In pulling the plug on the proposed intermodal transportation center D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has created an opportunity for his administration to assert its leadership in formulating a cohesive redevelopment plan for the area east of Mount Vernon Square.
Noting strong opposition from environmentalists, community leaders and residents living near the site of the proposed ITC, Williams recently directed the Department of Public Works to withdraw a request for proposals to do further studies.
The ITC proposal called for construction of a 7,200-space underground parking garage and transportation depot with connections to buses, Metro and trolley services east of the new convention center being built at Mount Vernon Square.
Proponents of the ITC said it would complement the new convention center and facilitate the movement of thousands of visitors downtown. Even so, the ITC's most ardent supporters considered it the linchpin in the development of a baseball stadium and international trade center that developers planned to build above the ITC.
Williams deserves credit for derailing this bureaucratic runaway train that left the station before he became mayor. How it ever got this far without benefit of a public hearing or scrutiny by senior government officials is beyond comprehension.
Douglas Patton, the District's deputy mayor for economic development, supports the concept underlying the ITC but suggested several weeks ago that it would have been better to study several sites as alternatives. That feeling is shared by council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chairman of the committee on public works and the environment, and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), in whose ward the ITC would have been built.
Now that Williams has all but eliminated the Mount Vernon Square East site from consideration, he ought to consider amending the city's comprehensive plan.
An amendment tacked onto the plan late last year merely urges support for a multi-modal transportation center east of Mount Vernon Square, between Fourth and Sixth streets NW, and north of Massachusetts Avenue. Even though that amendment falls short of stating the District will in fact build the ITC at that location, it is nevertheless indicative of the council's intent when it approved it.
But as Chairman Linda Cropp noted in December, prior to Williams's inauguration, the mayor may initiate the comprehensive planning process at any time by submitting an amendment to the council.
The timing couldn't be better, given the fact that Williams recently selected a new director of planning for the city.
Besides, the comprehensive plan is ambivalent on the subject of development in the area in question. Despite noting support for the ITC, the plan also calls for support of "a mixed use character" of residential and commercial development along Massachusetts Avenue between Second and Seventh streets NW.
That much is consistent with the land-use policy that has been in place for years. Indeed, the current comprehensive plan acknowledges that some of the 6,700 housing units projected for construction downtown would be built in the Mount Vernon Square area north of Massachusetts Avenue.
Surely those projections were based on the assumption that people living in those units would have access to neighborhood retail outlets. But, of course, that's not even an option for people who live in that area today.
With the collapse of the ITC proposal, Williams now has the leverage he needs, not only to correct that shortcoming but to put his mark on the redevelopment of the triangular-shaped area east of Mount Vernon Square.
Safeway Inc., which developed a model neighborhood retail center in Southeast Washington two years ago, has expressed interest in opening more stores in the city. The District, meanwhile, owns a 3.2-acre parcel east of Mount Vernon Square, in the triangle formed by New York and Massachusetts avenues.
A neighborhood retail center anchored by a Safeway supermarket at that location would be a welcome addition for residents of the Shaw and Chinatown communities, among others. It's certainly food for thought as the mayor and his aides prepare to meet with Safeway officials to discuss the company's expansion plans.
Meanwhile, it's still possible to build an intermodal transportation center in the the city without adding to traffic congestion and making a mockery of environmental laws by funneling thousands of vehicles into the heart of downtown.
Clearly that can be accomplished by building an intermodal transportation center on land just north of Union Station, or by using the air rights over tracks behind the station. The logic of having an ITC only a few steps removed from an intercity bus terminal and Union station, which provides access to AMTRAK, MARC and VRE trains as well as Metrorail, should be self-evident.
There was in fact a proposal five years ago to build a 3 million-square-foot intermodal transportation center, north of Union Station, on adjacent sites owned by the District and CSX Corp., totaling 13.3 acres.
It's time the District resurrected that proposal.