D.C. Chooses Shopping Over Arts
When the District tore down its old downtown convention center and opened a much larger one in the Shaw-Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood, then-mayor Tony Williams said that the new hole in the center of the city had to be filled with some powerful people magnet--a museum, library, arts center or performance space that would lure workers to stay downtown after business hours and attract suburbanites to come hang out downtown.
But when the final plan for the site, now dubbed City Center DC, was announced this morning, Mayor Adrian Fenty scrapped that people magnet piece of the puzzle and instead handed over the city's land to a developer who promises to build yet another hotel and more retail on the land once designated for a major attraction.
The Williams administration's notion that downtown Washington could only be resurrected as a bustling, pedestrian-oriented place has been replaced by the quest for the almighty tax dollar.
Fenty and developers William Alsup of Hines and Kenneth Miller of Archstone announced that the old convention center site will include two square blocks of apartments, two blocks of condos, two blocks of office buildings, one 400-room upscale hotel and one block devoted to a department store or "large-format retail." There will also be a half-acre park and a small plaza where the city has pledged to provide $1.5 million a year worth of programming, such as street fairs and music performances.
Fenty says the developers, who are supposed to break ground next spring and have the first phase completed in late 2011, are going to create a community that will draw visitors and residents alike, mainly to the prospect of the kind of shopping for which one must now travel to Pentagon City or other suburban retail nodes.
"Rather than try to extract the highest value from the city's land, we wanted to bring downtown to life," the mayor said. But he then proceeded to describe how this project will, well, extract the highest value from the city's land rather than adding to the District's attractiveness as a leisure time destination.
Council member Jack Evans (Ward 2) put it most bluntly: "I thought it was a terrible idea from the beginning to build a non-income producing activity on this site." Creating another public plaza, one of the ideas that showed up in many of the early plans for the old convention center site, was just a way to guarantee more dead space in the center of the city, Evans argues: "We've failed in every plaza we've built in this city--F Street, outside the Portrait Gallery, in front of the Martin Luther King Library, across from the Wilson Building on Freedom Plaza."
The best use of prime center city property, Evans says, is retail that will both bring people to the downtown area and provide the flow of tax dollars the District needs to support its struggling social programs.
The big loser in this plan is the dream of creating a new downtown central library to replace the sadly deteriorating King Library. Fenty said today that the plan to replace that main library--another centerpiece of Williams' vision for Washington--is not dead, but it sounds like it's very definitely on the back burner.
The mayor says other downtown locations--he wouldn't specify any--are under consideration for a new library, but he added that it's still possible the city will either renovate the existing building or tear it down and build something new on that G Street site.
Fenty says it was no longer necessary to put an arts or entertainment function on the old convention center site because so many other attractions have been added downtown in the past few years. He cited the Newseum, the renovated Portrait Gallery, the Spy Museum and the city's new sports facilities as lures that bring people downtown on evenings and weekends. "The one thing the District is missing, that Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City have, is that bustling area where people stay after work to shop. I'm a son of retail so I understand that retail brings a unique brand of enjoyment," the mayor says.
The developers and Fenty and Evans head to Las Vegas next week to seek commitments from retailers of the Nordstrom, Bloomingdales or Target ilk, and city officials have persuaded themselves that shopping can be every bit as effective at luring bodies downtown as any arts or cultural magnet. Fenty and Evans even argue that this retail hub can stay lively until late at night, with clubs and restaurants in the mix.
"We're becoming a city that is both Apollonian and Dionysian," says Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, which has argued in favor of bringing large-scale retail downtown.
I'm all for Apollo and Dionysus, restraint and ecstasy, but there's another factor that tends to rule battles over the future of this city: NIMBYs. And when you build hundreds of high-end apartments and put them downtown, you are creating a new set of activists who will fight against nightlife because of noise, crime and parking concerns. Excluding a major arts or entertainment component from the new development at the heart of the city may seem like a good way to rake in the tax dollars, but it leaves the District without an essential tool in the positioning of the old convention center site as a place that people will want to gravitate to around the clock.
5:15 PM UPDATE: Channel 4's Tom Sherwood is reporting tonight that the Fenty administration is leaning toward moving the city's central library from the Martin Luther King building on G Street to the old Carnegie Library, next to the new convention center. The Carnegie Library, most recently used for the failed D.C. history museum, is a smaller building, but the notion is to move the books collection to that location and build a new facility in Anacostia to house the library's back office operation, which is now housed at the central library.
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