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Op-ed: Kennedy Street's time has finally come

During the first Kennedy Street Sidewalk Festival, parents and children alike found things to do

Muralist Zsudayka Nzinga during the first Kennedy Street Sidewalk Festival

Editor's note: This is the first of many articles from people on the ground building D.C.'s next neighborhood. Want to tell us about how you're building up your neighborhood? Contact managing editor Rachel Kaufman at [email protected].

You don't have to upsell the potential of Kennedy Street NW to the people who love living up here. For us, the street sells itself. Those of us who have come together to form the Kennedy Street Development Association (KSDA) see our job as getting this story out to like minded entrepreneurs and supporters of locally-oriented small business growth.

Since we put out the call on social media for volunteers for businesses and committed area residents to come together to  promote a vibrant commercial and social hub for our neighborhood, the community has responded. In just five months, our all-volunteer team and hundreds of supporters have contributed to our vision of reviving a safe, walkable, vibrant street that serves all of us. Some of the early progress we’ve made to improve the business climate on Kennedy include:
  • Requested a walking meeting with Councilmember Bowser and city agencies to push for District government action on its commitments to improve business conditions
  • Convinced the DC Council to increase funding for a streetscaping project by 30%, and to extend the Great Streets program to the most needy end of the street
  • Called for and received transportation improvements such as a new bus shelter, expanded bus service hours, and Capital Bikeshare stations
  • Mobilized community support for DC Water to pilot Green Infrastructure on Kennedy Street
  • Organized pro-bono design, construction, and permit advise for several local businesses
  • Won a city-wide competition to construct a playable modern art sculpture as the community centerpiece
Medium and long-term residents have been saying for years that Kennedy’s turnaround was right around the corner. While crime rates have plummeted below those of gentrifying neighborhoods, the area’s business district has not yet followed up. But our quick progress has the community’s hopes high.

The ingredients for one of DC's last true main streets
Kennedy Street NW is a 1.5 mile east-west corridor of row houses and low-rise commercial properties connecting North Capitol to 16th Streets NW across a northern swathe of the District variably thought of as Manor Park, North Petworth, Brightwood Park, and 16th Street Heights. Planners intended Kennedy Street to be the commercial heart of the area when it was built out about a century ago, and it once hosted a theater, a streetcar, and a number of thriving Jewish delis, Italian barber shops, and other neighborhood-serving businesses. 

In the intervening decades, much of the development in the District, like many places in America, has focused on major developments that bring in nationwide retailers. Late last year, Walmart opened one of two planned urban-format stores with a half mile of both ends of Kennedy Street, to much fanfare from the District council and government. 

There is no denying that major developments have fundamentally changed neighborhoods like U Street and Columbia Heights, with results both positive and negative. Kennedy Street NW may be one of the last commercial corridors north of the Anacostia that could evolve with the neighborhood while maintaining some true main street charm that it had decades ago. The street is bookended by, rather than centered on, metro stations and the planned Georgia Avenue streetcar line.

This is why we believe we can balance attracting neighborhood amenities that everyone wants, while maintaining the community’s great diversity and familiarity. People actually say hello to each other up here, and we want to grow and attract neighborhood-serving businesses that would build on these traditions.

Revival starts close to home

To realize our vision, KSDA volunteers are helping existing businesses promote themselves and evolve to respond to neighborhood demand. We are working to attract new locally-owned small businesses that complement the services that current businesses provide. We cooperate with any agency, organization, or individual who shares our values.

We started by organizing a poll of neighborhood residents, to see how well the street was serving neighborhood needs. The response confirmed what we believed to be Kennedy Street's potential. Of the over 300 respondents:
  • Over 75% of respondents want to shop more often on Kennedy Street, but the offerings don't meet their needs
  • Huge majorities of respondents wanted sit-down restaurants (95%), arts venues (70%), health and fitness studios (60%) and other retail to patronize
  • These are ideal customers - more than half have been in the neighborhood over 3 years, and two thirds have household incomes above $100,000
These resident priorities are in line with the District’s small area plan. The entire street is zoned C-2-A, a flexible code that allows for business and residential uses for our commercial buildings and row houses. 

So, the opportunity for prospective business owners is clear. While the data favors the kind of growth we envision, there are still barriers to growth that KSDA wants to help new and old businesses overcome. Street life is currently muted as there are few destinations or amenities to attract pedestrians and customers. This is why one of our first priorities was to get the District government to fulfill its commitments to improve the visual appeal of the street, and make a statement to entrepreneurs that the government is investing in the street with them. 

Many properties are sold or leased directly by owners, so there is little information about them available. We are now taking an inventory available properties and connect potential tenants to vacancies that they may otherwise miss.

Our businesses are evolving with the neighborhood

Several of our business members are working with us to respond to these resident needs. 

Culture Coffee, a community-oriented coffee shop and arts venue at 709 Kennedy Street NW, is one of the first businesses to open up to serving the whole neighborhood. Co-owners Saundrell Stevens and Veronica Cooper have added occasional beer & wine nights and weekend omelet stations to serve demands for sit-down restaurants and bars that huge majorities of our resident survey respondents were clamoring for. 

Andrene's Caribbean & Soul Food, at 308 Kennedy Street NW, is working with our volunteers to design a seating area and remove security glass that she knows is no longer unnecessary. Luis Manequin of Taqueria Distrito Federal II at 805 Kennedy is planning outdoor patio seating to serve tacos and cervezas outside during the summer months. And the Ache Lounge is looking at improving its street appeal, adding a kitchen, and working with us to appeal to the widest possible demographic.

But there are spaces available for new business. Some of our members are even ready to invest in new businesses. We encourage interested investors, developers, and entrepreneurs to contact us to learn more about the opportunity to grow with a great neighborhood. Or just come up and see for yourself.

The author is a co-founder of the Kennedy Street Development Association.
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