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Arts Leaders Push To Revitalize The "Dupont Underground"

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D.C. arts leaders want to revive the 75,000-square-foot space underneath Dupont Circle.
Geneva Cegelis
D.C. arts leaders want to revive the 75,000-square-foot space underneath Dupont Circle.

On a rainy lunch hour in D.C., just north of Dupont Circle, Julian Hunt leads 15 people down a narrow, brick sidewalk that hugs Connecticut Avenue. They walk against traffic under the Q Street overpass, and then Hunt ushers them through a door in the stone wall. It's almost completely dark inside the tunnel.

"Anyone bring flashlights?" Hunt asks. He tells the group he's only brought one. The tour group includes architects, business owners and artists. They've come to see the potential future site of Dupont Underground and to meet the man who's drawn up the audacious plan, architect Julian Hunt.

Hunt is a founding member of the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, the nonprofit created solely to transform this space. Walking at a brisk pace that leaves some behind in the dark, Hunt narrates the history of the tunnel as he sets off along a northbound pair of streetcar tracks.

"It was originally built right after the second world war to, more or less, atomic bomb standards--very heavy construction," Hunt says. "And in fact, it was designated a bomb shelter."

In the mid-'90s, the street-car-station-turned-bomb-shelter became a short-lived food court called Dupont Down Under. Now it's a decaying loop of tunnels--75,000 empty square feet--sandwiched between Dupont Circle above and the Metro station far below.

"When we first came down here, there was no electricity, no light, nothing," Hunt says.

But his group thinks it knows what to do with the space now. The nonprofit has an exclusive rights agreement with the city, which allows it to explore financing and development options. If they can prove there's enough money and interest by the end of 2012, they will be able to sign an official lease.

Possibilities and challenges for Dupont Underground

On a graffiti-scrawled concrete wall, Hunt projects his drawings of what could be down here. Potential tenants include wineries, bookstores, art galleries and performing arts groups, he says. Even some major national retailers have expressed interest in renting the space. But Hunt acknowledges he still has a lot of obstacles to overcome.

"Architecturally and financially, politically and historically, it's a very complex problem," Hunt says.

One major challenge is the width of the tunnels: only about 15 feet from side to side in most places and about 30 feet across at the old station platforms. But, Hunt says, he thinks the narrow space can work because of the success of New York City's High Line, a rail platform transformed into a park.

"And in fact, one of the development consultants for the High Line, one of their principals, is now on our board," Hunt says.

The Dupont Underground project counts several big D.C. names among its supporters as well, including a city councilman, the Phillips Collection Museum and several arts organizations. One of the biggest champions of the project is Warehouse Theater owner Paul Ruppert, who acted as chairman of the coalition board for three years after he saw the exhibition possibilities in the space. But he realizes it might still be a stretch to gain enough support.

"The reality is that for this to be a success, we need to have thousands of Washingtonians think this is a good idea," Ruppert says.

Not only that, but, at the group's most recent estimate, they'll need about $30 million for renovations.

"We're looking at potential support from philanthropic organizations, potential support from the city, and then of course, we'll be looking for leases with our partnering organizations and businesses," he says.

For now, the group continues fundraising and planning--and taking time to listen to the D.C. community. Back in the tunnels, Hunt ends each tour with a request.

"These tours are kind of crowdsourcing for other people's ideas," he says. "We're looking for more ideas."


[Music by: "Down Under" by Colin Hay from Man @ Work]

Photos: Dupont Underground

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