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Residential Growth Still Hasn't Achieved a `Living Downtown'
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A01
The neighbors were eating potluck lasagna, chatting around the pool, swaying to live music, admiring the mauve and gold sunset.
It was a Sunday neighborhood block party -- only this one was set on the roof of a Pennsylvania Avenue high-rise. Silhouetted against the sunset on a warm evening in early autumn was the Washington Monument. Over the guitar player's shoulder was the Capitol dome. Splashing in the pool was a U.S. senator.
Regular and well-attended block parties are just one sign of a residential community establishing roots in the heart of downtown. Churchgoers report a bump in attendance at neighborhood churches. Restaurants are sprouting all over. On the sidewalks, some people carry dry cleaning instead of briefcases, and humans are even being sighted after dark and on weekends.
But the city's 16-year-old dream of a "living downtown" hasn't come true yet, and there is evidence the roots need fortifying. The Lansburgh Market, the neighborhood's little food store, closed over the summer. To buy groceries, residents have to go to more-populated city neighborhoods or to the suburbs. Other neighborhood retail stores have failed, including a video store.
This is a critical juncture for forging a downtown where people live, as well as work and play, according to city planners and housing advocates. With the MCI Center, home to the city's professional basketball and hockey teams, opening Dec. 2, they say downtown is poised for a transformation into a regional entertainment center, with theme restaurants and trendy retail shops such as the Discovery Channel store coming to the MCI Center.
Yet some housing advocates fear that all the excitement could work against a living downtown. Neither the MCI Center nor the proposed convention center at Mount Vernon Square was designed with adequate parking on site, creating pressure to fill downtown with parking lots.
"Is it better for a city to create a living downtown where people live, shop and work?" said Tersh Boasberg, an arena critic who was chairman of the Zoning Commission in 1990 when it mandated downtown housing. "Or is it better for downtown to become a large parking lot for large institutional uses?"
Above the fray, on the roof of the Market Square West condominium building at 801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, life downtown seemed as rosy as the sunset. Sixty or so neighbors from five downtown residential buildings that have been developed since 1990 were gathered for the party.
Toweling off, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who lives in Market Square West, joined the group and cooed at the youngest member of the crowd, Pearl Polito, 4 months.
Pearl and her parents were among the party's recent urban homesteaders. "It's kind of been a dream of ours, to move down in the city," said Fran Polito, 39, holding Pearl and standing beside his wife, Diane, 40.
They moved from Silver Spring to the Midtown, an office building converted to residential space, where Fran is president of the condominium association. He now enjoys a five-block walk to his job as a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"I know my neighbors better now than I did in Silver Spring," said Diane Polito, who commutes to Silver Spring to her job as a hairstylist.
Moynihan has been thinking about the value of a residential downtown since he worked in the Kennedy administration. "Pennsylvania Avenue should be lively, friendly and inviting, as well as dignified and impressive, and that meant you had to have people living there," he said later in a telephone interview.
Demand remains solid for condominiums and apartments in the Pennsylvania Quarter, and values are appreciating, said Susan L. Strehlow, a Long & Foster associate broker active downtown. She said that depending on the size and quality of views of the Mall, condominiums in Market Square East and West go for $115,000 to $450,000. Condominiums in the Pennsylvania cost about $99,000 to $346,000. Apartment rents in the Lansburgh average about $1,400 a month for unfurnished one-bedrooms and $2,000 for two-bedrooms, according to Lansburgh managers.
The 79 condominiums at the Midtown were the most recent to go on sale, at prices ranging from $80,000 to about $163,000, not including parking, and about 30 percent of the buyers were from out of town, according to Ed Yorukoff, a sales agent for the property.
The out-of-town buyers were evenly split between people from the suburbs and from outside the region. The buyers were typically young professionals and couples with no children.
Young professionals also flock to the Pennsylvania Quarter, as well as older singles and couples whose children have grown up.
"For a single person coming from out of town, it was clear to me I needed to choose downtown," said Capt. Angela Horne, 34, an Army lawyer, who recently moved into the Lansburgh from overseas. "It's for people who appreciate the art and culture of D.C."
La Lena, 48, president of the residential association at the Pennsylvania and a member of the Downtown Housing Now Committee, moved from Burtonsville in Montgomery County. "First I was getting up at 5 to beat the traffic. Then I was getting up at 4:45," he said.
A "living downtown" became a buzz phrase in the early 1980s. The concept was understood to mean an active or busy downtown, with stuff to do at all hours. To have more people actually living downtown was a key component of the vision. City leaders espoused a goal of 5,400 housing units by 2000, which would have required the construction of more than 4,000 units.
Since 1980, only 1,151 units have been added. The city's Office of Planning recently acknowledged in a report that the goal of 5,400 residences will not be achieved until "well beyond the year 2000." Housing advocates seized on the admission as proof that the city's commitment to housing has been weak and that officials favored office construction, which is more profitable for developers.
John Fondersmith, the city's chief planner for downtown, responded, "We certainly feel there is a need for more housing." However, he added, "you've got to find a way to make housing happen. Just having the land zoned for it is not automatically going to create it."
Nearly all the new housing has been built with subsidies. The now-defunct federal Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. provided land at low cost for the projects in the Pennsylvania Quarter. The corporation, which Moynihan supported, is credited with overhauling the avenue, but it created less housing than its goal.
Now some developers and housing advocates are urging the D.C. Council to authorize financial tools to make housing development more attractive, such as using increased tax revenue from new construction to provide incentives for more housing. So far, no legislation has been introduced.
Some new housing is on the way. Gould Property Co. is building 86 apartments that will be open in two years at Market Square North at Ninth and D streets, on land secured with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. The company plans to build about 47 more residential units nearby.
Washington developer Herbert Miller proposes to build up to 190 units on Metro property and adjacent city property, collectively known as Square 454, just north of the MCI Center. Housing advocates expect Metro's board to decide shortly whether Miller's plan will prevail over possible nonresidential uses.
For those who live downtown, the advantages are clear.
Larry Ponsford, 57, an urban designer for the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission, said he was eager to move downtown once his children were out of school. The view from his terrace at Market Square West, where he is president of the condominium association, is an urban planner's dream, overlooking Pierre L'Enfant's grand boulevards.
"A lot of my colleagues and my friends express various fears about downtown," Ponsford said. "They make jokes about getting mugged. You can sense they're uncomfortable about being here. It's too bad, because I don't feel that way, and I wish they didn't."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company