A Wreck of a Plan

New vistas? Urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s changed the face of Southwest Washingon, as 19th-century buildings and blocks . . .   . . . slowly gave way to a modern but sterile cityscape that, the author says, lacks most of the amenities of urban life.
New vistas? Urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s changed the face of Southwest Washingon, as 19th-century buildings and blocks . . . . . . slowly gave way to a modern but sterile cityscape that, the author says, lacks most of the amenities of urban life. (Redeveloped Neighborhood Near Arena Stage, 1963/The Washington Post)
By Charlotte Allen
Sunday, July 17, 2005

When I read about last month's Supreme Court decision permitting the city of New London, Conn., to use its power of eminent domain to seize working-class homes so that developers can build a waterfront office, residential and hotel complex, my first thought (after pitying the homeowners who thought that their property rights meant something) was: Oh no, not another misbegotten urban renewal program.

That's because I live in Southwest Washington, where nearly every day I contend with the wreckage -- architectural, socioeconomic and cultural -- from the first time the Supreme Court issued such a ruling. That was the 1954 case of Berman v. Parker , allowing a public entity to seize the heart of the District of Columbia's southwest quadrant -- a huge swath of working-class homes and businesses -- so that developers could build . . . a waterfront office, residential and hotel complex.

The scale is a little different. The case of Kelo v. New London involves only 115 privately owned parcels of property, in contrast to the thousands destroyed in Southwest during the 1950s and '60s. But the stated purpose is the same: revitalization.

What "revitalization" has almost invariably meant, however (city fathers of New London, take note!), is tearing up existing communities in the name of grandiose, taxpayer-subsidized redevelopment that usually fails to deliver the promised rejuvenation. No lessons were ever learned from the urban renewal mistakes of the '50s and '60s -- smaller-scale "revitalization" projects marched forward through the 1970s, '80s and '90s in cities across the country, with disappointing results. Now, the District of Columbia is getting ready to "revitalize" at least two more neighborhoods, one with a new baseball stadium and one with, yes, a shopping mall.

The sorry truth is that governments aren't very good at rejuvenating neighborhoods. Revitalization is strictly a job for the private sector, as our own experience here in Southwest Washington is proving.

In 1954, much of Southwest was a slum, or at least some people in Congress, which authorized the taxpayer-subsidized demolition derby, thought it was a slum. (It was actually a densely populated, predominantly black neighborhood, dilapidated on some blocks, tidy and middle-class on others.) Sam Berman, the plaintiff in the 1954 case, was the executor of the estate of Max Morris, who had owned a small department store on Fourth Street, which was then the commercial heart of Southwest, with block after block of thriving small businesses. When Berman complained that the family wanted to continue operating the department store, Justice William O. Douglas, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, said tough tomatoes: "The entire area needed redesigning."

I live on Fourth Street SW myself, where there is now not a single commercial establishment, thanks to the aggressive "redesigning" that resulted in huge tracts stitched out of the old city blocks, each containing a gigantic residential or office building crafted out of the favorite New Southwest building material -- concrete. Entire cross streets, such as H Street and much of K Street, disappeared. I often walk past the site of Max Morris's old department store, which is now occupied by a massive, featureless, two-block-long apartment building. Across the street is another massive, featureless apartment building. I'm usually the only pedestrian on the wide, shaded sidewalks, but there's not much to do in Southwest these days besides walk around.

There's the L'Enfant Plaza area, a concrete-scape as far as the eye can see of empty plazas and Great Society-created federal office buildings housing Great Society-and beyond-created agencies: Energy, Education, Housing and Urban Development. At night and on weekends, the lone retail zone, underneath the plaza, mostly shuts down, and cavernous L'Enfant turns into the Valley of the Tombs. To the east, up and down South Capitol Street, are block after block of decaying housing projects, built in the 1950s to house the quadrant's poor, who had once owned or rented their own single-family homes.

We do have a cultural jewel, Arena Stage, but if you come down here to see a play, you won't easily be able to enjoy a pre-theater dinner or an after-theater drink as you would downtown -- because there are no fine-dining spots and only one bar within reasonable walking distance. Forget movies -- there are none.

Then there's our marina. In most localities, the yacht docks are high-end real estate, crowded with boutiques and eateries. Not in Southwest, where, courtesy of Berman v. Parker , the land abutting the Potomac docks is owned by the National Capital Revitalization (that word again) Corp. (NCRC), a District-chartered quasi-government agency and successor to the federal agencies that seized the waterfront back in the '50s. Right now, the waterfront is a concrete wasteland of unused parking lots, untended trees and a couple of big-box restaurants and nightclubs.

The NCRC also owns the land under what the planners decided in the late 1960s would be our economic magnet: the Waterside Mall. Perhaps it's the '70s architecture, glaringly hideous even by New Southwest standards, or the vast Soviet-style rear plaza that blocks off Fourth Street physically and cuts it off psychologically from the rest of the District, but Waterside never flourished. The mall was half-empty even before its major tenant, the Environmental Protection Agency, relocated in 2002 after years of begging and pleading to be allowed to move to Federal Triangle, where there's more civilization.

Around the same time, the NCRC devised a plan with two developers to tear down the mall, reopen Fourth Street and build an attractive constellation of office, street-level retail and residential space. But that plan went on hold in February, perhaps indefinitely, when the putative anchor tenant, Fannie Mae, beset by regulatory and financial problems, retracted its commitment to lease space there.

Meanwhile, the mall gradually evicted the last remaining small businesses. We who live nearby now have no liquor store, no tailor, no video-rental outlet, and nowhere for anyone who works around here to eat lunch. (Our lone dry cleaner was also slated for ejection but won a reprieve.) The final indignity came this summer, when the mall shut down its air conditioning system. On these 90-degree-plus days, a walk through the mall's enclosed central corridor -- the only direct pedestrian route between the two truncated sections of Fourth Street -- is a grim and suffocating two-block trek.

Mind you, I enjoy living in Southwest. My husband and I bought our tree-shaded, large-windowed, wood-floored townhouse for a song (by D.C. standards) three years ago -- because hardly anyone else wanted to live down here. The Potomac is just a block away, as is a Metro stop, and it's an easy walk to the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. We have a fine open-air fish market nearby, miraculously saved 10 years ago from a short-lived District scheme to replace it with condominiums.

Yet it is strange to live in a city and lack nearly all the amenities of city life. Our neighborhood association recently installed a Southwest Heritage Trail, similar to landmark walks downtown and on Capitol Hill. Unlike those trails, however, which feature actual buildings, the stops on ours comprise mostly photographs of what used to be: handsome rowhouses that would go for more than half a million dollars in Adams Morgan today, and old Fourth Street, with its barber shops and sandwich shops and movie theater, its bustling foot traffic.

It's tempting to dismiss Southwest as an aberration of the hubristic urban planning of the 1950s, except that hundreds of smaller-scale eminent-domain-fueled redevelopment projects have followed relentlessly in cities across the country, including failed "Renaissance" centers in Pittsburgh and Detroit. Think of Detroit demolishing the entire ethnic neighborhood of Poletown in the 1980s to build a General Motors plant that never delivered on its promised 6,000 new jobs. The District now proposes to knock down homes, warehouses and bars for the new stadium (which is at least arguably a genuine public use). In Anacostia, the NCRC last week filed a condemnation suit against the Skyland Shopping Center, whose unglamorous but viable community-serving businesses (laundromats, fast-food outfits, a Murry's Steaks) are to be replaced by a presumably higher revenue-generating shopping complex -- even though the intended Target anchor store has yet to commit to move there. Given the NCRC's track record, Skyland could remain a vacant lot for decades.

Government entities, for all their subsidies, bond issues and eminent domain powers, almost always fail badly at effective urban revitalization, and those failed attempts almost always exact an appalling human cost in the form of lost homes, neighborhoods, businesses and jobs. In the District, the most spectacular recoveries of moribund urban zones -- Capitol Hill over the decades, downtown and Columbia Heights almost overnight -- have occurred almost entirely by way of individual consensual transactions, building by building.

Indeed, Southwest, for all the near-mortal damage inflicted upon it in the name of progress, is slowly reviving, too, and without government help. Property values and sales have taken off, and just off Fourth Street, right behind the spot where Max Morris's department store once stood, a brand-new luxury condo complex -- built entirely by the private sector on private land -- recently sold out in a matter of weeks. The pity is that this is just a start, and it's taking more than half a century to restore the dense, rich urban life we lost when the Supreme Court gave a green light to governments to intervene in cities' natural processes of decline and rejuvenation.

Author's e-mail:


Charlotte Allen is a Washington writer and co-editor of the Independent Women's Forum online blog, InkWell.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company