Investment by the private sector in that part of the District known as Downtown East is unquestionably the key to the city's long-range plans and hopes for a so-called living downtown.
Indeed, private sector initiative east of 15th Street NW, though belatedly undertaken in the past three or four years, has triggered the start of what the city's administration projects as a "dynamic new era for downtown Washington."
Revitalizing the traditional commercial center of the city is, at the moment, the heart of the District's fledgling economic development program. Differences over the city's economic development strategies aside, private-sector commercial development in Downtown East is the only game in town right now and should be encouraged.
But a U.S. district judge's ruling last week favoring a diehard preservationist group is anything but encouraging for developers of a project that has been described as the gateway to Downtown East. In a broader sense, Judge Thomas F. Flannery's ruling temporarily barring the District from issuing a permit to demolish Rhodes Tavern seriously undermines the spirit of the District's effort to encourage development.
Moreover, it's possible that that ruling could have a chilling effect on other developers whose plans may hinge on preservation considerations. Encouraged by the obstructionist tactics that have delayed development of the Rhodes Tavern site, anyone acting in the name of preservation could tie up other projects in the courts for years. To be sure, historic merit is a valid reason for blocking development in some cases.
In the present case, however, the public's interest isn't being served by holding up completion of a major mixed-use project that will produce substantial revenues for the city and likely spur further development.
And that, after all, is what is at stake in this case--the public's interest. That is what voters in the District will be asked to decide in a referendum next November as a result of Flannery's decision.
Flannery's decision "has vindicated citizens' right to vote," declared a leader of the crusade to save Rhodes Tavern. But that was never the issue until the Save the Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee made it so in a last-ditch attempt to overturn a previous court ruling upholding a decision to issue a demolition permit.
Most in the emotionalism and politics surrounding the historic merit of Rhodes Tavern is the fact that this nondescript building bears little trace of the original structure. Serious damage to the integrity of the building has occurred over the years, especially in the 1950s when part of it was razed.
The plain truth is that Rhodes Tavern--touted as the oldest commercial building in downtown Washington and the city's first town hall--was allowed to fall into disrepair and not a single voice was raised to save it from further deterioration after the last tenants departed.
Enter the Oliver T. Carr Co. in 1975 when not even a pot of gold could lure major developers east of 15th Street. Washington's future as a viable commercial center lay in development of the entire downtown area, the company's president Oliver T. Carr Jr. had concluded.
"He had determined that the Willard Hotel and the Garfinckel (the department store at 14th and F Streets NW) block would be the gateway to the East End," says Michael McGowan, director of development for the Carr Co.
Carr subsequently purchased a group of four buildings in the block bounded by 14th, 15th and F and G streets NW and commissioned two architectural firms to determine the viability of preserving all or any of the landmark structures.
Unsuccessful in attempts to secure public funds for preservation of landmarks on the site, Carr proceeded with plans to demolish portions of the Keith-Albee and National Metropolitan Bank buildings. The D.C. Superior Court ruled in 1979 that Carr could proceed with demolition in the wake of the city's inability to secure funding for preservation.
But Carr entered into an agreement with District officials and the preservationist group, Don't Tear It Down, to build a 12-story office and retail complex, incorporating the beaux arts facades of the Keith-Albee and bank building. The agreement also called for Carr to relocate the exterior of the Old Ebbitt Grill in the new complex.
Recommendations by the Historic Review Board on the project's design proposal were followed by hearings that concluded with an order to issue demolition permits.
In what should have been the fitting climax to one of the most exhaustive review processes in the history of Washington, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the decision to issue demolition permits after finding that District officials had properly weighed the historic value of Rhodes Tavern.
More than three years later, the first phase of Metropolitan Square is nearly completed but two years behind schedule. Meanwhile, it's "costing us about $17,000 a day to delay construction on phase two," McGowan estimates.
In the meantime, Carr's plans to link phase two to an atrium with access to Garfinckel is on hold, also delaying renovation plans by Garfinckel.
The recent downturn in the economy has played a major part in the glut of office space in new buildings in Downtown East. But part of the problem can also be attributed to a great reluctance by some office users to lease space in that part of town which lacks many of the amenities and prestige of the West End.
With about 70 percent of the space in Metropolitan Square either occupied or committed to prestigious local and national tenants, there is ample reason to believe that it will stimulate further interest in other East End buildings.
In the meantime, Metropolitan Square itself is in limbo, with a distinct possibility of having to be drastically altered to accommodate a nondescript building of dubious historical significance.
In a city where tax revenues have been declining, residents should vote to put the wrecking ball to Rhodes Tavern while supporting what's in their best interest--a thriving commercial center, jobs and additional tax revenues.