Office vacancies are at an all-time high, construction employment is down dramatically and dozens of building projects are delayed, deferred or dead on the drawing board after one of the toughest years ever for District of Columbia developers.
Yet 1982 will be remembered as a vintage year for Washington's master builders, a year that produced some of the best private buildings since the downtown development boom began 25 years ago.
Walk around downtown some day, take a look at the newest buildings and say thanks to Oliver T. Carr, Theodore N. Lerner and Albert Abramson and a handful of other developers for what they created in 1982.
Nothing built in the District last year can approach the impact on the city's future of the new D.C. Convention Center, but private developers have greatly enriched the urban fabric in the past 12 months.
Lerner and Abramson's Washington Square at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW is surely Washington's building of the year, an honor that should not detract from the excellence of the Carr Company's most recent works, Metropolitan Square at 14th and G streets NW and International Square at 19th Street between K and I streets NW.
Other important additions to the cityscape include Prudential's Van Ness Station office building at 4250 Connecticut Ave. in the University of the District of Columbia complex; Quadrangle Development's office and hotel project in partnership with Marriott Corp. at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street and Lincoln Properties tiny gem of an office building on Connecticut Avenue above Dupont Circle.
These structures stand out not for what they mean to the art of architecture, but for what they say about the state of the art of development in Washington. Unlike paintings, buildings are rarely created as pure expressions of art. Building buildings is a business, but the craft of construction is practiced at an extraordinary level in these new develpments.
Architect Chlothiel Woodward Smith wrapped Washington Square in the same pink marble used on the new Hart Senate Office Building, which also opened last month. Both buildings are short of tenants, but there the similarity ends.
The Hart building is a legend of bureaucratic bungling, sloppy construction management, missed deadlines and cost overruns. Washington Square is an epic of private enterprise efficiency and excellence.
The Hart Building by John Carl Warnecke took 10 years and $137 million to complete; Smith's much larger Washington Square came in eight years faster, at least $35 million cheaper and is a better building.
While Congress set out to build a monument that was coincidentally an office building, Lerner and Abramson ordered up an office building and knowingly made it a monument as well. Washington Square will stamp the developers' imprint on downtown as indelibly as the shopping centers they built at White Flint and Tysons Corner have changed the map of the suburbs.
Marble that ordinarily only the government could afford, flawless glass sheets imported from England and superb attention to detail have been invested in what was the best building site west of the White House.
The shimmering tower at the corner of Connecticut Avenue begs you to bend your neck and at the very top--above the transparent atrium--is a breathtaking room, wrapped in glass on three sides. The room at the top of Washington Square's tower is probably the most expensive space you could rent in Washington and (if you can sneak up there) you'll probably think it's worth it.
Like Washington Square, the Oliver T. Carr Company's International Square is a mammoth building, too big some will say. While Washington Square's atrium serves as a jeweled entry tower, International Square's inner courtyard is tucked like a geode into the massive building.
The undulating strata of its exposed concrete structure make International Square a rock of a building among the folded cardboard boxes of K Street. While many of its neighboring buildings seem to have been built from the top down, with doors stuck into the bottom layer as an afterthought, architect Vlastimil Koubek created strong roots and real entrances for International Square. The layers of cement are notched away at the northwest and southeast corners of the building and the K Street facade is supported on contemporary concrete columns.
Along the I Street side, the alternating layers of glass and concrete precisely parallel the brick and glass ribbons of the World Bank building on the south side of the street.
International Square's interior courtyard is not so sleek as the atrium of the Heurich Building, which opened last year on Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street, but it is more welcoming and warm.
(The ultimate local favorite among atria will surely be the inner court of the old Post Office at 13th and Penn which was restored recently and will be rebuilt as a restaurant and recreational complex this year.)
Oliver Carr's recently completed Metropolitan Square is the city's most unfairly maligned building, the victim of a bad rap from the pseudo-preservationists who want to rebuild Rhodes Tavern from the rafters down and pretend it is an architecturally significant remnant.
Ignore Rhodes Tavern and look instead at the glistening facades of the Keith Albee Building that now form the 15th Street front of Metropolitan Square. The elegant white stone of the old buildings blends beautifully with J. H. DeSibour's post-modern design along 14th and G streets.
No new building in Washington fits so well into its neighborhood as Metropolitan Square. Neither the U.S. Treasury across the street nor Garfinckel's next door suffers from this new neighbor.
Though it is presumptuous to judge a building before it is completed, National Place, the Quadrangle-Marriott project on Pennsylvania Avenue, probably will turn out to be the District's most significant project of 1983.
Another megablock, National Place includes the J. Willard Marriott hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania, office structures that stretch diagonally through the block to 13th and F streets and an interior retail complex.
Besides their implicit competence, there is another element that links all these successful new projects. All are symbols of the maturing of their developers and the city.
Neither Carr nor Lerner and Abramson nor any of the other developers could have built so well 10 or 20 years ago. Nor would the city have expected it of them.
Building offices in downtown Washington was like putting up ranch houses in Fairfax then but now it is more than that. The city is a proven success. The job no longer is to provide more office space or to create a core of commerce in the federal city.
Washington's developers today are building a world capital, creating a city for the 21st century. Their best projects of the past year show the builders are rising to the challenge. What is important now is that those same high standards be maintained as the focus of development moves east from Connecticut Avenue and north from Pennsylvania Avenue into the old downtown.