A 'Living Downtown' Needs Places to Live
By Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr.
Give it time. But in the end, market forces and serendipity may be the determining factors in creating a more vibrant downtown. Until then, the planning, zoning and development follies that we've witnessed over the past 20 years will continue to shape the downtown core.
The flap over disclosures that downtown developers are meeting with members of Congress to discuss their projects is merely part of that tired, old routine in which political influence determines land-use policy, and ad hoc development becomes a substitute for planning.
Whether the National Capital Revitalization Corp., the new super-economic development agency being proposed, can do much to change that remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, it should be obvious by now that downtown revitalization need not and should not be the primary focus of economic development in the District. Instead, the emphasis in economic development needs to be on education, housing and business attraction.
Downtown development will occur on its own. The Utopian downtown envisioned by some city officials and business leaders may not be possible but there clearly is momentum there for achieving the mix of uses that the Greater Washington Board of Trade suggested 18 years ago in a seminal report, Downtown: A People Place.
That report called for a public policy supporting a mix of office buildings, department stores, hotels, small retail establishments, residences, theaters, the arts and other forms of entertainment in the downtown area. And it became the basis for the downtown section of the District's Comprehensive Plan, a document that has drawn little more than a wink and a nod from city officials since it was adopted.
With some minor revisions, the Board of Trade report and the comprehensive plan can be resurrected as outlines for a downtown revitalization plan. But that would be much too simple for a city in which nothing gets done unless some type of commission or blue-ribbon panel is appointed to recommend a course of action.
As it is, no fewer than six groups have assumed responsibility for downtown revitalization or been asked to recommend a strategy for proceeding. Included in that group are the Interactive Downtown Task Force; the Downtown Business Improvement District; the Washington Center for Alliance; the Federal City Council and its offshoot, D.C. Agenda; and the National Capital Revitalization Corp., if Congress approves it.
All claim to want the same result but seem to be working toward different goals that may or may not coincide with those already established by office developers, the downtown housing lobby, entertainment retail advocates and groups that wish to have more traditional retail stores added to the mix.
With the exception of housing, those pieces are beginning to fall into place downtown, different agendas and circumvention of the comprehensive plan notwithstanding.
MCI Center obviously is a huge success but that's only part of the story of the revival in development and resurgence in interest in that part of the city.
Walk around downtown and you'll find that new office buildings and big-name law firms aren't the only new kids on the block. Yes, that's a new Ann Taylor store across the street from Banana Republic and, yes, Filene's Basement is about to open a store nearby.
Hamilton Square -- in the space of the old Garfinckel's store -- is being redeveloped for office and retail tenants. Ground has just been broken for the start of construction on three new projects, one of which will contain an eight-screen theater. Elsewhere, restaurateurs are opening new entrants from Seventh Street NW to 14th Street.
While construction downtown doesn't compare with the explosive output of the 1980s, activity there has picked up considerably since the downturn of the early 1990s. So it's really disingenuous to talk about the need to revitalize downtown.
Revitalization is occurring even if the master plan isn't being followed.
Housing, nevertheless, continues to be the missing element essential to creating a living downtown. Although private developers have announced plans to include residential units in a couple of projects, no new housing has been built downtown beyond the jurisdiction of the former Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.
"What you need to do is exploit those government-owned sites and use them for housing as preferred development," said Thomas W. Wilbur, president of the John Akridge Cos.
Clearly, that's where the D.C. government can make a difference. But until it does, the living downtown concept will remain just that.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company