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The Mediocre Mile

Renderings of the City Vista complex, left and above, going up along K Street just off Massachusetts Avenue NW. Architectural oversight for the many projects recently completed or under construction has been spotty.
Renderings of the City Vista complex, left and above, going up along K Street just off Massachusetts Avenue NW. Architectural oversight for the many projects recently completed or under construction has been spotty. (Above And Below: Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group-east)

Williams said he wanted "to make this stuff happen, fast," says Widdicombe. So the mayor created a time-expiring tax break that required building to begin by 2003. That was for residential development south of Massachusetts Avenue. Another tax abatement that required construction before 2005 sparked building north of the avenue. The city put $45 million on the table to encourage a lot of groundbreaking in a short period of time.

The key word here is "fast." When it comes to residential architecture and urban planning, many developers have absorbed the basic wisdom of Jane Jacobs (author of the now half-century-old "The Life and Death of Great American Cities"), who argued that vibrant cities need mixed-use neighborhoods, with street-level retail and residential density. So the District's planning model was based on "critical mass": You need to get it all done -- housing, restaurants, retail, entertainment -- and very quickly. If new residents see an ideal of urban life laid out in full, the city believes, they will bring their taxable incomes into the District. This isn't about urban pioneering in a desolate area. It's a Brigadoon model, the magical appearance of a full-fledged shopping-living-eating-parking city almost all at once.

Fast and Furious

And so building fast has generally trumped building beautiful. Despite the oversight of various public commissions and other groups, there is little emphasis on the avenue as its own architectural and aesthetic entity. Individual architects, such as Eric Colbert (who designed the partially completed Sonata building), say they didn't coordinate plans with other architects working in the area. Architectural oversight has been patchwork and, not surprisingly, too many buildings, such as the Sonata, simply reiterate the cliches of the D.C. vernacular, centered on a big, round corner bay, with a meaningless facade that looks plucked from a generic office park.

One small city-owned parcel was sold to developers, which allowed the city to set some basic design goals and standards: "Massachusetts Avenue, in particular, calls for an urban design and architectural response befitting the monumental Avenues of the L'Enfant Plan." It was an admirable effort on the city's part to establish better urban design standards, but they were often very flexible and only three buildings were affected.

Two other buildings were reviewed by the Commission of Fine Arts, which had jurisdiction due to a 1930 act that allows it some say over private construction near important federal sites. But it couldn't exercise power over the larger look and sweep of the avenue. Nor could the Historic Preservation Review Board, which can comment only on buildings within established historic districts. The D.C. Department of Transportation has a hand in controlling the look of the street-scape outside the buildings -- sidewalks, lampposts, trash cans -- but not architecture.

So in a city that has fetishized the historic avenue-and-grid plan of its first designer, Pierre L'Enfant, no one is really able to look after the integrity of what is arguably the most distinctive feature of the city's design: its long, wide avenues with vistas that connect the symbolic nodal points of the city.

Widdicombe acknowledges that more architectural oversight might have been desirable, but the long decay created a powerful incentive to put aesthetic issues behind economic ones. And there were many forces working against redevelopment, including inertia, the greater profitability of office space and the attraction of the suburbs.

"The city was in a quandary," he says. "They needed to do it in a hurry. But when I go to the Upper East Side in New York City, there are a lot of ugly buildings from the '60s, but it's still pretty vibrant."

So the District plunged ahead, and building after building is going up with minimal or no design review, or coordination with other planned or existing projects. Patricia Zingsheim, associate director of revitalization and design for the city's Office of Planning, acknowledges the patchwork of design that covers the avenue, but she doesn't think speed is the culprit. She points to architectural and streetscape guidelines laid down in something called the Mount Vernon Triangle Action Agenda, which includes the north side of Massachusetts Avenue. But, except in a few cases, those guidelines weren't mandatory. "The private sector felt that would be counterproductive," she says. In the future, says Zingsheim, perhaps design review can be linked to tax abatements.

A Flood of Mediocrity

While developers and the city's planners have absorbed some of the basic insights of Jane Jacobs, they overtly and intentionally flouted one of her darker warnings. Jacobs distinguished between two types of money that contribute to the remaking of cities. There is "gradual money" that helps maintain existing properties and finance small-scale new building and evolution within neighborhoods. And there is "cataclysmic money," which can mean either the devastating removal of dollars (through, for example, the blacklisting of whole neighborhoods for mortgage or equity loans) or the blitz of new capital for urban renovation. In 1961, when she published "The Life and Death of Great American Cities," the cataclysmic influx generally meant government-sponsored slum clearance and housing projects. But her observation about the aesthetic effects of cataclysmic money -- how the sudden flood of capital generally leads to a loss of diversity and a uniformity of urban building -- still holds today, if Massachusetts Avenue is any evidence.

When the new Mass. Ave. corridor is finished, buildings with a mostly uniform roofline of 130 feet will stretch most of its length. Although many of the buildings pay a bare minimal homage to the residential style of old neighborhoods in Washington, their surfaces scream: This brick lacks gravitas. Some of the new structures use stone and windows to define basic levels of the structure, which is meant to minimize the impression of their bulk and height. But you can only hide so much bulk, and none of the buildings has the simple, elegant articulations of the lovely old United Plumbers office building, which stands on the northwest corner of Mount Vernon Square. Large ornamental awnings over the new entryways are intended to suggest a residential character harking back to the elegant apartment houses of a century ago -- though no one would confuse Mass Court with, say, the humane scale and Parisian elegance of the former McCormick Apartments, at 18th and Massachusetts.

So do the economics of speed development, the prevailing ethos of disposable design, and the city's established height limits (which vary according to the width of avenues and streets) conspire to ensure bad architecture?

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