Dupont Underground

Plans are once again underway to bring Dupont Circle's tunnels back to life—but will the neighborhood get behind it?

Washington, D.C.'s original streetcar system, like that of so many other U.S. cities, was dismantled in the early 1960s, its routes largely replaced by public buses. (It would be another 15 years before the first stage of the city's Metrorail system opened.) While most of the old streetcars operated on tracks above ground, a couple of tunnels were integrated into the system in the 1940s, the largest of which was located directly under one of the city's focal points: Dupont Circle.

One of the first streetcars enters the Dupont Circle tunnel just as construction was wrapping up in 1949.

Those tunnels still exist today, empty and full of dust. In the mid-1990s a developer named Geary Simon opened a dreary food court called Dupont Down Under in the 75,000 square-foot space, but the project was shuttered just 15 months later amid a flurry of lawsuits. After evicting Simon for failure to pay rent, the city ended up stuck in court on the matter for years, the lease eventually transferring to one of Simon's subtenants, a health club chain that opted never to develop the tunnels. That lease finally expired in 2003, but the debacle that was Dupont Down Under didn't leave much of an appetite among city officials for jumping into another ill-conceived development plan. And so it was that these tunnels, located smack in the middle of one of the District's prime neighborhoods, continued to lay fallow.

Then last year, under pressure from a group with strong ties to the city's arts scene that saw the space as so much wasted potential, the city at last issued a new RFP for the tunnels. That same group, by then calling themselves the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, emerged with the exclusive rights agreement to come up with a workable development plan. After an initial public meeting to layout the broad concept, they've since spent the last year quietly—rather extremely quietly, in fact—working on designs, courting developers and possible tenants, and generally trying to shore up as much private support as they could before releasing more concrete plans to the larger public.

The layout of the Dupont Circle trolley tunnels.

They've had good reason to remain somewhat in the shadows. Even beyond the unfortunate Dupont Down Under history, the Dupont Circle neighborhood, and really Washington, D.C., as a whole is saddled with some peculiar structural and cultural realities that make getting ambitious architectural projects off the ground particularly difficult. For one, the city is a veritable patchwork of publicly owned land that is not always under the city's control. While the District of Columbia owns the tunnels themselves, many of the logical entrances to the underground space lay in the middle of small parks, like Dupont Circle itself, that are controlled by the National Park Service. And for another, being the nation's capital, there is no shortage of historic preservation forces ready to pounce on anything that doesn't conform to the classical ideal of the federal city, even in residential neighborhoods like Dupont.

"The reality is that for this to succeed it needs to have thousands of people in Washington think that this is a good idea," says Paul Ruppert, the chairman of the Dupont Underground's current board and a fixture in the local restaurant and arts scene.

Make no mistake: What the Arts Coalition has in mind for the tunnels, even though specifics are far from being nailed down, would constitute a big change for Dupont Circle, both in form and function. In recent weeks the nonprofit's board has started to lift the veil on some of its early plans, taking small groups down into the tunnels and showing off early sketches of their vision. Among them are a series of modern, conspicuous entrances by architect Julian Hunt that could become tourist destinations in their own right. Somewhat less controversially, the concept plans also call for a park-like deck to be installed over the large hole that currently exists along one section of the Connecticut Avenue underpass, a sentiment that's been gaining traction of late. (As further evidence of the group's cautiousness, they declined to make most of their renderings available for publication).

Preservationists are less likely to be concerned with what goes inside the tunnels themselves, but the general idea is to have some combination of arts-focused gallery or performance space, a handful of eateries or wine bars, and a major retail anchor.

There's a lot that still needs to happen before the Arts Coalition can even begin selling the neighborhood on their plans, which in this city amounts to a formal political process that often ends up heavily tilted in favor of skeptical residents. The earliest the group could even hope to sign a lease agreement is next spring, and it'll likely take months longer to secure the sorts of formal letters of commitment and initial funding the city will require of the estimated $15 million project. But there's at least one sign that the Dupont Underground isn't messing around: Lionel Lynch, a principal at HR&A Advisors, one of the key development consultants behind New York's wildly successful High Line, was formally elected to the Arts Coalition's board last week.

All images courtesy Dupont Underground

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