Yesterday, the District announced with much fanfare a request for proposals to design and build some sort of structure on the East Campus of St. Elizabeths that, theoretically, will house lots of little restaurants come this time next year. Think Boston’s Faneuil Hall, San Francisco’s Ferry Building, or hey, the reborn Union Market. It’s gonna be amazing, they promise.
“We want this to be an iconic structure, and really as bold as possible,” says project manager Feras Qumseya, with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “We want this to be an attraction not just for the local commuinty, but city wide and regionally.”
A tall order! Especially since the building will have to go through the Historic Preservation Review Board, which isn’t over-friendly to bold, iconic structures—-temporary or not. It’ll have to abide by the master plan design guidelines, and it’s supposed to go right up against Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, about which the Board has been particularly sensitive.
Still, there’s a solid business case for an operator to set up some kind of presence in the new pavilion. The 4,400 employees of the new Coast Guard headquarters across the street will have only one cafeteria for all their lunchtime needs when they relocate across the street next year, which could at least generate traffic on workdays. A critical mass of eateries could attract people from nearby and across the city, with a Green Line Metro station within walking distance. And the District is prepared to offer them the space for little to no rent, taking much of the risk out of the equation.
Why spend the money to build a super-special food court that’s only supposed to last two to five years? In large part, the city wants to take the time between now and when the rest of the campus gets developed to make St. Elizabeths, which has never before been exactly open to the public, a place where people hang out. (It sounds like a very Harriet Tregoning-ish idea, but the DMPED people assure me that their boss Victor Hoskins and Mayor Vince Gray actually came up with it).
There is one potential drawback to success: This whiz-bang structure could absorb what little amount of energy exists for restaurants to enter Ward 8, leaving neighborhood commercial corridors still dormant. But one might easily respond that this is a uniquely appealing proposition for restaurants that wouldn’t otherwise come east of the river at all, so it won’t be sapping energy so much as changing perceptions—-like a longer-term Lumen8Anacostia.
Then if it does work out, of course, there’s the problem of of taking it away.