Now it's the floodplain!
For some 20 years, this city has been engaged in a fierce battle with itself about the Georgetown waterfront. If the latest maneuver of the "Georgetown citizens" succeeds in frustrating the present excellent and generally approved proposal for a modest waterfront development, the quarrelsome stagnation will go on for another 20 years.
Like urban watefronts all over America, the 3/4-mile of Georgetown waterfront, between Rock Creek and Key Bridge, was all messed up with railroads, industry and smelly dumps covered by freeways. Then the railroads and industry left, and only the smelly dumps and freeways remained.
Most cities, such as San Antonio, Boston, Savannah, Baltimore and San Francisco have, in recent years, managed to clean up the mess. They are giving their citizens and visitors the pleasure of living, walking, playing, relaxing or eating close to the water. It brings good tax income.
In Washington, the highway department let it be known in the early 1960's that it might replace the rickety Whitehurst Freeway with something bigger and worse. Ever since, we have spent millions of dollars on plan after plan and then quarreled about them, often viciously and deceitfully.
The quarrel is between an intimidated government and a group of people called the "Georgetown citizens." The term must be put in quotation marks because, while this vocal and aggressive group of perhaps a dozen persons may have the credentials to speak for 92,000 residents of Georgetown, the residents usually take neither the time nor the interest to inform themselves on the matter. It does not really touch their lives. Chances are fewer Georgetown residents have ventured south of M Street than to Anacostia, say. The industrial slum under the Whitehurst Freeway is only geographically part of Georgetown.
Yet, like upright citizens everywhere, most Georgetown citizens are unalterably opposed to traffic congestion, greedy commercialism, high-rise developers and the invasion of home, hearth and historic tranquility. They will sign any petition (and maybe a small check) in support of green parks, happy children and sacred tradition, any day of the week. This gives the militant dozen their mandate.
These ill-informed emotions, just aired extensively in The New York Times and elsewhere, would hardly merit yet another Cityscape column, but for two important facts.
1. If these obstinate emotions kill the proposed 6 1/2-acre, mixed development, the present unsightly and useless clutter will stay as is, breeding rats and blight. The Georgetown waterfront will remain an ugly industrial slum, a blotch on the face of the nation's capital at its most prominent and most naturally beautiful point.
The "Georgetown citizens" say they are holding out for a waterfront park. To make the entire waterfront a park, the Park Service would have to acquire private property to the tune of $50 to $60 million. (At a recent auction, D.C. land near 14th Street went for $530 a square foot. ) Congress and the Department of the Interior say clearly that they are not going to spend this money.
2.) The present proposal, designed by Arthur Cotton Moore Associates for the Western Development Corporation, would be a tremendous asset for Georgetown and the entire city. It is as handsome and potentially all-around enjoyable a project as has been proposed for this capital since Daniel Burnham got the Pennsylvania railroad station off the Mall.
Moore designed a complex agglomeration of office buildings, condominiums and shops, just south of the Whitehurst Freeway at 30th Street, embracing a circular yacht basin.
The basin is surrounded by two levels of shops and restaurants, and the complex is fronted by a wide promenade along the river. None of buildings in the complex is higher than 65 feet. They barely seem to hide the elevated freeway and are well below the legal height limitation. The bulk of the buildings also is some 40 percent below the permissible limit. The super-desirable, super-lucrative location makes it easy for the developer to be generous.
This generosity shows most in the architectural design. So far, to judge by the model and drawings, Moore has been given an exceptionally free hand to provide a romantic ambience. Interesting open spaces, nooks crannies and wide open views enliven a structure that is richly varied in its sculptural forms, surfaces and appurtenances.
This place will attract people -- and not just the rich who would live, dine, shop and boat there. Like the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore -- although on a smaller scale, of course -- it is likely to become a modern agore, a place where people feel they belong
There is now only one link between Georgetown and the rest of the city -- the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge. Moore and his developer intend to provide another by extending Virginia Avenue over a foot bridge across Rock Creek.
There will be a park.
The total land slice between the river and the Whitehurst Freeway is 18 1/2 acres. The proposed development on land that is partly in private hands and partly owned by the city included 6 1/2 acres, of which three acres are open space or public streets and walkways. That leaves 15 acres, rather than 18 1/2 acres, for public riverfront enjoyment, to say nothing of the means to enjoy it with improved access from the city to part of its waterfront, the new shops, restaurants and a marina and boat landings.
(The professional Georgetowners may argue that they do not want more people and better access from the city. But Georgetown residents only have to gain because a lively waterfront development will obviously also draw tourists away from the now-congested streets.)
As seen from the Kennedy Center, we will get a wonderful picture-postcard's view.
The only explanation for the "Georgetown citizens" opposition to all this is habit. These people have been opposing everything and anything proposed for the watefront with such militant momentum that even 20 years of frustration, three lost law suits and thousand of dollars in legal fees have not persuaded them to take a rational view of the matter.
This is not to say that Georgetown's past obstinacy has been entirely useless. It has helped to stop the proposed Potomac River Freeway, which would have been a disaster for the whole city. It forced the city to change waterfront zoning from "industrial," with 90-feet-high structures, to mixed uses and lower heights. And, through many complex and Byzantine maneuvers, it has vastly improved the Western Development Corporation scheme.
But just at the point where Georgetown and the city have finally arrived at a design that all official agencies, federal and local, are agreed on, the "Georgetown citizens" are throwing up yet another obstacle. The project, they say, violates an executive order, issued by President Carter in 1977, which outlaws government-supported projects built on land that is subject to floods unless there is no feasible alternative.
The Southwest waterfront and Buzzard Point are built on the floodplain. So are the Watergate, Kennedy Center and Lincoln Memorial. Hydrologists say that damaging flash floods in this part of the Potomac floodplain are minimal. And like these buildings, the garages of the Georgetown Waterfront project will be protected with flood gates.
Nevertheless, on the "Georgetown citizens" insistence, a bill has been introduced in the city council to refuse a building permit until the floodplain hazards are investigated. Since it would be unconstitutional to pass a law for just one building, flood hazards in the entire city would have to be re-studied. It would take many years and nobody knows how much money. The measure is scheduled to be discussed in the city council Nov. 18. m
Now that the election is over, we can hope that the mayor and a council majority squelch this nonsense.