Last week's decision by developer Giusepepe Cecchi to build Techworld under existing zoning regulations effectively ends a protracted struggle that pitted proponents of economic development against preservationist groups.
If Cecchi is correct in asserting that he can commence construction on the massive mixed-use project as a matter of right under existing zoning regulations, the District will soon gain a major generator of tax revenue and jobs, albeit two years later than originally planned.
"This approval process, with its ups and downs and its controversy is over, finished," Cecchi declared last week. "From now on, the only news you will hear from Techworld will be about progress."
Assuming that Cecchi's decision and confident prediction will hold up, a slightly scaled-down version of Techworld will contain all of the major components and amenities that were included in plans that were unveiled 20 months ago. In addition to the controversial high-technology merchandising and trade center (hence, the name Techworld), the project will include a major convention hotel, offices and retail space.
"We are not doing anything other than what is permissible under existing zoning," insisted R. Robert Linowes, whose law firm, Linowes and Blocher, is representing Cecchi in the matter.
It's possible that opponents of Techworld may launch some last-ditch effort to thwart Cecchi's plans. The District would be the loser if that were to happen.
Besides contributing to the revitalization of a badly deteriorated area around the Washington Convention Center, Techworld will provide extensive job opportunities and contribute an estimated $15 million annually in tax revenue to the District. Cecchi, in fact, has guaranteed employment for hundreds of D.C. residents, along with special training opportunities related to high-tech jobs at the trade and merchandise mart for the high technology- and telecommunications industries.
But for nearly two years, Cecchi has been forced to put the project on hold as opponents mounted a nit-picking, obstructionist campaign in the name of preservation.
The D.C. Zoning Commission, after requiring Cecchi to modify plans for Techworld, eventually approved the project. But when Cecchi went before the zoning commission again and asked for additional concessions to complete the project, the panel rebuffed him on most of his requests.
Cecchi had sought, for example, a major concession from the commission when he recently asked to be released from a rigid requirement that calls for part of the complex to be used in perpetuity as a high-technology trade and exhibit center. Obtaining financing for the project under such a stricture would be difficult, he had argued.
Now that Cecchi has decided to proceed under existing zoning regulations, it is his contention that his firm, International Developers Inc., is no longer bound by several conditions imposed by the zoning commission.
By proceeding under "matter-of-right" zoning, he would be carrying out plans that already have been approved by elected city officials and the zoning commission. Cecchi's plans for Techworld have the strong endorsement of the Barry administration, as well as enthusiastic support of community groups such as Shaw-Pac and the nearby Chinese community.
Nonetheless, the project has been needlessly delayed by 18th century paternalistic views of what is best for the District.
To begin with, Cecchi was forced to substitute a radically new design for Techworld because the original didn't suit a minority's concept of what would be aesthetically pleasing. The original design was variously criticized for being too bulky, too radical, not in the federal interest and incompatible with surrounding structures. Aside from the convention center, the only viable surrounding structure is the Carnegie Library.
Cecchi's approved plan to close Eighth Street NW, convert it to a pedestrian plaza and connect the project's two main sections with an enclosed bridge 65 feet above the street drew the biggest protest, however. Critics contend the bridge would destroy a vista that Pierre L'Enfant had envisioned between the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square and the National Museum of American Art on G Street NW.
The much-debated vista has long since been marred by the deterioration of the area but nobody seemed to care until IDI offered to build Techworld. What vista there might have been is framed by dilapidated structures and is visible mostly to an unfortunate band of street people, winos, addicts and rodents. Only after the parcels in question were cleared for convention-center parking and land assembly began for Techworld did the vista become so vital to the L'Enfant plan.
Cecchi's decision to proceed with Techworld should make all of that moot and contribute to the economic vitality of the area in question.
Touche', Mr. Cecchi