“The Old Convention Center Site Redevelopment represents an over 30-year effort to create an exciting ‘living downtown’ in Washington D.C.,” explains a brochure that was distributed at yesterday’s public meeting on the project, sponsored by the development team of Hines/Archstone-Smith and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Well, that’s the official spin. But the proposal for the 10-acre site—-between 9th, 11, and H Streets and New York Avenue NW—-also represents a last-ditch attempt to establish a sliver of vitality after the failure of the city’s half-hearted 30-year plan for a “living downtown.”

That phrase has been evoked at least since the early 1980s, during Marion Barry‘s first term as mayor. The idea was to redevelop the area between 7th and 15th Streets and Pennsylvania and New York Avenues NW—-then a lively but not predominantly upscale shopping district, with some offices and a few apartments—-as a vibrant mix of commercial and residential.

Whenever there was conflict over this vision, however, city officials sided with office developers. The downtown retail and residential components required by the Zoning Commission in 1990—-already too late in the redevelopment process—-were quickly undermined by the D.C. Council.

The Old Convention Center site offers a last, if inadequate, opportunity to compensate for the city’s failure of nerve. The property is owned by D.C., and is a blank slate, since all its historic structures were demolished in the late 1970s for the old center (which opened in 1983 and quickly proved obsolete). That may be why there’s little apparent opposition to the plan, which includes 450,000 square feet of office space but also 665 residential units—-both condo and rental, some of them “affordable”—-and up to 300,000 square feet of retail.

Those big numbers are all supposed to fit on the property that Hines’s Howard Riker called “the A parcel,” which is south of I Street. (The plan would reopen 10th Street from H to New York, and I from 9th to 10th, but leave I closed between 10th to 11th.) North of I is the “B” parcel, which contains a small park and land the city swapped to developer Kingdon Gould in exchange for property to build a convention center hotel. There’s also a piece that might be used for a new central library, although that proposal is controversial—-and unfunded. Riker estimated the cost of erecting the six B parcel buildings and remaking the park at $700 million.

At the meeting, citizens were outnumbered by representatives of the city, Hines/Archstone-Smith, and the two principal architects, London’s Foster and Partners and D.C.’s Shalom Baranes Associates. In the question period, a few people who have been following the project suggested that the latest plan seems less pedestrian-friendly than earlier schemes, and asked for guarantees of the project’s touted environmental “sustainability.” Riker’s answers were reassuring, but noncommittal. “I don’t want to say anything is certain,” he cautioned.

The Sierra Club’s Scott Williamson pressed the developer on its commitment to such features as green roofs and energy efficiency, but he didn’t mention the project’s environmental time bomb: five stories of underground parking, with 1,640 spaces. Asked if the local Sierra Club chapter had a position on that, Williamson said, “That’s still a conversation we’re having.”

Also unquestioned was the design of the proposed buildings. The wall posters and slide presentation suggested the sort of place that’s envisioned with photographs of pedestrian-oriented retail precincts in other cities, most (if not) all of them in Europe. These examples showed three-to-five-story buildings from the 18th and 19th century, and perhaps even earlier. Yet the drawings and models of the old convention center site structures featured 12-story blocks with glass-and-metal industrial-kitsch facades. They didn’t seem nearly so welcoming as the snapshots of London’s Covent Garden that illustrated what the area is supposed to feel like—-but apparently not look like.

The four retail/residential buildings on the eastern side of 10th Street are arranged around a central plaza that’s supposed to be a civic meeting place. Hmmm, a classical European-style agora, surrounded by unwelcoming futuristic buildings? Sounds a lot like Techworld, the Old Convention Center’s neighbor to the east. When that complex was proposed, one prominent supporter suggested that the pedestrian plaza under its multi-story glass bridge would someday be an cosmopolitan gathering spot something like Madrid’s Playa Major. Today, that Techworld space is empty and unloved, offering a foreboding glimpse of the future of the Old Convention Center site’s urbanity.