City Paper is not for tourists
In both the ramshackle District Building and the bulletproof 1 Judiciary Square, much lip service is paid to developing areas of D.C. outside downtown, as well as to creating jobs for those city residents who don’t have law degrees. That lip service may have an office and staff of its own if a bill introduced Sept. 21 by Interim Council Chairman John Ray becomes effective.
In the hope of adapting the successes of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC) to a very different thoroughfare, Ray proposes to create a New York Avenue Development Corp. (NYADC, presumably). The “quasi-public, non-profit” organization would further redevelopment of the avenue, which after leaving Mount Vernon Square spends much of its length traversing the sort of light-industrial areas of which Washington has relatively few.
Ray would use the NYADC to encourage “moderately priced hotels and motels; office buildings housing the headquarters of insurance companies, to be located near the central business district; automobile dealerships…office support services, communications, printing and publishing, wholesaling, transportation services, food services, entertainment, and tourist support services; and storage and warehousing.”
These potential uses are not far-fetched (some of them are there already), although the bill is vague on what the city can and will do to encourage them. (It mentions “tax, zoning, and other incentives,” and a press release accompanying the legislation explains that Ray “is drafting a model insurance bill to make the District of Columbia a preferred home of the insurance industry.”) The NYADC would have two years from the effective date of the act to approve a draft development plan and would also be required to devise a streetscape plan, design-criteria for new buildings and facilities, and other potentially useful guidelines. (It would also have the power to adopt “an official seal.”)
The corporation seems predicated on the hope that the Clinton administration will be more generous with urban-redevelopment money than were its predecessors. The NYADC would receive $2 million a year from the city for its first five years of operation, but would be authorized to and “shall actively seek federal funds not otherwise available to or sought by the District government for public purposes.” It would also be expected to raise $1 million annually in “private funds,” which doesn’t seem all that likely.
That private-sector cash is not the only thing in the bill that engenders skepticism. The NYADC would unavoidably be politicized, with its 15-member board including seven ex officio members: the mayor; the directors of the Office of Planning, Department of Housing and Community Development, and Department of Public Works; the D.C. Council chairman; and the councilmembers from Wards 2 and 5 (currently Jack Evans and Harry Thomas, both co-sponsors of the bill).
Of course the city has long had an agency authorized to purchase private land for development projects. It’s called the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), and its failures are legend. The NYADC sounds like a plan to create a regional RLA, only with more oversight power—“no new construction…shall be authorized or conducted in the New York Avenue development area except upon prior certification,” commands the bill—and thus potential for even more mischief. Avoiding the appearance of a resemblance between NYADC and its bumbling older cousin may be why the bill invokes PADC (suggesting its Pennsylvania Avenue plan as a model for a New York Avenue equivalent) but discreetly avoids mention of the RLA.
Also alarming is the lack of discussion of public transportation. The bill perfunctorily orders that NYADC do “an analysis of the environmental effects of such development, including a traffic and transportation analysis,” but avoids speculating about how the corridor’s legions of new workers might get to their jobs. Two previously proposed Metro augmentations—the relatively minor task of adding a Red Line station north of Union Station near New York Avenue and the major one of building a cross-town line from Georgetown through Northeast to Fort Lincoln—go unmentioned.
Ray’s press release extols the “convenient” way that New York Avenue “feeds automobile traffic straight to the city’s center,” another hint that the city’s leaders think that increasing auto traffic will magically transform D.C. into Tysons Corner—and that air pollution and the Clean Air Act will just blow away. (In voting last month to scuttle a serious plan to ameliorate the region’s air-quality problem, the representatives of transit-dependent D.C. actually voted against pro-transit Maryland and with pro-auto Virginia, another sign of the city’s brain-dead transportation policy.)
The press release underscores such ozone-pumping fantasies by noting that “making New York Avenue live again and bringing a shopping mall to downtown are not pie-in-the-sky goals, Mr. Ray stressed.” The reference is to a vague Ray suggestion, little reported when it was made this summer, to build a shopping mall on the long-vacant 7th Street NW parcel above the Gallery Place Metro station. (Its long vacancy is another RLA embarrassment.) Ray vowed that the mall would have lots of parking, as if that’s all it would take to lure Montgomery Mall and Tysons Corner shoppers downtown.
This proposal demonstrates an abject misunderstanding of how successful downtowns work. Downtown shopping malls on the suburban model have failed all over the country, and a mall on 7th Street would suck business from the shopping district that the city has zoned (but otherwise done little to enable) between 10th and 15th Streets NW. (One of RLA’s few accomplishments was to move Hecht’s off 7th Street and over to 12th, where the city’s planners wanted it.) Downtown can only compete as a lively urban place—that means pedestrians, not parking garages—not as an inconvenient imitation of what already exists in abundance in the suburbs.
So it’s just as well that there’s no market for another major inside-the-Beltway mall anyway; the area is generally considered “overstored.” The last of the breed was the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, planned and built as city officials blankly watched office development drive shops and theaters out of downtown. The successful development’s new advertising slogan, “Get Into the City,” implicitly mocks D.C. for letting its “retail core” be upstaged by a mall in the Pentagon/Crystal City wasteland. But then, more than one D.C. councilmember has admitted without guilt to being a Pentagon City shopper. When even the people who are supposedly wrestling with the city deficit spend their sales-tax dollars in Virginia, a Gallery Place shopping mall is a joke.