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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administration's notion that downtown Washington could only be resurrected as a bustling, pedestrian-oriented place has been replaced by the quest for the almighty tax dollar.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.

By Marc Fisher |  May 12, 2008; 2:09 PM ET
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Art Expert Jack Evans, who knows enough about drama to give millions to theaters, ignores a design flaw in the city's public plazas. It rains here, especially in warmer months, when people most enjoy outdoor performances, yet the District thinks any flat open space will do. A semi-trailer stage or raised platform is not enough. What about the audience? Discussing the old F Street Venders [sic] Plaza when the nearby Smithsonian Art Museum now includes the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard insults anyone with eyeballs.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 12, 2008 4:07 PM

Does anybody even use the new Washington Convention Center these days? I was no fan of the old convention center, which was built like a depressingly dark Cold War bunker, but the new convention center might be too big for this city.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | May 12, 2008 4:15 PM

I think it sounds like a fine plan, to be honest, although it would have been wonderful to get another theater in close proximity to the two Shakespeare Theater sites, Woolly Mammoth, and TicketPlace - that would have firmly entrenched downtown as DC's prime theater district. I rather like the idea of moving the library back into the Carnegie building. that building has a real grandeur to it and would be a very appealing public library.

The only thing I really wish they would have thought about building on that lot, actually, is something akin to Eastern Market, but modeled on the marketplace in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. That would have a fantastic draw for people during lunch and dinner from all around the neighborhood.

Posted by: Matt | May 12, 2008 5:42 PM

Two words: Mark Ein. Isn't it fishy that the Kastles (a World Team Tennis franchise this venture capitalist with friends named Fernandez, Ledecky, Leonsis, and Case) aren't playing their home games at FitzGerald Center, a purpose-built tennis stadium???

Find out how big the Kastle contract is for the elevator security is in the new building.

Follow the money. Follow the tennis team, while you're at it.

Should Ben Bradlee have coached you on that already?

Posted by: Geen! | May 12, 2008 6:53 PM

This will end up being another place for chains to flourish and teens to loiter. Like Boulevard at Cap Center, Silver Spring and, oh, 7th street, a whopping 3 blocks away. Might make sense fiscally but will offer the city nothing of substance. I think people are bored with these 90s style mixed use developments already - and the housing is always too expensive.

Posted by: Kev | May 12, 2008 8:11 PM

Art and entertainment (nor, for that matter culture or education/research) aren't needed because so many attractions have been added, and the Mayor cites the Newseum (while it may be a one time visit, at it's price of admission, it's not a place you'd bring a family, nor visit a second time. Is it?) and the Spy Museum (again, a one time, not inexpensive tourist site)? Wouldn't it make more sense to build a research facility, call it a library if you will, to rival the New York City Library, with a modern research facility for the general public, access to study, with virtual unlimited high tech access for those most needing it - children of this city - at virtually no cost? Facilities such as the Newseum and the Spy Museum could do displays, and it could be worked out that they can sell their merchandise during their exhibits. Learn from the authors' presentations at such wonderful (but limited) facilities and outlets as Politics and Prose. So much more than a "taxable shopping center", and outlets that will cause the new, not low-paying renters to complain about when "shoppers" congregate. The city taxed the businesses in order to provide the Nationals and their owners a free, money-making facility, and what is the return for those taxpayers of the city? High price housing that's unaffordable for the residents of the city; high priced shopping; and a lack of civic amenities. Shame on this city.

Posted by: Dungarees | May 12, 2008 8:53 PM

This is pretty depressing. It will be a lost opportunity if the city passes up the chance to put a really distinctive public arts amenity in that space. They were tossing around some really neat ideas back when the Williams administration was running the show.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 12, 2008 9:06 PM

This was a sensible decision for several reasons:

1. The city is carrying too much debt already and cannot afford a huge investment in a new downtown library. Renovation or replacement of the MLK building makes more sense.
2. The real library need in this city is in the neighborhoods. A big central research library is less of a need in DC than many other cities because of the presence of the Library of Congress, several major universities, and other specialty libraries such as the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda.
3. The DC theater scene is thriving already.
4. The city does need a more critical mass of retail downtown. The Macy's is not enough. And the commitment to include local stores is welcome.
5. The city has a major investment in developing a new entertainment district around the new ballpark. Moreover, the existing entertainment district around the Verizon Center, just a few blocks east of the old Convention Center site, is doing just fine and whatever entertainment component this development adds to it will be welcome. I don't see how this development detracts from the arts and entertainment district already thriving along 7th street.

Posted by: Meridian | May 12, 2008 9:15 PM

Why does this have to be an either/or situation? Why can't a thriving library be PART of a "city center" with hotel and/or retail? Nashville has a great example of a downtown library in a building that is partially used for other commercial activities.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 12, 2008 11:22 PM

While I understand the need for tax revenue in a city the size of DC with its limited tax base (although less stealing would help the budget), we need a large, accessible central library. Someplace where people can come to read, check out books (which you can't from the LOC), research, attend lectures and demonstrations. Many major cities do this. A good central library also cuts the need for neighborhood libraries which cuts the attendant physical costs of books, electricity, paper.

Posted by: ep | May 12, 2008 11:24 PM

The Library of Congress is just what the name describes -- it serves Congress, not citizens. LoC is not open evenings or weekends, when working people can use it. MLK is.

The Carnegie Library is much too small for a municipal central library, but it is perfect for the Kiplinger Research Library, which is currently located there. Is the DC Mayor unaware of the location of Historical Society of Washington, DC? Renovating MLK makes more sense, and will be facilitated by the design of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building.

As we learned from the new Southeast Branch Library, renovated neighborhood branch libraries have fewer books, and depend on holdings of MLK and inter-library circulation to meet patron needs.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 12, 2008 11:47 PM

I agree with Kev. The mixed use thing is so over. All the talk about the bad housing market is so disgusting. How can people earning less than 100k afford anything anymore? They can't! Yes, the housing will be overpriced as usual. MLK should not be rebuilt, just renovate the place, update the library. Downtown is bustling already. They do not need ANOTHER city center, there already is one.

Posted by: update | May 13, 2008 6:59 AM

In all honesty, I like it the way it currently is. They keep eliminating parking in this city to build buildings that you either have to live or work in to park there. Plus, it is a great place to host all of these "street fairs" that the city has. A half acre is not big enough to hold something like the chili cookoff that just occured this past weekend. Do we really want to go back to them blocking off 20 streets (the main arteries of the city), detouring traffic all over the city, not posting detour signs, etc. all to hold this same festival in a 3-5 block area? I'm all for them converting the one half of the lot that they never use for parking into something but, not the whole thing. They may think of it as a waste of space but, I think of it as a major convenience.

Posted by: Scooter | May 13, 2008 11:40 AM

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