As Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and the D.C. Council scour the District bureaucracy in search of places to cut spending, they might consider nuking the city’s wretched Office of Planning, also known as the Office of No Planning. Or perhaps they should consider moving the office to the suburbsover the past decade, officials in Maryland and Virginia have exerted more influence over big-project developments in the District than any of the mayor’s planning directors.
The District normally takes a hands-off approach to nurturing development, but the mere threat by suburban officials to snatch coveted projects away from the District has spurred city planning officials to cram large-scale projects into city-owned spaces too small to accommodate the development. D.C. officials have become specialists in taking very large round pegs and trying to squeeze them into very small square holes.
When D.C. officials were scrambling in the early ’90s to keep the Washington Redskins in town, they proposed building a new stadium next to RFK, an area where one stadium barely fit. That plan, naturally, fell victim to poor planning and a lack of forethought. The upshot is that the Skins will start their season this fall in their new Prince George’s County stadium.
City officials repeated the stunt when Washington Bullets/Wizards owner Abe Pollin declared that he wanted out of clunky, saddle-shaped U.S. Airways Arena (formerly Capital Centre) in Landover, Md. The District came up through with a tiny solution, a plot of Gallery Place real estate barely big enough for a movie theater or, say, a CVS. The MCI Center that now rises from the ground next to Chinatown all but blots out the sky, encroaching on adjacent streets and leaving almost no room for sidewalks.
Now the city is doing all it can to complete a hat trickby shoehorning a huge new convention center into an unaccommodating site on Mount Vernon Square north of Chinatown. Any number of reasonable people have pointed out that if the goal was to build a bigger convention facility, the backers should have looked for a site where such a behemoth might fit. But in its quest to cinch the deal at Mount Vernon Square, the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) has steamrolled community opposition and regulatory roadblocks. And for a good reason: It hears the footsteps coming from Alexandria.
Northern Virginia Reps. Jim Moran, a Democrat and former mayor of Alexandria, and Tom Davis, a Republican and former Fairfax County board chairman, are watching the District’s convention follies with interest. If the Mount Vernon Square plan collapses, they will reportedly step in to push Alexandria’s Potomac Yards as a fallback site.
“Yikes!” exclaims nervous Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has been pushing the Mount Vernon plan since his first election to the council six years ago. “Potomac Yards would be a perfect place for this.”
Evans admits that Mount Vernon Square, bounded by 7th and 9th Streets NW and M Street and Mount Vernon Place, is not nearly so perfect. However, it may be the District’s last chance to keep the Washington Convention Center in the city. Loss of the convention center, D.C. officials contend, would mean forgoing an estimated $1 billion in potential annual income to the local economy and an estimated $100 million in tax revenues.
A not-so-confident Evans was busy cramming the current fix down the throats of some 100 Shaw residents at a May 14 meeting. “If the convention center is built [in D.C.], it will be built at Mount Vernon Square,” he said. “This is the Preferred Identified Site.”
Although the site may be preferred in construction lingo, it’s by no means a lock. The National Capital Planning Commission this week postponed its May 29 vote on the current plan because WCCA had not yet answered the concerns of area preservationists.
By building the center at Mount Vernon Square, critics charge, the city is pissing all over Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan. The current convention center blueprints would swallow a portion of 8th Street that appeared in L’Enfant’s final drawings. The project also threatens the livability of the surrounding community and existing small businesses because not a single new parking space will be created to accommodate the 50,000 conventioneers the new center will hold. If they build it, where will they park?
Only D.C. would build a convention center and sports arena downtown without making minimal accommodations for parking, says George Washington University urban planning professor Dorn McGrath.
“Now that we don’t have city planning anymore, the approach to big projects is on a plug-and-play basis,” says McGrath. “You plug it in and start doing things. But you can’t get away with that when you’re dealing with scarce real estate and huge amounts of taxpayer money.”
“This [convention center] is a preconceived, forced fit into a too-small and misshapened site, just like the arena,” he adds. “Other cities do this sort of thing well, but we don’t seem to be able to.”
The 20,000-plus seat MCI Center contains only 400 parking spaces, and those will be snatched up quickly by the VIPs. The Washington Opera, the other major downtown revitalization effort, won’t provide any parking to operagoers when it moves into the refurbished Woodie’s building. Wonder how people will like riding the Metro while outfitted in full-length chiffon gowns?
Anyone in the know can tell you that parking headaches are already a major contributor to the decline of downtown D.C. as a commercial and entertainment venue. On a night when the MCI Center, the Washington Opera, and the new Washington Convention Center are all in full swing, the headaches could turn into crippling migraines that convince residents to avoid downtown for the parking-friendly suburbs. If they ever put together the much-talked-about entertainment district, you can bet the featured attraction every night will be the parade of poor stiffs vainly searching for a coveted parking spot.
The centerpiece of the city’s transportation plan for the new convention center involves plastering the downtown area with signs directing motorists to the nearest parking garage a ploy that has the firm backing of downtown parking moguls Oliver Carr, Dominic Antonelli, and Leonard Doggett. They must feel they’ve finally found that great garage in the sky now that the city has created a situation where parking is a very precious resource that will support exorbitant rates. It’ll be like Manhattan parking, only without the skyscrapers and the glitz.
“This is going to be a windfall for the downtown parking magnates,” predicts Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, which opposes cramming the convention center into the Mount Vernon site. “They are going to get rich beyond their wildest dreams.”
Parking spaces cannot be constructed underneath the 730,000-square-foot convention center because more than two-thirds of the center itself will be built underground to fit it into the Mount Vernon site. Putting more of the new center below ground would add to its cost, which has already soared from $400 million to $660 million. District officials are hoping that the White House and Congress will agree to pick up at least $150 million of the overrun. They’ve been so accommodating of late; what’s a hundred million between friends?
During a meeting last week at Scripture Cathedral to unveil the latest plans to skeptical Shaw residents, Ed Stolloff of De Leuw-Cather and Co. transportation consultants told the audience that only 8 percent of attendees at national conventions arrive by car. However, weekend events and regional shows such as the annual flower and auto exhibits will have a local draw that will flood the area with motorists. The car jockeys of Adams Morgan might want to think about relocating their businesses. Evans thinks the parking pressure will drive folks underground.
“We at Metro are really crossing our fingers and hoping that people use public transportation,” says Evans, the council’s representative to the Metro board. “If it works, it will save the system.”
“If everybody drives, you’re going to have a problem, there’s no question about it,” he adds.
Shaw activists at the meeting asked why they should trust city officials to keep trucks and conventiongoers from disrupting their neighborhood when the city can’t even pick up the trash and enforce current parking regulations. But District officials and the WCCA have been showering distrustful Shaw residents with gifts and promises to win over doubters.
The goodies include $20,000 in grants and low-cost loans to businesses harmed by the convention center’s presence and residents who want to move, $5-6 million in community development and arts projects, a training center to prepare Shaw residents for employment in building the convention center, a guarantee that D.C. residents will get half the construction jobs, and a pledge to preserve retail space on the new center’s first floor for stores that will cater to the neighborhood.
The private sector is throwing in a few sweeteners of its own. Marriott Corp. has pledged to train and employ 120 Shaw residents annually in area hotels, and the Washington Hotel Association plans to open up Hospitality Chartered High School in Shaw next year to train students for careers in the entertainment industry.
Just imagine how Washington Times reporter Susan Ferrechio, who last year was allegedly attacked when she entered a Northeast charter school, would be greeted at the door of Hospitality High:
Student: Good morning, Ms. Ferrechio. So glad you could make it. I’ll escort you to the principal’s office. Feel free to interview any of the students we pass along the way. Would you like an extra notebook? Oh, here comes principal Vetter now.
Principal: Hello, Ms. Ferrechio. I’m Principal Emily Vetter. You may remember mewe met when I was executive director of the Hotel Association. Now I’m principal of this wonderful, respectful high school. Uh-oh, I can’t resist the urge.
GIVE ME AN H! GIVE ME AN H! GIVE ME AN S! WHAT’S THAT STAND FOR?
Students (in perfect, mannerly unison): HOSPITALITY HIGH SCHOOL. YAY!!!!!
Despite all the talk of hospitality and accommodation, though, Shaw residents are not exactly paying courtesies to city officials. In recent weeks, they’ve mustered twice at Evans’ Georgetown home to protest the Mount Vernon Square plan. Wonder where they parked.
When Barry again resorted to excuses during a private May 15 session with the D.C. financial control board for his failure to cut government spending, control board member Joyce Ladner got fed up.
“Mr. Mayor, will you quit making excuses and just make things work!” Ladner demanded when Barry argued he needed an extra $5 million in next year’s budget for job training.
Barry responded as he always does when unexpectedly challenged: He laughed at Ladner’s outburst.
According to one present at the meeting, Ladner and other control board members were skeptical that Barry needed more money for an agency, the Department of Employment Services, that has frittered away millions of dollars in job training funds in the past.
Barry’s performance at the meeting prompted frustrated control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer last week to suggest hiring a city manager who would be under the board’s control. Brimmer’s proposal was a dog the day it was announced, as House Republicans, including Davis, head of the House District subcommittee, distanced themselves from the idea.
Congressional GOP leaders may not want to incur the wrath of D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who unleashed a verbal tirade against Brimmer for suggesting such a violation of home rule.
But it was only a few months ago that Norton’s 15-percent flat-tax proposal for the District and her plan to wipe out capital gains taxes for D.C. residents appeared dead on Capitol Hill. Last week, the flat tax was brought back to life when Senate GOP leaders embraced it at a May 15 town meeting hosted by Norton. The GOP also declared President Bill Clinton’s rescue plan and economic development agency dead on the operating table.
The Wall Street Journal this past Monday endorsed Norton’s flat tax and the Republican proposal to expand the capital gains tax cut to anyone, regardless of residency, who makes business investments within D.C.’s borders.
Noting the objections from suburban members of Congress that a flat tax would be unfair to their constituents, the starchily conservative newspaper’s editorial writers observed: “A fair point, we suppose, but hardly cause to condemn the District to economic and social collapse.”
The Journal’s editorial writers, like Republicans in Congress, hope to use the District as the lab for expanding the flat tax and capital gains cuts nationwide.CP
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