The long-awaited report of the Mayor's Downtown Committee, published a week ago after a year's hard and often stormy labor, is in many ways a confusing and vastly disappointing document. But at least it is a document, something identifiable and written down that we can argue with and--cross your fingers--change.
One of the main problems concerning the "old" downtown, that neglected yet potentially terrific area west of 15th Street and north of Pennsylvania Avenue, has been its serious lack of definition. It is a varied pastry and so many different government agencies and private interests have pieces of the pie, that the idea of the pie as a whole has disappeared from view.
Obviously this is a very bad recipe for the old downtown, for the city, and the entire Washington region. The question is, is the new recipe a better one? The answer is, basically, no.
By bringing together so much information and so many policy recommendations for a downtown plan, the volunteers on the mayor's committee did a good and necessary deed. But by prescribing business as usual, or altered only superficially, for so much of the grand old downtown pie, they let us down.
A key standard of an effective, not to say imaginative, plan is the degree to which it creates an irrevocable tie between land-use decisions and zoning regulations. In other words, the forthright way to go about the business of planning in the public interest is to decide what should happen in a given area and then devise ways to make sure that it does happen.
By this standard, seen from any point of view other than that of land owners, land speculators and developers, the committee's recommendations governing most of the 658 acres of the old downtown are failures--abject, outrageous failures.
In practical terms, especially in Washington, the name of this game is controlling office development. But by leaving untouched existing zoning regulations covering most of the area--the high-density to medium-density commercial zones that lie like a curse on the maps of the retail core and Chinatown, for instance--the committee's recommendations do their best to attract a carpet of office buildings over much of the area.
To be sure, the report does recommend a lot of fancy-planning footwork to mitigate the well-known untoward effects of so many offices so tightly packed--bonuses, incentives, overlay zones, transfers of development rights, design controls--but experience here and elsewhere suggests that these tools are little more than meringue on the pie. They can improve things somewhat, but only to a point. In addition, Washington's typical building densities (compounded by the height limitation and allowable square footage) allow little leeway for this kind of give-and-take.
A happy exception is the Massachusetts Avenue-Mount Vernon Square area, the one place where the committee report bites the bullet of land-use planning and recommends substantial zoning changes to support its ambitious goal of a sizable residential population downtown. In this area the report offers an intelligent way out of the four-block UDC campus site mess (altering the proposed mix from campus-and-offices to campus-and-housing or, potentially, just housing), and it mandates both high-rise housing and some preservation of existing row-house neighborhoods.
Elsewhere, the report is long on good intentions and high-sounding sentiments but short on vision and flexibility. We can of course welcome the emphasis on the city's specific urban design characteristics--the vistas that make Washington's downtown unique--and some of the recommendations for improving the design of the streets and ensuring retail outlets at street level will no doubt be helpful. But even here specific controls over street-level uses--mandating restaurants or button shops instead of banks, for instance--are avoided despite the fact that managing the mix of retail uses is one of the more effective tools available to enlightened city planners.
The committee speaks bravely about a "special" retail presence along Seventh Street, for instance, but of what use are brave words against the reality of high-density zoning, which creates empty buildings and high land prices? The maddening irony is that our tax dollars have been spent to pave the way for two huge developments along Seventh Street--advanced respectively by Metro and the Redevelopment Land Agency--that, to put it gently, will do very little to create a special presence of any kind along this stretch. They will, however, fill the zoning envelope and thereby establish unfortunate precedents for private landholders in the area.
The report is ambivalent at best about historic preservation and yet, willy-nilly, if the non-recommendations about zoning are allowed to stand, preservation remains the only really useful tool left to shape the spaces along F and G streets, Seventh Street and in and around Chinatown.
Landmark preservation is not the key issue--the best buildings most likely will be saved no matter what plan is adopted by the city and the Joint Landmarks Committee. What matters even more is to save the fabric of the existing downtown area, row after row of buildings that, no matter how neglected and altered over the years or no matter how lacking in architectural significance, establish a welcoming sense of place and scale throughout the area.
To compare the existing fabric along F Street, for instance, to any block that has recently been redeveloped (Vermont Avenue between L Street and Thomas Circle is as good, or as bad, an example as any) is to get a clear idea of what will be lost if this committee's recommendations are allowed to stand untouched. The way to develop F or similar streets in the downtown area is by judiciously combining new and old according to design criteria that are both clear and enforceable.
To its credit the committee does propose a design-review agency with authority to establish such standards. It also proposes a much-needed "management entity" to promote and to govern development of the new downtown, although the ultimate responsibilities, authority and makeup of this organization have been, perhaps wisely, left fuzzy at this point.
Whether it can do much good in the long run depends upon the skill, imagination and foresight of the people who run it and the tools they have at their disposal. In this respect they would be tremendously shortchanged in the recommendations of the Mayor's Downtown Committee.
This need not be so--a consultant's report on the subject suggests that even the office densities forecast by the committee for the downtown area are outlandishly optimistic, despite the zoning. In other words, in real, economic terms there is plenty of space to play with downtown, and it is about time our public agencies act effectively to prevent office builders from treating the area as their private playground. The committee report takes a few steps in this direction, leaving vast room for improvement.