The Mediocre Mile
Monday, September 4, 2006
Just as tourists wander Georgetown to get a feel for the Washington of two centuries ago, or Capitol Hill to admire the city's Victorian sobriety, or Embassy Row to enjoy the exuberance of its gilded age, perhaps one day they will wander that part of Massachusetts Avenue which is now a massive construction site, and think: This is what it felt like to be in Washington at the new fin de siècle. It was an uneasy age of condos mortgaged to the gills, gentrification, urban tribes of twenty-somethings drinking martinis at $35-a-plate eateries, and the quiet but deeply embedded fear of terrorism, housing bubbles and national implosion.
For decades there was a big patch of bleakness from Union Station to Mount Vernon Square, a mile-long stretch of the District's longest avenue that many people know primarily for maddening traffic jams where Interstate 395 punches into the city. In the early 19th century, this street was known as the border south of which you could not graze pigs. In 1937, when the Federal Writers Project surveyed the area, it noted merely "rows of old, small and shabby buildings" -- adding, with typical condescension, that these were "chiefly occupied by Negroes."
Today, at least a half-dozen huge tower cranes are doing business there on any given afternoon. Several high-rise buildings are already finished. Others, with glamorous names -- the Sonata, the Dumont, City Vista -- are rising on, or just off, the avenue. The astonishing thing is most of these buildings are residential: condominiums and some rental apartments.
So what do these new buildings look like? They're big, and more often than not they're brick, or, rather, clad with a brick facing that gives them a shallow skin of pink or red or dun-colored hues. Many of them take advantage of a D.C. zoning quirk that allows residential buildings to extend bays or other protrusions beyond the property line, and so they mimic, in a tall, distended way, the street-scape of the city's historic neighborhoods. They also push up to the maximum heights allowed by the city, and out to the farthest reach of their allowable space. They're block-fillers and often very drab.
And many of them feel as if they could just as well be in Ballston -- or South Florida. The Web sites advertising these new homes emphasize a television idealization, or a suburban one, of what urban life supposedly means: youth, energy, power, elegance, nights on the town.
"More than just an address, Ten Ten Mass is a way of life," reads one Web site for a project just west of the Washington Convention Center. "It's a place for those who know what they want -- and how to get it." The spiel for the Dumont condos is even more blunt: "Proximity is power."
But with their bland exteriors, and hotel-like interior spaces, their subterranean parking garages and self-contained exercise facilities, they bring a new urban context.
When D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams leaves office in December, the new Massachusetts Avenue will be one of his most visible legacies. He can't claim credit for several of the important forces that led to this boomlet -- old city plans that decreed this a residential district, changes to zoning rules in 1990, and economic good times. But the mayor's focus on the Massachusetts Avenue corridor will link its architecture to memories of his administration.
Politically and economically this is an urban success story. But look at the details of these buildings and they don't seem very urban at all. Yes, many of them have street-level retail -- and the chain stores are moving in. And yes, these buildings will bring thousands of new residents to a once-empty area. But they also have an inexorable thrust upward, to rooftop pools and running tracks and common areas that give their denizens a view of the city from a 100 feet up, rather than an immersion in it.
That doesn't mean the people who move in will choose a hermetic lifestyle, but the people selling or renting these spaces seem to believe that's what's appealing. As an architect who designed Mass Court, the big, dull box that looms over the entrance to I-395, said in a rare design review meeting, these buildings are "like people's houses" but "with the security and so forth."
The structures also very much reflect the economic forces that built them.
Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, credits tax abatements from the city, and zoning changes made in 2001 (which allowed increased density and gave developers more freedom to meet city demands), for the sudden burst of activity in areas that include Massachusetts Avenue.