We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Oliver T. Carr will be remembered as a demolisher, not a developer.
When Oliver T. Carr stepped down last week as the chair of CarrAmerica Realty Corp., transferring control to his son Thomas A. Carr, Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner identified the developer as an “early visionary of the city’s downtown.” Spinner is new to the commercial real estate beat, but that’s not a new judgment. The Post has been extolling Carr, downtown’s most powerful developer throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as such a visionary for three decades. So it’s fair to ask: What was Carr’s vision?
The answer: tearing down everything in his path and building bland, virtually identical office buildings that drained the life from formerly lively, diverse streets.
Carr was not alone in this endeavor, of course. Even in the ’60s and ’70s, before downtown D.C. properties caught the interest of developers and financiers from Houston, Toronto, Brussels, and Tokyo, there were home-grown office-space barons filling the new white-collar district north and west of Farragut Square with cheap International Style knockoffs. The Oliver T. Carr Co.—as it was then named—built relatively little of the new K Street, the thoroughfare whose name is now widely accepted as a synonym for bad planning and worse architecture.
Carr’s boosters have long exalted him over other D.C. builders. They say the developer was bold to erect the Mills Building in 1966, directly across 17th Street from the Old Executive Office Building. (Characteristically, Carr’s project thwarted plans for a White House Historic District that would have preserved the executive mansion’s historic context.) Yet the developer’s strategies mirrored those of his peers. Carr used undistinguished local architects—notably Vlastimil Koubek, whose designs split the difference between architecture and structural engineering—as his projects marched steadily west from 17th Street. In the early ’80s, the city bungled the rezoning of the West End, creating a mixed-use office-residential precinct where hotels qualified as residential space. Carr moved in quickly, throwing up some second-rate buildings whose facades acknowledged postmodern architecture by using more brick and less glass than his earlier projects.
Still, Carr didn’t really come to embody urban pillage until he undertook a project on the opposite side of the White House from the Mills Building. Having hit the western wall—Rock Creek Park and the Georgetown Historic District—Carr finally looked east, to the area between 7th and 15th Streets, long the city’s traditional shopping district. This, too, was not exactly visionary. Several large new office buildings and 20 years of redevelopment planning were already in place when Carr deigned to cross 15th Street to construct Metropolitan Square. Although the venture was announced in 1978, it wasn’t finished until 1986. By then, it had become the developer’s most controversial project.
The city had assembled property for redevelopment in the vicinity of Metro Center before the first Red Line segment opened in 1976, but when Carr decided to build in the neighborhood, he didn’t select any of those ready-made, already emptied parcels. (He did take three of them later, and at bargain prices.) He wanted a property that was as close to the White House as the Mills Building, and that meant demolishing several 19th- and early-20th-century structures along 15th Street or around the corner on F Street. One of them was a modest but historically rich building whose name will be forever linked with Oliver T. Carr’s: Rhodes Tavern.
Carr had the city establishment’s approval to demolish Rhodes—Commission of Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown gave his blessing—and the developer even went so far as to hire the establishment’s international architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to design Metropolitan Square. But an ad hoc group of preservationists, led by brash outsider Joe Grano, beleaguered the project. Carr was furious, and so were the powers that be at the Washington Post. At one point, the paper assigned a reporter to call the 40-something Grano’s father and ask if he approved of his son’s behavior.
Despite his unswerving dedication to the tavern’s cause, Grano was no radical. He proposed that Carr save the building by incorporating it into Metropolitan Square, compensating for the lost office space by reducing the size of the new project’s atrium. But Carr wouldn’t budge. He insisted on a massive interior court that—like an even larger one at his International Square, at 18th and I Streets NW—proved to be an architectural sinkhole. Both atriums have been frequently reconfigured yet remain wastelands.
The decision to destroy Rhodes Tavern—while retaining the facades of some larger, more aristocratic structures—exemplified the behind-closed-doors process in which Washington’s downtown was to be stripped of tradition, personality, small merchants, and institutions that served city residents rather than suburban commuters and the federal interest. And Carr personified that process. No wonder Charles Paul Freund proposed founding the Committee to Horsewhip Oliver T. Carr.
If Rhodes Tavern defenders—a group that included both of this article’s authors—demonized the developer, Carr played the part of development Satan with vigor. Once, the developer even chased our colleague Bill Rice down the street for daring to take his picture. And when he finally got his way and Rhodes Tavern was demolished, Carr peevishly swore that a plaque would never be affixed to Metropolitan Square to commemorate the historic building that was sacrificed for what turned out to be just another mediocre office cube.
Some of the small-business owners evicted for Metropolitan Square fought the project bitterly, and they taught Carr a lesson he never forgot: Retail tenants are trouble. So the developer began to make a point of emptying—and, when possible, demolishing—vintage downtown buildings long before he had any use for the land. That’s why Reeves’ Bakery at 12th & F Streets was razed years before anything was built on the site, and why Carr expelled more than a dozen retailers from 11th, E, and F Street storefronts that then remained vacant for more than a decade. (Most of the ejected businesses either closed or left the city, taking a bit of the tax base with them.)
Ironically, the battle over Metropolitan Square marked the beginning of Carr’s grudging acceptance of historic preservation and contextual architecture. The developer began to plan projects that would preserve at least some parts of historic buildings—although many of these schemes ultimately didn’t get built—and hired such discreetly postmodern local architects as David Schwarz and Keyes Condon Florance. The result was such kinder, gentler (or at least less crude) Carr office buildings as Republic Place (1776 I Street) and Liberty Place (325 7th Street). Of course, competitive pressures may have been the reason for Carr’s new sensitivity: Out-of-town developers were bidding up prices, providing more amenities, and hiring name architects, forcing him to do the same.
After the battle over Rhodes, all of Carr’s downtown projects were by definition controversial. When he proposed gutting those 19th-century buildings on 11th, E, and F Streets to build a project called Lincoln Square, the Post swooned with delight, but historic-preservation and downtown-housing advocates—led by Downtown Cluster of Congregations Executive Director Terry Lynch—lined up to testify against the project.
And when Carr tried to justify building a new home for WETA in violation of the zoning for the old Hecht’s department store at 7th and F Streets NW—he brazenly claimed that the radio and television operation’s private offices qualified as public “arts space”—even the city’s notoriously docile Zoning Commission didn’t buy it.
Still, what stopped Carr’s bulldozer through downtown—or, as commercial leasing agents prefer, the East End—was not citizen or government opposition but the collapse of the office market. In the ’80s, money flowed into commercial development the way it has more recently into high-tech stocks, and the circa-1990 bust clobbered Carr (and many other local businesspeople, who considered Washington immune to such shakeouts). The Lincoln Square project was forced into bankruptcy, leaving that square a black hole for the entire ’90s. (The project is now being built, but not by Carr.)
Like most development firms, the Oliver T. Carr Co. had previously coupled with large institutional investors to finance its projects. Now Carr followed the industry’s new model, creating as his principal operating entity CarrAmerica, a real estate investment trust, which welcomes general investors. It also expanded aggressively into the suburbs and other cities, leaving its former territory largely untouched. CarrAmerica showed little interest in the neighborhoods where it had made its fortune—and its controversial reputation.
Real estate financing methods aren’t the only things that changed in the ’90s. So did the city’s hard-won Downtown Development District zoning, which was supposed to create the much-touted “living downtown.” These regulations, which required that significant space be budgeted for retail uses near Metro Center and for arts and residential uses in the Gallery Place/Archives area, quietly vanished as the Office of Planning disintegrated, the Zoning Commission snoozed, and the D.C. Council looked the other way. The result can be seen on any stroll through the area: Where a lively, multiuse neighborhood was to rise, there’s a sudden boom in bland, vitality-draining office buildings.
Naturally, Carr is back in action downtown. CarrAmerica has just about finished an office building at 12th & F Streets NW (the former site of Reeves’) and is talking once again of building at the old Hecht’s site. At this crucial nexus of downtown’s fledgling arts and entertainment and residential districts, the developer proposes erecting: an office building.
The city’s historic-preservation and smart-development advocates have been in disarray recently, and there’s little reason to believe that Carr’s zeal to replace every downtown structure with an interchangeable office block won’t ultimately prevail—even if it’s his heirs and his competitors who will finish the job. Still, there is the small satisfaction that one of Carr’s vows has been proved wrong. Last year, Grano and a small group of cohorts gathered at Metropolitan Square (which Carr no longer owns) and affixed a plaque memorializing Rhodes Tavern. CP