Standing in the Way of Smart Urban Development

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some residents of the District cling to a suburban mentality. This mentality, coupled with government mismanagement, can obstruct desirable redevelopment. For the city to evolve, residents' attitudes and government performance must change.

Project opponents typically voice anxiety about increased density, shifting uses and populations, worsening traffic, and the prospect that new buildings won't be in harmony with the existing context. Some mistrust government and believe that only the interests of developers are being served. Others simply fear change. Despite compelling evidence of the merits of a redevelopment project, opponents rarely change their minds.

They may represent a minority of people affected by redevelopment, but that minority can be organized and outspoken while redevelopment supporters remain silent. Hearing little from the majority and pressured by the minority, the city can make bad decisions.

Two controversial D.C. projects, both on Wisconsin Avenue NW, illustrate redevelopment challenges: the Giant shopping-center site at Newark Street, adjacent to Cleveland Park, and the Tenleytown branch library site at Albemarle Street, adjacent to the Janney elementary school and across the street from the Tenleytown Metro station.

The owner of the Giant site proposes more uses, including apartments, and more density than underlying zoning allows. The D.C. Office of Planning and the District Department of Transportation, as well as Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), support the proposal.

Zoning Commission hearings have been contentious and legalistic. But the real source of contention is not legalistic. Rather, it is the long-standing preference and nostalgic desire of some nearby residents for the Giant site to remain what it's always been: low-density commercial.

The property has been fallow long enough. In the interest of "smart growth," the Zoning Commission should approve the rezoning and enable overdue redevelopment.

With demolition of the old Tenleytown library, intense redevelopment of this prominent D.C. property next to a Metro station made sense. Accordingly, the District envisioned a dense, mixed-use complex encompassing a new library and multi-family, mid-rise housing. Changes would include the adjacent school and playgrounds.

Pursuing a private-public strategy, the city invited developers to submit proposals, with residents as well as public officials participating in the planning and evaluation.

Unfortunately, controversy ensued. Disagreements arose about the quality and feasibility of the proposals, functional and aesthetic compromises, and even the private-public-partnership concept. The process fell apart.

After fumbling the ball, the city punted. Defaulting to the suburban strategy, it now intends to build only a free-standing, two-story branch library. Gone is the chance to do the right thing -- transit-oriented development -- on this unique, publicly owned site.

The missed Tenleytown opportunity shows that developer competitions are not always the right approach for complicated civic projects. And it shows once again that the city needs a competent, proactive agency that can independently finance and implement redevelopment of public property.

Much suburban fabric is relatively static. Much urban fabric is relatively dynamic, changing as circumstances change. Living in cities means accepting and even embracing change. Living in America's capital city should be no exception.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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