Two years ago, commuters exiting off I-395 into downtown had stopped taking much note of the gloomy cityscape along Massachusetts Avenue NW. Distinguished by parking lots, a Salvation Army drop-in center, and the President Monroe apartments, a—literally—faceless building featured in the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!, the stretch between 4th St. and 7th St. NW wasn’t much to look at. So it seemed a little bit odd, then, when city workers chose the dreary strip as a place to lay down beautiful brick sidewalks and granite curbs.
The few folks who noticed were told that federal money had paid for the sidewalks. No big deal—just a few transit bucks winding up on a random sidewalk. Stranger things have happened.
In fact, the curbs were a sign that something bigger was brewing in the surrounding neighborhood. Last November, the President Monroe—which had previously withstood years of litigation and neighborhood complaints—fell to the wrecking ball. This spring, manicured flower boxes popped up on the newly minted sidewalk. The face-lift was the first public evidence that the long-ignored parking lots and boarded-up buildings east of downtown are suddenly prime real estate.
Indeed, even as the above-ground stretch of Massachusetts Avenue was being beautified, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) was hiring consultants to study the feasibility of constructing a 7,000-space underground parking garage there—a lot that could some day serve as the deck for a new baseball stadium. The parking garage, known as the intermodal transportation center (ITC), would be a huge project. Covering 23 acres and going three stories down, it would be the biggest single structure ever built in the District—even bigger than the new convention center planned two blocks away, according to J. Kirkwood White, a former director of the D.C. Office of Planning and now a trustee of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.
Like all big civic projects, the ITC is already generating opposition. The battle promises to be an expensive one—but it won’t be just about parking.
The territory between 4th and 6th Streets and Massachusetts and New York Avenues is the downtown business corridor’s last frontier, and just about everyone has designs on it. The D.C. Sports Commission wants it for a baseball stadium. Neighborhood activists want it for housing and retail development. Office developers want it for office space. Buffeted by plans, the disheveled blocks around Massachusetts Avenue are all of a sudden ground zero for an inevitable brawl among competing—and potentially lucrative—visions of a new downtown.
While the District government has had its share of grandiose ideas, a 23-acre underground parking lot wasn’t one of them. The ITC got its genesis from the 1996 Interactive Downtown Task Force—a mayorally appointed panel of real estate developers, housing activists, business leaders, and city-planning types who were charged with finding new ways to revitalize the city’s core.
Although the mayor put his stamp on the task force, it was really the brainchild of developer Herbert S. Miller, the president of Western Development Corp., who developed retail wonders like Potomac Mills, Washington Harbour, and Georgetown Park. Not only did Miller chair the task force, but he funded it with $250,000 of his own money.
Miller envisions downtown D.C. as an “urban entertainment destination,” modeled after cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Phoenix that have used a mix of sports and entertainment venues to draw people—especially tourists—back to their centers. To that end, the task force recommended that the city create 7 million square feet of new entertainment and retail development, build 5,000 new housing units, and create an arts and cultural district to make a “living downtown,” open 24-seven.
To accommodate the visitors required to sustain an entertainment district, the task force estimated that downtown would need no fewer than 15,000 new parking spaces. “The downtown interactive task force needed parking to make that sort of theme-park vision of downtown work,” says Cell Bernardino, the former director of DPW.
Hence the plan for a mammoth parking lot. But a giant parking lot would eat up too much scarce downtown land, so the task force recommended putting it underground and allowing developers to erect some kind of new development on top—like, say, a baseball stadium, which Miller envisioned as the new downtown’s eastern anchor. To bring his vision to fruition, Miller last
year created the Washington Center Alliance, a group of developers who could jump-start new projects.
The alliance collapsed shortly after takeoff last fall, but it survived long enough to pay Republican lobbyist David Carmen $40,000 to wring federal funds out of Congress for the ITC—even though the megalot was barely on the city’s radar screen at the time, according to Bernardino.
Miller also had plenty of his own juice in the halls of Congress, where every big D.C. project gets its wings. He contributed $87,500 in soft money to Democratic party entities last year and sprinkled money around to Republicans on the D.C. appropriations subcommittee as well—including North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who got $1,000 for his losing re-election effort.
By the time he was done, Miller had endowed a project never conceived or necessarily wanted by city residents with the power of federal legislation. Congress appropriated $750,000 for DPW to undertake preliminary studies on the parking lot, and the city is eligible for as much as $5 million more.
Miller kept his bases covered on the home front, as well. He gave a total of $21,000 to four D.C. Council candidates in last year’s primary election. Miller and his wife gave $4,000 to Councilmember Jack Evans, who last year was kind enough to amend the comprehensive plan, the city’s main zoning policy document, to override longtime city plans to develop housing on the proposed ITC site.
Although Miller is often praised for getting D.C. to think outside the box about downtown development, his efforts to win taxpayer funds for the big parking lot display more than just selfless concern over the city’s future. He and developer John Akridge III have plans to create “SportsWorld USA,” a 550,000-square-foot development above the Gallery Place Metro in Chinatown—just a few blocks from the ITC site. The project would include five floors of retail stores, 22 movie screens, and 300 housing units. Miller had to sacrifice nearly half of the planned 1,500 parking spaces in the project to accommodate city requirements for on-site housing. The ITC would provide more than four times as many spots.
Even with all of Miller’s efforts, the ITC would never have gotten as far as it has without Ron Linton. A gregarious retired transportation lobbyist and D.C. police reserve officer, Linton chairs the nonprofit Save New York Avenue Inc., which hopes to transform the ugliest urban gateway on the eastern seaboard into an extension of downtown, with a bustling commercial corridor.
But Linton says his plan for New York Avenue will work only if he can get some of the traffic off of it. To do so, he proposes digging 1.8 miles of tunnel under the avenue, all the way from 3rd Street NW to 16th Street NE. Linton says such a move would yank 50,000 cars a day from New York Avenue—and allow the street to become a “grand boulevard” in the L’Enfant style, much like Connecticut Avenue.
Add to that already grand scheme a couple of comparative trifles—like, oh, a new Metro stop at Florida Avenue NE and a light rail line out to Fort Lincoln—and Linton believes gritty areas like Trinidad and Ivy City would become vibrant urban neighborhoods. Linton’s halcyon vision of a revitalized New York Avenue features tourists riding the light rail to the U.S. Arboretum, eating foccacia at a newly cutesy D.C. Farmer’s Market, and throwing pennies into a grand new fountain in the middle of the traffic circle at New York and Florida Avenues. “We looked at this as a community-building project,” he explains.
All he needs to make that happen is $2 billion—and the ITC.
Because I-395 dead-ends at Mount Vernon Square, Linton says, thousands of vehicles get forced onto New York Avenue, leaving the street too busy for more development. That heavy traffic promises to get worse when the new convention center opens just two blocks from the proposed ITC and brings 300 to 350 trucks a day rumbling into downtown. The new convention center will have no parking, and it presently has only a halfhearted plan to corral trucks at distant RFK Stadium.
“When that was put forth, I said, ‘I have some Edsals to sell you,’” says Linton. “I come from a trucking family, and I know that those truckers won’t go to RFK. They’ll park in the neighborhood and consider the tickets just part of the cost of doing business. You don’t want 300 trucks a day on New York Avenue. The impact on development would be devastating.”
When Linton heard about the ITC through Miller’s Interactive Downtown Task Force, he says the idea was basically to build a 15,000-spot parking lot. But he realized that the city could use it to get tour buses and trucks off the city streets. Even better, if connected by bus or trolley to Metro, the giant parking lot could become an intermodal center, and federal money would pay for it. “I realized that without the physical infrastructure change, we would never get developers interested,” he explains. “If you don’t get the trucks off New York Avenue, you haven’t accomplished anything.”
Under the current plan, the ITC would connect to a New York Avenue tunnel. It would also feature an underground truck chute connected to the new convention center. Like Miller, Linton also went to the Hill for support, nudging D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and personally lobbying Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster, chair of the powerful House public works committee. As a result, Congress designated New York Avenue a “high-priority corridor,” making it eligible for special federal funds.
On paper, Linton’s plan doesn’t seem all that bad. Who wouldn’t like to see Ivy City turn verdant? But some longtime residents could well be displaced by the project. Senior citizens living in the Museum Square Apartments at 4th and K Streets NW last week held a protest against the ITC scheme. Their homes—along with the House of Ruth battered women’s shelter—would be bulldozed to make way for the ITC, according to recommendations from DPW consultants.
Plans for the ITC are moving at a rapid clip, but they will have to move even faster if they are to become reality. And that’s not because planning groups like the Committee of 100 on the Federal City—whose members last week released a report slamming the plan—have suddenly gained political muscle. Even if DPW engineers could work at light speed, the plans are still far behind those of the real estate speculators who are snatching up pieces of the proposed site.
Among them is developer Douglas Jemal, who now owns the Woodward & Lothrop building and purchased 450 K Street NW almost two years ago. Paul Edelman, whose family owned Diplomat Parking, is the principal in a limited partnership that owns a large chunk of the ITC site. His partnership has been snatching up more land over the past two years to assemble a contiguous plot at Mount Vernon Square—making the parcel infinitely more valuable for development.
The way the market is moving, by the time the city is ready to assemble the ITC site, the land may be far too expensive to make the scheme feasible. Ditto the baseball stadium, new housing, and trendy retail development envisioned by the wonks in the mayor’s office. The DPW study estimates that the ITC would cost somewhere between $300 million and $600 million—not including the rapidly increasing cost of acquiring the land. Unless the city acts fast, the land at Mount Vernon Square may become too valuable to become anything but another sterile office park—K Street revisited.
George Basiliko, a professional speculator who owns nearly 50,000 feet of the ITC site, says he’s gotten numerous offers for the land from office developers over the last year.
“It’s a fast-moving environment,” says Michael Beyard, vice president of strategic development at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group that works to improve the quality of land use and development. “It is just one of the last prime locations for office development downtown.”
Beyard, who served on the Interactive Downtown Task Force, explains that the market for office space is so profitable in Washington that using downtown land for anything else is nearly impossible without strong leadership—and subsidies—from the city government. A surfeit of 9-to-5 office buildings is the reason downtown is so lame already. But supporters of the “living downtown” know that erecting a commuter-oriented retail wonderland isn’t going to bring the housing construction their vision requires. As always, housing advocates are stuck between two competing titans—offices and entertainment—neither of which has the official city plan for a residential downtown in mind.
“These pressures are going to continue. If [the city] is serious about creating a mixed-use area, they’re going to have to pay. Otherwise the office market will eat away at most of the development potential there,” says Beyard. “Unless the city gets control of this process, it will be too late.” CP