Nathaniel A. Owings, one of the chief architects of the plans to rejuvenate Pennsylvania Avenue, has resigned as vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. after 19 years of service, charging that long-term benefits are being sacrificed for short-term economic gains.
In a letter to President Reagan, Owings cited disagreements with Max N. Berry, chairman of the corporation, as the reason for his resignation. "The present chairman . . . has chosen to pursue policies and development procedures which have become progressively alien to my convictions," Owings wrote.
Berry said yesterday that while he appreciated "Nat Owings' long tenure and devotion to the PADC," he is "quite confident that in his absence the PADC will go on to bigger and better things." Berry, 46, an international lawyer and a political supporter of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, was appointed to the PADC chairmanship by President Carter in July 1980.
"The Avenue is becoming a super-development, it's going to become another Rosslyn," Owings said yesterday when reached by telephone at his home in Big Sur, Calif. "There is no guide on the PADC board from the design point of view," he continued. " . . . We're not looking at it any longer as the main street for the nation between the president's house and the Congress, we're looking at it as an immediate economic situation."
The 77-year-old architect, who is a founder of the famous architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, said he was particularly concerned about the fate of housing in the new scheme for the avenue. "They've brought in economists, and there's nothing worse than an economist," he said. "My attitude is, it shouldn't be done until it can be done properly. We should not try to meet the immediate inflated dollar demands. We should get an ideal plan, and lobby for it."
"There's a basic difference in philosophy between myself and Mr. Owings," Berry responded. Referring to the original avenue plan spearheaded by Owings, which included a proposal for a huge "national square" near the Treasury building, he commented, "We're talking about a man who recommended tearing down the Willard Hotel, the Washington Hotel and the Old Post Office Building. The fact is what we're doing all along the avenue is not a short-term and expedient plan. We're very carefully trying to save all of our great older buildings and even our mediocre buildings. These are the heart of the avenue, our link to the past."
In terms of housing, Berry said that "no government agency can afford the half billion dollars" it would cost to purchase land, build housing and rent it to low-income tenants. "If you wait 20 or 25 years, as he Owings has suggested, in my opinion the cost would be so gigantic, we'd have to sell the land at cost."
Sources close to the operations of the 15-member PADC board said the conflict between Berry and Owings came to a head last fall when Owings was replaced as chairman of the board's advisory committee. Berry yesterday commended Lawrence B. Simons, the new chairman of that committee, for "doing a most excellent job running the meetings in a fair and orderly manner."
Owings was appointed by President Kennedy in 1962 to become the first chairman of the President's Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, forerunner of the PADC.