Children's Museum Lines Up a Better Place to Play
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page E01
Five years ago, the Capital Children's Museum started to look for a new home. It had outgrown its five-story, run-down brick buildings, a former convent at the bottom of an overpass behind Union Station that is hard to find and hard to reach.
The museum's search ended this spring after it agreed to move to L'Enfant Plaza -- a broad, open rectangle enclosed by large, drab government buildings, a relic of the 1960s urban renewal projects that swept through Southwest. It is only a few blocks from the popular National Mall, but it is familiar mostly to the bureaucrats who work there.
The museum and Chevy Chase-based developer JBG Cos., which bought some of the buildings and land in L'Enfant Plaza, hope to change that.
How the private, nonprofit museum and the big developer got together is an instructive lesson in how Washington works: The chairman of the museum's board plays golf with a managing partner at JBG, and the chairman's old company had long done business with the developer. JBG wanted a cultural attraction like a museum to jazz up L'Enfant Plaza, and the museum needed a place to land when a deal for a spot on the Anacostia River looked like it would take longer than the museum wanted.
The 30-year-old museum, with such attractions for children as hands-on experiments in chemistry and exhibits on Mexico and Japan, has attracted an influential 21-person board of trustees that includes some of the most prominent names in the District's real estate industry, including developer Giuseppe Cecchi; architect Roger K. Lewis; developer Anthony M. Lanier; and Herbert S. Miller, a developer who is helping design and build the residential and retail project next to MCI Center.
Miller is an ally of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). In recent months, the developer has been pushing redevelopment of a swath of the District from L'Enfant Plaza to the Southwest waterfront centered around a baseball stadium that Miller or some other developer or team presumably would build. Evans has drafted legislation directing the District to buy land, hire a developer and get ready to build a $383 million ballpark -- a move intended to show major-league baseball that the District is serious about drawing a team but questioned by some Council members who worry about picking a stadium site before Washington even gets a team. The council's economic development committee later rejected Evans's proposal.
Kathy Dwyer Southern, the museum's president and chief executive, said the board's expertise was important. "We had people who had a deep knowledge of the city and who are involved in real estate."
The museum needed to move if it wanted to broaden its reach and become nationally known. That meant leaving its three 125-year-old brick buildings on the corner of H and 3rd streets NE, which had also been a home for the poor and elderly. Now they are accessible only by car, bus, or a six-block walk from the Metro stop at Union Station through parking garages and onto an overpass, a tough trek with children. It would also cost too much to expand there, the board decided.
"We were in a good location to serve a smaller community, but we needed to be in a better location to serve a broader community," said S. Ross Hechinger, chairman of the board. Hechinger, grandson of the founder of the family hardware business, which grew into the Hechinger chain of hardware stores, is retired. The chain was sold in 1997 and it filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
What they needed was a site nearer a Metro station and with parking. In 2001, the museum narrowed its list to five sites in the District. One of the top contenders, Hechinger said, was a space along a six-block section of waterfront in Southwest that stretches from the Maine Avenue fish market to Arena Stage.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company