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Dupont Underground, This Time With Art, Not Burgers

In the annals of bad ideas, the transformation of the abandoned old trolley station beneath Dupont Circle into a fast-food court back in 1995 was a championship Washington entry. The notion was that downtown workers might feel a deep need to leave the park and the surrounding blocks of eateries and shops to get their lunch instead in a dark tunnel.

To the surprise of no one except perhaps the developer and the city bureaucrats he managed to draw into his hare-brained scheme, Dupont Down Under died a quick and expensive death, followed by many years of litigation. Ever since, there have been occasional efforts to capitalize on the investment that developer Geary Simon made in transforming a trolley station that hadn't been used since 1962 into a food court. A 2003 notion to turn the site into a health club didn't work out. Nor did council member Jim Graham's proposal to use the space for the city's gay clubs that were put out of business when the District cleared out their Southeast neighborhood to build Nationals Park.

But now a group of architects and art gallery owners have come together to propose Dupont Underground, using the space for art installations, performances and art markets. The organizers seek a lease from the District and hope to raise the "relatively minor" investment they say would be necessary to put the plan into effect.

One of the organizers of the effort, Julian Hunt, is the District architect who has proposed building a deck over the portion of Connecticut Avenue that slopes down toward the Dupont Circle tunnel, instantly creating a grand pedestrian plaza and space for public amenities. The project is also supported by Warehouse Theater founder Paul Ruppert and Kim Ward, who runs the Washington Project for the Arts, as well as several other art scene figures.

Making some use of that big old space makes a lot of sense, and certainly Dupont has the foot traffic to justify an arts use. A program of events available to passersby without charge obviously has potential to actually draw people underground, but it's hard to imagine, especially in this economic climate, that many investors, or even the city, would want to pump any more money into that dark hole.

The main problem, as Dupont Down Under discovered, is that very few people see much reason to escape from the pleasant atmosphere of the circle itself, and the surrounding neighborhood is already chockablock with interesting food spots, galleries, bookstores and the like. Dupont is not as eclectic or alluring a neighborhood as it was before the virus of national chain stores infected the area, but it's still enough of a people magnet that the offerings had better be pretty terrific if you're going to lure people underground.

Would an arts space work down there? Would you go? Should the city just let the rats have the place and be done with it? Or is there some use of the space that really would draw a crowd?


By Marc Fisher |  October 8, 2008; 8:13 AM ET
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Comments

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Restrooms!

Posted by: Karl | October 8, 2008 9:31 AM

I don't think a gallery would fly. The pedestrian plaza sounds interesting though, an extension of Dupont Circle.

Now the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Five is closed and being turned into a CVS, perhaps a small theater would be the way to go with the Underground. After all, it is dark space, perfect for viewing movies.

Posted by: Rich | October 8, 2008 9:34 AM

How about we rebuild the streetcars and use the streetcar station for its intended purpose.

Posted by: Alex B. | October 8, 2008 9:37 AM

A safe homeless shelter.

Posted by: richard | October 8, 2008 9:49 AM

Its a dark, dank place down there. It won't work. And please don't create any more dead "plazas" in this city. I don't understand why people in this city seem to have this urge to create more open space, when there is tons of underutilized, underprogrammed space. If you want to deck over CT Ave, then do so with retail, not more useless open space.

Posted by: DC Boy | October 8, 2008 9:56 AM

Homeless shelter is the best solution, too bad it won't be considered, since it would not make profits.

Posted by: Greg | October 8, 2008 10:00 AM

Nah, I probably wouldn't go to a gallery; we've got Phillips and others too close. As a young professional, that doesn't appeal to me. A "down under" nightlife seems appealing actually...

If you really want ideas, open it up for tours. Paris has the catacombs, Carlsbad has the caverns...someone just might have a good idea.

Posted by: DCMaven | October 8, 2008 10:10 AM

strip club. I know, not "pc"... but their money is still green. and, you could hide it instead of displaying it like camelot.

Posted by: what'shisname | October 8, 2008 10:30 AM

How about turning it back into what it was built for and run trolleys or electric buses through there? Might speed things up and not sure how it's configured, but maybe it would allow a faster turn to G'town or to the CT Ave lines.
Otherwise how about turning it into a CVS and a Starbucks?

Posted by: another idea | October 8, 2008 10:50 AM

I would support a tunnel of art, but let it be conservative, mixed w/NY graffati art, and local artist, invite musicians to play for free, violinist, a trumphet player, a night of poetry reading, but you have to keep it pumping and exciting, once the lure dies, it dies....it has to be continuous stimulation of some kind.

Even having club, or house music playing on weekends, and inviting some new and innovative artist from all over....you know get the word out.

As far as the homeless, they can be dealt with in kindness, i've seen it done in NY.

Posted by: Frank | October 8, 2008 11:01 AM

I hate to see more box stores, but retail would seem to make the most sense and contribute most to the city. Something unique though that distinguishes the city. I can't honestly see an arts center drawing in too many people. And more plaza space will just encourage more loitering and suspect behavior...the Circle is already full enough of that.

Posted by: Dupont Resident | October 8, 2008 11:01 AM

Oh one idea would be brightness, instead of it being look at as a dark tunnel, get some killer lighting affects going, brightness, actually, thats one way to rid of homeless, if its bright and contunous sound they tend to move on.

Also, close it up at night.....also, you could have promotions, imagine, starbucks promoting a new coffee, of some kind of new telephone, Ipod, etc.,,,,its the tunnel of advertisments, and art....great combo!!

Posted by: Frank | October 8, 2008 11:10 AM

How about open it up to both Straight and gay clubs? The straight clubs would use the front door and the gays would use the back door! HA HA HA!

Posted by: Great Idea | October 8, 2008 11:12 AM

I know its politically incorrect, but I say a shooting range. If people are going to get hand guns they should have some place to learn how to safely use them.


Posted by: JohnInDC | October 8, 2008 11:14 AM

How about something similar to the torpedo factory in old town? With classes for the young and old, and a place to display...

Posted by: kurt.m. | October 8, 2008 11:45 AM

Of course it would work... And should be done.

Posted by: SG | October 8, 2008 11:51 AM

Sigh. No it won't work. It's a bad idea. Just leave it be or fill it in.

Posted by: Andy | October 8, 2008 12:04 PM

Why not use it like Eastern Market for vendors, farmers, etc. A theater would be a nice addition. A place for community workshops and seminars. Better lighting would be a great help.

Posted by: Rose | October 8, 2008 12:49 PM

Underground park .. useful for when it rains as well. Access to Dupont Metro platform.

Natural lighting via new glass bottom on current fountain plus other light shafts ala Louvre. Maybe glass floor to see Metro or .. hell?

Closed after dark unless reserved for parties.

Can still allow art and other vendors.

Stupidly expensive but folks will use it.

In the alternative .. carve a bowl out of Dupont .. with cascading steps down to what is now the underground.

Posted by: tslats | October 8, 2008 12:57 PM

Keep it dark and turn it into a gay meeting place.

Posted by: Stick | October 8, 2008 12:59 PM

Roller derby!

Posted by: Roller | October 8, 2008 3:28 PM

Great location for the Marion Barry Museum of Buried Democracy.

Posted by: Ben | October 8, 2008 3:43 PM

The long-term use of the property may well be for an extension of the streetcar line from K Street into Adams Morgan. But that is certainly years away.

Short-term, it could be used to provide a venue for the area's artists. As the area has gentrified and rents have skyrocketed, the arts community has felt the same pressures that forced out many of our unique small business establishments.

For now, this is a space without a use.. and they are creative people without a space. It's too early to say that this will work, but we should take a serious look at what Mr Hunt proposes..and wish him well in putting together a realistic proposal and funding package.

If it brings people into the neighborhood, provides a place for exhibitions, art lessons, programs, etc, we will all benefit. And Dupont will retain the arts component that has been a vital part of our history. But it won't be easy, and it will take the best efforts of many dedicated people to make it happen.

Posted by: Mike Silverstein | October 8, 2008 7:50 PM

Yeah, I guess Second Story means 'bookstores.'

Posted by: echobeach | October 9, 2008 7:53 AM

I think the popularity of art is overrated. Fine, give it a try, but don't be surprised when it fails within 6 months.
Speaking of overrated popularity, how about moving the opera down there?

Posted by: bowiemd1 | October 10, 2008 11:42 AM

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