OUR CITY IS about to get another K Street-like wall
of buildings which, judging from preliminary drawings, would likely warm Albert Speer's schnapps.
That what's scheduled to arise at Metro Center, an area which, if creatively handled, could become our equivalent of Baltimore's eHarborplace or San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square -- or perhaps an even more exciting synthesis combining the best aspects of urban marketplace, suburban mall and theme amusement park. But that would require more imagination that Washington has yet managed to muster.
In the next two weeks the city could grant a developer the right to build a $250 million office and retail complex at Metro Center, an area roughly bounded by 13th and 11th streets and F and G streets N.W. The economic and social potential is enormous. Here are the crossroads of a new subway system that will cost $10 billion when complete. A soon-to-open $100-million convention center is right next door. And hundreds of new hotel rooms are being built just blocks away.
However, it is now a derelict area scarred by crumbling and condemned buildings and patrolled by muttering alcoholics. The few small businesses and art galleries that once gave the blocks some life has sinve been displaced in preparation for the city's big plans. Right now the city's Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), having carefully assembled a Metro Center site using its powers of eminent domain, is examining proposals by three major developers.
The three schemes, which burst forth from fat, official- looking pamphlets, are filled with dreams of lots of urban "perks": sidewalks covered with arcades and canopies, climate-controlled shopping malls, a vest-pocket park, an elevated walkway, a possible Bloomingdale's in one and a 500-room hotel in another, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space. The competing talents include the developer of Georgetown Park, Chicago's hottest young architect and a host of minority involvement.
But the city should reject all three plans. They represent the grim visage of urban renewal disguised in a party hat.
Under all the plans, not one old building would be saved within the 21/2 blocks. While many of these buildings are run-down, several are historic, including a graceful, arched firehouse that is now gainfully used as a job training center, and the Wardman Building, former home of the Washington Project for the Arts.
Further, no housing will be provided. The city, which had said it was committed to creating a "living downtown," cancelled innovative housing plans saying they were uneconomic and boosted the office space planned for the area. That too could be uneconomic, according to a spokesman for the Oliver T. Carr Company, the city's biggest private developer. Carr's people estimate that only half of the office space produced this year will be leased. Hotel space is suffering from a similar glut.
(The Carr Company, it should be noted, was the original developer of the Metro Center site. It was stripped of that title earlier this year after a squabble over the resale value of the land. More on that later.)
And if downtown leasing trends hold true, much of the retail space planned could be gobbled up by banks, copy centers and other service-oriented businesses that add little vitality to the city's sidewalks and nightlife.
Our new conventioneers would be thrilled to discover that a good time in downtown Washington meant getting a color Xerox on a Friday night. Similarly, mall-style shopping wouldn't offer visitors anything that they could not find in their own home town or suburb.
Finally, the architecture likely to result from this maximum development plan. Surely Washington does not need another K Street, where it's possible for even longtime residents to wander in circles, lost among the sameness.
This is not to blame the architects and developers. The city carefully specified what it wanted to see in the proposals: a bland, conservative vision of downtown. It got it.
But how should the assets of Metro Center be exploited? Recently I met with Richard Ridley, a local architect and planner who I met while on assignment for the Post's District Weekly, to discuss just that. We bandied about some conventional urban revitalization ideas, pedestrian malls and so forth, until one seemingly whimsical thought seized our imaginations.
Make Metro Center into an urban amusement park.
Then we made a shocking discovery. The idea made sense.
Hark back to the turn of the century, when the private builders of Washington's streetcar lines faced the dual problems of sluggish ridership outside of rush hour and sparse use of "end-of-the-line" stations in rural areas. They solved the problem by building a park with rides and a pool at the terminus in Glen Echo, Md. Glen Echo rose and fell with the trolleys and streetcars that fed it, prospering into the 1950s and closing in the '60s. The same concept applied at Coney Island, where six subway lines (also privately built, believe it or not) dovetail, still draws millions despite the area's seedy image.
Today people mostly live in the suburbs and the thinly- populated "end of the line" is, in effect, the city center.
But our gleaming subway system will not work if it is reduced to a very expensive conveyor belt for commuters.
Metro isn't working to full capacity at night on weekends because their aren't enough places to go along the route. Sure, there are buildings and parking lots. With ridership down and federal subsidies threatened, the area must seek new ridership incentives. And what better way to attract new riders than with a dynamic new place for working, eating and playing right at the system's core?
A Metro Center amusement park would also have to be a private moneymaker in its own right. To do this it should combine the best of two brilliant entrepreneurial schemes of the 1950s and 70s: Disneyland and Faneuil Hall, respectively. Disneyland singlehanded elevated the status of an amusement park into a mecca for Americans. And Faneuil Hall, set in a Boston marketplace thought obsolete and ripe for the wrecking ball, proved that you can make money restoring old, low-rise buildings -- and recharge a city's spirit in the process.
We envisioned a Metro Center park that would combine the best of the French Quarter, Disneyland, Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, and Harborplace. Line it with dozens of small shops set in the best of the old buildings. Feature a Ferris wheel outlined in yellow neon, boardwalk games, a fresh flower market, a Washington Senators memorabilia boutique and a hundred other concessions that could provide many unskilled jobs and small business opportunities. Have a big carousel with a calliope that features Top 40 tunes. Even scatter around a few office buildings a la Rockefeller Center. In the process of providing jobs, increasing tax revenue and stimulating Metro ridership, help D.C. shed its well-deserved stodgy image.
Critics might argue that the land is simply too valuable for anything less than the so-called "intensive" use associated with blocky office buildings. If that is the case, then why did the Carr Company balk at paying a facsimile of market value for the Metro Center parcel? And what could be more intensely used than Baltimore's Harborplace, a couple of humble low-rise buildings surrounded by brick patios, where big crowds congregate at all times of day, all year round?
It is also worth noting that while Metro Center would be a private development, it is in many senses a public project. Public time and expense were consumed in every phase of its planning. And it was the construction of major public projects that made the land valuable to begin with.
Surely the land should be developed soon so that the public coffers can be slowly refilled through property taxes. But I do not think I will be alone among taxpayers who will feel cheataed if Metro Center becomes just another 9-to-5 office area. And we are frankly tired of being upstaged by Baltimorean innovations and wish that our city had the guts to go for the brass ring. Can you believe it?