Over the last couple of decades, the District has tried very hard to get people to move downtown, mostly through zoning and density bonuses for residential development. It’s worked: The four Census tracts that make up the downtown core have grown between 61.5 and 92.5 percent since 2000 (granted, there are still only a few thousand people in each, but the multiplier is still impressive). Now, what used to be a barren business district is full of restaurants, bars, and people on the streets after 6 p.m., which is certainly more in line how we think about world-class cities.
The other consequence of having people living downtown, though, is that they’re going to want it to feel more…residential. Which poses a problem when the city would also like downtown to be a late-night entertainment district.
The conflict cropped up at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C meeting this week. Randall Boe, executive vice president of Monumental Sports and Entertainment—-which holds the lease on the Verizon Center—-came to present his company’s proposal to put nine more digital advertising displays on the now-blank sides of the building, as well as inside the Gallery Place Metro entrance. They have to get legislation through the Council to do it, and Boe promised the signs would bring more vibrancy and glitz, while generating $8 to $9 million in taxes for the city over four years (I’m still trying to find out from them how much revenue Monumental gets out of the deal).
“If you go to Times Square, people come there to see the signs,” Boe argued. “Tourists come and that helps build the neighborhood.”
Times Square might not have been the best image to evoke. A handful of neighboring condo residents at the meeting were quite unhappy about the prospect of more flashing lights coming through their windows at night, claiming they could see them as far away as 8th and E Street. As part of the mix in what’s now a mixed-use neighborhood, they felt they had a right to some peace and quiet.
“Sometimes the District comes along and thinks it’s a totally commercial district,” someone said. “Why are billboards coming into residential living rooms a good thing?” He even mentioned the “character and integrity of the neighborhood,” which is something that you generally hear in more historic residential places like Capitol Hill, not around a giant sports arena.
Boe would be wise to make nice with the neighbors—-when Herb Miller tried to do this at Gallery Place, he got kiboshed by the Stop the Billboard campaign, which got the Council to oppose the new signs as well. People who live in high-end condos make powerfully effective NIMBYs, after all. And maybe they’re right: Washington isn’t really used to big flashing signs for iPods and Lexuses and the Lottery, which clash somewhat with the dignity and grandeur of their surroundings.
Having a “living downtown” means both residents and nightlife, homeyness and glitz. But who’s got right-of-way when they conflict?