History of the H Street Corridor

Overview of H Street:

Spanning across the District’s northeast quadrant, H Street NE benefits from its strategic location within the City and region.  Surrounded by traditional neighborhoods, including Near Northeast, Stanton Park, Linden, Trinidad, and Kingman Park, among others, the Corridor is located in a dense residential area.  The eastern part of the Corridor houses large-box retail stores. The CVS and Hechinger Mall located between 15th and 17 Streets NE attract customers from a large geographic area. Further to the east lies the Anacostia River.  The Corridor functions as a vital link between its surrounding neighborhoods and the District’s transit network. Union Station, located at the western end of the Corridor with its various rail services, allows many residents and businesses to economically commute to and from other parts of the District and the region via Metrorail, Amtrak, VRE and MARC trains. Similarly, the Greyhound and Peter Pan bus stations, located in the northwest of the Corridor, provide additional transit options for many residents and customers.  The soon to be completed New York Avenue Metrorail station, located a few blocks north of the Study Area will further enhance the Corridor’s transit accessibility.  Metro buses link H Street with other destinations in the
District.
The Corridor, from its western terminus at North Capitol Street to the Starburst intersection consisting of several major arterials (Benning Road, Florida Avenue, Maryland Avenue, 15th Street, and Bladensburg Road), provides pivotal automobile and bus connections to these and other important District locales. From the Starburst intersection, southbound Maryland Avenue links the Corridor to the U.S. Capitol and the monuments and museums at the National Mall. Continuing west across North Capitol Street, H Street NW provides a short and easy route to the new Washington Convention Center, Chinatown, and the Downtown business district. 15th Street NE connects the Corridor to RFK Stadium and the Anacostia Waterfront area via Independence Avenue and C Street NE.  Similarly, Florida Avenue, from its intersection with H Street, traverses the northern quadrants of the District westbound toward Dupont Circle and Georgetown. At the Corridor’s eastern end, Benning Road connects with the Anacostia Freeway, which travels north and south along the Anacostia River. North of H Street, Bladensburg Road intersects with New York Avenue/US Route 50, which connects to DC/MD-295 into Prince George’s County (northbound) and into Virginia (southbound) via I-95/495.
The Corridor’s role as a commuter spine, its proximity to other important District destinations, and the surrounding residential density collectively attract  a large number of people. Although the Corridor is currently used by a range of commuters – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and automobile users – vehicular traffic dominates the streetscape and public realm.

Early History:
The neighborhoods of Near Northeast, Stanton Park, and Linden, including the historic H Street NE Corridor, were originally included as part of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the District of Columbia.  Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue, was one of the northern boundaries of the City. The areas north of Florida Avenue, including the present day campus of Gallaudet University, were large country estates located outside of the original federal city plan. Although conceptually planned in the late 18th Century, much of the land within the Corridor remained undeveloped until after the Civil War, because many areas were marshy and unsuitable for building. H Street itself was not constructed until 1849, although historical literature reveals that a 90-foot right-of-way was designated for the Corridor as part of L’Enfant’s plan. The Corridor is the site of some of the first important travel routes connecting Washington to other northeastern cities. In the early 1800s, the Bladensburg turnpike was an important connection between Washington and Bladensburg, Annapolis, and Baltimore. From the time of L’Enfant’s plan, the intersection of the turnpike with Maryland Avenue (where there once stood a tollgate) was envisioned as a special place and gateway into the City. These routes are also historically significant because the British used them in 1814 when they entered the City and burned down the U.S. Capitol and the White House. The appearance of the railroad into Washington in the 1830s was another important factor that shaped the development of the H Street commercial corridor and its surrounding neighborhoods. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad arrived in 1835, near the site of present day Union Station, and the railroad’s proximity to the Near Northeast neighborhood and the jobs it provided played a large role in developing and shaping the surrounding areas into middle class neighborhoods.

The 1849 construction of H Street NE preceded the development of most of the other east-west connecting streets in the Corridor. Near the intersection of North Capitol and H Streets, the Swampoodle neighborhood, one of the few pre-Civil War neighborhoods that existed in the city, began to develop. Its working class residents were responsible for some of the first developments along the 100 and 200 block of H Street NE. Although many roads within the District were paved shortly after the end of the Civil War, H Street NE was not paved until the year 1880.

H Street “Heyday”

The Columbia Railway Company, founded in 1870, established a streetcar line along H Street in 1872. The new streetcar spurred both residential and commercial development along the Corridor. This heightened interest in residential development along the Corridor, and many of the residential dwellings in the surrounding neighborhoods were built from the 1870s to the 1920s. The streetcar also had an influence on the location of early commercial buildings within the Corridor, as many businesses concentrated along the H Street line, the intersection of the 8th and H Streets lines, and the streetcar terminus and surrounding car barns located near the intersection of 15th and H Streets. Streetcars ran along H Street until 1949, carrying as many as 3.3 million passengers a month during H Street’s heyday (1900s-1940s). As part of the 1901 McMillan Plan for Washington, Union Station was constructed between 1903 and 1913. Although this major transportation center within the Corridor further reinforced the railroad’s importance and continued to influence the Corridor’s development, the rail yard became a physical barrier between H Street NE and the rest of the City’s downtown. In the mid 1900s the Corridor served as one of the City’s primary commercial hubs. Many chain stores located along the H Street commercial district, including People’s Drug, Hechinger’s, Giant, and Woolworth’s. In 1929, Sears, Roebuck & Company opened its fi rst store in the Washington metropolitan region at the corner of H Street and Bladensburg Road. The Atlas movie theater opened in 1938, with shops and storefronts located to the west of the theater. The Uline Arena, originally built as a home for the Washington Lions hockey team, opened just north of Union Station in 1941. The arena was the site of the Beatles’ first concert in the United States. These buildings and attractions were all part of H Street’s once vibrant commercial and entertainment district, where residents could satisfy most all of their shopping, dining, and entertainment needs.

Decline:

Although the District had been losing population citywide since the end of World War II, including residents from the neighborhoods surrounding H Street, the civil disturbances that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 further damaged the City and its neighborhoods. This event, combined with suburban growth and competition, led to population losses within the neighborhoods, and an overall decline in the commercial corridor.  Furthermore, the construction of the Hopscotch Bridge in the 1970s, completed as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s inner beltway system for the District, was an added visual and physical barrier between H Street and other downtown neighborhoods, such as Chinatown and Mount Vernon Square.

Over the years, H Street’s traditional attractiveness to shoppers, bikers, and pedestrians has been degraded due to several factors. The quality and suburban style of recent developments, such as CVS, the H Street Connection shopping center, and Auto Zone have impeded the Corridor’s attempt to regain neighborhood retail status by catering to automobiles at the expense of pedestrians. In addition, the heavy volume of automobile through-traffic and prohibition of street parking during peak hours restrict pedestrian access along H Street. The uneven quality of lighting, sidewalks, bus shelters, and other amenities accentuate the lingering perceptions that the street is still an unsafe and unwelcoming place.

Revival:

The Corridor today is slowly but steadily beginning to feel the impacts from the revitalization efforts initiated by the District and from the infusion of public dollars. The period of change and heightened community interest in transforming H Street NE began in the late 1990s, with several major planning initiatives. In 1998 and 1999, the Comprehensive Plan called for the reassessment of the Corridor’s Urban Renewal Plan to address new economic development needs.

In 2000 and 2001, during the Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP) initiative, over 500 residents, stakeholders, businesses and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions from across the area identified H Street NE as one of the key areas essential for the larger neighborhood’s revitalization. The SNAP identified the revitalization of H Street and its transformation into a vibrant commercial corridor as a top priority, and recognized that infrastructure improvements, increased safety, and beautification efforts are key to the revival process.

Future Opportunities:

The Corridor by itself is well preserved and presents a tremendous opportunity for revival and positive transformation. Generally, the basic urban fabric of the Corridor – the buildings, street patterns, and designated land uses – is still intact, with only a small percentage of empty lots.   Virtually no industrial areas exist along the Corridor, except for small parcels located within Linden Court. The environment of residential areas is improving and more people are occupying the abandoned town homes. Hechinger Mall provides shopping opportunities to local residents, and the H Street Connection shopping center, despite its suburban character, has helped maintain 8th and H Streets as the neighborhood retail corner. Furthermore, several building renovations, storefront improvements, and upper story conversions – central objectives of virtually every Main Street revitalization effort – provide other opportunities to restore the Corridor’s role as a vibrant community based street, presenting an important foundation for this Study. The H Street Playhouse is attracting patrons from across the region, and proposals for the Atlas Performance Arts Center are raising the community’s expectations that positive change is a real short-term
possibility. In terms of commercial development, the Akridge Company is preparing
development plans for the Union Station Air-Rights site. Currently, plans call
for a large-scale mixed project to include three offi ce buildings and an intermodal
transit facility south of the Hopscotch Bridge, and possibly a hotel and
parking facility north of the bridge.

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