Almost 100 people packed into the Langston Room in the Busboys & Poets on 14th Street Tuesday night to sit through a presentation and panel discussion hosted by Carol Felix and Andrea Doughty, the team behind a new effort to apply an overarching brand name to an area that includes U Street, the 14th Street corridor, Logan Circle, and all of Shaw.
What was originally pitched as the "MidCity Arts District" initiative (though now the group is also considering "Uptown Arts District") comes with something campaigns of this kind rarely have: a big pile of money. A collective of four nonprofits came together to apply for grants from D.C.'s Neighborhood Investment Fund, and walked away with $200,000 to spend on creating this new brand.
The idea came about in the wake of the arts overlay zoning controversy that played out earlier this year. A review committee based out of ANC2F produced a report of detailed recommendations on how zoning rules in this area ought to be adjusted to allow more restaurants and bars to open along commercial corridors. That effort was ultimately successful, but now that the laws have been relaxed to allow for more development, the question became, how do you sell it to developers?
Thus, the branding campaign was born. "A marketable brand will attract shoppers to retail establishments, and patrons to art, dining, and entertainment venues," reads the pitch on midcityartsdistrict.org.
Doughty and Felix laid out their plans and aggressive time frame Tuesday night, which includes a series of meetings to collect community input, a call for submissions from local artists for work that could be printed on light pole banners and other graphics-based branding efforts, and a big roll out of the new name in early December.
"Whatever name we land on, it needs to sell this area," Felix told the crowd.
But why re-brand U Street? That was the question on a lot of minds (and lips) as the evening turned to its question and answer session.
A panel discussion that focused on the area's history as a predominantly African American artistic community got the ball rolling. Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal made a point to note that he found it offensive that a tanning salon had once operated out of the ground floor of The Ellington, the upscale U Street apartment complex that was named after native son Duke Ellington.
"I found it an affront to the history of the neighborhood," that had been commonly referred to as Black Broadway, Shallal said.
But the specter of gentrification wasn't the only elephant in the room Tuesday night. Attendees aligned with the existing MidCity Business Association, which was prohibited from being considered for one of the NIF grants because it is not a 501(c)(3) organization, were handing out copies of a January Washington Post article profiling Felix and her husband, real estate developer Wayne Dickson. "For D.C. couple, community activism launches lucrative real estate careers," reads the headline, though the message was meant to be not particularly flattering. Felix is the owner of Felix Design, Inc., a graphic design firm, and both she and Dickson are principals in Blake Dickson, a real estate firm that has brokered a number of development deals in the very neighborhoods that are set to be rebranded. In other words, these two individuals stand to profit in a very real way from this campaign.
"We've worked for years at branding this area as MidCity," said Shannan Fales, owner of vintage shop Junction. She questioned the wisdom of including businesses located all the way down by the Washington Convention Center in the same area as her store, which is located on U Street between 15th and 16th NW. "I don't even feel comfortable sending my customers down there."
Panelist Derek Hyra, an urban affairs and planning professor at Virginia Tech who is working on a book about the revitalization of the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, pointed out that much of the next phase of development will take place along 9th and 7th streets, noting the groundbreakings scheduled this week at CityMarket at O and the Howard Theatre. But for some, that only stoked concerns that the identity of the existing MidCity businesses, located along U and 14th streets, would be watered down instead of strengthened.
"We collectively did not form these boundaries," said Jean Homza of the 9:30 Club. "There's a very, very tiny group making these decisions."
For the most part, Felix waved away any concerns about her motives or the scope of the branding campaign.
"We don't see a 'you' and a 'we,'" she said. For the new brand to work, "we need mass, a collection of arts interests throughout this large area."
Additional public meetings on the Arts District branding campaign are scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Warehouse Theater, and on Monday, Sept. 13 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the DCJCC's Theater J.