Pennsylvania Avenue has come a long way.
Penn Quarter and Chinatown are some of the city’s most expensive places whether you are renting an apartment, a storefront or an office. They are home to most of the city’s biggest sports and entertainment attractions.
And yet on the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks south, it still feels like the 1990s: badly lit, quiet after working hours and not much to do.
Now a collaboration among planners, government agencies and private landowners has begun rethinking how to revive the corridor again, through the newly launched Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative.
In many ways, the group is following in the footsteps of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy administration, who successfully lobbied Congress to launch the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. in 1973. Among the improvements that followed are the preservation of the Old Post Office Pavilion, the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and the construction of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
But for all the work of Moynihan, who died in 2003, and architect John M. Woodbridge, there are some shortcomings on Pennsylvania Avenue, and there are some unique obstacles to addressing them.
Unlike most streets in the District, the National Park Service — chronically short of funding — is in charge of the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue. The pavers on the sidewalk are cracked or missing in places, but new ones are no longer being manufactured. The benches and trees are in similar states.
The streetlights are deliberately understated in deference to views of the U.S. Capitol, but the effect on the sidewalk is more darkness than streets the District manages nearby. On top of that, Pennsylvania Avenue streetlights aren’t connected to a common grid, making repairs or changes much more difficult.
Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown Business Improvement District, said the conditions are the result of poor urban design approved before the District was granted home rule. “It’s like a bad ’70s show,” he said.
Federal buildings along the southern side of the avenue are bound by security requirements that further dampen opportunities for the retail and sidewalk cafes that have begun populating other parts of the city.
The National Capital Planning Commission is heading up the new initiative along with the District, the General Services Administration, the National Park Service and private landowners. A public workshop has been planned for July 23.
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