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In the twilight of a Tuesday afternoon in late December, two men sporting excellent suits and impressive black attaché cases are edging down the scruffy sidewalk of the 600 block of H Street NW in Chinatown. One man is a tall, pudgy American with slicked-back hair and stylish eyeglasses who hovers over his considerably slighter Chinese companion. The American walks impatiently a few feet in front the Asian, who is trying to keep pace with much smaller steps. The Asian man looks eager, full of information as he follows along, as if he were an attaché case himself.
The two men are scouting property. They walk past the ocular entrance of the Tang restaurant, past the pagoda storefront of the On-Leong Merchants Associationin service on this site for 50 yearspast a dour District of Columbia office building, and stop in front of an alley next to Mary Surratt’s old boarding house (now occupied by Chinese merchants), where in 1865 Lewis Paine, a would-be conspirator with President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, kept a room.
The American glowers into the alley. The Asian suddenly looks worried. The American, exasperated and with a damp forehead, utters something angrily about not having known that an alley traverses the site. He stomps off in disgust, his companion in loose tow. They wind up at the Starbucks at 7th and H for coffee, where the American banters familiarly with an employee behind the counter before the two suits take a window seat. The employee tells me afterward that they are property lawyers, and that shortly they’ll be next door, upstairs, attending a big holiday party for real estate development types.
X marks the spot: Where better for a bunch of cologned, gold watch-wearing, stiff-French-collared speculative developers to celebrate the season this year than in Chinatown? They’re here because, especially since the MCI Center opened, Chinatownthe whole eastern end of downtown, reallyis up for grabs. The extractive potential of the place is intoxicating, because so much of this side of the city remains either unmined, or at least unrefined.
With much help from Congress, particularly Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight D.C. subcommittee, a compliant Barry administration, and an inert D.C. Council, D.C.’s developer cartel, with its Rotarian will, has managed to push through the new MCI Center and the colossal new convention center planned for Mount Vernon Square, and now it’s at work on bringing a new baseball stadium downtown. (The absence of a home team is but a technicality.) These are awfully big objects to graft into what is essentially a toy-size city. But the profile of every American city is shaped by its major industriesPittsburgh by steel companies, Detroit by auto makers, etc. D.C.’s dominant industry is office buildings and parking lots, and when it comes to city planning, the developers are all too pleased to take matters into their own hands. And they’re not the noblest hands, either: The eastern half of downtown is at the mercy of visionaries whose sense of urban fabric derives not from St. Petersburg or the Rome of Sixtus V but from Planet Hollywood and Potomac Mills.
Where have you gone, Maj. Pierre Charles L’Enfant? It’s been a bracing, bittersweet couple of years for your planning legacy in latter-day D.C.
On the upside, L’Enfant’s 1792 plan for Washington finally made the National Register of Historic Places last April (the plan has been a local landmark since 1971), which presumably will protect it against future depredations of the sort seen in recent years. As the plan lurched for many years toward landmark status, L’Enfant’s old city was falling, block by Baroque block, to a pack of developing huns intent on desecrating his grand concerto of solids and voids. And sadly, no one in the city’s numerous planning departments, the local preservation caucus, or an indifferent public has the political will to turn the developers around and inject some professionalism back into the process. Over the past 25 years, the notion of professional urban planningexecuted for the public goodhas come to be viewed as a weedy, little-used path in D.C.’s bold march toward becoming any old place.
Nowhere is this piteous trend more evident than on the rangy east side of downtown, the heart of oldest Washington. The future of this end of the city is shaping up to be a tragedy in roughly three acts. The new MCI Center atop Gallery Place, along with the convention center steaming into Mount Vernon Square, give new meaning to the term “blockbuster.” In a shameless act of bait and switch, the arena’s architects erased G Street between 6th and 7th Streets NWblocking a magnificent view of Union Station’s roof from the Treasury Department to the west. Originally, the building was supposed to fit precisely between F and G streets. The arena’s profile, however, naturally got bigger as time went on, and the result looks as if somebody tried to shove five pounds into a three-pound bag. Patronizing façade referents notwithstanding, the convention center will completely wipe out 8th Street, a significant L’Enfant view corridor, for three blocks, from the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square to the lower part of the Shaw neighborhood; its outsize mass will impose upon L and M streets with spatially oppressive skybridges. And out in left field, the city is pitching a new baseball stadium for the derelict blocks bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and K, 2nd, and 4th Streets NW. If it goes through, the stadium is bound to sunder the downtown streetscape even further.
The revision by decree to the L’Enfant planwhich in harmony with Washington’s natural landscape forms this city’s single greatest physical assetmakes abundantly clear that planning is no longer the work of actual planners in D.C. Instead, it has become the paid hobby of intellectual midgets, cretins, and petty scavengers in the D.C. business community, and sycophants in the public sectornot least, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC)all working under the arrogant thumb of the Federal City Council, Washington’s unofficial but all-powerful chamber of commerce and de facto planning department. No small wonder that commercialrather than aesthetic or culturalimperatives are driving downtown’s current makeover. By default, developers in D.C. are vested with the power to direct the elite anarchy that urban design in downtown Washington has become.
The east side of downtown is bounded by 15th Street on the west, Massachusetts Avenue on the north, 3rd Street on the east, and Pennsylvania Avenue on the south. Within this area lies the Downtown Historic District, designated in 1982 despite rancorous dissent by the city’s developers and the law firm of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, which did much of their bidding against the designation. On a map, the historic district forms a cross along F Street between 7th and 11th Streets and along 7th from Pennsylvania Avenue NW to Mount Vernon Square. It encompasses Washington’s original dry-goods district, which grew outward from Market Square, which was established in 1802 on Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th.
Downtown’s historic district holds the city’s most significant historic architecture, some of it marvelous, some of it quite homely, but nearly all of it worth saving for the narrative it furnishes. The jewel in the crown is the Greek Revival Old Patent Office building, built in stages between 1836 and 1867, which now houses the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of American Art. Across the street from the Patent Office sits the spectacular General Post Office building, now known as the Tariff Commission building, a structure built between 1839 and 1866, which is the closest thing the District has to a Renaissance palazzo. Its interior is rich with ornamental plaster and cast-iron friezes, marble floors, and stone door surrounds. The building is currently empty, and its owner, the U.S. General Services Administration, is soliciting proposals for its reuse with the firm understanding that its proximity to MCI multiplies its economic potential. Indeed, the unavoidable impact of the arenafiscal and physicalripples out for several blocks in all directions. The vulnerability of downtown’s historic core, even “landmarks” both grand and obscure, cannot be overstated because there is little in the way of an authoritative planning apparatus in place to protect them.
The collapse of urban planning in D.C. began with the introduction of home rule for the city in 1972. “The price of home rule was great in terms of planning,” says Tersh Boasberg, former head of the city’s zoning commission and current chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a group of architects, planners, and assorted other L’Enfant fundamentalists.
After home rule took effect, NCPC, a congressionally created panel that has overseen District planning since 1924, was split up to form in addition what is now known as the Office of Planning, serving under the mayor. The city’s budget for planning was thus divided and shrunk. The split dispersed what by most accounts was a formidable assemblage of professional planning talent. Worse, under Mayor Marion Barry, the city’s planning office began taking its cues from gold-digging developers rather than from L’Enfant.
The early Barry administration did make an ostensible effort at enlightened planning. In 1982, the Mayor’s Downtown Committee initiated its Downtown Action Plan, which consisted of 30 of what are known as “small area plans.” These plans focused, above all, on bringing housing deeper into eastern downtown. D.C. is that rare city where residential neighborhoods come right up against its commercial core. The idea was to continue housing northward from Market Square and to extend Shaw’s residential grain south into the business district. In 1984, the concept of a “living downtown” was codified in the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Sweet thoughts those, but forget about them: They never happened. And they probably won’t at the rate things are going. The city’s planning crisis has worsened sharply under the rule of the control board, which all but gutted the 86-person Office of Planning, reducing it to a staff of 18. The master plan for the city is supposed to be updated every four years, but downtown developers wield unofficial veto power over any proposed changes that might affect their properties. They have worked tirelessly over the last decade to chip away the suggested housing quotient for downtown Washington, because housing doesn’t make them any money; parking lots and “Class A” office buildings do. Never mind that not many people in those lots or buildings pay taxes to the city, as residents might. Progress was not to be denied.
Both the MCI Center and the convention center properties occupy tracts that were identified as “housing priority areas” as recently as 1990, as will the baseball stadium if it lands on Massachusetts Avenue. The fear circulating among L’Enfant’s righteous disciples is that these three venues will effectively erect a conceptual wall, an alienating barrier of huge scale, between D.C.’s downtown and its neighborhoods. Whether that fencing is tangent to the process or the heart of its intent is debatable. At any rate, this triplet of lowbrow grands travaux is only the beginning of what’s to come.
“Repeat after me,” commands local preservation activist Mary Farrell, “the history of planning in D.C. goes like this: L’Enfant, [Daniel H.] Burnham, the McMillan Commission [of 1901], and Herbie Miller.” Herbie Millerrather, Herbert S. Milleris head of Georgetown-based Western Development Corp., the mastermind of over-the-top “destination” retail environments such as Potomac Mills, Georgetown Park, and Union Station. As such, the company purveys a strictly indoor approach to urban life. After all, why make the streets bustle with commerce and culture when you can make more money erecting a hermetic, indoor parallel and pour on the Muzak?
Now Miller’s firm is part of a consortium of real estate developers with designs on the existing D.C. convention centerbefore the new one is even built. When the D.C. Convention Center Authority vacates this brutal building, Miller & Co. propose to turn it into the “American Entertainment Center.” The fancy, four-color brief for the project, which purports to be based on a report by Barry’s “Interactive Downtown Task Force,” envisions “a cinema complex with a minimum of 20 screens along with a creative mix of themed entertainment, retail, and dining experiences.”
The fun doesn’t stop there. Miller already has a program worked out to install a giant set of mouse ears on this whole side of town. The American Entertainment Center is merely the keystone to the new 7 million-square-foot “interactive,” Disneyfied downtown. “Today,” the brief declares, “the traditional downtown of department stores, restaurants, and individual retailers and movie theaters is being replaced by an explosion of vertically integrated retailers, location-based entertainment, multi-screen cinema complexes, and theme-based dining experiences.” Which is why it’s hard anymore to tell Union Square in San Francisco from Union Square in New York, or either from Boston’s Faneuil Hall. The only fundamental difference between many of these behemoths and Potomac Mills is that the mall has better parking.
In principle, the idea of adapting the old convention center to new purposes is magnanimous. But if there is one building that downtown could survive without, it’s the old convention center. Why not tear down this ungainly eyesore and reopen 10th Street, creating two parcels? The city could then swap one of the parcels with the Washington Opera for the Woodie’s building, and the Opera could then abandon its specious, extremely stupid attempt to build an opera house above Metro Center and hire some gifted architect like Steven Holl or Jean Nouvel to design a fabulous, brand-new, state-of-the-art opera house, with a much bigger stage, on its own site. Now that’s “location-based entertainment.” The city could then renovate the Woodie’s building and use it for offices or lease it to a new retailer rather than plunking one of its primary cultural treasures into a nocturnal no man’s land.
More than anything, D.C. is losing its sense of permanence. The planned obsolescence of buildings is becoming epidemic in downtown D.C. Clauses have been written into the agreements covering both the MCI Center and the upcoming convention center that would allow a future mayor to demolish either building in 50 years. It’s the kind of disposable convenience that leads to terrifically bad decisions in the first place. Throughout Washington’s history, major buildings have been built to convey a sense of lithic endurance in limestone and marble. But to D.C.’s current crop of speculative developers, buildings, not to mention streets and public spaces, are like diapersonce they’re soiled, just toss them away. CP