There are days when one feels envious of our sister city to the north. Baltimore appears to be "together." It seems to have focused its energies, appears creative, vital and on the move. Washington seems divided, edgy, uncertain, more concerned with hidden agendas than shared goals.
It is strange that the citizens of Washington should feel confused about their home town. The city is literally bursting with assets. It is rapidly becoming an important center for commerce. The arts are thriving. Its universities are notable. Its people are rich in their diversity. Every city in these United States would forgo its first-round pick of urban development action grants for the next 10 years to have the fabulous collection of national treasures that are located in the District of Columbia because of the federal presence. The galleries and museums that flank the Mall are among the finest in the world. They are the destination of of footsore families from all across the United States who are here to "see it all".
The other "visitors" who linger a little longer, the president, his Cabinet and the people on the Hill, provide another sort of draw that is unique. The media are here to cover the events they create whether main or side, somber or silly. A coterie of lawyers, lobbyists and hangers-on follows or leads every move of government. Finally a layer of researchers dealing in defense, offense, pollution or cleanup directs think tanks from which comes an elixir that sustains and emboldens the bureaucrats and politicians in residence.
You really would think that with this extraordinary undergirding of federally related activities, the natives would be as happy as clams. If so, it is certainly a closely guarded secret. Perhaps we should all spend a winter in Detroit to learn what a "recession" really is like, or better yet, in Warsaw. On the other hand it is possible that we are seeking a common cause. We might like to be asked to do something for our city. That, surely, would lift our spirits and help bring us together.
The place to begin could be in the new "old downtown" which is that part of the city east of 14th Street and west of the Capitol above Pennsylvania Avenue that includes the F and G Streets retail district, the convention center, Chinatown, our modest theater district and the area along 7th Street that is home for a cluster of private art galleries. This special place contains an admirable mixture of uses that in some instances need to be protected and in every instance built upon.
Studies have been completed by a Board of Trade task force and the city's office of planning and development. A downtown advisory committee appointed by the mayor is now considering the best means to deal with the opportunities for positive change. Aspects being considered include the use of public space and privately owned land, transportation, historic preservation and the quality of life. Next, and that's when the chips go down, all of the preliminary conversations are intended to produce a strategy for implementation.
It is time to get things done. Major new department stores want to join the established "anchor" stores now in the retail district. Small-business people need assistance if they are to play a meaningful role in the downtown of the future. Pedestrians want a place in the sun along with a new version of the old trolley. Owners and developers are waiting to be told how the public space in front of their new projects should be improved by them as they build. Decisions about Chinatown must be made quickly before the only thing left is the new high-rise residence, a few bilingual street signs and those eye-catching phone booths that look like they're from Peking. Department stores, hotels, theaters, places for art, historic buildings and housing can't compete very well with office buildings in the commercial marketplace.
Incentives can be given when public land is sold to encourage such uses. Owners of private property can be granted "transferable development rights" that can be taken to designated "recipient" areas in other parts of the city as compensation for their cooperation in achieving common goals. Many similar tools are available to local government to encourage the constructive efforts of those involved in the process of change.
"Downtown" can once again become the center of things. It can and should produce more tax dollars and more jobs than any other part of the city if sound and imaginative goals are set and realized. Every citizen in every neighborhood will benefit from the thoughtful, innovative improvement of the city's core. Downtown is not just for an exclusive few.
This opportunity is one that demands very little from the municipal treasury. In fact, an observant Congress might be so impressed by the improved management of this major local resource that it would voluntarily increase the annual "federal payment" as an incentive for further similar initiatives. President Reagan's elusive "urban policy" will have little effect on the outcome of this effort because it is an effort that is mostly "home based".
Private entrepreneurs and investors are ready to do their part to complete the process of revitalization with little public assistance. They principally need public direction. Rebuilding the old downtown is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put some zest and fun and pride back into our community. Working together to give new life to the heart of our city can give heart to us all. With raised spirits. who knows what we might accomplish next. Let's begin now!