Task Force Calls for New Downtown
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Interactive museums, top-tier retail developments and world class entertainment, serviced by a pedestrian walkway, underground parking and a street-level trolley system would form the cornerstones of a new downtown Washington.
A task force of District and federal government leaders, the Smithsonian Institution, private-sector developers and retailers will present this proposal for the revitalization of downtown at a news conference this afternoon.
The task force, commissioned by Mayor Marion Barry last spring, also has the support of the D.C. Financial Control Board.
Under the plan, the financing to turn downtown Washington into a safer and more exciting place to live, work and visit would come from private investment and from the establishment of special taxing districts. Some of the taxation proposals would require federal legislation, but similar efforts have been successful elsewhere to spur growth and investment in beleaguered inner cities.
While the task force's report is only a framework for a plan, it is building on elements already underway downtown, including the MCI Arena, a new convention center, an opera house in the former Woodward & Lothrop building and popular national retailers such as Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.
The group calls for creating museums for sports, arts, children and music, to be sponsored by private retailers and public institutions such as the Smithsonian or the Capital Children's Museum. The plan includes housing and emphasizes historic preservation. It would be geared to pedestrians and designed to draw tourists off the Mall.
Barry said yesterday he will set up a public-private governing body to oversee the development of the plan and the financing vehicles to help pay for its realization.
"These are action items that are meaningful, that you can see and touch and feel," Barry said yesterday. "Plus I'm committed to it. Unequivocally committed to it, and when I get unequivocally committed to something, like the MCI Arena, it happens."
Developers, retailers and community leaders stressed, however, that the task force's proposal is just a blueprint that will require a tremendous amount of work over the next decade to bring to fruition. All have seen task forces come and go to no effect, and they warn that even though many people support this proposal, a range of public and private participants in the nation's capital -- at the federal, local and civic level -- would need to cooperate.
"It is a huge, complicated, bold plan and it will take a lot of time," said Bob di Romualdo, chairman and chief executive of Borders Books and Music. "It has so many pieces and it's asking a lot of people to get funding and step up to the plate."
Di Romualdo, along with many of the nation's hottest retailers, was contacted by Herbert S. Miller, the local developer who built the Georgetown Park and Potomac Mills malls and who is chairman of the task force. Despite his skepticism, di Romualdo was immediately interested. "Downtown D.C. clearly has tremendous potential, and it's obviously a downtown area that we'd be very interested in," he said.
That kind of interest in the District is representative of the new attitude many retailers and major entertainment companies have about urban development. In San Francisco, New York and Chicago, movie studios and retailers have created major retail/entertainment districts that have been wildly popular with tourists, suburban residents and aging baby boomers tired of the same old shopping malls.
In virtually every instance, they have been public-private partnerships in which cities and states have worked with corporations to revitalize distressed downtowns, said Rich Bradley, president of the International Downtown Association and a member of the task force.
"A lot of this plan is based on the fact that this is working in other places," Bradley said. "I think there's a recognition that the economy of the city is dependent on this kind of development."
Perhaps the best sign that the task force's efforts are happening at the right time is the strong interest expressed in Washington by major entertainment conglomerates and movie studios. Sony Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Universal Studios have all held meetings with task force leaders and are actively considering downtown Washington for retail development.
"I think the principal thing here is the role the private sector is expected to play and is contemplating playing," said Derek Q. Johnson, vice president of Time Warner, who is working on the company's efforts to create retail/entertainment developments in urban centers.
Michael Swinney, president of Sony development, said the task force has provided the "cohesion and vision" that Sony looks for when considering building massive complexes that combine the electronics and entertainment sides of the giant company.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company