By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
At the north side of the complex are the 135 apartments. About half have been rented so far. Studios start at $1,720, one-bedrooms at $2,500, two-bedrooms at $3,875.
The Source restaurant, with an entrance next to the apartment lobby on Sixth Street, is one of Hollywood chef Puck's first ventures on the East Coast. It offers fine dining with classic-rock background music (Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground) and a sleek bar with ambitions of power-hipness.
Newseum officials say they anticipate at least 500,000 visitors to the museum in the first 12 months. That's slightly more than visited the Newseum annually in its more modest incarnation in Rosslyn -- where admission was free. About 55,000 tourists have already booked group visits through December.
The estimate of a half-million visitors may be conservative. The International Spy Museum, three blocks north of Pennsylvania Avenue, also charges admission and draws more than 700,000 visitors a year, says Peter Earnest, executive director.
Unknowable for now is how many dollars and visitors the Newseum will take away from existing attractions and how much new spending and visitors it will generate.
"The Newseum is a spanking new addition, and I think it will appeal to a similar demographic as ours -- people interested in current events and history," Earnest says. But "it's not totally a zero-sum game. The Newseum, the Spy Museum and other attractions are part of Washington's attraction as a destination city."
Hopes are soaring among the region's professional boosters.
"I'm an expert in tourism, and this is a product people will love," says Bill Hanbury, chief executive of Destination D.C. (the new name of the Washington D.C. Convention & Tourism Corp.). "It'll do two things. It's going to extend the visits of current visitors, the urban explorers, American families, weekend travelers. People will want to spend additional time in Washington, D.C. But the really great news is, this will tap into new visitors. This will really be a demand generator unto itself."
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On a recent Tuesday at 8:30 a.m., nearly every table in the Newseum's food court (called "the Food Section," of course) is occupied. The Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association has been hosting these monthly breakfasts at different local establishments for 16 years.
The turnout for this pre-opening visit is 336, shattering all previous neighborhood breakfast attendance records. Wearing name tags, the people identify themselves as residents, restaurateurs, merchants, developers, theater staff, museum managers -- folks drawn from all the cohorts that make up the mosaic of this part of town. (The neighborhood is bounded roughly by Pennsylvania on the south, New York and Massachusetts avenues on the north, Third Street on the east and 15th Street on the west.)
Before touring the Newseum, they take turns at a microphone to hype what's up in the 'hood: the farmer's market, new pre-theater menus, new dance productions, new happy hours, new exhibits, new businesses.
Ah, city living. It's easy to take for granted -- unless you can remember when a scene like this was but a dream on somebody's drawing board.
"People said, 'Are you scared to go down there?' " recalls Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, a pioneer in the quarter's revitalization. The company recently opened its second performance space in the neighborhood.
"What's happened over time is kind of amazing to me," says Kahn, who expects the Newseum to add even more energy -- and hopes that visitors will notice the theaters and other nearby attractions.
"When we opened, the three blocks surrounding us were virtually empty," says Rob Wilder, co-creator in 1993 of the restaurant Jaleo on Seventh Street. On a night walk through the neighborhood, "our banker . . . was literally afraid for his life. Ultimately we got him comfortable with the fact we knew what we were doing."
At first Wilder didn't bother serving lunch on weekends because the streets were empty. Now weekend business is about double that of weekdays.
"We felt like we were on the edge of the Earth," says Miles Groves, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, recalling the mid-1990s.
There were about 1,500 residents, not enough people to qualify for an advisory neighborhood commissioner. Now there are more than 5,000 residents, according to the Downtown Business Improvement District.
"For God's sake, there wasn't a place to get a pizza," says Docter, now the advisory neighborhood commissioner, who moved with his wife from Kensington in 1991. "There wasn't a place to get anything. . . . What's going on now fully justifies my moving downtown, and nobody's going to give me a crazy look anymore!"
A big moment came in December 1997 when MCI (now Verizon) Center opened. The Seventh Street corridor became a restaurant row. Gallery Place turned as busy and dizzy as the colors on the Chinatown arch. The old General Post Office building was transformed into the Hotel Monaco, and the refurbished National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum reopened. Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the National Academy of Sciences' museum and Madame Tussauds moved in, and the Textile Museum announced plans for a second location.
It all seemed willy-nilly, fabulous, unimaginable -- but it had been imagined. For once, the planners and the zoners got more or less what they had sketched on their drawing boards. They fended off some of the office developers -- who, left to their own devices, would replicate the profitable sameness of K Street everywhere -- and insisted on such concepts as "mixed use" and "a living downtown."
"To achieve a living downtown we needed to have a mix of uses that would keep people on the street at night and weekends, after office workers had gone home," says Ellen McCarthy, former D.C. director of planning.
The Newseum is the apotheosis of this way of thinking.
During a Penn Quarter breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe in late February 2000, buzz began to spread about the Newseum maybe moving to Washington. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams's administration accepted the Freedom Forum's offer of $100 million for the city-owned site, $25 million of which was slated for affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
First to open on the site were the upscale Newseum Residences. Leasing started in the summer. The apartment wing is a richly understated place of granite countertops, hardwood floors and big slabs of onyx in the public areas.
"It is the most dramatic block on the avenue as far as I'm concerned," says tenant Erma Striner, a writer and researcher with a background in interior design. Her downtown lifestyle includes daily walks to the museums or the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, occasional cocktails at the Source and writing at her desk on the 12th floor.
Mike Magouirk, an executive with a defense contractor in Connecticut, needed a place in town during a one-year fellowship in Washington. He last lived in Washington in 1980. "There's something to do and people out all the time," he says. "It's certainly not the D.C. I remember."
Downstairs at the Source, executive chef Scott Drewno oversees a classic Puck menu that runs from smoked salmon pizza with dill cream and caviar ($22) to lacquered Chinese duckling with wild huckleberries ($32).
Drewno moved with his wife from Manhattan. He was somewhat dubious he could get by without a car in Washington. But the couple found a two-bedroom condo in the neighborhood and just about everything they need within reach of walking or public transportation. Exception: groceries. Solution: Zipcar.
Now, at last, Safeway is planning to open a supermarket in the fall at Fifth and L streets -- still a long walk for some, but, oh well.
Living here, on top of the region's newest museum, in the middle of everything, "it's vibrant, there's a vitality, there's a verve," Striner says. "You feel a part of tomorrow."