PERHAPS THE BEST camouflaged urban blight in this and other cities is coming in the form of the brand new office buildings. Slums they may not be -- but monuments to piecemeal planning and land misuse are no small threat to the downtowns of tomorrow. Right in the heart of Washington -- as well as in the courts -- is the story of Metro Center, a valuable property that is at the center not only of a controversy over bids for its development, but also of economic conditions pointing to an office glut.
The history of the city's efforts to dispose of this property is longer than any one administration and steeped in government indecision. Earlier this summer, a Superior Court judge ruled that the city had acted improperly when it revoked the right of developers Oliver T. Carr and Theodore R. Hagans to proceed with a project; the argument was over a price tag for the land. But now the Rockefeller Center Development Corp., which was a key partner in one of three groups competing for the right to develop this 3.7-acre site on G Street between 11th and 13th, has announced it is withdrawing from the competition because it fears that an overbuilding of offices has made this project unprofitable.
Who finally wins Metro Center, in court or at the negotiating table, apparently is up to limited grabs. But the Rockefeller decision underscores the market conditions; demands for office space by law firms, trade associations and accounting firms -- which sparked the boom back when -- have flattened.
No slapdash reorganization or quick-fix policy is going to ensure the best resolution of this project, which for now remains tied up in court anyway until the Carr-Hagans suit is resolved. But Mayor Barry, who is said to be rethinking more than a few things in anticipation of a new four-year term, should focus on developing a more coherent, responsive and efficient planning arm at city hall if he is to cope with the complicated, expensive and long-term effects of the economy on the prosperity and beauty of the center city.