of savvy and visionary entrepreneurs like Joe Englert, the area’s best days are to come again.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.