An apparent obsession with form over function is a luxury the District cannot afford if it hopes to keep pace with suburban jurisdictions by broadening its economic base.
But prolonged delays in the approval process for major commercial projects and superfluous nitpicking about form are the rule in the District. And there is very little to suggest that the state of affairs will change soon.
In the meantime, job growth in the District continues to decline and the pace of economic development lags. The city's administration often is frustrated in pursuit of its goals as a result of the whims of preservationists and those charged with "protecting" the federal interest.
It is really more than a dichotomy over form and function that stifles economic development in the District. It is a clash between a 19th- century philosophy of how the city should look and a more realistic vision of the present and the 21st century.
To be sure, there are real estate developers who, left unchallenged, would lay waste to order, scale and neighborhoods in the city in pursuit of the almighty dollar. But needlessly delaying or rejecting reasonable development plans that can produce substantial tax revenue and jobs fails to protect either federal or local interests.
Take the case of Techworld, a $240 million mixed-use complex that International Developers Inc. plans to build on a two-block site opposite the Washington Convention Center. Plans for the hotel and high-technology trade mart complex were announced almost a year ago, but approval of those plans has been delayed by the usual ponderous process in which form seems to matter more than function.
IDI's original plans for one of the most ambitious commercial projects ever proposed for the District provided for a 950-room convention hotel, 1 million square feet of display and office space, and about 50,000 square feet of retail space. The imposing high-tech design of the project immediately triggered alarms at the National Capital Planning Commission and the D.C. Zoning Commission.
If built as planned, Techworld could establish "devastating" precedents for private development in the city, the NCPC staff asserted. Critics worried about the bulk and scale of the project. Preservationists denounced elements of the plans that they fear will ruin the vista between Mount Vernon Square and the National Portrait Gallery.
IDI relented and redesigned the complex, but the NPCP staff recommended a thumbs down on the revised proposal. And even though IDI President Giuseppe Cecchi sounded optimistic last week about the chances for approval of his slightly-scaled-down plans, the outlook for beginning construction in early 1985 is not good.
Techworld is "ready to go and to start producing" benefits for the neighborhood adjacent to the convention center, for the District and for the region, Cecchi proclaimed last week during a briefing at which revised plans for Techworld were unveiled.
Cecchi's friends had better warn him not to hold his breath while he waits for approval by the NCPC and the zoning commission. The idealism expressed in his publicly stated commitment to provide jobs, training programs and business opportunities for D.C. residents counts very little in the debate over form.
It matters little that Cecchi projects that tax revenue from Techworld will exceed $15 million annually; that as many as 5,000 persons are expected to work in the trade center; that an additional 1,300 employes will be required to maintain and operate the complex, or that a daily average of 300 construction workers will be required for four years to complete the project.
What matters most, it seems, is Techworld's bulk and the perception by some that it will diminish a vista that is largely unnoticed and presently framed by scattered and dilapidated structures.
The critical issue in the long run is not so much the aesthetic design of Techworld (the convention center itself wouldn't qualify if that were the standard), but what it ultimately will mean to the city's commercial and economic growth.
The jury is still out on the viability of trade marts for high-technology products and services. Nonetheless, metropolitan Washington has emerged as one of the most competitive regions in the race to attract high-technology companies. And sooner or later, Montgomery County, Fairfax County or Prince George's County will beckon to some developer to build a high-tech trade mart on an attractive site near a Metro station in the suburbs.
Only dollars, jobs and prestige will matter there -- not bulk and vistas.