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Rebuilding the Grid: DC's Old Convention Center

For years, the District has been chipping away at the Pierre L'Enfant vision of the capital, closing streets and alleys almost willy-nilly to satisfy one developer or another. Now, with a chance to remold a big chunk of downtown Washington by putting something creative and alluring on the old Convention Center site, the city is finally doing the right thing and reopening some important streets that had been shut down when that huge building went up.

Lost amid last week's D.C. Council vote to put aside Mayor Anthony Williams' proposal for a new central library on the old Convention Center site was the fact that the city has now approved a plan for those blocks between 9th and 11th streets NW from H Street up to New York Avenue. The plan, developed by a Colorado company that descended from the old Charles E. Smith apartment development firm in the District, would put 280,000 square feet of new retail space, 686 residential apartments, 415,000 square feet of office space, and 1700 underground parking spaces on the site. Twenty percent of the apartments would be reserved for affordable housing. (I love the implication of that phrase: The other 80 percent will be unaffordable. Put that on your ad campaign.)

And the District would reclaim its streets, extending I Street from 9th to 10th, and reopening 10th Street from H all the way up to New York Avenue. The new Eye Street would become a retail strip--the look envisioned in the developer's plan feels a bit too much like one of those faux city blocks you find in suburban "town centers"--but what's great about this plan is that there would be retail frontage on H, 9th, 10th, and 11th streets, and even a bit on the office-heavy side of the development, on New York Avenue. (Take a look at the architect's mockup of the Eye Street view of the project (last page on this link) and tell me if it doesn't look and feel all too much like the Chevy Chase Pavilion/Mazza Gallerie block of Wisconsin Avenue NW--way too suburban looking for a downtown development.)

The failed vote on the central library leaves a considerable hole at the center of this plan, and the half-acre public plaza envisioned as the open space people magnet of the project seems a bit on the skimpy side, but overall, this looks like it could become a walkable and inviting urban space. The trick will be to assure that the parking garage entrances, especially on the 9th street side, don't wall off the project from the surrounding neighborhoods and make this seem like a sealed suburban shopping complex rather than an integrated continuation of the Chinatown, East End and NoMa neighborhoods around it.

The city's job now is to make certain that the D.C. government doesn't once again turn out to be the major obstacle to progress on a key element in the new downtown. That means resolving the standoff over whether to build a new central library or renovate the Martin Luther King library. And that dispute, sadly, looks like it's turning into a classic case of Washington paralysis.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (Ward 3), in her final weeks on the council, first sought to get her colleagues to approve the new central library; three members of her committee--Marion Barry, Carol Schwartz and Vincent Gray--stuffed that idea. The latest wrinkle: Patterson wanted to at least leave office having put the committee's 100-plus-page research report on the library issue on the official record; she had hoped to get that done today.

But last night, Gray, Barry and Schwartz, apparently intent on stopping the library project or anything associated with it, blocked that move. Even though the committee report is chock full of statements by opponents of the new library, the three council members wrote to Patterson yesterday that "while we appreciate the work you have done and commend you for it, we cannot be supportive should there be a vote tomorrow by the committee on the 'special report.'" In other words, goodbye and good riddance. As Patterson tells me, "This is more about personalities than policy."

By Marc Fisher |  November 28, 2006; 9:11 AM ET
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Oh, this has some serious problems, although you're right to draw attention to the streets being opened up.

Here are the issues that jumped out immediately. First, the architectural rendering includes corporate logos! How do you expect locally-owned independent businesses to get into a development that includes Borders, Nike, and Esprit from the start? Wow, I can imagine the retail mix already: Crate and Barrel, Gordon Biersch, Ann Taylor Loft...

Second, the street in the I Street rendering is suspiciously empty. Where are all those people coming from? In reality, there aren't any streets that narrow in downtown, nor should there be. It's got traffic jam written all over it. I'm all for pedestrian-friendly development, but this is unreasonable.

Posted by: 20011 | November 28, 2006 10:44 AM

This is an honest question for Marc, I'm not picking a fight. Regarding this comment:

"tell me if it doesn't look and feel all too much like the Chevy Chase Pavilion/Mazza Gallerie block of Wisconsin Avenue NW--way too suburban looking for a downtown development"

What's bad about that area? It's not at all suburban -- it's nearly impossible to drive through or park in, but it has a large number of stores/restaurants close to public transit (metro *and* bus) and it's directly walkable for those in the neighborhood.

I moved there from the full-on, honest-to-God, big-box suburbs, and this has always seemed like a great example of making a shopping/eating/movies area *non-suburban* and accessible.

I honestly don't understand why you don't like it, but I'm curious. Can you elaborate?

Posted by: question for Marc | November 28, 2006 1:08 PM

I too live not far from that stretch of Wisconsin and I too shop and eat there. But those big boxes at Wisconsin and Western are the antithesis of effective urban development; both Mazza Gallerie and Chevy Chase Pavilion, despite efforts to reengineer them into more street-friendly designs, are malls that were created to pull people off the street and enclose them in a totally separate, anti-urban shopping environment. Mazza still presents a blank wall to the street; watch how people gravitate to walk on the other side of Wisconsin so as not to be up against that massive white wall of stone. Both are heavily car-oriented developments; you barely have any sense of the Metro station being right there. The Jenifer Street entrance to Metro is tucked well off the streetfront; you almost have to know it's there to find it. And the Western Avenue entrance is buried within the shopping centers, again with little clear notice at street level (except across Western in Maryland.) That said, there is beginning to be a reasonable amount of development in the area, and the new projects on the Maryland side present the prospect of a genuinely attractive and walkable retail district. But it's time for the District to step up and get going on development of the WMATA bus barn and the parking lot behind Mazza, as well as the blocks just south of Mazza on Wisconsin.

Posted by: Fisher | November 28, 2006 1:31 PM

Interesting thoughts ... thanks for sharing. I guess I don't consider the Metro invisible or hard to find, because I use it every day -- both the Western Ave and the inside-the-mall entrances.

And I never really go inside Mazza, because I can't afford much of anything that's in there, so I don't really think of it as drawing me "away from the street".

I see your point about the "massive white wall of stone", but I don't agree that having some indoor shops makes the whole area somehow "suburban" or at least non-urban. I don't think that doors to the outside are the sole, or the best, determination of whether an area is "city-friendly" or not. I place more value on the accessibilty issue, and that area is *clearly* far easier to deal with on foot/by public transit than it is by car.

So we can disagree reasonably ...

Posted by: to Marc | November 28, 2006 1:46 PM

I find the plan completely lacking any orginality. This is a parcel of land smack dab in the middle of a city. The chance to redo a piece of land like this doesn't come around that often, if ever. And they give us this? Sad and disappointing. You are right it looks like Mazza Gallerie (I thought Shirlington at first). Not those are bad places, but not appropriate for the middle of a city. I would tell them to start over and try to design it with an actual neighborhood-like feel. Tell the planners to walk around a real DC neighborhood like Dupont, Logan, Capitol Hill, or Shaw for some inspiration on how DC should look and feel.

Posted by: Chris | November 29, 2006 3:46 PM

Unfortunately it looks like I street is blocked off. If it was a true connection, it would have been an excellant work around to avoid NY Avenue / Mass Avenue / Old Library square. Reopenning I Street all the way through would ease the congestion around the square. Instead, it looks like it is just a bunch of inner-city cul de sacs.

Posted by: Andrew | November 30, 2006 1:09 PM

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