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A banner day in the District

Brightly color cloth and a bunch of buildings

can suddenly become a destination zone

(Published May 17, 1999)


Staff Writer

Thereís something stirring in the streets of the nationís capital.

Street banners ó instant creators of what developers call "vitality at the pedestrian level" ó have sprouted up across the city in recent months.

Purple, red and gold in Mount Pleasant. Blue in Brookland. And, yellow, red and deepening blues in Adams Morgan. Marking neighborhoods, establishing identity, lifting spirits, creating a cityscape.

Of course, some work better than others.

The 24 "Brookland Welcomes You" banners that line 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in Northeast Washington tend to blend in with the sky, acknowledges Sara Lucas, president of the Brookland Business and Professional Association which had the banners put up in March.

"A lot of people didnít notice them right away," she said. "They looked too much like the sky."

But she says the $5,000 in D.C. Housing and Community Development grant money, administered through the H Street Community Development Corp., was well spent.

"It creates a sense of unity and pride," she said. "It shows that people are here and we care."

That sentiment is echoed all over town by merchants and developers eager to lure tourists and residents with money to spend. A few pieces of brightly colored cloth and a bunch of buildings can suddenly become a destination zone.

"It brings color and vibrancy to the street," said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, where white banners went up in April proclaiming "arts, shopping, theatres, MCI Center" in colorful print. "It gives the neighborhood an identity."

But the mental and economic lift isnít guaranteed. A bad banner can be worse than no banner at all.

"If you have too much variety, it very quickly gets toward clutter," said George Toop, an architect and urban designer with the National Capital Planning Commission. "This is a danger. Things can be overdone."

On the other hand, he warns, things can be underdone too, with small or poorly placed banners disappearing in a crowded landscape. Even well-designed and well-spaced banners tend to lose their impact with time.

"Banners that announce an event work well in the short term. But when things become semi-permanent, the people who live in the neighborhood stop seeing them after a while," he said.

And while banners have proven effective vehicles for advertising in cities across the country, they arenít guaranteed to work miracles.

Banners have announced "shopping," "food" and "parking" at LíEnfant Plaza for years, but the area remains mostly a concrete canyon.

"Historic Georgia Avenue" banners have long lined the Northwest Washington avenue for miles with festive green and white, but businesses in the corridor still struggle.

And the tattered remains of the light blue "Truxton Circle" banners that went up three years ago around North Capitol Street and New York Avenue arenít doing much to enhance the neighborhood now. In fact, some say, the ruined remains just make the area look worse.

But neighborhood merchants are trying again.

New banners went up this month, proclaiming the area the "Gateway to the Nationís Capitol."

And the point of the banners isnít simply to stimulate commerce, said Rick Sowell of the North Capitol Area Business Association.

"Itís a historical teaser. A lot of people see these banners and want to know ĎWhat in the world is Truxton Circle?í" he said.

The circle, which was removed from the neighborhood in 1940, was named for a Revolutionary War commodore whose estate was later granted to the city.

Merchants along the H Street Northeast corridor, still deeply scarred from the riots of 1968, hope that shoppers will take their cue from the new red, white and blue banners announcing "H Street Ė A New Beginning."

The H Street banners, like many put up by neighborhood merchants associations, were paid for with grants, said consultant Karen Alpert who coordinated the project. Federal funds flow from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to D.C.ís Department of Housing and Community Development to neighborhood community development corporations and finally to merchantsí associations.

"Business improvement districts" ó such as the Golden Triangle, the Downtown D.C. BID and the newly created Georgetown BID ó raise money by levying additional taxes on businesses within their government-approved boundaries.

In Adams Morgan, the 70 banners along Columbia Road and 18th Street NW were paid for with $3,000 in grant money plus funds from local merchants, said association president Mary Abajay, owner of Toledo Lounge. Sponsoring merchants kicked in about $400 each to have their business name and logo displayed on dotted, striped and swoosh-marked banners near their establishments.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator