One of the favored myths of D.C. officials is that the Frank D. Reeves Center, which opened at 14th and U Streets NW in 1986, resuscitated the area. According to this fantasy, it was the government office building—-not the 1991 arrival of the Green Line, nor the expanding gentrification of the Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Adams Morgan neighborhoods—-that brought clubs, restaurants, and other businesses to the U Street corridor.
The Reeves Center legend is so popular, in fact, that it’s used to justify moving other government offices to ever more remote locations. Following his predecessor’s lead, Mayor Adrian Fenty has even proposed forcing Metro, a regional agency, to relocate its Judiciary Square headquarters to the vicinity of the Anacostia Metro station.
Yet even as the Reeves fable is used to justify further decentralization, the city’s Office of Property Management is seeking to redeem the fairy-tale building. On Tuesday evening, OPM Director Lars Etzkorn convened a public meeting to discuss ways to save the structure that supposedly saved U Street. “Finally, I can actually do something about this building,” Etzkorn announced.
Actually, the parley was called only to discuss the building’s first floor, a retail graveyard that currently holds a convenience store, a gallery, a bank, a D.C. Lottery redemption center, and lots of unleased space. Other problems, such as the perennially leaking roof, were not on the agenda.
Etzkorn was followed by consultants, two retail and one architectural, and then a OPM staffer who led an “audience participation exercise.” Unlike most such drills organized by D.C. government agencies, this one was not structured to drive people toward a preordained decision. The discussion was so free-form that the approximately 15 attendees, most of them from the neighborhood, were free to offer ideas that were largely detached from reality.
They proposed adding a supermarket, a “food hall,” or an Apple Store. People suggested that the revamped Reeves should resemble Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market or Seattle’s Pike Place Market—-both of which are much bigger than the center’s first floor, and in far more heavily trafficked and architecturally attractive locations.
A “food hall” would be possible in Reeves only if, at considerable expense, the entire first floor were converted to retail and the entrance and security-clearance functions for the offices above were somehow moved to the second floor. Much simpler, and just as a beneficial to the adjacent streets, would be to reconfigure the existing retail space so that it’s more conspicuous and appealing, and make all of it accessible from the street. That, plus a cafe or other outdoor business on the U Street side, would be enough to fix what local resident Scott Pomeroy called “the major dead zone” the building creates.
Ironically, though, the Reeves Center shows more urbanistic promise than the other government centers planned to disperse city functions to far-flung locations. But more on that later.