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Something about the stretch of 9th Street NW above Mount Vernon Square gives Beth Solomon the willies.
It isn’t anything she can actually see as she strolls the street’s eastern sidewalk on a bright and cold recent Sunday morning. It isn’t the squalid rows of what used to be impounded cars lying in their own dry rot behind the city auto-boneyard fence. Nor is it the jumbled pile of television parts tottering waist-high in a precarious heap on the sidewalk outside a banged-up repair shop. And it isn’t the nearly unbroken line of boarded-up shop windows staring sightlessly out onto the street like blind beggars in a queue.
Having lived in the neighborhood for three years, she barely acknowledges this sort of squalor anymore. What has Solomon spooked is something that she can only envision. Call it the ghost of progress yet to come. The new convention center isn’t here yet, but it’s on its way, and she’s skeptical about what it will bring.
Solomon pictures a slab of wall several stories high and several blocks long rising from the sidewalk here with the mute, sullen visage of a CVS clerk on Percodan. The proposed convention center, which has been hailed as a blight-repellent and economic motor for the Shaw neighborhood, has the neighborhood feeling intimidatedresidents say its proposed scale and design are totally out of whack with the existing landscape.
“It’s not that we don’t want this area developed,” Solomon says. “But development should fit the neighborhood. And a big blank wall doesn’t do that. They need to take into account the needs of the community.”
“They” are the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) and its army of development specialists, architects, managers, flacks, and business leaders. For the past several years, WCCA has been busily pushing and arranging the construction of a new convention center to replace the decrepit dinosaur that now uglifies a section of 9th Street a few blocks to the south. WCCA officials expect to complete the project by 2000.
For years the convention center debate has been dominated by all manner of feasibility studies and impact projections aimed at finding a site that could support a new center containing more than twice as much exhibit space as the current one, which is itself the size of a city block. But now a site has been cordoned off, and WCCA’s considerable firepower is trained on a single target: getting the damn thing built.
Problem is, the building’s Brobdingnagian footprint would cover about six city blocksfrom Mount Vernon Square north to N Street between 7th and 9th Streets NWon a site that doubles as the back yard for a lot of folks in the neighborhood.
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Although these bombed-out tracts hardly constitute a portrait of urban splendor, they are part of Shaw, a diverse neighborhood of low-income apartment dwellers, middle-class homeowners, yuppies in gentrified condos, artists in lofts, and small shops. And some locals see the convention center not as a boon for the neighborhood but as a 2-million-square-foot ramrod heading straight up their backside.
Few Shaw residents have as great a stake in the convention center project as Phillip Abraham, who owns several properties near the construction site, including a stretch of commercial real estate on 9th Street.
“If they build this thing, it will either destroy the neighborhood or freeze it in place,” says Abraham. “As I understand it, they’re going to build something industrial, a people warehouse, and I’m afraid we’re just going to end up with a bunch of blank walls of pressed concrete facing the community.”
Terry Lynch, a community activist with the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, shares those concerns. “They’re throwing a megacommercial building onto a location that’s three sides residential,” he says. “People are going to be staring at a blank wall just like you’ve got in the existing convention centera Darth Vader-looking building that’s not pedestrian friendly.”
Emily Vetter, executive director of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., acknowledges that an enormous convention center does not make for an enticing neighbor. “I understand the fearI mean, look at the current convention center. It’s the second-ugliest thing in the city, after the FBI building. But when this project comes together, I think it will serve as a national model. I really think we’ll be famous for building an enormous new convention center in a residential community, and doing it in a way that integrates with the community and meets everyone’s needs.” Vetter’s association backed the hotel tax hike that financed the new convention center.
Jack Evans, who represents Shaw on the D.C. Council, says he has been looking out for his constituents since the project started. “I’m not going to let something ugly get built in my ward,” he says.
The assurances of Vetter and Evans have done little to satisfy locals who will actually have to look at the convention center every day. Last month, more than 40 neighbors living on the block just west of the proposed site sent a letter to WCCA demanding that the project’s design reflect the community’s concerns.
But WCCA’s shifty approach to community relations has only stoked their skepticism.
“They hold meetings, they smile at you, but there’s no sense that they’re hearing you,” complains Solomon. “They just seem to go right ahead and do whatever it is they wanted to do in the first place.”
Solomon insists WCCA has crafted a strategy for public relations to diffuse community opposition to its construction plans: It offers information in dribs and drabs and carefully calibrates its message to appease whoever’s listening.
For example, on Jan. 21 the authority held a briefing for a group of preservationists, urban planners, and architects. As part of the presentation, the group was shown a series of basic section drawings mounted on plasterboard representing four different options for fitting the exhibit space and other required elements into the convention center plot.
According to Richard Williams of the D.C. Preservation League, who attended the session, the audience was intrigued by one particular option”Underground A”that would put all the exhibit space underground and leave 137,000 square feet of the building’s footprint available for what are called air rights: space that could be auctioned off to private developers for projects such as hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, etc. The underground plan was a big hit with the group, for it recommended the submersion of the unseemly convention center exterior and held out the prospect of an attractive mixed-use development to serve the surrounding community.
It’s funny how quickly WCCA’s plans change, though. The next night, WCCA held another briefing for a different audience: a group of local advisory neighborhood commissioners. At this meeting, there were no section drawings and no options presentedonly a hand-drawn illustration of the top view of the cheapest proposal, in which the building would cover the whole footprint and there would be no air rights at all.
Actually, at this second meeting the section drawings were still in the room but stacked off to one side. When a reporter started flipping through them and asking questions, Claude Bailey, WCCA deputy project director, said, “These are not relevant,” and turned them face down on the table. Meanwhile, one of the architects working on the project, Ted Mariani, professed not to know anything about them. “We didn’t do these,” he said.
“It’s pretty evident that, whatever their options, they’re working on a scheme that we surmise would involve some excavation, but not much, and would leave the building quite tall,” says Williams.
To Abraham, it’s clear what’s happening. “They’ve already planned it. They’ve already built it,” he says. “Everybody sort of feels defeated at this point. I mean, why bother when this sort of bullshit is happening.”
Indeed, according to Vetter, the approaches that have Abraham feeling uneasy are part of a conscious strategy. “They’re trying to be secretive so they can come up with something that meets people’s concerns,” Vetter says. It was “a political mistake” for the authority to go public late last year with a scale model of a massive design for the new center, she says. The model, created for the benefit of the National Capital Planning Commission, drew fire in the press and sparked pleas to move the center to another site north of Union Station in Northeast D.C. “If you show people something too soon, they go ballistic,” says Vetter.
But that’s the way it’s done, says Giorgio Furioso, a developer who owns commercial property in the area. “You present your worst design first, so that you can come back later with something better and make it look as if you’re responding to people’s concerns. Ask any developerthat’s how the game is played,” says Furioso. What WCCA really wants, he says, is to end up building the “cheapest, fastest, most expedient” new convention center it can get away with.
For his part, Evans denies there’s any secrecy involved in the process at all. “For someone to say they don’t know what’s going on or haven’t had any input, that’s just grossly negligent. We’ve had monthly meetings with all sorts of groups. It sounds like you’ve been talking to destructionists who wouldn’t support any kind of development,” he says.
Not true, says the D.C. Preservation League’s Williams. “They say that preservationists are a bunch of naysayers and obfuscators, but that isn’t the case here. Our thoughts are still evolving, but we just wish we’d seen a little more to help us out.”
Williams wants the new convention center to link the residential neighborhood to the north and the downtown business district to its south without disrupting either. Another priority, says Williams, is that the center not overshadow the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square.
“We’re interested in this site. We do feel that it’s possible,” he says. “But they haven’t begun to divulge the information we really need to assess the project.”
Just hold on, says Potts. “Up ’til now, the work has focused on massing and exhibit space. No one [working on the project] was talking about things like design, retail, or local traffic.”
But with groundbreaking due to begin this summer, many in the community are not in a patient mood. “The history of projects like this is that by the time there’s any real information available it’s too late to influence the important decisions at the front end of the process, and you’re left to nibble at the back end,” says Williams.
And when you’re talking about six square blocks of concrete and steel, a little nibbling isn’t going to make much of a difference.CP