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In an evenly split Dec. 1 vote, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approved a proposed new headquarters for the United States Secret Service (USSS) at 930 H St. NW. The planned 461,000-square-foot structure, which would consolidate the USSS’s work force from four downtown locations, has two controversial aspects: It would overwhelm the old Mercantile Savings Fund Building, a historic structure now known as the Doggett Building, and it would violate the city’s SHOP zoning, which is designed to create ground-floor retail continuity throughout the “retail core.”
The 110-foot building would tower over two existing structures on 10th Street: the city-owned Webster School at the corner of H Street NW and the Doggett Building at the corner of G Place NW. The latter would somehow be incorporated into the USSS headquarters, for which the plans have yet to be finished. It was this aspect of the design that most concerned the NCPC, although it finally (if narrowly) accepted its staff report, which optimistically notes that “the retention of the intact historic bank building is the stated desired outcome of all parties.”
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Even more dubious, though, is USSS’s refusal “because of security concerns” to include any public retail space in the building. This would result in a blank-wall building on the south side of H Street, glumly matching that of the D.C. Convention Center on the north. It won’t be exactly blank, however: “In an effort to enhance the pedestrian activity at the street level,” notes the NCPC staff report, “program activities such as the employee snack bar and credit union/ travel agency will be located on the first floor and face H Street. This is intended to give the impression that there [are] continuous retail activities along H Street. None of these activities will be available to the public however.”
Now there is a bold idea that the crafters of the SHOP zoning, in their imperfect wisdom, failed to anticipate: “the impression” of street life. After all the damage that redevelopment has done to Washington’s once-bustling downtown, this may be the final indignity: simulated shopping. All that’s lacking is a proposal for some Animatronic shoppers to be placed on the block, there to mechanically feign their enjoyment of the make-believe retail facilities.
Ghosts of the Civil Service Dead Local planning activists who attended the Dec. 3 meeting to help organize the transition of the city’s Office of Planning for Mayor-elect Marion Barry were, in the words of one of them, “dismayed” to see who was presiding over the assembly: Fred Greene, head of the planning office during Barry’s previous reign, chaired the parley held in the University of the District of Columbia auditorium. Greene is not widely respected in planning circles, and has reportedly had less than a brilliant career since Sharon Pratt Kelly replaced him with Al Dobbins; not expected to helm the planning transition operation, Greene was tapped at the last minute, apparently at the insistence of Barry or one of his top advisers.
Citizens who battled Greene in the past fear that his transition role portends his return to the planning department’s directorship. On the other hand, the meeting was so inconclusive that it may not presage anything. Highlights included a motivational speaker who asked participants to all hold hands and “feel the power within the room”—a request greeted with audible disgust by one senior Department of Public Works employee—and repeated efforts to explain to some clueless Barry supporters just what it is that the Office of Planning plans. When one participant offered that the issue was land use, Greene seized on the phrase as if he’d never heard it before: “Land use,” he told the crowd, “yeah, that’s a good word!”