Looking Past the Capital City
A Reinvented D.C. Could Offer New Destinations in All Directions

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

The recent opening of the Washington Nationals' baseball stadium culminated a decade of panoramic change in the District, one in which downtown and an array of long-forlorn neighborhoods blossomed.

So what is Washington's next horizon?

If the city has purged much of the blight that helped make it a symbol of urban dysfunction, what is it aspiring to now?

The answer, voiced by a wide range of District officials, planners and developers, is nothing less than transcending Washington's primary identity as the nation's capital and ever-proper home to the federal government.

The Washington that they envision is far more cosmopolitan, in the spirit of Paris or London, national capitals better known for a wide variety of attractions: vibrant neighborhoods, scenic riverfronts, pedestrian-jammed sidewalks, art museums, shopping and fine cuisine.

In the future Washington, they say, newly created waterfront neighborhoods, long established areas such as U Street and Georgetown, and a 24-hour downtown would be as defining as the White House and Capitol are today.

"The federal city and the real city will shift," said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, a nonprofit organization that promotes revitalization. "Whereas before, the federal city has been in the foreground and D.C. has been the background, D.C. will emerge as the foreground."

Depending on who is divining the city's future, the path to achieving that goal includes pushing investment in Washington's poorest neighborhoods; refurbishing signature boulevards such as Georgia Avenue, K Street and New York Avenue; or lifting the century-old cap on building height to catalyze development in areas far from downtown.

Yet developers and planners agree that the overarching key to redefining Washington resides along the miles of undeveloped land that borders the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, terrain slated for at least four new neighborhoods that District officials and developers hope will be built during the next 20 years.

Those new neighborhoods -- one adjoining the Nationals' ballpark, another on the Southwest waterfront, a third at Poplar Point and a fourth on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill -- will create local destinations offering a counterweight to the Mall, a perennial attraction that symbolizes the city's capital persona.

"We're going to see a new paradigm over the next decade, wherein the city is recapturing the water and its own image," said Monty Hoffman, chief executive officer of PN Hoffman, which is developing the Southwest waterfront.

In a recent study by the Fenty administration, planners broadened their traditional view of Washington's central core to encompass areas beyond downtown, such as the waterfronts and roughly 10 blocks north of Union Station. In their rendering, planners envisioned a city enlivened by a collection of vibrant neighborhoods knitted together by mass transit.

"When you go to London, you don't just go there because it's the seat of power, you go to walk on the Thames or take the Underground or go shopping," said Eric Price, former adviser to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and now an executive at Abdo Development.

He said the same expectation should exist for Washington. "It's a place, a world-class city that you go to for all it offers," he said. "You go for the parks, the ballgames, the waterfronts."

Aspirations aside, the District faces hurdles on its path to a more multifaceted identity, not the least of which are the ebbs and flows of economic cycles that can slow even the most ambitious projects.

Then there are matters of scale. Unlike Paris and London, which have millions of residents and have evolved over centuries, Washington is a younger city with fewer than 600,000 inhabitants.

Neil Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, acknowledged the substantial progress the city made over the past decade. But he said that the District remains "a long ways away from the mature cities like New York and Chicago."

"We would not say the city has arrived," he said.

The Fenty administration, Albert said, hopes to prod developers to invest east of the Anacostia River, where he said historic areas such as Anacostia, Deanwood and Congress Heights are ripe for what has been built downtown: a dense mix of residential, commercial and retail.

But to achieve that vision, Albert said, the District probably will have to reconsider one of its main tools for controlling development: a height-limit law that bars virtually all city buildings more than 130 feet. Lifting the cap in areas east of the Anacostia River, he said, could mean taller buildings and the chance to create the kind of population density necessary to attract retailers and create thriving neighborhoods.

"There's nothing that would develop Poplar Point faster than if investors saw it as a place to build high-rise offices," he said. "We hear a growing drumbeat from planners and developers that it's the right thing to do."

That drumbeat does not include all of Washington's civic and community leaders, such as Dick Wolf, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. He predicts that new neighborhoods along the waterfront and elsewhere will be indistinct "condo-villes" with largely identical buildings and retail. "A mall-like effect," Wolf said.

Turning Washington into anything but the government center that it has always been "is an impossible vision," he said. "You have to be what you are, and what you are is a national and international capital."

Unlike other national capitals that evolved around commerce and culture, Washington was created for a single purpose: governance.

The city remained true to that spirit throughout the 20th century, building iconic memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and neo-classical buildings designed to reflect the nation's gravitas as a world power.

"Monumental Washington is our brand," said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Although the city will never lose that identity, Luebke said, it will only benefit as it fosters new geographical and cultural dimensions. "There's a flatness to the monumental vision," he said. "It would be nice to show more of the layers."

Cities have been known to acquire new identities: Boston, for example, which long ago shed its role as an important shipping port, and New York, once a manufacturing hub.

"Every major city has undergone this, although not as dramatically as Washington, because most were not single-function cities," said Alex Krieger, an urban planning professor at Harvard who has been a consultant to the District government.

Cities across the country have revived in recent years -- as crime rates subsided; as baby boomers became empty-nesters and traded homes for apartments; as suburbanites grew tired of long commutes; and as Hollywood promoted the joys of urban life with sitcoms such as "Seinfeld" and "Friends." In Washington, all those factors have combined to make a metamorphosis possible.

"There's a kind of epochal change in American culture," Krieger said. "Since we got tired of the slums on [New York's] Lower East Side, the image of a prospering America was a suburban America. That's not going away. But it's being recalibrated."

The evidence of that shift can be seen in Washington, where in recent years developers have built attractions such as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center. They also rebuilt two of the three corridors that had languished for decades after being ravaged during the 1968 riots.

The development slated for the future is even more ambitious. Instead of rebuilding entire blocks, developers will create entire neighborhoods from scratch. In addition to the waterfronts, for example, developers have drawn plans for 29 projects in NoMa, the pocket north of Union Station. Along New York Avenue in Northeast, an industrial area lined with low-price motels is slated for apartment complexes, restaurants and big-box stores.

On the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a 170-acre expanse across from where the federal government plans to relocate the Department of Homeland Security, District officials hope to lure developers to build a mix of housing, offices and retail.

A paramount challenge, planners and developers said, is ensuring not only that the projects are built but also that each adds a unique dimension to the Washington experience.

"If we're not mindful we will be surprised when we wake up in 10 years and find we're in Disneyland," said Jair Lynch, a developer. "Instead of a fabricated experience, we want an experience that you can say has some history to it, and some authenticity."

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