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From Union Station to Benning Road, the streetcar means business

A streetcar passing the Giant grocery store on H Street

Sidamo Coffee during the 2013 H Street Festival

A map from the city's streetcar website underscores connections to transit and local businesses

D.C.—on a still undisclosed date, most likely this spring—will soon have a streetcar for the first time since 1962.
The first part of the line to open will run east from Union Station, stopping at the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road, just west of the Anacostia. D.C. is testing the system now, though there's still no official word on an opening date.
A city-funded study says that building all eight streetcar lines would increase existing property values by $5 to $7 billion and spur $8 billion in new development. And while construction of the first line has snarled traffic and temporarily turned visiting H street into a logic puzzle, business owners along the first upcoming line are generally positive.
Blair Zervos, owner of H St. Country Club at 1335 H St. NE, tells Elevation DC that despite the growing pains, the addition of streetcar service will be a net gain for the neighborhood.
“Ultimately, I think it’s good for us,” Zervos said. The main question he gets from customers about the streetcar has to do with the streetcar’s accessibility to the street--like where it will be in relation to bike lanes and parking. Many customers live in the neighborhood and walk to the bar, others take the X2 Metrobus down H St. or walk from Union Station. Zervos himself lives above the bar.
“Of course people want a metro stop that’s kind of down in the heart of H St., or at least goes out to Benning and Bladensburg road, so the trolley kind of solves that.
“In our opinion, we’re actually going to see a lot of people we wouldn’t normally see who wouldn’t normally take public transportation to the area,” Zervos said. “It’s going to draw a crowd just because they’re curious and want to ride it and see it.”
Since the streetcar will be the first in D.C. since the 1960s, it will “draw some tourism” in the area.
"There must be something to start"
Near the other end of the streetcar line, a few blocks from where it will terminate near Union Station (until a planned extension goes all the way to Georgetown) there’s Kenfe Belley. He has owned Sidamo Coffee and Tea at 417 H St. NE for nine years. His opinion? Though the streetcar is a good thing, one single new mode of transportation couldn’t change the neighborhood.
The H street corridor is “deserted” during the day, Belley said, because not many people work in the area. At night and on weekends, H street is busy, and the streetcar will help draw people to the area, but Belley can’t say whether it will transform the neighborhood.
It’s a “chicken and the egg” situation, Belley says--H street needs more businesses to open to draw more people to the area, but no one knows whether the streetcar or businesses will spur a busier 9-5 H.
“It cannot change everything, but it’s good--there must be something to start, and it’s a good start,” Belley says.
If people take the streetcar to H street instead of driving, that’s definitely a good thing, Belley says. But it won't be the one thing that changes the neighborhood.
According to Belley, H street needs more retail, such as bookstores, cafes and restaurants to see a true benefit from new transportation options.

"In the long-term, we see how it will benefit us"
At the far end of the line lies Langston Golf Course—an 18-hole golf course established in 1939 that winds around Kingman Lake and was named one of Golf Digest’s best places to play in 2008.  
General manager Louis Tate, PGA, admits there have been more than a few growing pains for the streetcar, but he and his co-workers are generally very excited for it to start service.
“We’re excited because [the line] terminates right here at Langston,” he says. “The problems are mostly behind us, but it was pretty brutal on us in the winter months.”
Tate’s referring to streetcar construction creating only one lane of traffic going past Langston, and also 26th street NE being closed off near Langston for about three months.
“It’s had quite an impact, but they worked with us and kept us abreast of what was going on and did everything they could,” Tate says. “In the long-term, we see how it will benefit us. I think it will increase business.”
Karen Szala, a D.C. real estate agent, says she’s seen a lot of neighborhood development along H street NE because of the promise of the streetcar.
More and more people are ditching car ownership, Szala says—realizing they can use public transportation for shopping, connecting to the metro and getting to nightlife on H street. The area is appealing because of its potential.

For new homeowners along the streetcar line, “it’s not just about moving into a place—they really see a future in that place,” Szala says.
A client of Szala’s who works downtown just bought a condo on 18th and Benning Road NE and is very excited to use the future streetcar to go to work, meet friends and go grocery shopping--all without waiting for the bus or parking a car.
In regard to buying in an area that, according to Szala, in recent history has been a mix of long-term homeowners and newcomer renters, Szala says some people are really interested in being at the forefront of a changing and growing neighborhood, establishing themselves—and the streetcar is adding to that growth.
“The streetcar will connect neighborhoods that are overlooked,” Szala says. “It’s been a reason why people are interested in the [H street corridor and east] neighborhood for a few years now.”
The streetcar is bringing a new mode of transportation to the neighborhood, but also new ideas about laying down roots in a demographically diverse area of the city.
“As the streetcar tracks get laid down, as cheesy as it sounds… it’s bringing new ideas about home ownership, and we’re going to see more people come over to the Northeast.”

Read more articles by Ashley Gold.

Ashley Gold is currently the associate editor for FierceHealthIT in Washington, D.C., covering all things healthcare technology. She’s written for daily newspapers covering local news, higher education and crime, and is interested in music, urbanism, biking, her home city of Pittsburgh and quality coffee. She lives in Mt. Vernon Triangle and frequents the Taylor Gourmet nearby as often as she can.
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