Newseum, a Developing Story
Friday, April 11, 2008
How fitting that one of the finishing touches in the bust-to-boom east end of downtown -- the $450 million Newseum, opening today -- should pack onto the same block not just a museum but also a trendy restaurant and luxury apartments.
That trinity of forces -- culture (entertainment), consumption (shopping, eating) and living (street life after business hours) -- is the essence of urban success. And over the past 20 years, on block after formerly forlorn block, theaters, museums, galleries, condos, apartments, a sports arena, bars, restaurants and boutiques have transformed what is known as the Penn Quarter neighborhood.
Now the Newseum complex on Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street NW, including the Newseum Residences and the Source restaurant by Wolfgang Puck, stands as a summary statement of all that has succeeded in the neighborhood.
"This is one of the biggest pieces that was missing," says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which monitors the aesthetics of monumental Washington. "What I think is exciting is how it brings this dynamic institution front and center to Pennsylvania Avenue and creates a nexus of destinations between the National Gallery and the museums, and then moving up into Penn Quarter."
Not everything has gone right. There's precious little new affordable housing, there's still no supermarket, and congestion and expensive parking have become unfortunate byproducts of success.
"Instead of the problem being, how do we get people to come down here? the problem now is, how do we keep them moving so they can get around?" says Charles Docter, a downtown housing activist and resident for 17 years.
How much more life can an already lively neighborhood stand?
Planners, activists and people in the neighborhood expect the Newseum to play a few important roles. It's going to jazz up stuffy and institutional Pennsylvania Avenue. It's going to breach the Maginot line separating the Mall from city streets, luring more tourists and their dollars north into downtown. It's going to push the neighborhood a little farther east toward Judiciary Square, inviting pedestrians and life to an area that has been dead on weekends.
And residents such as Docter, who welcome the Newseum, also see it as a powerful ally in getting the city to better regulate the proliferation of festivals that close the east end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Access to the Newseum must not be blocked!
"If anyone could have conceived of an ideal land-use for that site, and executed it in a way that would enhance the avenue, I think the Freedom Forum did it with the Newseum," says Jo-Ann Neuhaus, who was project development director for the old Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., the federal body charged with revitalizing the area. Now she's executive director of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association.
"It achieved one of the most important goals of the Pennsylvania Avenue plan, which was to be an attraction that would bridge the avenue and move people who come to the city primarily because of its federal presence into the downtown area," Neuhaus says.
This interactive, archival yet entertaining temple to the First Amendment features 250,000 square feet of exhibit space, requiring about a 1.5-mile stroll to see everything. There's a "4-D" movie and 27 hours of video and audio. Visitors can create their own stand-up television reports. Adult admission is $20.