Monday, August 18, 2008

Say 'Hello' to Stylish Treats!

An Exclusive sneak peak at Dupont's New Cupcake Boutique, 'Hello Cupcake'

Starting this week, DC style aficionados will have a new treat to savor in Dupont Circle. The two chandeliers have been hung, the white carerra marble counters have been installed, the signs are ready to be hung, and there are just a few details here and there that need to be completed, as workers hurry to finish the newest modern hot spot in Dupont. Only this time it's not home furnishings or fashions that are served up in this hot new boutique, but rather cupcakes. That's right, those tasty treats you loved as a child are back, but this time with a heightened level of style and sophistication.

With the opening of Hello Cupcake, proprietor and head baker Penny Karas has brought together what she describes as 'two separate but interconnected ideas." First, as the bakery's motto suggest, this is 'a sophisticated twist on a an old-fashioned classic', meaning that all the ingredients are top quality, and in most cases organic and locally grown. Many of the inventive flavors are geared towards a sophisticated palette. And rather than the slathered on icing with sprinkles you grew up with, these cupcakes feature artistically piped icing with an array of carefully made confectioner toppers.

But the level of sophistication and modern style does not stop at the little cakes themselves, but is extended to the bakery's interior as well. As Karas suggests, this is "also a modern take on the concept of a bakery." The idea behind the interior of the bakery, designed by Karas' architect husband, Bill Bonstra of Bonstra Haresign Architects, is that the retail space read more as a boutique, such as small jewelry shop, than a bakery.

"Washington is ready," says Karas, who says that she has been watching what is happening in Washington with the emergence of more modern and forward thinking design amidst a vastness of traditionalism. Recently, areas throughout the city have seen a resurgence, in many ways brought about by the many new, more contemporary condominium and apartment buildings, which have attracted many new residents with a decidedly more modern aesthetic, to whom Karas expects her bakery will especially have a certain appeal. In fact Karas is quite familiar with the real estate market and the modern aesthetic, having spent a number of years in marketing, publicity, and real estate development. But baking, too, is in her blood, having spent many years growing up in her family's restaurant business.

It comes as no surprise then that Hello Cupcake is a family business as well, with her husband's primary contribution being that of the design. In fact Karas is quick to admit that her favorite part was "working with Bill and the way he was able to draw it out of my mind." She got to see his talent throughout the process, especially as he worked on the design of the millwork, drafting all the details by hand. And the outcome is a space that really captures Karas' concept. As Karas puts it, "It is a warm and inviting place".

Upon entering Hello Cupcake, guests will certainly take note of the contemporary design with allusions to this concept of 'sophisticated twists', which start with the pair of glass chandeliers, seemingly traditional elements, which have been both reinterpreted in colors from the bakery's branding palette and hung in a very anti-traditional, asymmetric arrangement. The white carerra marble counter stretches along one side of the shop, topping an expanse of molded pattered gypsum panels from ModularArts that resembles frosting. Karas calls attention to a favorite detail here, the turned down edge of the countertop, which her husband again and again asked Karas to consider and in the end finally convinced her was the proper detail. "He was right" Karas smiles. Overhead, four drywall panels, almost resembling piano keys, extend out from the side wall over the main counter area. And behind the counter, built-in millwork runs beneath a wall with a series of back-lit niches, which the baker can use to showcase various ingredients. Opposite, a chocolate brown wall will soon receive brightly colored 'sprinkles'. Four marble-top table with steel bases are paired with bent plywood chairs and a bar-height counter and stools provide the seating for this small but well-tailored space. Karas feels that the guests to her space will see the thought and care that was put into the design of the bakery and will understand that this is a reflection of the thought and care put into her products as well. She feels that the design of the space accentuates the little treats themselves, making them even more appealing.

In addition to the 14-16 flavors of cupcakes offered daily, Hello Cupcake will also serve a variety of beverages, featuring DC original M.E. Swing Coffees, 'Hint' water, and 'GuS' sodas (which stands for 'Grown Up Sodas', but which also has a sentimental draw for Karas, whose father was named Gus.) And keep an eye out cupcake decorating classes, as well as Lola's cupcakes: K-9 cupcakes named for the baker's pooch.

Hello Cupcake is located on the east side of Connecticut Avenue just south of Dupont Circle, and opens at the end of this week.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

These Mean Streets

The title of the July 6th, Washington Post article read "Drivers Feeling Shunned by D.C.: City Less Welcoming to Suburban Cars".

Two days later, Alice Swanson, a DC resident, was struck and killed by a garbage truck in Dupont Circle.

While the two instances might not immediately seem interconnected, there is an underlying thread here. In the Washington Post article that reported Swanson's death, a coworker recalled that "she was nervous because of D.C. traffic".

It is this nervousness on the part of District residents that the DC government is concerned about. And it seems that it is for that very reason that DC is now exploring various options to help return the streets to the residents of the District.

The July 6th article mentions several alternatives that are being considered. The most ambitious, it seems, is the possibility of closing the third street tunnel, which connects I-395 to New York Avenue (Rte. 50), and is a well-traveled "short-cut" for Virginians and Marylanders who prefer not to travel the beltway or I-295. There is the expected opposition from suburbanites, as well as those which utilize the route to commute into the city on a daily basis. This traffic study, in culmination with a series of other proposed measures, have commuters crying foul at the city's tactics, claiming that DC either is attempting to punish commuters for those who drive aggressively, or simply to levy fees to turn a profit at commuters' expense. (Attempts to pass a commuter tax have been shut down by the federal government.) While I'm sure that those like myself who live in the city and are self-proclaimed urbanists must admit a certain back of the mind sadistic pleasure from the thought of punishing people for living in the 'burbs, the reality is that DC's efforts here appear to be genuinely aimed at making the District a safer, more walkable city, and in many ways should be lauded.

Back in February I attended the WDCEP program "Leinberger, Wells & Tregoning on Walkable Communities - inDC Economic Trendsetters", the central theme of which was DC as a liveable and walkable community. The event's lead-off presenter, Christopher Leinberger, is a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution, and author of The Option of Urbanism, where he explores how government policy has favored the development of suburbs, and what can be done to change that. Leinberger contends that there are really only two options for development: walkable urban -or- drivable suburban. Leinberger cites that, for several reasons, DC has seen an influx of new residents - these include the allure to Gen-Xers (thanks in part to TV show set in urban areas) and the fact that the baby-boomers are now empty nesters, and states that to sustain such growth that cities need to maintain walkability through access to resources and public transit. Walkable distance is measured as being no more than 1500-3000 ft.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells at the same event reiterated the importance of creating walkable communities, and said that emphasis is being placed on implementing strategies which support and encourage that goal. He admits that some are not as well-received as others, such as parking metering strategies near and around the new Nationals stadium, which, in addition to potentially charging higher rates for on-street parking, also extend metered parking hours. However, as indicated by subsequent meetings with residents in Ward 6 regarding pedestrian safety, it is clear that at least Wells is taking the task of making DC streets safer for pedestrians seriously. His elimination of the one-way traffic flow in the mornings on Constitution Ave, NE is one such policy that has been well-received. Now other similar one-way and reversible lane thoroughfares are under consideration for elimination as well.

As a Ward 6 resident, every morning that I walk to the metro from my house I have to be extremely careful at two intersections which were mentioned in the July 6th article, as well as another: 17th, 18th, and 19th Streets in NE/SE along East Capitol, which is a main access point for MD commuters as well that come in VIA 295 and cut through to the SE/SW Freeway. While improvements to the 11th Street bridges are aimed at creating a better connection between the SE/SW Freeway and 295 to further ease pressures such as these on the cities neighborhood streets, the completion of this work, which will lessen the flow of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue's Sousa Bridge, is at least five years away.

As for the highly criticized traffic study centered around the closing of the 3rd street tunnel, while it is as of yet indeterminable what the final recommendations will be, it seems that such efforts to ease traffic on certain overly used corridors are in fact quite prudent, especially given that such avenues, such as New York Avenue, were never really intended to handle that volume. I imagine that there will be alternatives that are born from these studies that are less extreme, but I much favor the urbanistic notion of allowing streets to serve pedestrians as well as vehicular traffic -- it has been well illustrated that the faster that traffic moves on a street, the less pleasant the street is to be on from a pedestrian and aesthetic standpoint, and that affects the quality of life on that street for the residents and shop owners...I think that unfortunately, New York Avenue as we know if today is especially a reminder of that, as are nearby Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street.

In the end, what is perhaps most telling is that Washington Post polls of suburban residents and DC residents both illustrated support for what the DC government is doing.

As I pass by the intersection of 18th & K on my way to work on July 23rd I come upon the scene of another hit-and-run -- fortunately not fatal this time. As reported by the Post, "The District has higher pedestrian death rates than New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, with 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pedestrian injuries rose from 586 in 2000 to 725 in 2006." While getting into and around the city will always be an important aspect to residents and commuters, feeling safe and not fearing DC traffic must become a top priority.
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