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  •   D.C. Center Could Expand Underground

    Map of convention center site.

    By David Montgomery
    and Judith Evans

    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, May 27, 1998; Page A01

    Responding to criticism that the proposed new Washington Convention Center could prove to be too small, planners yesterday unveiled a $750 million plan to replace the existing convention center with a complex of hotels and an additional underground exhibition hall that would be connected to the new center.

    The proposed center at Mount Vernon Square would have 725,000 square feet of exhibition space, which critics say is not enough to meet possible future demand. The plan announced yesterday calls for an underground hall with 320,000 square feet of space beneath the site of the existing center at 10th and H streets NW. A tunnel under New York Avenue between the two sites would be about 500 feet long, or less than a block.

    The proposal would be dependent on $140 million in private money to lease the property from the city, and that money could be used to finance construction of the exhibit hall and tunnel. To completely develop three above-ground hotels, shops and theaters would cost another estimated $610 million in private money, the source of which has not been identified.

    A Washington Post report Tuesday quoted industry experts as saying an inability to expand the proposed center at Mount Vernon Square was a major flaw in the $685 million project. Even the city's consultants have said the center could begin to approach full capacity just more than 10 years after it opens in 2002.

    "You've raised expansion as an issue," Terence C. Golden, chairman of the Washington Convention Center Authority, said in an interview with Post reporters yesterday. "This squarely addresses that. I think it ought to put it to an end."

    Project managers said they had intended to present the proposal Friday at the final D.C. Council hearing on financing the new center but The Post's report prompted them to disclose it yesterday. Golden said managers were aware that the report was being prepared and he should have released the information to the reporters earlier.

    Critics said the proposal represents a last-ditch attempt to solve the space problem.

    "This is like a deathbed conversion 48 hours before they go up for public hearings," said Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy group that has criticized the Mount Vernon Square site as too small. "They fly a totally untested, unexamined scheme to satisfy what is an overwhelming need for meaningful expansion."

    The new plan might solve some of the problems with the Mount Vernon Square site, said Robert Harar, chairman of National Trade Productions in Alexandria, who was quoted in Tuesday's story as saying Washington would be "back to square one in a few years" if it did not find a larger site.

    "It certainly helps," Harar said yesterday. "In the long run, what was lacking was an overall vision for the city. . . . They're trying to make the best of what they have."

    The Post report also said the center would cost more per square foot -- $296 -- than comparable projects in nine cities that are Washington's chief competitors for convention business. Costs are rising for the Mount Vernon Square proposal because the relatively small site requires one exhibition hall to be entirely underground.

    Under the plan released yesterday, the District would have two huge underground exhibition halls. At least three hotels, shops, theaters, restaurants and a 2,000-car parking garage eventually could be built to replace the existing center. Tenth and I streets NW, which were closed to build the 16-year-old existing center, could be reopened.

    A structural platform and pillars would be constructed to support the development. Excavation and construction of the exhibition hall could proceed in future years as needed, said Golden, president and chief executive of Host Marriott Corp. in Bethesda.

    "The long-term expansion needs of the convention center also need to be taken into consideration," Golden said. "If we're going to expand this center in the future, why not pay for it with private dollars?"

    The Mount Vernon Square site cannot easily be expanded because it is surrounded by homes, businesses and historic sites. Critics have raised the issue for more than a year, but planners have consistently responded that the new center would be big enough.

    Yesterday's proposal marked a change in strategy. Golden said he still believes the Mount Vernon Square site is "perfectly adequate for the foreseeable future," but he said the proposal should silence critics.

    Golden said architects designing the new center started sketching the proposal nearly two months ago and it has taken this long to get the concept ready.

    The idea began to take shape March 12 during a closed-door meeting in the office of council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large). The meeting included representatives of the authority and critics of the project from the Committee of 100.

    The critics raised the issue of the difficulty of expanding the center, and Cropp asked the convention center authority if it could study the option of building a new hall under the existing center and digging a tunnel to the new site.

    "It was always in the back of people's minds," Golden said.

    Cropp applauded the plan yesterday but said project planners should have come up with the idea earlier. "It seems to me feasibility does exist for more expansion," she said.

    Other council members were skeptical.

    "They're confirming everybody's worst suspicions that this convention center won't be big enough on its own to support conventions in the future," said council member David Catania (R-At Large), an outspoken critic of the project. "That's why they've proposed this."

    Catania said project managers were leaving city residents no time to study the new proposal before the public's last chance to comment at Friday's hearing.

    The convention center authority has no control over the future of the existing building, on which the city still owes $67 million in debt payments. The council ultimately would decide the best use of the property once a new center is built.

    Golden said this conceptual design could achieve another critical goal: improving economic development downtown.

    The hotels, restaurants, shopping and entertainment could make the best use of a valuable location, he said, and the additional 3,200 hotel rooms would keep more convention guests in the city rather than sending them to suburban hotels.

    "We've got to maximize the economic impact of the center on the District," Golden said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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