D.C. could learn a lot from N.Y. on transforming obsolete infrastructure

(Roger K. Lewis)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Planning and financing infrastructure improvements is always a daunting challenge. Yet equally daunting is what to do with obsolete infrastructure. Is abandonment or demolition inevitable? Or can we feasibly preserve and transform it to serve new purposes and catalyze new activities?

Many cities have saved and innovatively repurposed obsolete, dysfunctional and sometimes historic infrastructure such as viaducts, aqueducts and bridges. A few decades ago in San Antonio, the San Antonio River was an unsightly, malodorous drainage ditch meandering several feet below street level through downtown. Instead of burying the problematic waterway in underground pipes, San Antonio created the the famous River Walk by converting the drainage ditch into an attractive masonry-edged canal.

Walkways and terraces, trees and lush gardens, cafes and restaurants line both sides of the canal. Overlooking the canal are multi-story hotels and office and apartment buildings whose development and greatly increased real estate value resulted from the creation of River Walk.

A more recent example of infrastructure acquiring a new and radically different life is the "High Line" in New York. Paralleling 10th Avenue on Manhattan's West Side, the elevated freight railway spur was built in the early 1930s to lift unsafe freight train movement off of city streets, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Five decades later, the elevated railway line sat abandoned, a rusting urban eyesore that real estate developers and nearby property owners wanted demolished.

But some New Yorkers thought more imaginatively, envisioning the railway structure being recycled to become a new kind of public amenity. Years of planning, indispensable political support and substantial public-private investment gave birth to a unique urban park, the first section of which opened last year. When section two is finished, the High Line's total cost reportedly will approach $200 million.

Thanks to New York's extraordinary public-private effort, the High Line has become a vibrant, beautifully landscaped pedestrian space 30 feet above street level. Running continuously along the narrow, linear park is a concrete walkway, varying in width and interwoven with meadow-like vegetation. Intermittently punctuating the park are places to sit or gather, remnants of the original rails, fountains and dramatic views of Manhattan and streets below.

The completed park will be almost a mile-and-a-half-long, threading its way among the West Side's 19th and 20th century commercial and residential buildings. Stairs and elevators provide access from street level, and buildings abutting the park have walk-out access, as does a hotel straddling the park. Because the High Line has greatly boosted neighborhood real estate values, the city and private property owners anticipate favorable returns on their investments.

Most cities, including Washington, have defunct infrastructure leftovers. The District recently issued a Request for Proposals to develop new uses for 3,000 linear feet of abandoned trolley car tunnels built in 1948 below Dupont Circle and alongside the Connecticut Avenue NW underpass. Trolley operations ended in 1962, and the tunnels were sealed in 1964.

This is not the first attempt at revitalizing the Dupont Circle trolley tunnel. In 1995-96, the city leased tunnel space to a developer who tried to make a go of an underground food court. It went out of business in a year. With dozens of aboveground cafes and restaurants in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, this was no surprise. Why descend into a sunless tunnel to dine?

This time, the city hopes that a well-qualified development team will come up with an inspiring, economically viable concept -- and all necessary design and construction funding -- to reanimate part or all of the tunnels, which in total contain about 100,000 square feet of floor area.

The city's aspirations for tunnel transformation are admirable, but again its redevelopment approach is questionable. The requirements for making a proposal and criteria for choosing a development team, as described in the RFP, are excessively stringent. To be acceptable, a proposal not only must set forth a credible idea, but also must show sufficient financial capability, identify specific funding sources and point to a track record of doing similar work.

Given this unprecedented, highly risky project with countless unknowns and certain to cost many millions of dollars to implement, the city's RFP requirements and criteria are especially unrealistic. Current economic and market conditions make the city's goals seem even more unattainable.

The District is -- pardon the pun -- on the wrong track. Taking a cue from New York's High Line, the District instead should more deliberatively pursue the trolley tunnel project as a public-private collaboration, notwithstanding the city's fiscal circumstances.

This project is special in type and scope, which is why it necessitates public-sector investment along with community involvement in project conceptualization. Otherwise, successful tunnel transformation is improbable, and this aging piece of infrastructure will be destined to sit fallow for several more decades.


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

© 2010 The Washington Post Company