On a recent sweltering afternoon, the construction crew working along the 1300 block of H Street Northeast seems oblivious to the heat.
The men in white construction hats are pouring concrete for what will someday be the platform of the much-anticipated streetcar line, smoothing the surface that the owners of businesses lining the street hope will teem with people, thirsty for a beer at a pub or looking to take in a play.
The construction has been creeping along H Street since the summer of 2008, a block or two at a time, and finally, it has reached the corridor’s final frontier, home to some of its biggest businesses, including the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Rock N Roll Hotel, H Street Country Club and Biergarten Haus.
And while the merchants put up with orange cones, pothole-pocked streets and a surfeit of foot traffic, they reassure themselves with a simple mantra: June 30.
That’s the date by which D.C. Mayor Vince Gray has promised that the bulk of construction on the streetcar tracks — and the jack-hammering, redirected traffic and general blight that has come with it — will end.
“I’m feeling confident,” says Jason Feldman, co-owner of the Star and Shamrock, a bar and eatery that improbably fuses Irish and Jewish influences. “I figure that they’ve had 14 blocks of practice, so this part should go smoothly. Everybody’s seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Frank Hankins wants to believe in June 30. But Hankins, who owns SOVA coffee shop, has come to take everything city officials say with a large grain of salt.
“I hate to say this, but if they tell you one thing, you can maybe believe 30 percent of it,” he says.
The city is vowing the project is, well, on track. “We expect to have it done,” D.C. Department of Transportation spokesman John Lisle says.
That’s not to say the streetcars will be rolling down H Street just yet.
Terminals, power stations and the cars themselves will all have to be installed before service begins sometime next year. But June 30 marks the end of the big upheaval that lays the groundwork for the cars — or so the mayor says.
And collectively, the block’s band of merchants is holding its breath.
“It’s a major marker in this pregnancy,” says Anwar Saleem, executive director for H Street Main Street, a nonprofit devoted to developing businesses in the area.
At King Nails, a tiny salon where customers can get their fingers and toes decorated with intricate flowers or even their names, owner Liza Ma has had enough.
The week before, the construction cut off her water supply. She says some of the crew brought her 5-gallon jugs, but she couldn’t do pedicures in cold water. So she had to turn away customers.
And at SOVA, the morning coffee-and-pastry business is down. Hankins says many of his customers like to pull up and park in front of the cafe, but because there’s no parking on his side of the street, many of his regulars just drive on by.
Austin Young, who waits tables at the H Street Country Club and manages Dangerously Delicious Pies, says business at both of his places of employment has taken a hit. At one point, pedestrians were blocked from crossing the street at one end of the block, he says, all but cutting off the businesses.
“Cars are getting booted,” he says, “which is a big deterrent.”
While many business owners are skeptical of the city’s promises, most are encouraged by the pace of the work going on outside their doors. The merchants agree that the crews have been hard at it, even in the recent heat wave.
Lisle says the official deadline named in the contract with the construction company handling the project, Capitol Paving, for completing the work isn’t until October, but Gray moved it up in a gesture of reassurance to the business owners and residents impatient for results.
There’s no contractual penalty if the work isn’t finished by June 30, he says, but DDOT is working with the contractor to speed up the process by expanding the area the crews are permitted to work on at once.
Hope for the Future
Feldman says the merchants shouldn’t be surprised by the inconveniences.
“It hasn’t been great for business,” he says of the construction. “But we all knew it was going to happen, and in fact, many of us came here based on the fact that there would be construction.”
Many were lured by the city’s vision for the corridor: a well-lit, attractive setting where customers from all over the city feel comfortable and can easily reach even the farthest businesses using a nostalgic mode of public transportation.
Getting to this point has been a bumpy ride. The most recent streetcar drama unfolded last year, when the D.C. Council approved a budget with little money for the cars, at then-Councilmember Gray’s suggestion, effectively killing the project. But in a quick turnabout after outcry from constituents, the council found $47 million to complete it.
Lisle estimates the track-laying along
H Street and nearby Benning Road has cost $12 million. The H Street streetcars, all told, will cost $30 million, he says.
And more than the promise of an end date, merchants say the vision of a finished H Street has kept them optimistic. Many are already seeing encouraging signs, such as the tidy look where the construction has been completed, allowing customers to comfortably traipse the street, which boasts thriving business blocks at both ends but a relatively empty middle stretch.
“Hopefully soon, it will look more like what everyone wants it to be,” Young says as he eyes the orange cones outside the window of the pie shop, “which is a more refined area, a place where people just want to hang out.”