Southwest Washington, an area often touted as a textbook example of how not to proceed with urban renewal, is nearing completion as a community, 26 years after the planning was initiated.
The area, whose low-income residents were largely displaced, and whose high-rise development has been criticized for its fortress city ambience, is now home to about 13,000 people - 10,000 fewer than it once had. But despite the contention of outsiders that this "new" Southwest doesn't work as a community - the lack of economic integration is most commonly cited - people who live there now say they have a strong sense of neighborhood.
This sense of neighborhood revolves for the most part around individual housing developments. Places like River park, Tiber Island, Capitol Park, Town Square, Waterside Towers and Harbor House have their own recreational facilities, neighborhood traditions, meeting grounds, socializing efforts and communication networks. River Park and Capitol park have baby sitting pools where families care for each other's children.
"The people have saved Southwest from the planners' mistakes," says one long-time resident who recently moved out of the area. "They barded together and have a sense of unity and a feeling for helping each other. I miss it already. I don't think I'll find that kind of support out in suburbia.
In 1951, city planners, federal housing officials and private developers began talking about a totally planned community on 561 acres in the District's crowded Southwest area.
It would be the nation's first large scale urban renewal effort. The 23,000 mostly poor, mostly black residents would be relocated. Their 5,600 housing units - 70 per cent of which had no central heating, 43 per cent no indoor toilets, and 21 per cent no electricity - would be razed.
In its place would rise a self-contained and integrated neighborhood of 5,800 well-designed, middle- and upper-income housing units, a centralized shopping area, a recreational waterfront, cultural attractions, a new school, and several churches. Along the outer reaches of the area, office buildings would be built, offering Southwest residents employment close to home.
In the residential areas, the old fashioned grid planning pattern would be replaced with Le Corbusier-inspired superblocks and cleverly placed cul de sac streets.
"Southwest was conceived as a model kind of development with rational allocation of space; parks, playgrounds and shops would be put where they were needed. It was viewed as a residential area that would attract and hold people," said Ralph Werner, who was general counsel for the former Redevelopment Land Agency, which oversaw development of Southwest.
But before the first resident could be attracted, the concept of the new Southwest began to fall from grace. Human-scale city planning was becoming more acceptable than superblocks of giant high rise buildings; rehabilitation preferable to demolition, and population retention better advised than wholesale relocation.
But plans proceded along original lines, however, and instead of becoming the best that good intentions, modern thinking and money could buy, Southwest became a symbol of urban of renewal mistakes.
"Today the residential heart of the area - bad reputation, planning errors, attempted modifications and all - is taking final form, Metro has picked up its earth movers, is resurfacing M Street and plans to go away at last, leaving a subway station at 4th and M - albeit no subway services until the 1980s.
(A parcel of land at 7th and G streets is the last undeveloped tract close to the residential section. Its development has been delayed by a court suit.)
The waterfront, with the exception of an almost-completed marina with 300 boat slips and a lot set aside for seafood stores, is in place, as is the shopping mall - which may or may not see further development.
In the years since redevelopment began, Southwest has become the home of Arena Stage, which has expanded several times and become an important regional theater.
And while the brick and concrete rhythm of Southwest's housing does not appeal to everyone, several of the developments have won architectural design awards.
The urban renewal area's residents are, for the most part, singles, couples with very young children, or couples without children. Many are professionals who work on Capitol Hill or walk to work at the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation or at the Environmental Protection Agency or other government agencies in Southwest. Several congressmen live there, as do actors from Arena Stage.
They live side by side with the 3,500 people of the Greenleaf Gardens public housing project, which is not an official part of urban renewal Southwest but is an integral part of new Southwest.
The residential and commercial developments add $9 million to the city's tax revenues, up from $500,000 in 1951. "That figure will go up as additional buildings are built," said Saul Finn, who worked on Southwest's redevelopment with the RLA and who continues to have responsibilities in that ward with the District's Department of Housing and Community Development.
"In addition, Southwest has attracted people with good incomes who, because they live in the city, tend to spend more of their money in the city," Finn said. "So there are additional sales tax revenues. On a cost/benefit basis, the city has gotten its money's worth in Southwest."
For many years residential real estate prices in Southwest were, as James Banks, who was with RLA when Southwest was developed, described them, "Increasing in value but at a slower rate than the rest of the city. Some co-ops and condominiums were somewhat difficult to sell, although they were selling."
One former Southwester recalled her investment in River Park, a development of apartment houses and town houses whose architecture is marked by round, hooped roofs and an extensive use of glass.
"When I bought in 1967, only two or three town houses were up for sale and I had to wait for the model I wanted. When one became available, I paid the going price, which was about $8,000." (River Park is a co-operative and only the stock is for sale. This stock price is equivalent to a downpayment. The purchaser then assumes the mortgage for his share of the cooperative.)
"When I tried to sell in 1975, I couldn't. Houses on the square were no longer popular. Families were no longer buying and singles or couples with no children preferred the convenience of a parking lot location. Then, all of a sudden this spring, the market picked up. I sold for $22,500 and had several offers."
According to Sara Glendenning, River park resident and part-time agent with the Shannon and Luchs real estate firm, the median price in that development in 1978 was $17,500. "The median price on the last six sales has been $22,500, and the houses are moving faster," she said.
Pat Spillenkothn, of the Leigh and Schwab real estate firm, has been a part-time broker in Southwest since last August. "When I got started you could certainly say Southwestwas no keeping pace with the rest of the housing markets, although it was keeping up with inflation," she said. "But things have really started to go up in tremendous jumps in the last few months."
She said that in Town Square, a development of federal style, red brick town houses built in the mid-1960s, prices were in the low $400,000s when the houses were first offered. "They were selling in the low $80,000s by the end of 1976 and now, suddenly, they're in the $90,000s and we had our first $100,000-plus for a big unit," she said.
The brightening situation may be due in part to the settling construction dust, but also to the trend of movement back to the city, the interest of several real estate companies in the area and the opening of two Metro shops with walking distance of residential Southwest. Even without the M Street stop, Southwesters have access to Metro at 3rd and D streets and 7th and D streets and 7th and D streets SW.
Although the rental market, has been fairly strong in Southwest, Carolsburg Square had an occupancy a rate of only 91 per cent occupancy a year ago. According to Charles Sheron of Barens, the management company for the complex, that situation has since changed.
"Metro stopped drilling and started to clean up a few months ago," said Sherron. "We got back up to 100 per cent occupancy with a 2 per cent turnover."
While both the rental and resale markets have been lively, neither has attracted many families with school age children. Instead, Southwest has been losing the family population it attracted when the area was first rebuilt.
Some familis say they moved away because as their families grew the houses got too small. Most apparently moved because of the school situation.
The urban renewal plan called for a model school, Amidon, to serve the needs of new residents, but in 1967 a group of residents presured and the school board to combine the Amidon elementary school with two other Southwest school, Bowden and Syphax, was to make a tri-school system that would serve all the children of Southwest - urban renewal as well as public housing - equally.
But eventually the experiment paled for both black and white affluent families, who moved out or enrolled their children in private schools. That trend continues today, although tri-school no longer exiss.
In spite of the enthusiasm of many residents, the area has more than its share of big and little problems. The shopping center is probably the most constantly irritating to both urban renewal and public housing residents.
"It's a disaster," said Westbrook, who is the Advisory Neighborhood Countil representative for his area. Neither the merchants who tend shop there nor the people who should be shopping are said to be satisfied. Kathy Stief, president of the South-west Neighborhood Assembly, noted that about one-third of the businesses in the mall have failed since the mall opened four years ago.
"There's a Safeway and a People's Drug Store and a couple of banks," she said, "but other than that most of the stores cater to the people who work at EPA. The developers should be sitting on a gold mine with 16,000 residents here, but most residents don't shop there if they can help it."
Metro construction made the mall difficult for pedestrians to get to and the underground parking at the mall made shoppers who came by car feel unsafe. "Once you get in your car, why not drive a few more minutes and shop at a place like Landmark where you have more choice, better parking and a safer environment," said a Waterside Towers resident.
The shopping mall is scheduled to have several additions built but developer Charles Bresler says Metro construction hurt business in the mall and delayed construction plans. He did not know when he would proceed.
Meanwhile, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and the Advisory Neighborhood Council have formed a Save Our Mall committee to pressure the developer into completing the center and leasing to merchants who deal in goods and services appropriate to residential needs.
The waterfront, while far from a disaster, "has not turned into a gay, fun place we thought it would be. It's not part of the neighborhood," said a Tiber Island resident.
Problems have also been created by the proximity of the large public housing units to the affluent, privately owned or high-rent units. "There shouldn't have been so much public housing, although that wasn't the planners' fault," said Banks, who is now a vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Realtors.
"In Fact, it was put in against the wishes of urban renewal people. The distanction between haves and have nots living in such close proximity to each other creates an atmosphere that's not healthy.
Finn recalls, "When River park opened in 1962 they had a swimming pool in clear view of the public housing towers. Now there was nothing like that in Southwest at the time (a public pool has since been built). The kids from public housing came over and pressed their faces against the fence and watched their new neighbors swim. The public housing people felt a affluence was being rubbed in their faces.
"The new residents were fearful of these strangers who they didn't know or understand and who, for all they knew, might be violent."
While racial integration in urban renewal section of Southwestern was successful, economic integration of the two sections of Southwest never happened.
The two sections enjoyed a relatively peaceful if uncommunicative co-existance the first six years, but the riots of 1968 changed the atmosphere. Residents say the area is just to recover from the hostilities that became apparent then.