Gazing into the 80's -- the seasonal pastime -- Interior Secretary Cecil B. Andrus can see a wall of ugly skyscrapers on the Washington horizon, polluting the magnificent vista of the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial and desecrating Arlington Cemetery.
Andrus recently lost a lawsuit to stop a 28-story sky blight now under construction in Rosslyn, across the Potomac. More such monsters are on the drawing boards. Arlington County was found to have no legal obligation to protect the historic image, dignity, strength or vitality of the nation's capital.
Most people in Washington and some people elsewhere share Secretary Andrus' frustration. An impressive array of planning officials, politicians and citizen leaders from different parts of the country answered his call for a two-day symposium on protecting and guiding Washington's future. It was held last week with scholastic diligence amid the monastic grace of Dumbarton Oaks.
There were some 20 official participants and an equal number of observers -- government staff members and invited guests -- who cheered and talked from the sidelines.
Yes, it had all been said before. There was nothing startling about the list of the city's social and esthetic problems or the reiteration of the truism that no city is an island, that urban problems can be solved only in the context of close regional cooperation. u
There was nothing new about the old need for historic preservation and continuity, the need to keep greedy developers in check and to let people have a voice in decisions affecting their homes and their lives.
No, there was no dramatic resolve, no clarion call or manifesto. Andrus promised to publish an "action agenda" as soon as the transcript of the discussions can be distilled. But that is not likely to add up to a plan of the kind that "stirs men's blood," as turn-of-the-century architect-planner Daniel Burnham said a good plan ought to.
What came out of Dumbarton Oaks was much more important than the promise of another document or another commission to be ignored or compromised.
For the first time here or in any other city, I believe, people who are concerned and in a position to make or influence urban policy did not just convene -- they talked to one another and the listened to one another.
It was not just chitchat to get acquainted. It was serious, unrehearsed, thorough-going discussion of the issues and challenges confronting this capital as a city and this city as a capital.
City person Peggy Cooper, who heads the municipal arts and humanities program, carried as much weight as federal official George White, the architect of the Capitol. The modern views of David Childs, the architect who heads the National Capital Planning Commission, were balanced by the perspective of Conrad Wirth, former director of the National Park Service who served in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We have programs enough. What the Andrus meeting created is a network of people who can and want to make the programs, guidelines, plans and policy papers work properly.
Even professional citizen representatives such as Leila Smith of Don't Tear It Down, the activist historic preservation group, and Grosvenor Chapman of the Georgetown Citizen Association, both official symposium participants, will now surely feel themselves a working part of this network.
If Dumbarton Oaks did not discover a magic formula that will get every Washingtonian decently housed, it did discover that there is no serious argument between the city government and the federal government about what Washington and its region ought to be. That was surprising. That was new.
Secretary Andrus, who urged planning, and Mayor Marion Barry, who urged balanced planning, shared visions in their opening remarks. They both saw a Washington, deeply embodied in its metropolitan region, that is monumental as well as livable, attractive to tourists as well as to business, a cosmopolitan center as well as a conglomerate of congenial neighborhoods. Most of all, everyone agreed, Washington must be kept predominantly residential and decidedly horizontal.
"Who will pay for the city's horizontality, for holding the present height limitation?" asked architecture historian Richard Wade of the City University of New York, a symposium participant.
The Washingtonians present explained that keeping the skyline low is not a wasteful economic luxury. On the contrary. Sky-scraping Manhttan is not doing so well. Skyscrapers tend to suck a city's economic vitality into isolated towers surrounded by parking lots. They are so expensive that only big corporations can afford them.
Low-rise building spread economic opportunity across the entire city. They keep life and liveness on the street, provide variety and give small business a chance.
Suddenly there are tremendous economic pressures on downtown Washington. In the past 10 years office space has doubled. If the trend holds, we should see some 200 new office buiildings in the next 10 years. Corporations and national trade and professional associations continue to move to Washington, which already houses more of them than New York and Chicago.
Yet only about half of the presently available space for offices and apartments downtown is being used. A city planned 200 years ago by L'Enfant for 800,000 people is inhabited by only 600,000 people. That is not crowding. There is no need to build higher.
On the contrary, the permissible building height in certain areas, such as Dupont Circle, must be lowered in the interest of livability and of luring commercial interests into the underdeveloped downtown business district.
Federal planner David Childs and municipal planner James O. Gibson agreed with most everyone that, rather than yield to an uncontrolled commercial boom as most cities have, to their sorrow, Washington must channel the pressure to create more livability, more small parks and sidewalk cafes, public art and amenities.
Now that all of a sudden we have a buyer's market in the center city, we can more easily afford control over bad architecture and excessive noise. We can more easily afford to preserve old buildings an adapt them to new uses. As Gibson said, if the '60s were the decade of freeways, the '80s will be the decade of historic preservation.
How can we prevent further Rosslyn eyesores?
While regional government is obviously still some years off, several conference participants felt that suburban citizens are more attached to the nation's capital and more inclined to cooperate than their politicians realize.
Everyone who was at Dumbarton Oaks is ready to strengthen planning at all levels -- at city hall, at the NCPC, at the Council of Governments -- and to include suburban leaders as much as possible. "We want autocratic planning authority with democratic representation," said Peggy Cooper. "Democratic" to her means more blacks, more women and more suburbanities.
Everyone also agrees that the federal government must take its responsibilities more seriously. Rosslyn is largely the creation of the General Services Administation, which agreed to lease office space there before the sky blight went up. The feds made a plan to keep the city's riverfronts clear, but GSA ruined Buzzard Point with one of the ugliest of its leased buildings -- leasing being a shoddy way to get around it own regulations.
The federal government owns 55 percent of the land in the District of Columbia but pays only 14 percent of the revenue. The statistic appeared to shock the Secretary of the Interior, the only member of his administration who seems to care about the nation's capital.
Andrus also seemed surprised by a question about those Rosslyn highrises. If they threaten the federal dignity, someone asked, why didn't the president of the United States pick up the phone and chat with the governor of Virginia about Arlington's height limitations? He surely could have found some federal bargaining chip?
"I'll speak to the boss about it," said Andrus.
He also promised to speak at length with Mayor Barry. One of the topics will be the reappointment of a White House adviser on District of Columbia and regional matters, a position abolished in deference to home rule.
But the home-ruled city clearly needs a somebody in the White House.