Scenes From A Changing City--Part One
What changes a city? What makes the difference between a dangerous and anonymous block and one that makes you want to stroll about and linger?
Can physical transformation produce community?
This week, change--or the prospect of it--came to three pieces of the District. I took a walk in each neighborhood to see how it felt. Coming up throughout the day, three reports, one every two hours until midday.
First visit: A place that has changed only in theory. National Public Radio announced Wednesday that it will move its headquarters from a cramped office building on Massachusetts Avenue NW to a new 10-story home on N. Capitol Street NE, immediately across from one of the city's most troubled and violent housing projects. NPR's decision was a bold move to turn down a sweet deal offered by downtown Silver Spring, which Montgomery County is working hard to turn into a media business cluster, and act once again as an urban pioneer.
NPR's last move, in 1994, from a comfy spot on M Street in the West End to the then-desolate northern edge of Chinatown, had a powerful impact on bringing life to a generally deserted edge of downtown. By no means can everything that has happened since that move--the new convention center, erection of a large new residential corridor along Mass Ave, and a steady march of development toward the east--be credited to NPR's move. Abe Pollin's sports arena played an even bigger role in sparking all that change. But NPR was the first major employer to open the door to that neighborhood, and now the move of the 600-employee headquarters once again promises to change the feel of yet another piece of the city.
The spot public radio has chosen, 1111 N. Capitol Street, is home to a warehouse that dates to 1927 and was built for the old C&P phone company. Most recently, it's been used by the Smithsonian for storage. NPR will incorporate that building into a new office structure. The site looks out onto what the D.C. government calls the Northwest One community, a collection of public housing and rowhouses that includes Sursum Corda and Temple Court, two places known more for drug dealing and gun violence than for enticing urban scenes.
The housing projects are scheduled to be torn down and replaced by one of former Mayor Tony Williams' signature initiatives, a mixed-income New Community in which current residents will be guaranteed subsidized housing alongside hundreds of market-rate and workforce housing units, as well as a high-end supermarket, hotels and retail. The idea is to do urban renewal without mucking up people's lives nearly to the extent that caused overzealous government actions in the 1960s to be dubbed "Negro removal." Will it work? Check out the experience on the south side of Capitol Hill, where the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were successfully turned into a stable, mixed income community.
For now, the stretch of Capitol Street where NPR intends to move is hardly what anyone would call welcoming or pleasant, and given the street's heavy car traffic, it's hard to imagine it becoming a pedestrian-friendly avenue. But if the retail envisioned for both the NPR building and the New Community across the way come to pass, a far less forbidding streetscape may emerge. This is not likely to challenge anyone's idea of a charming city boulevard, but at the least, today's string of disconnected office buildings surrounded by parking lots could give way to something better.
Coming up at 10 a.m. here on the blog, the second stop on today's tour--a neighborhood built from scratch, or, rather, from the ruins of eminent domain.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: PQ | March 7, 2008 10:35 AM
Posted by: robert | March 7, 2008 11:03 AM
Posted by: Zedov | March 7, 2008 11:18 AM
Posted by: Jack | March 7, 2008 11:51 AM
Posted by: ripley | March 7, 2008 8:30 PM
Posted by: tmp3312 | March 8, 2008 2:35 AM
Posted by: Downtown Rez | March 9, 2008 8:52 PM
Posted by: mtvernonsq | April 21, 2008 11:40 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.