In New York City, some of the most sought-after high-rise apartments overlook Central Park. In Paris, outdoor cafés line the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The Terreiro do Paço, in Lisbon, is not only bordered by a bustling downtown, but endless views of the Atlantic Ocean. ¶ A block away from Washington’s central attraction, the National Mall, there is little of this. Steps from the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, the Hirshorn Museum and the National Air and Space Museum is a complex of five government office buildings that collectively could not be more boring architecturally or uninviting to someone considering a stroll down Independence Avenue. There are few places to eat, little to see and the streets are interrupted by railroad tracks, overpasses and structures such as the looming James V. Forrestal Building that straddles 10th Street SW.
The urban mix might be redeemable if the buildings were providing federal workers with a suitable office space, but few consider that the case. The Cotton Annex, an 118,000-square-foot building on 12th Street, has been empty for more than five years. The regional office building of the General Services Administration, built as a warehouse in 1932, is home to 1,400 Department of Homeland Security workers who are supposed to move to a consolidated headquarters project that has been delayed by budget cuts.
Change may be coming. The GSA announced at the end of September that it plans to seek ideas from the private sector for what to do with the drab cluster of buildings, opening the door to what could be the largest redevelopment of federal land in downtown Washington since the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was built 15 years ago. The stakes for the government and the city are high.
The Ronald Reagan building opened in 1998, a $768 million project that took more than a decade of planning and construction to build. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Ellerbe Becket, it brought a conference and office facility to Pennsylvania Avenue real estate that was once home to a district of bordellos and bars and later left to languish as an immense surface parking lot. It became the second largest federal building next to the Pentagon.
But just as the Reagan building opened, the goal posts for successful downtown development moved. Nationwide, cities had painfully turned the corner transitioning out of industrial economies and a nascent migration back to urban neighborhoods had begun.
The Reagan building did not exactly fit the changing sensibilities. The project failed to re-connect the street grid, something both District and federal planners now push for at nearly every opportunity. The project failed to include any housing, an ingredient that helped fuel growth in places such as Penn Quarter and Gallery Place.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks also helped to isolate the building. Though it has a large interior food court and a connection to the Metro, visitors must pass through metal detectors. A tourist center opened in the building by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce closed in 2008 in part because of the increased security requirements.