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In the late 1970s, Washington’s best minds got together to build a new convention center. It was an age of bold, optimistic projects conjured by bold, optimistic city fathers. Emancipated from congressional rule just a few years earlier, the District’s new elite was determined to put up a hometown D.C. that could outshine the overlords’ federal capital. It would be an important city, a modern city, a culturally rich city. Not coincidentally, it would also be a city where builders who cozied up to politicians could make unimaginable bundles of money.
And so, on the eve of a boom that would make Washington the hottest real estate market on the planet, the District’s attention turned to construction. It’s hard to imagine how different the city looked back then. At 14th and U Streets NW, the new Reeves Municipal Center had yet to rise out of the ashes of 1968. Techworld had yet to span 8th Street and trump L’Enfant. But on a plot of land just north of Chinatown, the glorious convention center rose from the ground. As originally conceived, it was to be a glittering, glassy building, one of the biggest convention centers in the country, and an entertainment beacon to the entire region.
The roar of construction drowned out the cries of historic preservationists, but it didn’t obscure the cold logic of the balance sheet. Congressional meddling led to design changes and budget cuts. One after another, the convention center’s glorious featuresand, really, they were never all that gloriouswere jettisoned.
Yet D.C.’s best minds barreled on, undaunted. The project, the movers said, was inevitable; there was too much face to lose. They were right, of course, but when their brainchild opened for business, it was already obsolete: too small, too cumbersome, and hideously, heinously, ugly. Over a decade later, the center sits like a concrete mausoleum on some of Washington’s best real estate, struggling to lure in an increasingly reluctant stream of B-league conventions. It carries $75 million in debt and loses another $7 million annually.
And what do our best minds want to do now? They want to do it again.
Fight night at 1 Judiciary Square. It’s a half-hour before a D.C. Council hearing on a bill relating to the proposed new convention center at Mount Vernon Square NW, and center opponents are staging something that resembles a news conference. Watching them are a camera crew from News Channel 8, a few reporters, and a gaggle of convention center proponents.
Emceeing the event is Beth Solomon, a Shaw resident who has become one of the convention center’s chief adversaries. She introduces, one by one, the dozen or so folks standing around her, who in turn synopsize the testimony they’re about to give. Passers-by hear the project denounced as myopic, toxic, wasteful, and disastrous. For good measure, it also gets called corrupt, racist, and straight-up ugly.
Surveying the scene from not too far behind the TV camera is Tony Robinson, chief flack for the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA). With nearly all of the hurdles cleared, Robinson is working hard at maintaining the façade of the front-runner, all smiles and slow shakes of the head as the opposition roars its discontents. And then he picks up a few rocks for good measure. “Beth’s really been run out of Shaw,” he tells me, quietly. “None of the community support her except the two or three you see here.” He’s trying to look more sad than adversarial, the disappointed parent of misbehaved adolescents rather than just the more powerful side of an ongoing debate. The way he tells it, his project is not only logical and responsible, it is also inevitable. The only ones who can’t get that through their thick heads are the protesters in front of us.
A piece of literature being handed out by pro-convention center Shaw resident Francesca Dixon puts this even more plainly. Opponents are described as “rag tag,” “nutty,” or, more piquantly, as “socialists.” One of Robinson’s allies, 26-year-old Willie Flowers, walks up to me after I’ve interviewed an anti-convention center speaker and asks, “Are you on the kook circuit now?”
But there is something wrong here. If everything is so cut and dried, how come the WCCA folks are out here in the cold instead of home counting their blessings as their project takes root? For a bunch of people who are supposedly sitting atop a done deal, they seem a bit hinky. While a project opponent is being interviewed on TV, how come I hear Robinson tell Dixonwho is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Convention Center Yes!”that she should “go stand in the shot.” Why, for that matter, has Dixon dragged out her 5-year-old, also in the same T-shirt, to give this evening’s pro-convention center manifestations a laughable “grass roots” patina?
If it’s all over but the shouting, how come there’s still so much shouting?
You wouldn’t know the fight was over if you dropped in on this particular skirmish. Rodney Foxworth, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner who over the past couple of years has moved from qualified support to something that looks very much like cheerleading, is speaking to a camera, describing opponents as elitists and outsiders. He is interrupted by Gastrel Riley, a center opponent from the Shaw Coalition, who accuses Foxworth of having been bought off by WCCA for $4,000. Foxworth says Riley’s lying. Voices rise. Tempers flare. Cameras roll. A minute later, it is even louder: Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars has lit into Foxworth, and he’s giving as good as he gets. “You guys don’t live in Shaw!” he screams. “You’ve been lied to!”
“I live in D.C.!” Seegars shouts back. “You’re
Maybe the deal’s not so done after all.
It’s easy to see how so much momentum built up behind the Mount Vernon site. D.C. may not have a reputation for efficiency, but when city fathers and mothers decide they have a fix, the fix pretty much always goes in regardless of how much keening there is from community types. But this time, though they seem to have the strength to get it done, they’ve saddled up the wrong horse. This deal won’t stay done, in spite of the massive forces arrayed behind it, because the fundamentals are out of whack.
Early in 1994, D.C. Council legislation created WCCA, giving it a mandate to manage the existing convention center and to build a new one. A feasibility study was undertaken, but WCCA and the project’s biggest constituenciesthe hospitality industry, developers, and their allies in local and federal politicsquickly lined up behind the idea of building the new center on top of six city blocks of parking lot at Mount Vernon Square, in the neighborhood known as Shaw.
The proposal’s benefits were easy to see. No one denied that in order to compete in a hugely lucrative industry the city needed a new convention center. Mount Vernon Square, just a stone’s throw from the existing convention center, was close to downtown and its hotelsespecially the two hotels spawned by the first center. The space was a dark parking lot, the area around it desolate and gloomy. It was also arguedthough the existing center and Washington tourist patterns hardly bear this outthat people would walk to the center, kick-starting commercial life in the area.
Four years later, though the project barrels forward, the drawbacks seem a lot more obvious. By plopping the largest structure ever proposed in Washington onto a neighborhood that has already been punished by broader business objectives, the proposal would quite plainly decimate what is left of Shaw. Because builders have to shoehorn into just six blocks a building that is to compete against the supersize convention centers of the ’90s, the city faces skyrocketing costs for the project. And no matter what architectural gymnastics are employed, by the time the center is finished, it will still be smaller than many and, like the existing one, it will be unable to expand.
So after crapping on a neighborhood and costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the damn thing will likely be yet another D.C. turkey.
The story of how we got here is a good, if predictable, tale of how power works in Washington. Combine the sluttiest usual suspects among local boosters, the powerhouses behind every big idea in D.C., and a vital local industryhospitalitydetermined to have its way, and you have a pretty formidable juggernaut. And that’s before you look for financial interconnections.
“Moneyed, vested interests are running this whole show,” says Richard Westbrook, a former National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) staffer and longtime observer of the convention center. Westbrook was right there watching as D.C.’s potentates came together. Sharing seats on committees and invitations to social functions, as well as friends, neighborhoods, and a view of the world as a place where their grand plans are the only things guaranteed to work, the District’s movers and shakers have set a course that has stayed true despite endless setbacks, despite endless instances of the done deal coming undone. How many times can the deal fall out of bed and still get done? As many times as it takes, apparently.
Name a powerful figure and you’ll name a convention center supporter: Mayor Barry, Rep. Tom Davis, the White House, the Federal City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade, business-friendly councilmembers Jack Evans and Charlene Drew Jarvis, members of the control board. As chief beneficiaries of the city’s lucrative tourist industry, the hotel and restaurant industries are the center’s biggest proponents. They don’t really think for a minute that it will pull Shaw up. But at the very least, they’ve found a neighborhood that can’t really be pulled further down.
One of my colleagues is working on a story that traces murder in D.C. She has a map of the city decorated with a pushpin at the location of every killing. They spread out across the map, a bunch here, a few therecentimeter-long, color-coded tributes to lives cut tragically short. A couple of blocks north of where the new convention center would be built, they seem to concentrate, so many in some places that when I touch the spot I inadvertently knock a couple loose.
This is Shaw, the neighborhood so many people are suddenly talking about. Foes of the proposed convention center drape themselves in the neighborhood’s past, sanctimoniously evoking the heritage of African-American Washington. Advocates point out that in spite of that legacy, Shaw is currently an urban hellhole by any definition and that a large-scale project like the convention center is the only thing that is going to knock it out of a downward spiral. But they agree on one thing: If the project is ever built, the neighborhood will never be the same again.
Shaw wasn’t always in such dire straits. The area was once home to the commercial and cultural heart of segregated Washington’s African-American community. Langston Hughes lived there. Jean Toomer, the Harlem Renaissance poet, wrote a famous poem about 7th Street. Pictures from the 1940s show a vibrant, active shopping strip.
Today, though, the name Shaw is synonymous with urban blightliterally. The name only came into common use after Shaw bottomed out in 1966, when the NCPC designated the swath of land served by the former Shaw Junior High Schoolfrom North Capital Street to 15th Street, from New York Avenue to Florida Avenueas an urban renewal area. Before that, according to Marcia M. Greenlee’s essay in Washington at Home, a history of D.C. neighborhoods, residents identified themselves by smaller jurisdictions like Bates Street, U Street, or individual residential blocks.
But a mere two years after NCPC hatched its plans to pull the neighborhood into a utopian urban future, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. unleashed a dynamic all its own. The riots of April 1968 sped up residential flight from Washington and shattered a lot of dreams of close-in urban renewal. Instead of counting on people and housing to do it, planners conjured up the first of the giant new plans that were going to save the neighborhood. It was decided that six residential blocks off Mount Vernon Square would be bulldozed to make way for D.C.’s grand new university.
The outcome was the worst of all worlds. Housing was torn down and life chased away, but plans for the downtown campus were scuttled. The six blocks turned into the city’s biggest parking lot. And the asphalt spawned its own business. Shaw, so close to downtown and so historic, now hosts an auto body shop and not one but two junkyards. Some locals do business stealing batteries and the like from cars parked in the lots.
Mass-scale planning ruined Shaw. Now, other people with monumental plans say they can save it. Though nothing in the recent history of Washington suggests they should be trusted, a lot of folks are willing to once again put their faith in people with a grand scheme.
If the convention center ever is built, it will be the biggest building in Washington, occupying six entire city blocks, from New York Avenue on the south to N Street on the north, from 7th to 9th streets on the east and west. Its total indoor areaexhibition space, other rooms, and D.C.’s biggest ballroomwill be 2.1 million square feet, enough for each city resident to curl up in the fetal position inside. Among its features will be 500,000 square feet of exhibition space lying entirely below ground. The hall has been described as the world’s biggest basement.
There’s more. The building will break up L’Enfant’s city plan by erasing three blocks of 8th Street, already the most disjointed street in the original grid. Though L and M Streets will be preservedat great costby building a tunnel and an overpass, the center-surrounded streets won’t exactly be inviting city blocks. No matter how attractive it will bethe current plans show a building considerably less hideous than the old convention centerthe building will create a massive artificial barrier right in the middle of a low-lying residential neighborhood.
Convention center proponents say what will be lost will be far outweighed by what will be gained. Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, whose district includes Shaw, pronounces himself “mystified” by the barbs opponents have hurled at the proposal. “I think any time you build a project of this magnitude, it brings positives and negatives. Our job is to accentuate the positives and deminimize the negatives.”
“First of all, you’re going to eliminate six of the most blighted city blocks in the District,” Evans says. “Secondly, the physical structure is going to be very user-friendly. And finally, the job production is not to be minimized….If you don’t have a bigger convention center, the city’s just going to lose out.” Others say the project will obliterate, no enervate, Shaw.
The proposed convention center is “far, far out of scale for the site,” says George Washington University urban planning professor Dorn McGrath. McGrath says the project will create an “emotional divide. It’s a traumatic change of land use. One side [of the neighboring streets] is supposed to be cozy, the other side a blank wall or rolling trucks.”
“It’s crammed in there,” says Leroy Thorpe, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner who has been an outspoken opponent of the proposal. “You’ve got one building bigger than the Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon Office Buildings on the Hill. Come on! How are you going to build that structure and be successful? You’re not going to be successful.”
“To me, it’s a Berlin Wall,” says Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
And as for the design features touted by WCCA as lessening the building’s divisive physical impact and making it just another corner of the community, McGrath says, “That’s no substitute for a neighborhood. Those are the little myths architects teach each other in architecture school.”
To hear Committee of 100 on the Federal City chairman Tersh Boasberg tell it, the Mount Vernon Square convention center proposal was a fait accompli long before it started. Boasberg notes that the same people involved in a 1986 study that suggested a new center at Mount Vernon Square (architects Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, and Devrouax and Purnell) and a 1989 study further exploring the site (architect Ted Mariani) are, as official designers, big winners in the current bargain. Players like the hotel and restaurant associations, with key properties nearby, quickly got on board. At that point, Boasberg says, the process of investmentpolitical and emotional, if not financialbegan. “All the same people have been involved,” says Westbrook. And considering the weight of the folks involved, that’s probably about all it took.
Boasberg’s group has pushed an alternative plan that calls for building middle-class housing at Mount Vernon Square and putting up a convention center eight blocks east, just north of Union Station. He describes his group not as anti-convention center but as opposed to this particular project.
The Committee of 100’s proposal would yield an expandable convention center, fit in with plans calling for more downtown housing and for more development on North Capitol Street, and spare taxpayers the exorbitant costs caused by the architectural gymnastics the current location requires. But the Union Station proposal has its own set of problems that the powers that be apparently decided were insurmountable.
Doubters point out that the Union Station proposal underestimates the costs of purchasing land, the unwillingness of conventioneers to visit an unknown, industrial neighborhood, and the McVeigh-era security fears that would be raised by building Washington’s convention center next to railroad lines. Less altruistically, they can’t be too excited that a Union Station center would be farther from the existing hotels owned by Mount Vernon Square’s proponents and not quite contiguous to the Disney-era downtown so many of them have wagered their futures on.
Many, many fundamental questions seem extant about both deals, but no one seems to want to talk about them.
“There’s a small group of people who make these decisions,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, a vociferous critic of the Mount Vernon Square proposal. “…This little cabal doesn’t want [the Union Station alternative] to happen.”
But Boasberg argues that the fix was in a decade ago, and as a result, his proposal never received its fair day in court. “Why should they choose the best location for the city?” asks Boasberg. “They’ll take what’s good for them…so now everyone’s invested. They’ve accepted the proposal without seeing anything, without knowing how much it costs.”
Let’s talk about the kind of conventions that take place in convention centers. I’d always imagined these things as deliberative affairs: a lecture here, a symposium there, a little shmoozing on the side. You knowa boondoggle with bad cookies and worse coffee. But in fact, that’s not a convention-center convention. That’s a hotel convention, or a university convention, or a think-tank convention. If you were a big, tough, convention-center kind of conventioneer, you might even call it a sissy convention.
Convention-center conventions are much more muscular affairs that gobble space and people in huge bites. Of course, they do have speeches to sleep through, discussions to blow off, and colleagues and competitors to slander. But you can do that in a couple of hundred thousand square feet. The serious real estate comes into play when there’s trade-show exhibiting to be done. To get a feel for what it looks like inside the main hall, imagine your high-school gym set up for the science fair. Then double it. Then double it again. Then double it a couple of dozen more times. That’s what brings in the big bucks.
Even a small-time convention-center convention can look pretty daunting. At the National Marketplace for the Environment Conference, held late in November at the allegedly tiny Washington Convention Center, attendees strolled past row after row of exhibits marketing green technologies. There were electric cars and model high-speed trains and cutting-edge skylights. There were energy-saving windows and environmentally safe cash crops and clean-burning fuels. There were the whole nine marketable yards.
The experts say it wasn’t enough.
Like everything else in America, conventions are growing. When Washington’s convention center opened in 1982, it was the fourth biggest such building in America. The city had reacted to the convention industry’s nationwide shift from corner store to supermarket.
But in the two or three years that followed, it became apparent that the convention industry hadn’t stopped burgeoning. As new centers across the country quickly outstripped Washington’s paltry 378,000 square feet of exhibition space, conventioneering shifted in size once again, from Safeway to Price Club. Chicago built 1.85 million square feet. New Orleans erected 1.3 million. Orlando, home of Disney World, put up 1.05 million. Atlanta, whose Georgia World Congress convention center was one of D.C.’s early models, met the change by expanding to 950,000 square feet.
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But Washington couldn’t do that. Hemmed in on all sides, the Washington Convention Center was unable to expand with its market. By 1985, just three years after the ribbon was cut, big-time convention organizers were already complaining about the building’s size, telling the Washington Post that they’d have to start forgoing the nation’s capital and its now undersize facility. A dozen years later, the building is simply off the map of major conventioneering.
There is a single trend in conventions: big. What used to be a bunch of little conventions that could be held in some meeting rooms at the Day’s Inn has become aggregated into one huge conclave. For that kind of gig, you need lots and lots of uninterrupted space. According to Charlie Johnson, a strategic planner who has worked on numerous convention center projects, it’s the law of the jungle out there. “Trade shows are gobbling up other trade shows,” he told a conference call sponsored by Mount Vernon Square opponents. “The industry grows in many ways; i.e., the boat show buys the surfboard show buys the boat-gear show.” And the conventions keep growing and growing and growingall those people, looking at all those displays, in all those enormous rooms.
Johnson and fellow convention consultant Jeff Sachs told the conference call participants that with current plans for the construction of new buildings and the expansion of existing ones, by the year 2025, 30 U.S. convention centers will have 1 million or more square feet of exhibition space.
But Washington’s won’t be one of them. If it’s built, it will have 750,000 square feet of exhibition spacetwice the amount in the existing center but likely too small by half in the competitive market of the future. Even that 750,000 square feet will broken into two parcels, a layout unpopular with convention planners. And that will be that. Within a few decades, the city will face a very good chance of being back where it started: out of date, out of customers, and out of luck.
“What have you got?” asks Boasberg. “A center that’s not on one floor, no parking, no expansion. It sounds as if you’ve got yourself back to the same place as 14 years ago. Why? Because the same people made the same mistakes.”
Political gadfly Sam Smith has a novel suggestion: Instead of spending so much time and money on a misplanned second convention center, why not concede the inevitable and skip straight to building the third center? “When is this going to work?” Smith asks. “How long does the scam keep going?”
This image of the modern convention centera warehouse for humans that hosts gargantuan trade shows, self-contained exhibits, and expense-accounted conventioneersis worth keeping in mind while wading through all the spin about spinoffs being served up by WCCA and its friends.
To hear the center’s acolytes tell it, the construction of a new convention center will herald the building of a veritable Paris in the middle of Shaw, with residents and visitors alike hopping from cafe to theater to specialty store. Claiming a synergy with the brand-new MCI Center just four blocks away, convention center planners are seeking to tie their project to current vogues in city planning. Where 1960s planning segregated housing and commerce, current styles emphasize entertainment-heavy center cities and large numbers of visitors. Basically, the theory suggests, if there are lots of people walking around, you’re a lot less likely to get mugged and a lot more likely to find worthwhile commercial amenities.
“We need what other neighborhoods need,” says convention center advocate Francesca Dixon. “We need a bakery. We need family restaurants. I have African-American neighbors who say they want a bagel store. Why can’t we have a bagel store?” Dixon says that at the very least, the convention center will spawn businesses like copy shops. But she also maintains that the regular infusion of 42,000 visitors will spur the kind of commerce that will make her neighborhoodshe lives on 5th Street, just two blocks from the building sitea much more pleasant place.
“I’m a meeting organizer; I know: People skip meetings at conventions,” Dixon says. “They want to get out in the community.” And, in the process, spend the dollars that fund the kinds of facilities she wants to live near. The only problem is that while museums or bars tend to boost this kind of cosmopolitan urban scene, convention centers don’t. Both sides of the debate over where to put the convention center evoke the work of Jane Jacobs, the 1960s critic whose attacks on modern urban planning emphasized mixed use and street life. But Jacobs’ definition of mixed use precluded one project dominating the others.
People who are opposed to the convention center worry that not only won’t it produce the kind of amenities they want to live near, it will preclude the possibility that those amenities will ever come to Shaw. “It’s a stand-alone development,” says Lynch. “There’s no spinoff development.”
Unlike Jacobs, another grande dame of 20th-century planning criticism actually did consider convention centers as a phenomenon. “A convention center,” wrote New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “lays a dead hand on a city.”
The reason is that no matter what the designand WCCA has gone to great lengths to plan a structure that looks less massive than it isa convention center is simply not supposed to interact with the outside world. More often than not, its focal point, the exhibition hall, has no windows onto the street. At the proposed Mount Vernon Square site, it will be largely underground. Convention centers make money by maintaining the attentiveness of the people who visit. Their job is to hang on to people as long as they can, not spread them around the neighborhood.
Testifying before NCPC, Public Buildings Service commissioner Robert A. Peck noted that in his work he’d been to a lot of convention centers and that “they don’t, in my experience, stimulate development in the immediate neighborhood because, in fact, people don’t go outside much, even to get a sandwich. In fact, you build a convention center with these sort of amenities inside.”
Will a Mount Vernon Square convention center spur small-scale, storefront commerce? It hasn’t happened in Baltimore. It hasn’t happened in Dallas. It hasn’t happened in New York.
But you don’t have to go to Texasor even Marylandto see that convention centers don’t perk up urban neighborhoods. All you have to do is walk a few blocks south, to the existing Washington Convention Center. The building sits opposite a couple of hotels, but as for other amenities, the kind that’d be nice if you actually lived there, until you get either to Chinatown or a few blocks down 7th Street, there’s little other than a bunch of unarticulated, impregnable façades that hardly seem destined to be penetrated by retail.
A little before 4 p.m. on a Friday, Sun Paik is closing up shop at the New World Cafe, a lunch spot just across 9th Street from the existing center. This is the kind of joint that caters to commuters, not residents. “Most of the food is gone,” she says, explaining that her establishment usually closes up after the office lunch hour ends. Thinking of Francesca Dixon and her prognosis for family restaurants, I ask Paik if there are any other cafes open nearby. “No,” she says. “Except Subway.” Now there’s some dynamic urban development for you.
Of course, no matter how soulless and commuter-dominated the existing convention center’s neighborhood is, things are still a lot deader on the other side of New York Avenue, at the Mount Vernon Square site.
Suggestions that the convention center will kill Shaw draw a chuckle from Vicky Brown, who cuts hair at Summer and Clark’s Barber Shop, across 7th Street from the proposed site. “Kill a neighborhood?” she asks. “It’s already dead.”
Brown’s sentiments are not unusual on the streets adjoining Mount Vernon Square. “There’s no representative group that’s against it,” says Shaw property owner Neil Donnelly. Donnelly argues that center opponents misrepresent community opposition to the project. And he is probably right.
But the part these convention center advocates leave out is the stronger neighborhood sense that the convention center, at worst, won’t hurt. There’s also a sense that pretty much nothing will hurt. This place has already been bombed by the last big thing. There’s not too much left to lose. “Maybe it will help; maybe it won’t,” says Meecoabe Hart, whose First Lady International clothes store has a “Convention Center Yes!” sign in the window, posted, Hart says, by his son. “We need all the help we can get.”
“People are so desperate for something up there,” explains former NCPC staffer Westbrook. “And they’ve never had a presentation of, ‘Gee, there’s other options out there.’”
And much of this resigned support also comes from the fact that WCCA has succeeded in projecting the notion that the Mount Vernon Square site is an inevitability. “What can I say?” asks Ann Kirby, who works at the Mount Vernon Shelter, at 7th Street and New York Avenue. “It’s going up.”
A few things more tangible than myths of aesthetic design and community building will be obliterated by an enormous new structure in Mount Vernon Square. By plopping the building down on D.C.’s only municipal parking lot, center planners will eliminate 1,100 parking spaces that usually get filled up by 8:15 a.m.
Though the center will bring in as many as 42,000 folks for an event, no new spaces will be added. Boosters claim that visitors will take taxis and ask why Shaw should have to house cut-rate car lots for area commuters. Others point to the relative lack of parking problems so far in the young life of the downtown MCI Center.
Besides, with core issues like affordable housing challenging the neighborhood, asks Foxworth, “who gives a shit about parking and transportation?”
But the two are related. Based on the habits of commuters to regional trade shows, it’s doubtful that a D.C. convention center can wean suburbanites from their automotive habits. After a few years of clogged streets and convention crises, the pressure to build new lots will be excruciating. And all of WCCA’s talk about preserving the rest of the neighborhood will go out the window. The project, Solomon says, will turn Shaw “into a parking lot.”
Another group of vehicles is certain to be commuting in massive numbers through the neighborhood’s narrow streets: the estimated 150 trailer trucks a day that will bring convention gear to town. Boosters maintain that an off-site marshaling yard will alleviate any problems, but others are doubtful. “They have created a truck dock right on the edge of a historic district,” says McGrath. “Trucks will sit in the street while waiting to get in.” While some arguments about traffic are clearly exaggeratedat one council hearing, some opponents raised the improbable specter of inner-city kids being “poisoned” by truck exhausthaving the main neighborhood drags turned into truck idling grounds doesn’t traditionally do wonders for a community.
Maybe the reason this huge project has slid through reasonable community concerns like a greased pig is that a lot of greasing has gone on. Sitting in her Blagden Alley loft, Solomon chuckles at Foxworth’s allegations that she’s an elitist outsider.
In her lap is a stack of documents she has obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents show off a whole bunch of WCCA spending that’s not particularly architecture-oriented. There are handouts for youth charities, sandwich purchases for community clean-ups, seats at fund-raising galas.
Solomon says they show off a pattern of vested interests throwing money around a poor neighborhood in a way that is, at the very least, crass. “Here’s another one,” she says. “Silver Sponsor, $1,000, for Mayor’s prayer breakfast and a photo op with the mayor. It’s the Executive Fellowship Group Inc., ‘Uniting the spirit, realizing the vision.’ I mean, that has crony written all over it! OK, here’s another one: $100 for the Friends of the D.C. Commission for Women Inc. The D.C. Commission for Women was put out of business! It no longer exists! So why are we giving money to this group?”
“Here’s more money paying a guy who passed out fliers. Here’s Madison Pride of D.C. Drill team….Here they paid for a clown to be at a party: ‘Clown and Bananas in Pajamas.’ OK: $225….Here they gave $100 to the YMCA….Here’s $500 to Scripture Cathedral.”
A lot of this neighborhood spending is on undeniably good causes, the sorts of nice-neighbor charities and local spending that any local business would want on its record. But WCCA isn’t a local business. It’s a tax-funded quasi-governmental agency. “Why is this being done?” asks Solomon. “Why is the Convention Center Authority, whose mission is very clear, doing thisunless it has a political purpose?”
WCCA general manager Lewis Dawley says there’s nothing wrong with that kind of spending. “It’s to our advantage to have a good, strong community around us,” Dawley says. Dawley likens the spending to a police officer taking time to meet with local resident groups, saying that both uses of public time or money fall under the broader definitions of each job’s goals. “This is more than just a site,” he says.
It is indeed more than just a site. For some folks, it looks an awful lot like a cash cow. With the smell of big hospitality industry money floating around, a lot of the cash-strapped, grant-funded community-development and preservation types know there’s dough to be had if the convention center comes in.
There have been instances when the money goes beyond community do-goodism and starts looking like quid pro quo, or at least like the actions of folks who think the center is inevitable and want to salvage what they can. In the memorandum of agreement between preservationists and center planners, the D.C. Preservation League got $73,436 to help process the historic protection applications of neighboring buildings, as a part of WCCA’s “mitigation” efforts. The shouting between Seegars and Foxworth outside 1 Judiciary Square originated after Foxworth, an economic development consultant, received a community-development subcontract from WCCA community support contractor Ibrahim Mumin.
Others are lining up at the till. “If you’re into [urban development work], if that’s what you do, there’s money out there for you in this project,” explains Solomon.
According to activist Dorothy Brizill, much of the community support for the project springs from WCCA promises of up to $20,000 in mitigation money for individual businesses disrupted by construction. But Brizill says WCCA has planned to use Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grants to pay for that mitigation, despite not having any assurances that HUD money may be used for such an expense.
“Those businesses are very marginal. So for someone to walk in and say ‘I’m going to give you $20,000,’ it’s like it’s Christmas,” she says.
To Ambrose, this pattern of local spending borders on dereliction of duty. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to convince people,” she says. It’s the use of public money that makes her bristle. “Don’t kid yourself, Mr. Dawley [of the WCCA]. You are not like any business. You are not raising your own capital.”
The greasy neighborhood money is nothing compared to the broader economics. And on that subject, Ambrose and others have managed to get at least some people to pay attention. If anything manages to stop the proposed convention center, it won’t be the urban-planning disaster that lies ahead. It will be the finances. Center boosters want you to think the two things are unrelated. In fact, they are joined at the hip.
All the extra expenses are a byproduct of sticking a very large square peg into a very small round hole. While the Shaw spot might not have been too small by 1986 standards, it is already dangerously small by current ones. To make it competitive, WCCA plans to do things like stick the main hall underground, put in architecturally tricky truck ramps, and dig a tunnel under 9th Street. All of which are, to put it mildly, massively expensive. By Committee of 100 estimates, the Mount Vernon Square site will cost $300 million more than the Union Station location would.
Keeping pace with the architectural gymnastics, the center’s projected costs have skyrocketed. In 1993, the estimate was $450 million. Four years later, it was $550 million. This summer, it was $650 million. A General Accounting Office estimate put it at $737 million. Add the land valueD.C. owns the property now, but it of course has potential value as something elseand it tops $800 million. And that’s before the accidents that are waiting to happen start happening.
Dawley is familiar with the objections to the Mount Vernon site but says that a Union Station convention center would be unpopular with convention promoters because of the sketchiness of the neighborhood. Furthermore, he argues that planners are obliged to follow the desires of D.C.’s hotel and restaurant bigwigs, even if they demand a wildly expensive center. “You have to listen to the industry,” he says, “the people who are paying for it.”
This argument makes Ambrosewho has dogged WCCA since she joined the council last springfume. Throughout the debate on the convention center, Ambrose has pointed out that some of the money for the new building comes out of the city’s tax on all incorporated and unincorporated businesses, and thus not just from the hospitality industry. “My responsibility is to the taxpayers,” she says. “Everyone’s paying for it.”
Ambrose is not so much sentimental about Shaw as she is worried about the impact of the project’s costs on all D.C. residents; she sees the project as a boondoggle from start to finish. From behind the eyeshade, she suggests that the taxpayer money being used will end up down a rathole and the people paying will barely benefit.
As it now stands, the convention center is subsidized by money from six different dedicated taxes. Most of them are hospitality taxes, paid, one assumes, mostly by tourists. But the incorporated and unincorporated business tax pays about 10 percent of the total project costs. Ten percent didn’t sound like a big deal until an $800-million price tag came into view. “How is the barbershop on Good Hope Road going to benefit?” she asks. “My problem is that it’s getting way too expensive. The cost is going up and up and up.”
The financing bill would support bond sales to subsidize $650 million in construction and other costs. Everything above thatWCCA officials still maintain that a bidding process that puts builders at risk for cost overruns means the building will come in at the guaranteed $650 million price; opponents say with equal certainty that it won’tcomes from the general till. “There is also an escalator clause in the current law which says that if existing taxes do not provide enough revenue in any given year, the mayor must increase them,” says Ambrose. “Now, that’s a nasty little escalator.”
Down-the-line expenses have been quietly added as the deal has progressed. In the financing package currently pending before the council, the duration of the convention center bonds is extended from 30 to 40 yearssomething no one notices now, but which will cost millions in added interest down the line. “It’s a substantial difference,” says Brizill.
Center proponents justify the expense by saying that the construction will bring the city some badly needed economic development. Bill Lecos of the Virginia-headquartered Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington notes that average spending by a conventioneer is $1,400 a day, including hotels, restaurants, transportation, and retail. “There’s just something about being in a different town that loosens the pocketbook,” he says, noting that Washington’s supply of free-spending conventioneers will dry up without the new structure.
Ward 4 Councilmember Jarvis, who chairs the council’s committee on economic development, says the proposed new building is the most important economic-development project in years. Abandoning it, she says, “would kill our downtown.” Jarvis notes that Ambrose’s former employer, ex-councilmember John Ray, was an original opponent of the Mount Vernon Square plan and characterizes the freshman councilmember’s opposition as sour grapes by someone unwilling to stop waging a losing battle. “To some extent, she has cried fire in a crowded movie theater,” says Jarvis. Ambrose, like everyone else who has tried to slow down the juggernaut, has taken some hits along the way.
Naysayers aside, the increase in visitors coming to conventions at a competitive center would, in fact, create some growth. It would very likely spur some new hotel and restaurant development, or at least cause some new hires at local hotels. Washington is in the visitor business as much as Orlando is, and anything that creates traffic is to some good. Whether it would balance out D.C.’s outlay is another story. A lot of similarly rosy predictions, after all, were made about the first convention center and about pretty much every other boondoggle of the past two decades.
Yet as the city scrambles to avoid losing another big one to the suburbs, just who will profit is an issue that’s being left unexplored. At a November hearing, Jarvis confronted an anti-convention center heckler by asking if he’d rather have the center built in Virginia. In 1990s Washington, that question has a way of ending debates.
Virginia, in fact, stands to benefit more than anyone else from the center. Though suburban taxpayers foot none of the bill, they get the
lion’s share of the benefits, according to a 1993 study commissioned by WCCA itself. One industry source who still likes the project admits that from Virginia’s point of view, “it’s the greatest scam going.”
Because most construction firms and trained construction workers are based in the suburbs and many tourists stay in suburban hotels, D.C. stands to get a paltry $4 million out of $28 million in increased revenue, 560 out of 1,600 new jobs, and just under half of the total increased economic activity. WCCA has promised things like an apprenticeship program for locals, but so far nothing has materialized.
“Without spending a penny, Northern Virginia will reap close to two-thirds of the benefits of a center in the District,” says Ambrose.
What’s more, the costs associated with the centerfrom hotel taxes to potential business taxesfurther the District’s painful reputation as an expensive place to do business, thus hindering the very development the center’s supporters tout. “The convention center surtaxes are one more disincentive for people to come,” she says.
“Whenever I start zeroing in on questions,” Ambrose says, “people back off.” She thinks we should go back to the drawing board and propose a regionally funded convention center. But she also knows that’s not bloody likely. The potential benefits for suburbia only increase Capitol Hill support for the proposal, because up on Capitol Hill, Virginia has a lot more friends than D.C. does.
In the District, meanwhile, the dynamic of inevitability remains the project’s best friend. Too many people would simply be embarrassed by pulling back after so much work. The word is out that the convention center will be built at Mount Vernon Square, and activists, preservationists, and others had better get on board if they want to retain even the tiniest bit of influence over its future.
Westbrook says this dynamic helped the project over the various regulatory hurdles it needed to jump. He says outfits like the president’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation made it clear that they didn’t like the location but grudgingly signed a memorandum of agreement in hopes of at least winning some mitigations. “That really pulled the rug out from under the opposition,” he says.
And Westbrook believes the aura of inevitability swayed other decision-makers as well. “Everybody falls in line,” he says. “I didn’t work on the NCPC staff for 20 years without understanding that.”
But reports of the project’s inevitability are highly exaggerated. It still has to pass one more planning hurdle and also win formal financial approval from the D.C. Council, the control board, and Congress. If hard-core opponents Ambrose and Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson can win over a few more council votes, or if some member of Congress were to take up the issue, then the new Washington Convention Center could go right back to the drawing board.
So what if the current proposal tumbled back to Square 1. What would happen to Shaw?
“Want to know what I think will cause a renaissance?” asks Ambrose. “More commercial-residential mix.” It’s a sentiment echoed by every element in the fractured opposition to the proposed convention center. There is at least some consensus among those who don’t want to see the convention center land on Shaw that coming up with moderate mixed-use developmentand making sure still more history doesn’t disappear under the gray concrete of progressis what will help the neighborhood in the long run.
The numbers, in fact, bear the idea out: Downtown housing brings in the most money to a city, especially to a no-commuter tax city-state like D.C. It brings in more than offices, it brings in more than spectacles, and it certainly brings in more than conventions. The only people who don’t win from center-city housing, says one preservationist, are the captains of the city’s dominant industries: “parking cars and building offices.”
But downtown housing is not what’s likely to happen. In the wake of the MCI Center’s glittery opening, developers are riding high. The papers make the people who opposed that construction look as if they were dead wrong. Of course, convention centers, unlike arenas, have to be able to grow to survivea point lost on those who analogize the center proposal to the new arena. But when builders look out at Shaw, they see more people who look just like the people who said the arena would be a fiasco: idiots running around a parking lot wielding megaphones and lots of Chicken Little rhetoric. And in Shaw, the idiots have the additional disadvantage of crying about the loss of an impoverished neighborhood that’s been an eyesore for a generation.
Yet what the megaphone-wielders are mourning isn’t the death of what’s there. No matter what anyone says, the area is pretty much screwed as is. What’s being lost is Shaw’s potential to be something again. A big, new building would add to the wall around the newly entertainment-intensive downtown, keeping, they think, the lights, the food, and the fun, fun, fun in, and the whores, the crime, and the poor out. In the process, it would assure that what was left of Shaw would become nothing but a permanent cul-de-sac of happy conventioneers. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.