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After the expected hosannas from the Washington Post, which never met a redevelopment plan it didn’t like, a few reasonable questions have been raised about the 21st-century plan of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) for D.C.’s monumental core. This “work in progress,” currently the subject of an elaborate exhibit at Union Station, touts itself as a “deterrent to the myopic quick fix.” Its expansive (and expensive) suggestions clearly aren’t a quick fix. Some of them are myopic, however.
The plan addresses some major redevelopment errors of the ’50s and ’60s, as well as areas well beyond what’s now considered the monumental core. As others have noted, it assumes a major federal investment and a significant number of new federal buildings, neither likely even if Democrats do regain control of Congress. It also ignores the city’s pressing immediate problems. Starting from the premise that Washington is running out of ceremonial space in which to place memorials and museums suggests a baronial preference for the city’s marble inhabitants over its flesh-and-blood ones.
In fact, the NCPC expects that added marble will redeem D.C.’s inhabitants; this is fundamentally a program to federalize vast new swaths of Washington. As the exhibit puts it, “the new plan redistributes the economic benefits of federal investment along three streets: South Capitol, North Capitol, and East Capitol.” Where gas stations and barbershops now stand, museums and memorials will bloom, bringing tourist dollars to such currently unfashionable locations as South Capitol Street at the Anacostia River, where the NCPC would place the Supreme Court—“if [it] decides to move.” This is gentrification on a literally grand scale.
Aside from those beleaguered planners running out of places for monuments, it’s not clear that Washingtonians would benefit from such marble expansionism. Indeed, by the standards of most baroque cities—which are, of course, in Europe—Washington is already spread rather thin. What it needs is increased density, mixed uses, and a stable tax base, not more imperial open spaces. Delivering the Capitol Streets from poverty and neglect by making them more attractive to T-shirt stands is simply a more grandiose version of sports-arena developers’ plans to vanquish urban unemployment with legions of new hot-dog vendors.
Like most urban prescriptions, the NCPC’s is most cogent addressing the damage done by misguided previous redevelopment and highway programs. The proposals would eliminate the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and obtrusive highway access ramps elsewhere in the city, and relocate the Conrail tracks through Southeast, thus restoring the urban fabric. It would connect the isolated Kennedy Center to both the river (via a staircase on the structure’s west side) and the city (via new buildings and a plaza on the east side). But when the plan turns to such subjects as replacing RFK Stadium and developing Buzzards Point and the Southeast Federal Center, its models suggest just the sort of hostile, outsize modernist edifices that Washington (L’Enfant Plaza excepted) has been lucky to avoid.
The NCPC apparently assumes that the city’s own planners and officials will never get a grip on its problems, a fairly safe conclusion after the last 20 years of bungling, and that regional land-use cooperation will not improve. Yet some of its observations apply more to the suburbs than the city, particularly the claim that “Washington’s transportation system is now stretched to its limit.” Actually, it’s the Washington region that’s stretched to the limit, primarily by development strategies that stress cheap land over all other attributes, notably efficient transportation.
Still, the plan would eliminate one issue: dividing the federal district from the vernacular city for statehood or retrocession to Maryland. By the time the NCPC gets through, everything in the District of Columbia will be the federal district.