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D.C. officials who wanted a more urban-friendly format for the city’s first Home Depot lost out to Mayor Williams’ mandate: We’ll take what they give us.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
Shopping centers generally try to greet their customers hospitably. They receive them in the parking lot with architectural flourishes that are quaint and friendly, innocuous and forgettable. Vine-covered trellises. Banks of carefully trimmed hedges. Perhaps a tree-lined promenade or a shady veranda.
For those approaching the city’s soon-to-be-completed big-box shopping center in Brentwood, the landscape is more foreboding. A huge wall lumbers around the outside of the facility, greeting newcomers with a faceful of concrete and carving out a crude square of commerce from the surrounding community.
The wall rises from a patch of dirt along Brentwood Road NE and slowly, one rectangular slab at a time, reaches several stories into the sky. The wall is gray with an underlying touch of purple. At times, it is capped by a shiny metal railing, at times by thick Jersey barriers.
Crouching in the wall’s shadow, on Brentwood Road, recently planted trees line the sidewalk. Their pygmy stature makes the wall look even more burly, like the ramparts of a castle.
No catapult or ladder is needed to scale the bulky beast. A set of concrete steps ascends from the sidewalk to the top of the wall and to the plateau of asphalt beyond. There, on the high ground above the wall, rests a field of shopping dreams that will soon support a 52,798-square-foot Giant, a 118,301-square-foot Home Depot, and, perhaps someday, a 106,797-square-foot Kmart. City officials estimate that the shopping center will generate more than 800 permanent jobs and more than $5 million in new taxes annually. In anticipation of the consumer armada, the shopping center sprouts an impressive landing pad—1,045 parking spots stretching out to the edge of the wall in every direction.
Approximately three years ago, representatives of Kmart chose the location, pitched it to city bigwigs, and pulled in the other clients. Then, last January, Kmart declared bankruptcy. Nobody knows for sure whether a Kmart will ever open on Brentwood Road. In the meantime, construction on the Home Depot and the Giant has pushed ahead.
On Thursday, June 6, members of the District government, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange, will gather there for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening day of the city’s first Home Depot.
After completing their grand tour of the home-improvement warehouse, celebrants will step back through the sliding glass doors and onto the parking lot outside. Those who have visited similar outlets in Hyattsville, Falls Church, or any other bustling suburb will experience a brief flash of deja vu. The terrain at Brentwood may be newly reconfigured, but its prototype is hauntingly familiar—a broad, lifeless space that severs the community from its commercial pulse.
Everyone will disperse, back to the cars, back to the air conditioning, back to the office, away from the creeping sensation that an alien life-form has landed in the city.
But the wall will remain. Its immutable presence will serve as a lasting reminder of what happens when city officials act out their inner envy for the suburbs.
Since taking office, Williams has made an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to meet with big-time retailers at the conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).
At the conventions, Williams pitches the District to retail developers, declaring blue-light specials on vacant and underutilized city property. “I’m here to convey the message that the District is open for business,” declared Williams at the ICSC conference in May 2001. “The ICSC has proven to be a successful venue for the District to reach out to the retail industry.”
Williams hit pay dirt at the ICSC during a 1999 meeting with Rick Walker, president of Detroit-based retail-development firm Graimark/Walker Urban Land Development.
For months prior to their meeting, Walker had been scouring the District with then-Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development Doug Patton, looking for the ideal spot to build the city’s first Kmart.
Walker checked out myriad sites, including Fort Dupont, Camp Simms, and Poplar Point. But he relished only one—a large swath of land in Ward 5, between Brentwood Road NE and Rhode Island Avenue NE. The site appealed to Walker because of its proximity to two of the city’s major commuter corridors and because of its size: 22 acres, enough space for a Kmart to stretch out with plenty of leftover room for other high-profile stores.
At the time, the area was home to a number of city-owned facilities, including a salt dome, a mountain of ground-up asphalt, and a drivers’-testing facility. Walker could build the Kmart in Brentwood without displacing any residents or paving over anyone’s favorite park.
By the time Walker sat down with the mayor in Vegas, he was ready to pitch his idea: Get rid of the pimple-faced teenagers looking to score a driver’s license and make way for the pimple-faced teenagers looking to score new gear. “The discussions were getting more serious by then,” recalls Patton. “We’d done enough of the tango dance and were ready to move ahead.”
According to Walker and Patton, the mayor loved the idea. After the conference, Patton started cranking the bureaucratic wheels of the city into motion. “You have to tell your bureaucracy, ‘This is going to happen—period,’” says Patton. “That’s the biggest part.”
By fall 2000, the city had completed a deal with Graimark/Walker, which Williams announced on Sept. 28. Graimark/Walker, acting as a representative for Kmart, had purchased the 22 acres of land for $3 million. “We are moving to bring economic development to every ward in this city,” said Williams. “We intend to multiply these partnerships, which help extend economic prosperity throughout the District.”
Following the mayor’s touchdown dance, the city moved forward on the project. On July 11, 2001, Williams joined D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Councilmember Orange, and others at the official groundbreaking in Brentwood.
Walker says he was amazed at the rapid pace at which the shopping center progressed. “I have done lots of similar projects,” says Walker. “They typically take us anywhere from three to four years, sometimes even five. We have basically completed this one in less than two years.”
Walker credits Williams. “The Washington, D.C., site has moved much more quickly than anything else we have been working on, primarily as a result of the mayor’s aggressive program,” says Walker. “We have never had an opportunity like this, and we have done over 10 million square feet of retail space.”
From the start, the mayor adopted Brentwood as his pet project, nurturing its growth and bragging about its merits to anyone who would listen. “Our citizens have said that creating neighborhoods where people can dine and shop, work and play, is a top priority for our city,” said Williams at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Today, we’re meeting the needs of our residents.”
The Brentwood deal vindicated Williams’ trips to Las Vegas and validated the mayor’s self-image as a business-savvy leader. But along the way, Williams’ victory cries and Patton’s bureaucratic kickboxing steamrolled any attempts at criticism. The mayor’s subordinates in the D.C. Office of Planning never took a hard stand against the suburban model of retail development, despite the threat it poses to small-scale neighborhood revitalization—something they supposedly advocate.
By making efficiency and quick results a top priority, city administrators sacrificed other concerns. In the race to the finish line, members of the D.C. Office of Planning watched from the sidelines as their planning principles were run into the ground.
As gaga as District officials are over the prospect of big-box development, the feelings are reciprocated. We are their suitors; they are ours. The attraction is mutual.
Since first making a splash on the American shopping scene in the ’70s, big-box retailers such as Kmart and Home Depot—which occupy huge single-story facilities and operate on low profit margins—have steered clear of cities.
But in recent years, stores such as Kmart have started to saturate suburban and rural markets. With nowhere else to go, they have cast a hopeful glance in the direction of long-neglected urban areas. Trade organizations, such as the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, sum up the new sentiment when they refer to the urban market as “America’s last retail frontier.”
“For Kmart, the urban market is going to be key,” says Cyril Crocker, the Brentwood site’s project manager within the District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “They’ve been getting their brains beaten out of them in the suburbs by their competitors. So they’ve become more willing to go into urban markets, especially in areas like [Brentwood] where there effectively hasn’t been any retail services for years.”
It took Home Depot more than 20 years and 1,390 stores, including ventures into Mexico, Canada, and Argentina, before it set up shop inside the Beltway. But eventually, Hechinger’s downfall, combined with the citywide building boom, proved too enticing to ignore. “Our research indicated that the Washington market was underserved in terms of home improvement and home retailing,” says John Simley, a Home Depot spokesperson. “It has been especially acute since Hechinger’s went out of business two years ago.”
Representatives of Home Depot surveyed the District back in 2000 and considered the empty Hechinger’s building on Wisconsin Avenue NW as a possibility, but they ultimately decided against it. “For our use, the building wasn’t right,” says Simley. “It was too small and had multiple floors. How do you work with that?”
At the same time, Home Depot started to dally in other urban markets. Earlier this year, in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, it launched an experimental venture—an explicitly “urban” Home Depot. The urban format is smaller (about half the size of a typical Home Depot), offers less parking, and is geared toward the needs of city folk (cutting back on such products as lawn mowers, for instance).
Home Depot plans to expand its “urban” configuration to other areas, including Staten Island and Chicago. But not to D.C.
Why not? According to Home Depot officials, the larger, suburban prototype generates more revenue than its urban counterpart. And no one in the District government ever pushed for an urban-style store.
“The fact that this site was able to handle a normal-sized store was a selling point to Home Depot,” says Crocker. “We never encouraged them to make it smaller, and they never brought it up.”
However, members of the D.C. Office of Planning did suggest other ways to better tailor the shopping center to the fabric of the neighborhood. During winter 2000, they commissioned consultants from Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn (EEK), a national architecture firm with offices in D.C., to prepare an urban design study of the site.
The request was driven, in part, by news that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was negotiating with Graimark/Walker, along with developers Mid-City Urban, to build on an adjacent parcel of land at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Plaza.
The vision articulates a classic urban mix: a 5.9-acre complex including more than 200 luxury apartments, ground-level retail, restaurants, and outdoor cafes.
Members of the planning department had started to fret. What would be the best way to coordinate the two projects?
Riddled by such concerns, members of the D.C. Office of Planning wanted EEK to design a congruous whole out of two seemingly incongruous endeavors. “We brought in EEK because we wanted to encourage the developer to create a project that is urban in character, attractive as possible, and that has strong linkages with the Metro site,” says Arthur Jackson Jr., a development review specialist in the D.C. Office of Planning.
On Jan. 16, 2001, EEK architects handed over their recommendations, which concluded that the current plans for the Brentwood project had “no sense of place” and exhibited “poor integration [with the] neighborhood.” They also offered more than 30 pages of suggestions on how to improve the design, including options on how to integrate the two sites.
According to the city’s Large Tract Review report—a study completed by the Office of Planning for every commercial development in excess of 50,000 square feet of retail space—”[Graimark/Walker] considered the recommendations but was unable to implement them at this stage of the project.”
“On pure design issues, we couldn’t get them to budge too much,” says Jackson.
Why EEK’s design suggestions landed in the dumpster depends on whom you ask. Don Shillington of Atlanta-area-based Columbia Engineering, who served as the lead engineer on the Brentwood project, says that nobody wanted to put the brakes on the plan to accommodate the recommendations. “It would have put the project back at least a year if we had tried to implement their suggestions,” says Shillington.
Furthermore, Shillington says that the consultants’ vision apparently derived from the textbooks on urban planning. “Some of the recommendations were kind of what we considered ivory-tower stuff,” says Shillington. “They didn’t take into consideration the people that we were bringing in. These big boxes have pretty specific criteria in order for them to go ahead with the project. They are big enough and powerful enough that if we say, ‘We want you to do this,’ they’ll say, ‘Well, we just won’t go there.’”
Perhaps because of the District’s recent history of being abandoned by retailers, no one involved with the Brentwood project pushed the issue too hard. Nobody wanted to risk getting dumped.
“So often on projects like this, you have to seize the moment,” says Shillington. “If someone is interested in going there, you have to keep things moving forward.”
Jackson, on the other hand, attributes the scrapping of the EEK report to the fact that the District does not have a design review process like other cities, such as San Francisco and Baltimore. “When it comes to enforcing design improvements in areas outside of historic-preservation districts,” says Jackson, “we don’t really have a hammer.”
A hammer is the only tool that will do the job if the retailer has serious bottom-line considerations. “The Graimark/Walker team was, at least, open to suggestions,” says Derrick Woody, an economic-revitalization planner in the D.C. Office of Planning. “But most of the time it comes down to finances on these projects. A lot of the time, the developer’s budget might be exceeded by certain design recommendations.
“There are some very creative developers out there: people who want to look at design as a way of increasing their visibility and, in turn, their profitability,” adds Woody. “Unfortunately, they are few and far between.”
For instance, Graimark/Walker would have preferred to build the Brentwood mall at ground level, so that shoppers could walk in right off the street without the imposition of the retaining walls. But after estimating the cost of flattening the parcel of land, the firm gave the idea the heave-ho.
“Ideally, if you have your first choice, you build a project like this at ground level,” says Shillington. “In this case, you would have had to haul off several hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt in order to bring the grade down. In the District, it’s very expensive, because there’s nowhere to put the dirt. The price we were quoted is about $12 to $14 per cubic yard. If you have to take out, say, 400,000 cubic yards, that’s $5.6 million just to bring it down to street level.
“It was much more cost-effective to use the retaining walls,” adds Shillington.
Graimark/Walker did make some compromises with the D.C. Office of Planning on smaller issues, such as providing more access points onto the site.
Crocker agrees: “The developer re-engineered the mall to make it more pedestrian friendly and more accessible. Places for people to park their bikes and pedestrian lanes across the parking area were added due to the input of citizens and the input of the Office of Planning.”
Still, there’s only so much a few ramps and staircases can do to meld a suburban-style shopping center with its urban neighbors. “A lot of D.C. residents would like to see things look kind of old or at least fit in,” says Woody. “And there are a lot of residents who want things to look progressively new. This particular style of development has not traditionally complied with either.”
It still doesn’t. Members of the D.C. planning office failed to change the mold.
Because there is no formal design review process in D.C. to give them leverage, city planners often push for design requirements to be included in the initial negotiations with the developer. However, no design requirements were included in the city’s contract with Graimark/Walker.
“We have been working with the deputy mayor’s office to get more design language up front, instead of trying to get concessions after the fact,” says Woody. “How many design requirements get included in the negotiations depends on the project. With [the Brentwood development], there was no language about design set forth in the deal.”
Crocker says that unsolicited proposals, such as Kmart’s, are rare. The vast majority of development projects in the District involve a request for proposals and analysis of competing bids for the project. Crocker says that he can remember only one other unsolicited proposal that is now moving forward: the city’s deal with the Newseum to develop a site on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, for which the Newseum offered the District $100 million. Crocker says that the city’s administration officials prefer solicited, competitive proposals, because it allows them to be “proactive” rather than “reactive.”
As a result of its reactive posture, the District will end up with a striking juxtaposition of suburban and urban styles of development back-to-back along Brentwood Road.
In promoting the Brentwood development, city officials like to emphasize its proximity to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Plaza. “One of the keys in the Mayor’s strategy is taking advantage of our transportation infrastructure, specifically Metro stops,” writes Traci Otey Blunt, a spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, by e-mail. “The fact that it is at/near a Metro station made the site very attractive.”
Neither the D.C. Office of Planning nor Home Depot can provide a specific estimate on what percentage of customers shopping for hardware at Brentwood will be arriving by Metro. But you don’t have to be Tim Allen to know that home improvement and public transportation don’t mix. Who wants to lug around a stack of two-by-fours on the Metro?
Orange acknowledges that the planning around Brentwood may be imperfect but that, as with all home-improvement projects, the District should learn from its mistakes. “We should take advantage of this project to learn what we didn’t do properly,” says Orange. “When others want to come in, we should make sure that we do take into consideration proper planning.”
If Orange is in office for another 20 years, he may get another chance.
Andrew Altman, the director of the D.C. Office of Planning, says that the Brentwood development is an ipso facto success—its mere existence proof that the city is prospering. “We showed other retailers what we can do in D.C.,” says Altman.
Charles Buki, a community-development consultant who specializes in neighborhood revitalization, remains skeptical. “If it were me talking to [Altman], I would say, ‘Look, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too,’” says Buki. “‘Either you’re a city planner or you’re a suburban planner. Are you really resisting the suburbanization of the city, or not? If you are, how would the permission of a 100,000-square-foot store illustrate that?’ He can’t make that case.
“To be fair to [Altman], we’ve been telling planners for 20 years, ‘Make your cities competitive with the suburbs,’” adds Buki. “If people want a three-car garage and a Home Depot, you’re either going to lose them or you better make one for them. We’re in a box, where we say, ‘Compete.’ But, on the other hand, we can’t become a suburb.
“There’s no way you can defend the Brentwood development as anything but anti-urban,” concludes Buki.
If the great accountant in the sky ever declared, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s revenue source,” municipal bean counters in the District never got the memo. Ever since the beginning of home rule, city administrators have watched with drooling envy as District shoppers have carpooled to the suburbs in search of consumer bounty.
Prior to World War II, small-scale shopping centers flourished throughout the District from Cleveland Park to Brentwood. Then, in 1947, Hecht’s opened a successful department store in Silver Spring. Other stores soon followed, abandoning the District for the Elysian fields of suburbia, leaving the urban market for the liquor stores and the bodegas.
The shift in shopping patterns hurt District merchants and pinched city coffers. In the competition with the suburbs, the District was losing. When Williams took office, in 1999, he made commercial revitalization a top priority and set about plotting to woo mammon back inside the Beltway.
Thus, every year Williams goes to Las Vegas and casts his nets into the throng of retailers, hoping to snag another whale-sized catch like Home Depot or Kmart—stores big enough to feed the District’s tax base for years to come.
Williams knows the value of landing Home Depot at this point in the city’s history, a time when construction is booming. Every day, countless nails, cinder blocks, and two-by-fours are imported into the District from suburban Home Depots. Area contractors can now ring up their supplies in Brentwood.
While the inner accountant in Williams has spurred him in his pursuit of Kmart and Home Depot, the inner urbanist in Williams has simultaneously driven him in another direction.
On April 26, 2001, deputy mayor for economic development Eric Price sized up the current shopping climate in the District. “Residents are often forced to choose between marginal neighborhood stores in the District and traveling to Maryland or Virginia to purchase name-brand consumer goods,” said Price in testimony before Congress.
Price then laid out Williams’ solution. “For example, [the mayor] is considering various approaches to reposition our neighborhood business districts and retailers so they can capture a greater share of their local market and begin to compete more effectively with suburban locations.
“The mayor’s program would be based on a successful model designed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and known as the Main Streets program,” added Price.
The Main Street approach to commercial revitalization banks on an understanding of the contemporary American psyche promoted by New Urbanists. According to this worldview, Americans are fed up with the giant scale of suburban shopping centers, disgusted by sprawl, and disenchanted with the anonymity and sameness of the suburbs. To revitalize urban areas, you give people something that the suburbs can’t: personality, small-scale business, pedestrian-friendly retail. Main Street.
On April 26, true to his stated strategy, Williams announced the city’s first five Main Street designees. The winning applications included commercial corridors from U Street NW to 8th Street SE.
The aim of Main Streets is to bolster small stores such as neighborhood hardware shops. But the administration’s other commercial development policy might make that a bit tricky. Stores such as Home Depot are often referred to as “category killers” because of their tendency to wipe out small businesses in the surrounding market.
“You can have both [models],” says Altman. “It’s not like you have to settle for one or the other.”
Altman, though, should keep an eye out for vacant storefronts in the coming months. Neighborhood stores in the same quadrant as the new Home Depot are already preparing for extinction. In the months prior to Home Depot’s grand opening, small business owners in the vicinity scrambled to change their modus operandi.
“One of the things we’re going to do is hunker down and change the focus of our business, so that we’re not competing with Home Depot,” says Jerry Siegel, owner of W. S. Jenks & Son, a hardware store on Montana Avenue NE. “We’re thinking about moving our business to Wisconsin Avenue, where there is no Home Depot and where there never will be a Home Depot.”
Stephen Robinson, manager of Park’s Hardware on H Street NE, says his store is slowly moving out of hardware and into electronics in anticipation of Home Depot’s arrival. “We are not that far from Hechinger Mall,” says Robinson. “When Hechinger’s went out of business, our revenue increased. Now that Home Depot is coming, we’re looking to fall back to where we were back then. Recently, we started bringing in TVs, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, trying to see what other kinds of income we can make.”
Williams’ smoothie approach toward commercial revitalization (toss everything into a blender and hope for the best) might result in a nauseating mix. “This is part of the philosophy of development, development, development at whatever cost,” says Dorn McGrath, chair of the department of geography at George Washington University. “And now they’re trying to pitch a Main Street program right next door? Give me a break. It’s like having cats and dogs: They don’t mate. It’s a funny animal they’re trying to create over there.”
Sure enough, a Brentwood Main Street development is already in the works. In fact, the project is the very same urban mix that the city’s hired consultants sought to meld with the Home Depot site: a Main Street to go along with Brentwood’s Miracle Mile.
Imagine the synergy: A contractor could drive to Home Depot. Pack up his pickup truck with drywall. Hop, skip, and jump across the bustling 1,000-car parking lot. Slink into the calm oasis that is Main Street. Sit down for a cup of cappuccino. Watch the cars whiz by. Read the paper. Make neighborly chit-chat with wayward bargain hunters. Pick up his dry cleaning. And scuttle back to work.
Councilmember Orange, a consummate booster of the Brentwood project, remains upbeat about a city with retail options large and small. “We are aiming to get a Main Street program that would take place around the Home Depot site,” says Orange. “Now that we have an anchor in place, we can develop everything around it to our liking.”
Orange believes that there is enough consumer demand in the city to support both ventures simultaneously. “How people choose to shop depends on the individual,” says Orange. “I still like that old style of being able to walk down the street, go into a store, get my shoes repaired, go next door, pick up some hardware items, and walk across the street to get my hair cut. I think individuals that are looking for those neighborhood amenities will still be able to get that. I like the hardware store in my neighborhood. They’ve been in Ward 5 as long as me. That’s about 17 or 18 years.
“I hope they survive,” adds Orange.
Introducing a big-box retailer into an urban environment is like rewiring your house on a whim after watching a Bob Vila tutorial—a potentially explosive situation. In other cities, proposals for new Home Depots have blown up into nasty spats. Not here.
Perhaps that is because, after graduating from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in 1964, Al Norman, the District’s homegrown anti-big-box activist, left town and never moved back. Norman now lives in Greenfield, Mass. where he runs his Web site, www.sprawl-busters.com.
Norman’s anti-big-box bona fides date back to October 1993, when he and his cohorts successfully stopped Wal-Mart from locating in Greenfield. Since then, Norman has branched out nationally, offering consulting services to any community hoping to launch a campaign against the arrival of a megastore.
A section of Norman’s Web site, dubbed “Home Towns, Not Home Depot,” is devoted to throwing stones at the home-improvement giant and keeping tabs on the numerous battles, from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., to North Miami, Fla., that pit defensive activists against the offensive Home Depot. Norman says that so far he hasn’t heard a peep of protest from anyone in D.C.
For a city in which neighborhood bickering is a favorite pastime, the Brentwood development is notable not only for its size and scope but also for the resounding silence that surrounds it. “In this city, you can’t get anything done without someone opposing it,” says Patton. “Even if you give everyone a gold brick, somebody finds a reason to cry foul.”
So why has there been no uproar about the Brentwood development?
Crocker, of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, credits the lack of carping to good community outreach. “This has become, in my mind, the poster child for community involvement,” says Crocker. “We got involved with the community early and stayed involved throughout the process.”
That’s the official explanation, anyhow. The real reason is that the community is shopping for allies in its 7-year-old fight against the Brentwood Road trash-transfer station operated by Browning-Ferris Industries—and what better ally than a multi-billion-dollar corporation?
The Reverend Morris Shearin, pastor of Israel Baptist Church, which sits just north of the development on Brentwood Road, gladly admits Home Depot to the neighborhood. “We welcome development,” says Shearin. “But we want to get rid of the B.F.I. trash-transfer facility. That’s the nuisance in the community.”
Over the past several years, Shearin has sat through numerous meetings with representatives from Graimark/Walker and from the D.C. Office of Planning. Shearin admits that, for the most part, he kept quiet about the trash-transfer station. “We did not bring up the trash-transfer station at the meeting with Home Depot and Kmart,” says Shearin. “From where I sit, I didn’t want to discourage them from coming in here.”
Shearin expects that the new development will cause serious traffic congestion on Brentwood Road. “A few years ago, we did a traffic study from 6 in the morning until 6 at night,” says Shearin. “We had people sitting out in chairs counting cars from our parking lot. On an average day, 250 trucks go in and out of the [trash-transfer station] using Brentwood Road.”
Will traffic get worse? Shearin expects that it will. But for Shearin, and those of his persuasion, the bigger the mess on Brentwood Road, the better. “The mayor and the city council have completely let us down,” says Shearin. “But I trust that Home Depot will get tired of the stinking odor that we’ve been enduring over here for the past seven years. They will want it out of here. It’s not a pleasant smell.”
What accounts for the lack of criticism coming from the legion of urban planners who live in other parts of the city far from the whiff of garbage on Brentwood Road?
Stephen McGovern, a professor of political science at Pennsylvania’s Haverford College, says that he’s not surprised by the quiet. “I did come across a notably provincial attitude among planning advocates in the District,” says McGovern, whose book The Politics of Downtown Development analyzes the history of the slow-growth movement in D.C. “I think there’s a long history of planners in Ward 3, making an attempt to do what they see as good planning in other parts of the city and running into serious conflicts with residents elsewhere.
“There are plenty of planners in D.C. who, if you ask them, would be appalled by what the Home Depot is proposing,” adds McGovern. “But they have lost interest in trying to fight those battles in other neighborhoods because there had been so many conflicts in the past.”
Into the vacuum of criticism, the great wall of Brentwood arose unopposed.
When the consultants from EEK took a look at the plans for the wall, they tore it apart from a design perspective. They recommended that the developers break up the monolithic wall with a series of terraces to be arranged in steps and decorated with shrubs to “provide visual interest and avoid [a] fortress-like appearance.”
Like most of EEK’s recommendations, the plans for the walls crumbled once they landed in the hands of District bureaucrats. There would be no terraces. There would be no plants.
“We looked at how you could variate the retaining wall along Brentwood Road,” says Woody. “How do you terrace it? How do you create opportunities for landscaping? How do you make it less of a wall?
“Of course, there was back and forth between our office and the developers about what could be done,” adds Woody. “They couldn’t make a stepped wall with landscaping because of financial considerations—they would have actually lost some square footage on the site.”
Still, Woody insists that it could have been worse. “At least it’s not a blank concrete wall,” he says. “It does have a little texture.” CP