Barracks Row Transformed

Yearlong Streetscape Improvements All But Complete

Posted December 12, 2003 at 2:26pm

On a recent snowy Saturday, Capitol Hill resident Karen Rivera enjoyed a bowl of red lentil carrot soup at World Cuisine Catering and Cafe on Eighth Street Southeast as she reflected on the changes the yearlong effort to revamp the District’s oldest commercial corridor had engendered.

“Before you’d come to do a quick errand at Blockbuster, but now we’ll invite people to join us” at many of the “good quality restaurants” that dot the street, Rivera said, referring to the corridor running along Eighth Street Southeast from the Eastern Market Metro stop to the Navy Yard’s Latrobe Gate.

Rivera said she and her husband, Gary Geating, “were the biggest fans” of the District Department of Transportation’s $7.5 million Eighth Street/Barracks Row streetscape, which had included the installation of new brick sidewalks, Washington globe-style lighting, and a complete repaving and restriping of the street.

Earlier that same day, despite the freezing weather, dozens of volunteers — under the auspices of the Casey Trees Endowment Fund — turned out to put the finishing touches on the street by planting 31 Princeton American Elm trees. All in all, 77 such elms now line the street.

“I think this project in 41 years is the biggest change I’ve seen,” said Michael Hall, the longtime pastor of the People’s Church on Barracks Row, who was on hand to offer a prayer for the newly planted trees.

DDOT Director Dan Tangherlini praised the street’s rehabilitation as a boon to the city’s broader initiative to transform the Anacostia waterfront.

“This is kind of the gateway to the Anacostia waterfront,” Tangherlini said of Barracks Row. “It leads right down to the Navy Yard and the Anacostia waterfront trail.”

While the bulk of the construction is complete, Bill McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, cautioned there were still “a lot of little details” that needed to be finished by year’s end — ranging from the planting of monkey grass around the base of the elms to the repair of some establishments’ foundations, which had been damaged when the sidewalks were reconstructed earlier this year.

Just north of Barracks Row, a smaller-scale streetscape is already being planned for the Eastern Market area, along Seventh Street Southeast between Pennsylvania and North Carolina avenues. It will likely kick off in early 2005, said Ward 6 Transportation Planner Rachel MacCleery.

“We are so close to each other,” McLeod said. “As Eighth Street improves and Eastern Market improves we are going to cross-pollinate, cross-benefit each other.”

Along these lines, Barracks Row Main Street is also spearheading the Eastern Market Metro Plaza planning group. Preliminary concept designs for the revitalization of the area running from Seventh Street in the north to Eighth Street in the south and east-west along Pennsylvania Avenue have been drafted, though McLeod cautioned their implementation was likely years in the offing.

With the end of the construction, Barracks Row Main Street, which supports revitalization efforts along the corridor, is now focused on procuring funds for facade improvements and continuing to attract diverse businesses to the street.

At least two new establishments — Belga Café, an upscale French-Belgian eatery slated for 514 Eighth St. SE and the pet supply shop Doolittle’s Chateau Animaux, to be located at 524 Eighth St. SE — will likely open their doors within the next six months. Discussions are also under way for a kitchen and bathroom design shop, McLeod said.

Among its newer initiatives, the group is aiming to transform several of the street’s large alleyways into working space for local artists.

“The arts are a great economic development tool,” McLeod said, adding, “we have four very large alleys behind the retail spaces on Eighth Street” that could be converted to artists’ studios.

“This is a commercial corridor so it’s always evolving depending on the conditions,” he added, noting that 75 percent of merchants in a recent survey indicated they would be interested in changing the use of their alleyway.

Already, McLeod said, a modern furniture artist is considering moving into the alley carriage house of the International Center at 731 Eighth St. SE.

Despite the healthy influx of new establishments that the streetscape precipitated, the project was not without its casualties. A handful of businesses closed their doors or moved since the project’s September 2002 starting date — due at least in part to the disruptions the project created, McLeod said.

For the moment, however, many Barracks Row merchants believe that with the end of the construction, the critical holiday shopping season in full swing, and an upturn in the economy, their financial future is looking increasingly bright.

“I would say we are up 15 to 20 percent over last year,” said Alvear Studio Design and Imports co-owner Francisco Pliego.

And others, such as Cara Masino, co-owner of World Cuisine, are already examining ways to grow their business. Masino said by spring she hoped to expand the cafe to the second floor, acquire a beer and wine license and begin serving dinner.

“We want to create a nighttime cafe environment,” she said. “A big reason we decided to open the cafe in the first place was we saw the potential on Eighth Street.”

Every Thursday from now until Christmas, several Barracks Row establishments will stay open late and offer free gift-wrapping and wine and cheese for shoppers. As part of the festivities, Santa Claus will be on had at the Eastern Market Metro Plaza from 6 to 8 p.m. to greet children.