Neighborhood-making in Midcity
The 14th and U Street corridors feel like one commercial district. And they’re even treated that way by zoning regulations, nestled under an overlay that imposes special rules on construction and business uses. But when talking about the area, it’s easy to stumble over what to call it: Dupont? Logan Circle? The U Street Area?
For a while now, the local business association has been working to affix the label “Midcity.” And now, the same folks who spearheaded the area’s zoning review are heading up a branding campaign to really make it stick.
“There’s a real lack of visual branding for this neighborhood,” says Andrea Doughty, who also led ANC 2F’s Arts Overlay review committee. “Georgetown has quite a distinct look and feel to it. People were lamenting the fact that that does not exist here.”
At the moment, Doughty says, newcomers traveling along 14th Street sometimes can’t see past the dead zones of vacant or uninviting buildings (like the Verizon data center) enough to continue all the way to U Street. The Arts Overlay committee’s zoning recommendations, like one lifting the cap on bars and restaurants, will help bring in businesses to help fill in those gaps—but zoning can’t do it all.
So, having landed a $200,000 Neighborhood Investment Fund grant—the first such grant that the city has handed out for a neighborhood branding project—Doughty and local graphic designer Carol Felix are planning a series of meetings with neighbors and businesses to hash out a marketing strategy. Tactics could involve everything from lamppost banners to street art to annual events, all aimed towards creating a cohesive sense of place.
The primary target isn’t so much the nightlife, which seems to be growing apace. Rather, the branding effort is meant to help out daytime retail, which requires steady foot traffic. Felix, who also has a commercial real estate license—and is married to local broker Wayne Dickson—says that prospective retailers are often scared off by empty streets in the middle of the day.
“They come here and they ask, where are the people?” she says.
Potential design concepts will be housed on a new website for review and input. But after the $200,000 grant runs out—it’s amazing how fast a couple hundred grand goes—it may be difficult to squeeze more money out of the city for more substantial upgrades, like a currently-shelved streetscape makeover. The problem: 14th Street already has too much going for it.
“I have heard officials say, you don’t need this, 14th Street is paved in gold,” says Dickson. “We’re not getting the help we need.”
Update, 8:48 p.m. - I should have mentioned: The Midcity name is not just an invented thing. It actually dates back to the 1930s, as DCist documented in 2006. Or, as Felix puts: "People think we made it up, but we didn't!"