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Micro hotel rooms pitched for Dupont Underground

Friday - 3/7/2014, 12:15pm  ET

Staying overnight in a sub-200-square-foot subterranean hotel room without windows might not be most people's idea of the ideal D.C. vacation, but the notion could be the spark to turn Dupont Underground from dream to reality.

Patrick Pendleton Smith, a Cleveland Park resident and real estate consultant, recently pitched the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground on the 41-room micro hotel concept as part of a larger plan he calls Dupont Circle Artwerks. The $26 million mixed-use project would include the hotel, with rooms as small as 180 square feet, a fine arts storage facility, cafes, a restaurant, art gallery, blackbox theater and artist studios.

His proposal could give ACDU the economic viability it needs to finally make a go of the vacant former trolley station space's transformation after more than five years in the planning stages. Smith said revenue generated from the hotel and other commercial uses could bring in enough income to justify setting aside space for artist studios and galleries.

Smith isn't proposing developing the hotel concept on his own but would like to be part of a larger development team.

"You've got Dupont Circle, Metro lines, access to the arts — it's all there," Smith said. "When I put all that together, I said, 'You could really do this.'"

If you've read this far and lived in Washington for any length of time, you're probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “Oh, here they go again with Dupont Underground.” The ACDU unveiled plans to convert the long-abandoned underground trolley station into an arts center in 2008 and two years later won the rights to develop the space as part of a request for proposals issued by the city. Since then, it has been working to come up with a concept that would be both economically viable and contribute to D.C.'s arts-and-culture scene.

How's this any different? The current model appears to include enough economic return for the city to help subsidize the planned cultural space. ACDU spokesman Braulio Agnese stressed that the hotel concept was both unsolicited and very early in its vetting process. But he said Smith's pitch, including financial modeling, is strong enough to run past city officials and other groups. ACDU plans to meet with District economic development officials next week to talk about potential next steps.

"It's a starting point at the most and nothing more, but it also offers us something to show to potential partners," Agnese told me. "We have to give them the dollars and cents to have them understand the notion of the project."

Smith said he hopes to appeal to so-called cultural tourists who want to stay in a place like Dupont Circle with its own distinctive flair without paying an arm and a leg. And while sleeping in a room with no windows might not seem appealing, Smith said high-definition technology could be used to create virtual skylights and windows to make the rooms feel more airy.

Agnese said an important part of the concept is to introduce a street-level entrance. The ACDU has pitched that idea to the nearby Dupont Hotel, 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW, and SB-Urban, a developer with proposing to convert the Patterson Mansion into mirco apartments. He said the Dupont Hotel could potentially be brought in to operate a bar and spa in part of the Dupont Underground space, he said.

"To make a subterranean space work, you need to have an above-ground presence," he said.

Agnese said other groups could be brought in to display their collections in the proposed art gallery spaces, including foreign embassies and the Phillips Collection locally.

The idea of making use of the vacant tunnel space isn't new. Since the last of D.C.'s streetcars were shut down in 1962, the space was designated as a fallout shelter until 1975 and then sat completely abandoned until 1995. It was then refurbished as Dupont Down Under, a failed food court concept with vendors including shopping mall mainstay Sbarro Pizza. But that concept failed to catch on and the space was shuttered after six months and has been vacant since then.

Not for a lack of other ideas, of course. Several ideas were floated before ACDU stepped in calling for the space to be used as a bicycle commuter lot, a home for adult clubs and gay bars, a gym, mausoleum and even for rental storage.

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