Georgetown Current

City Details Transit Options to Connect Georgetown, Union Station

May 29, 2013

By Alix Pianin
Current Staff Writer

After several months of traffic analysis, the D.C. Department of Transportation last week presented three possible “premium transit” systems — two streetcar options and one bus system — that could connect Union Station with the Georgetown waterfront.

Using three months of data from more than 140 intersections along the K Street corridor between 33rd Street NW and 3rd Street NE, the Transportation Department anticipated a major increase in ridership for the route, now served by the DC Circulator and various Metrobus lines. The agency expects weekday transit ridership could jump from the current 7,000 riders to an estimated 13,500 in 2040, said project manager Lezlie Rupert.

“We’re establishing that there is an actual need; you can actually quantify that,” said Rupert. “There is a real demand for a premium transit service.”

Last Thursday’s event was the final in a series of public open houses that the agency has hosted since the start of the year to discuss options for rapid and consistent service for the corridor. The Federal Transit Administration had awarded the department a $1 million grant to conduct the analysis, and the local agency hopes to eventually land federal support to construct the new system.

The first option would install a streetcar line starting at K Street in Georgetown from Wisconsin Avenue and 29th Street. It would proceed east along K Street before cutting over to H Street NE via New Jersey Avenue NW. The route would end on H Street’s Hopscotch Bridge.

This option would run 3.41 miles through eight stations and eliminate approximately 278 parking spaces, according to the agency. Estimates for construction costs are between $340 million and $370 million.

The second alternative, also a streetcar route, would begin on M Street NW between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania avenues. The streetcar would take riders along Pennsylvania Avenue around Washington Circle, on K Street to Mount Vernon Square, south on Massachusetts Avenue to Union Station, and then on H Street east to a final station at Hopscotch Bridge. Heading west, this line would pass Mount Vernon Square to take I Street back toward Washington Circle.

This second streetcar prospect would run 3.6 miles with nine stations, eliminate approximately 814 parking spaces, and cost between $380 million and $415 million, according to agency estimates.

The third option, a premium bus, would begin at the same location in Northwest D.C. as the first streetcar option and follow the same route along K Street — though the bus would continue east past New Jersey Avenue and turn south on North Capitol Street, to reach a final stop at Columbus Circle. Premium bus service generally has fewer stops, dedicated lanes and faster fare collection, all with a goal of reduced travel times, consultants said.

The bus line would wind 3.67 miles with nine stops. It would eliminate approximately 321 spaces, and it would most likely be the cheapest of the various proposals, with estimated construction costs of $210 million to $230 million.

Rupert said her team was pleased with the estimated travel times: Each transit option would typically be able to run the route either direction in 21 to 25 minutes during rush hour, according to the Transportation Department.

But Bradley Green, a Ward 4 resident who attended the presentations, said that he was disappointed that the study area didn’t include the Georgetown University campus — especially since creating a connection with the university is a priority for many following the issue.

“There’s a lot of benefit to be gained to having that included,” said Green. He also encouraged the city to explore utilizing M Street as a possible transit artery to the school. “There’s certainly a lot of concentration of potential riders along that corridor.”

The agency’s second streetcar option and premium bus plan may allay those concerns, though. According to the Transportation Department, both schemes could possibly be extended farther west along Canal Road in the future — right up to the driveway entrance of Georgetown University.

For forum attendee Howard Marks, president of the board of the 1150 K Street condominiums, the answer is anything but the first streetcar alternative. Marks said in an interview that his building’s residents fervently object to that proposal, which would widen K Street from four to six lanes from 10th Street to 12th Street — right in front of his building.

The design would take away about 11 feet of sidewalk, Marks said, and would force the removal of a beloved shade tree and other landscaping, cut off part of the complex’s driveway, and bring noise and air pollution closer to the building.

“Our condo board is not opposed to a streetcar at all — we are opposed to widening the roadway,” said Marks. “We are going to use every legal recourse at our means to stop this widening from happening.”

But Marks said his primary concern is actually the impact on Asbury United Methodist Church, located at 926 11th St. If the roadway were widened, the historic church could lose some of the trees and plants that grow in front of the entrance, as well as a railed stairway needed for handicapped and elderly parishioners, he said.  

The Transportation Department is accepting public feedback about the three options. The selection of a recommended option is slated for June, and the release of a final report on its analysis this summer.

This article appears in the May 29 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Ellington School to Premiere Student’s Opera

May 22, 2013

By Deirdre Bannon
Current Staff Writer

When Juan Amaya was a young child, he started writing short stories to entertain himself. As an elementary school student, he taught himself how to play the saxophone and later the viola. Now, as a high school senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Amaya has brought his two passions together by writing and composing an original opera.

Called “Cinde’ella,” the opera brings a religious twist to the classic Cinderella story. It will premiere at Ellington this weekend — marking the first time the Burleith public arts school has produced an original opera created by a single student.

Amaya has spent nearly three years working on the piece, composing the music and writing the libretto. His teachers say it’s a remarkable accomplishment for any high school student, particularly one who had no formal training in music composition before arriving at Ellington.

“Juan was determined to learn how to compose, and he’s gone from zero to 100 during the past four years,” said Janet Peachey, a music theory and composition teacher at Ellington who has worked with Amaya on “Cinde’ella” since the beginning.

The opera is “full of brilliant melodies and really original, great ideas for how to set the text and illustrate the story musically,” she added. “There’s something vital and exciting about a piece created by someone so young, and ‘Cinde’ella’ has that quality.”

Amaya’s first exposure to opera was watching “Madame Butterfly” on YouTube as a freshman — and then he was hooked.

“I loved the feeling I got when I listened to the music — it really moved me — and I decided I wanted to create an opera,” Amaya said.

The works of George Frideric Handel and Giacomo Puccini, which Amaya describes as “luscious and religious,” further inspired him as a sophomore, and from there he sought to incorporate those same qualities into his own piece.

Mary Jane Ayers, chair of the vocal music department and a teacher at Ellington for 25 years, is directing the production of “Cinde’ella.” She created the school’s opera workshop class in 2000, a yearlong course that culminates in a staged opera production each May. In past years, students have performed classics like “Carmen Jones” and “Don Giovanni,” and a group of students once worked together to create an adaptation of “Porgy and Bess.”

Three years ago, Amaya approached Ayers when “Cinde’ella” was in its earliest stages to see if the school might one day produce it.

“When Juan first came to me, it was difficult to know if it would work because I didn’t know his skill level,” said Ayers. “But he just kept coming back, and soon it became clear that it was going to work.”

“The music is at a very high level,” Ayers added. “There are elements of Jamaican music because the fairy godmother character is Jamaican, but Juan also quotes Handel’s ‘Messiah’ very subtly and with wit. There’s dancing — Cinde’ella has a waltz — and like Puccini, there’s a lot of humor in it.”

There are 23 students in the cast, and 30 more are in the orchestra. The production runs about 75 minutes.

Amaya wrote the words for the opera first, and then “messed around on the piano to see what the words wanted,” he said. He also used a computer program to work out the music composition.

Amaya said he loved staying up late to refine the characters and make revisions to the piece. He will also be participating in the production as a member of the chorus, which made him appreciate how challenging it can be for singers to learn brand-new vocals.

“I learned how to adapt to people’s skills, and if a note was too hard, I would change it to make it easier,” Amaya said.
Both teachers who worked with Amaya said the senior stands out for his persistence and focus.

“What separates Juan is his determination to make things work,” said Ayers. “It’s an unusual quality in a teenager. He doesn’t give up until everything is in place — but he isn’t the least bit pushy about it, and that will carry him through life very successfully.”

Amaya is determined to make music his career. In the fall he will start as a freshman at Catholic University, majoring in music composition. He plans to work on orchestra and piano pieces as well as stage music, opera and ballet.

“Cinde’ella” will be performed as part of “A Night at the Opera: The Many Faces of Cinderella,” this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the school’s Ellington Theatre, 3500 R St. Tickets cost $10 and are available at ellingtonschool.org or at the door.

 

This article appears in The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Evans Bill Could Help Assist Blues Alley

May 15, 2013

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

Helping “historic music cultural institutions” survive, by offering public funds or a tax break? D.C. has done so with the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard. And now a bill introduced by Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans is aimed at easing the money woes of Blues Alley.

The bill was “provided” by Blues Alley, the owner of the venerable Georgetown jazz club said at a hearing last week, but takes a “broad-brush approach.” Owner Harry Schnipper was one of two witnesses to testify on the measure, which received a fairly neutral review from an aide to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, the city’s budget watchdog.

The bill would, in essence, exempt “historic music cultural institutions” from real property taxes for 10 years, and from any transfer or deed recordation taxes, if they purchase or lease space with the “goal of expanding public live music and cultural entertainment and employment opportunities” in the District.

There are many caveats. To be eligible, for example, the beneficiary would have had to operate for at least 45 years here, hosting a minimum of 100 live performances a year. And the expansion must occur within a year before or within five years after the bill takes effect. At least 50 percent of the venue’s new hires must be District residents. And the total tax abatement — for all who qualify — would be no more than $2 million.

Schnipper of Blues Alley offered a compelling case for tax relief.

“America’s oldest continuing jazz supper club” opened in 1965 in a former horse barn off Wisconsin Avenue and prospered in its early years, he said. Then in the 1970s, with the rise of nonprofit competition — the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, all presenting jazz among other offerings — “suddenly we became an anomaly.”

Now, he said, most of his competitors get “preferential tax rates.” And with the rising cost of rent and property taxes in Georgetown, the survival of Blues Alley is under threat. “Does Blues Alley have the ability to compete? I don’t know,” Schnipper told Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue. He cited the closings of Childe Harold, the Cellar Door, the Bayou and other commercial music venues in D.C. “Once a jazz club goes away, it never comes back.”

Beyond its contributions to Georgetown’s economy and to local hotels where visiting artists stay, Schnipper said his firm also has a nonprofit arm, offering a summer camp, a year-round youth orchestra, and programs in public schools.

Schnipper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his future plans. But according to the Washington Business Journal, he’s been offered a chance to buy the Blues Alley building, which sits in an alley of the same name off Wisconsin Avenue.

Schnipper, the Business Journal reported in April, has also considered taking space at CityCenter DC and other locations, and was an active bidder to run the city-owned Lincoln Theatre on U Street. The theater’s new operator has been selected but not announced.

He’s also said — and many patrons agree — that he would like to remain in Georgetown. Schnipper testified that when he approached his council member for help, “Evans said, ‘I can’t help you with the lease, but can help with taxes.’”

Evans, who lives in Georgetown, spoke only briefly at last week’s hearing, saying he would move the bill at the council’s next session. “It’s not specifically written for Blues Alley, but could be helpful to keep Blues Alley in Georgetown. Blues Alley is known worldwide,” he said. “Because [the area] is becoming so prosperous, let’s not drive out what makes us who we are.”

Betsy Keeler, the chief financial officer’s deputy director for economic development financing, said she couldn’t determine whether tax relief is needed “because no historic music institution is specifically identified in the bill.” The office also hasn’t determined how much the bill would cost the city. “But,” Keeler said, “because the legislation caps it at $2 million, that would be the maximum fiscal impact.”

Ed Lazere of the liberal-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted in an interview that the District has given tax breaks to other private firms, most recently high-tech firms like Living Social, without directly naming them in legislation that grants the abatements.

But, he said, “we think it’s deceptive to provide targeted tax breaks for individual businesses” without naming them. “If the tax break is intended for Blues Alley, and everyone understands that, then it should say that. If they’re really struggling, we can evaluate that. But that would be more honest,” Lazere said.

 

This article appears in the May 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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