Downtown Task Force Dreams Big
By Benjamin Forgey
Our tarnished but cherished jewel of a downtown, desperately in need of a big gift in this, or any, season, got one last week in the form of "A Vision and Action Plan to Revitalize the Heart of Washington, D.C."
True, this phrase is just words, and they are attached to nothing more than pieces of paper. Specifically, to a glossy booklet produced by the Interactive Downtown Task Force, a volunteer group formed last spring at the behest of Mayor Marion Barry.
It would be easy, and not entirely incorrect, to characterize the report as a Christmas list rather than a gift outright. It could ultimately take a place on the rather large shelf of yellowing downtown documents, each as well-intended as the one before.
But we should all do our best to make sure this doesn't happen, for many, many people have a stake. Making the downtown a vital center once again is important not only to the District but also to the nation. Washington isn't just any old city.
This doesn't mean that the task force's work is a panacea, or that all of its visions are appealing, or its strategies sound. Quite the contrary. With its emphasis on subsidized private development and information-age entertainments, the report might nearly have been authored by a cyborg buccaneer. Many of the goals it sets are hyperbolic and vague.
Clearly, the plan needs close -- but not mean-spirited -- scrutiny. It would be foolish to deny that there are genuine gifts in its words.
The big gift is something quite simple, yet of great value: a positive attitude. With all the bad stuff that has happened recently to the city -- outrageous crime, declining population, retail flight, local government mismanagement, federal government hostility and so on -- a climate of pervasive pessimism has set in. But not all of that negativism is justified.
Downtown, with all of its problems, remains one of the city's strengths. The "old" downtown east of 15th Street NW, in particular, is a place of character, with handsome, wide streets bordered by historic properties and excellent new architecture. Well served by Metro, its office buildings remain among the more sought-after in the region, and its cultural and entertainment facilities are holding steady or picking up.
The downtown task force acknowledged these strengths with a splashy, upbeat, inventive, ambitious set of proposals. The group said, in essence, that a lot of good things should, can and will happen in this place. Refreshing thoughts.
Furthermore, the group did not try to end-run the city government or ignore existing policies. Rather, it wisely decided to build upon the assumptions of the city's comprehensive plan for downtown and the five-year-old mixed-use zoning regulations known as the Downtown Development District.
Indeed, the task force recognized that mixing uses is the key to vibrant urban life. Chairman Herbert S. Miller, the charismatic entrepreneur (he developed Georgetown Park and Potomac Mills, among other things), was overstating the case when he called the old downtown "nothing more than a glorified office park."
But the juicy exaggeration highlights a truth: In the downtown planning wars of the past two decades, office developers have pretty much had their way. Other land uses -- residences, stores, arts, you name it -- have been squeezed into new developments only with great difficulty. While these battles were being fought, downtown's residential population was displaced and its major retailers went south -- and north, east and west.
Not surprisingly, given his background, Miller's task force addressed the retail issue most aggressively. The plan's main thrust -- its big, interactive idea -- is to lure new capital and new life to the region's core in the form of large new entertainment-retail-restaurant destinations combining computer technologies with popular themes like sports or movies.
Not only is this a big idea, it also is a good fit for downtown. To be sure, it serves Miller's business interests. He wants to build one or two of these places. Already, he is a bidder to develop a key downtown site, proposing to put something called Sports World USA on the long-vacant, publicly owned property on Seventh Street NW between H Street in Chinatown and the northern edge of MCI Arena.
One good explanation for the interest shown by Miller and corporations such as Sony, Nike and others is the same reason that Bullets-Caps owner Abe Pollin decided to build the MCI Arena downtown -- it is the geographical heart of the region, and thus equally accessible from all points. And there are all those tourists.
A key objective for downtown businesses and planners for decades has been to capture a substantial portion of the 20 million annual visitors to the federal attractions on the Mall, but it didn't happen even when there was a lively retail trade. The massive Federal Triangle stands in the way.
Yet a clustering of these new attractions downtown, where land remains plentiful, would do a lot to bridge this barrier between city and Mall. It might also prevent a key upcoming headache: finding a use for the existing convention center when it is abandoned a few years from now for a new building in another location.
And the task force also is right when it insists that even more variety should be added to the mix. The report is filled to the brim -- or maybe a bit over -- with inventive proposals for other key downtown sites: To make the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art a more lively centerpiece on Eighth Street; to add a globally connected auditorium (the Music Dome) to the proposed new convention center north of Mount Vernon Square; to develop an American Sports Museum; to move the National Children's Museum to a central location from its out-of-the-way spot in Northeast.
All of these proposals would be better than business as usual, which is to hold onto property until the time comes (if ever) to put up another office building. Each should be thoughtfully considered.
Nor should the report's contributions to the think-big school of planning be lightly dismissed. (Some ideas, however, have more potential than others.) It would be great to have a professional baseball stadium and team in Washington, maybe even downtown as proposed. It would be smart to provide surface mass transit -- a trolley, perhaps -- for downtown visitors and residents. It would make sense to build parking structures for all of this new activity, although a 10,000- to-15,000-car underground garage (a k a the Intermodal Transportation Center) seems a stretch, or maybe even a nightmare. And though it would be swell to capitalize on Washington's position as a center of world banking, the proposed seven-block World Town, built atop the parking garages, seems more like a private kingdom than part of a real city.
Detachment from the real Washington -- however one defines that elusive quality -- is one of this vision's biggest dangers. Promising too much is another major fault. The total absence of architectural substance is another. The lack of a believable social commitment is yet another.
These are significant drawbacks. All are apparent in the way the report deals with housing. Great center cities the world over depend on close-in housing for their vibrancy. Except for the nurturing neighborhood on the south at Pennsylvania Avenue, a tiny enclave in Chinatown and the ragged southern edges of Shaw to the north, Washington's downtown is almost completely depopulated.
In response, the report sets an ambitious goal -- it promises to produce 2,000 new residences in the heart of downtown, and 3,000 more just to the north -- more than doubling the number of existing units. But it does not say with any clarity or resolution how these residences would be paid for, who would build them, and specifically where they would be.
It seems to me I've heard this song before. Every developer sings it, until it comes to his particular piece of property. Then, my, what difficulties arise, what impossibilities! For this reason, among many others, this latest gift to the District should be very carefully unwrapped. But not returned.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company