Betting Big on Near Southeast
And plans are being readied for the "center's" remaining 42 acres. Fortunately, these new plans will be nothing like the old ones in procedure or product.
In principle, a federal employment center on government-owned land in the Near Southeast always made plenty of sense. The area, after all, is close to Capitol Hill, adjacent to major highways and on top of a Green Line Metro station.
But in practice, there was always plenty of resistance from federal employees because the area was an urban wasteland. Nobody wanted to work there. And the idea for a single-use office compound wasn't compelling.
Then, thanks in no small measure to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Southeast Federal Center Public-Private Development Act that she sponsored in 2000, the rules changed to encourage a coordinated approach to redevelopment. The General Services Administration, the government landlord, is negotiating with a private developer on a final plan.
And, thanks also to the city's waterfront plan and the 1997 federal Legacy plan for the nation's capital, the new vision for the Southeast Federal Center calls for a mix of uses. There will be room for about 6,000 federal employees and 6,000 residents on the site.
Another major project in advanced stages of planning is the transformation of the Arthur Capper public housing complex. This is a Hope VI program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in which "severely distressed" public housing units are repaired or rebuilt as part of a mixed-income neighborhood.
The total number of units here will more than double, from 707 to about 1,700. Existing public housing units will be replaced in kind and a portion of the added residences will be subsidized.
Nearby, a consortium of private owners will erect mid-rise residential towers around Canal Blocks Park. As a result of a city deal with developers, this major public amenity, taking up three long, narrow blocks, will be financed largely with private money. (The D.C. government's Office of Planning recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct a design competition for the park.)
Clearly, then, plans for the new Near Southeast are every bit as ambitious as the old Southwest urban renewal program. But there are huge differences. Because the terrain is so sparsely populated, the Near Southeast plan, unlike the Southwest effort, will not require massive residential demolition and population displacement. In other words, it isn't another "urban removal" scheme.
And in ironic contrast to the old, brave-new-world modernist plan, the city's new, revisionist idea enthusiastically looks backward. Its aim, that is, is to fill all those empty Southeast lots with something resembling a densely populated, traditional urban neighborhood.
To accomplish all this largely with private money, the public sector must spend its own precious dollars in exactly the right places. This explains the Anacostia initiative's strong emphasis on improving transportation infrastructure.
A new South Capitol Street bridge, for instance, is a must -- and not only because the existing Frederick Douglass Bridge is in need of significant repair. The Douglass Bridge, designed exclusively to whisk commuters in cars from one point to another, treats the river (not to mention pedestrians and bicyclists) with extraordinary rudeness.
Plus, it's nothing much to look at. A new span, presumably, would both look and perform a lot better.
A new South Capitol Street is also a must. As it stands, the so-called street is really just an extension of the highway for the cars coming over the bridge. It is ugly, it is an insult to the edifice for which it is named, it is a formidable elevated barrier between neighborhoods and a major impediment to healthy development.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company