In the 1950s urban renewal plowed under Southwest Washington. The next decade found urban pioneers restoring town houses on Capitol Hill. The 1970s have seen Friendship Heights congested with expensive boutiques, department store chains and the Mercedes and Jaguars of the upper Northwest chic.
Now the developers and city planners have leveled their guns on the city's West End in an operations sometimes referred to as "the new urban renewal."
Using a unique zoning mix of commercial and residential construction, the city's zoning board has encouraged development of housing units and office space and ground-level shops. There is a new emphasis on the night life created by restaurants and theaters; at the same time, zoning officials hope to retain some of the neighborhood flavor by preserving some of the area's Victorian town houses.
But changes in the West End, which sits between downtown and Georgetown, K and N streets and New Hampshire Avenue NW, are not taking place without a fight.
Developers look at the West End and see a sea of vacant buildings and parking lots that can - and should, in their opinion - be totally redeveloped. But some people, including residents of the neighborhood, maintain that this last remaining enclave of low- and moderate-income housing anywhere near downtown should be left alone.
West End developer Oliver Carr and neighborhood landowner Phillip Brown have been among the most vocal on either side of the issue. And it appears that the protracted fight they and others have engaged in is far from over.
But after the first skirmish, Carr has gained higher ground. His Westbridge office complex at Pennsylvania Avenue and 26th Street is nearing completion. At his condominium project next door, 250 apartments have been sold out a year before scheduled completion - and at prices ranging from $70,000 to $150,000.
Previous zoning in the area limited construction to low-density, six-story buildings. City planners had feared that the office sprawl of downtown would jump New Hampshire Avenue and continue to the park, and they wanted something else to happen.
"One of the guiding principles of most planners is that you want to get a mix of activities," said J. Kirkwood White, assistant director of planning and zoning for the District. "You like things to be not just offices, not just parking lots, but you like to get some housing, you like to get some stores, and you like a mix of activities so that you will basically have a more pleasant place to be."
The West End, as it was zoned in the early 1970s, presented two major obstacles in the view of city officials: It didn't allow for any residential development, and it continued to siphon commercial development that they thought should be concentrated downtown.
Early reports from the city did not mention any plans to use urban renewal in the area.
"We never contemplated any public taking of private property, and clearance and redevelopment or anything like that," said Steven Sher, executive director of the Zoning Secretariat, the staff for the Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment. "There was to be no significant expenditure of public funds."
According to White, the methods of dictating growth in the West End were limited.
"There is no way in which a government can remake an area unless it buys all the land, which is a very expensive proposition, and that is essentially what happened in Southwest," he said. "But if it is private land, you essentially are working to move economic forces that are already under way and channel them into the direction that you think is reasonable."
This concept was confirmed in a land-use study by Gladstone Associates. It indicated that, given the current economic factors and trends, most notably the value of the land, the West End could be better used than existing zoning allowed and trends indicated might continue.
Thus was born the commitment on the part of the Zoning Commission to allow those "better" things to happen. The question was how.
The commitment to change the West End came to be known as "filling the hole in the doughnut."
"This is an area that sits between two prime locations: downtown and Georgetown," Sher said. "But because of the industrial zoning, it was not an area that was attractive to residential development, and only recently become attractive to any kind of development.
"But given its location, given the fact that there were two subway stops on the edge of the thing, given the increased development of the western part of downtown, it seemed to suggest that things were going to happen there, and that, if we took the appropriate zoning action, we'd get better things to happen there than if we didn't."
Two major factors guided the city planners' thinking at that early stage: First, there was little housing being built anywhere in the city, and they wanted to do anything to encourage that to change. Secondly, they wanted to create a zone that was economically attractive to private investment.
Their solution was to create of a new zoning called CR that allowed a mix of commercial and residential buildings.
Officials of the Oliver T. Carr Co. were thinking along the same lines. But the company wanted to build at a higher density.
Carr officials were busy drawing up plans for the West End that called for a maximum height of 130 feet, the highest allowed under current city zoning laws. They also wanted to see 24th Street closed and its traffic re-routed down a widened 22d street.
Oliver Carr's first thought had been to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the site of the old Sealtest Dairy at [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His attorney felt the city would turn down spot zoning," and advised Carr to try to get the entire area rezoned.
In an attempt to garner public support for such sweeping changes, Carr founded West End Planning Inc. in 1972, a federation of West End property owners. Gathering the support of 70 percent of the owners, Carr submitted his plan to the city. Carr was sure that the organization represented the "people's voice," his son Richard said.
At a forum convened by the city in 1974, the differences between Carr's plan, the city's plan, and the ideas of local citizens' groups were aired with the hope that the common threads could be drawn together and a final zoning solution reached.
"Basically, after the forum, Carr and WEP Inc., abandoned their more grandiose plans and supported the city's plan with certain modifications that they (Carr) suggested," Sher said. "They thought that for their purposes they could achieve what they wanted better this way rather than [by continuing] to propound a different kind of regulation entirely."
Unhappily for some factions involved, the plans included no provision for low- and moderate-income housing.
"It wasn't an issue that we ignored so much as an issue we didn't know how to handle," Sher said. "There's only so much you can do through zoning. Some have tried with mixed results."
He said the Corporation Counsel said a provision calling for low-income housing would be discriminatory if applied to "just the West End and not the city as a whole."
Carr said his company felt it had to build condominiums, not rental apartments, "because of the economics and because rent control came into play.
"Most institutional lenders will not invest (in rental housing) because of the rent-control threat," he maintained. "Every major insurance company is dying to be in this city because it is one of the best investments in the country. They will provide for any kind of building but rental housing."
Thus, the West End was rezoned to the CR regulation in large part, leaving intact those blocks of Victorian town houses around Washington Circle, L Street and 25th Street. The way was cleared for large-scale development to begin.
But on another front, the battle had only begun. Not at all happy with the changes in the zoning, how they had been instituted, and what they spelled for the West End was Philip Brown, whose family is a major land holder in the West End.
Brown argued that the new zoning was designed to displace those people who were living and operating small businesses in the West End and that the changes denied his family the ability to operate their business as before. He began a long series of attempts to get the zoning decision reversed.
"We, I think, made a fairly decent effort to relate to the concerns Mr. Brown had," Sher said. "Nothing we did could have forced Mr. Brown to terminate what he was doing if they were legal, valid uses."
In August 1973, well before the final zoning was approved, Brown filed a suit against Carr charging him with acting "maliciously, fraudulently, and in reckless disregard of the rights of Brown, et. al." by filing the redevelopment plan with the city without Brown's approval. The suit demanded judgment of actual damages of $10 million and punitive damages of an additional $10 million.
Carr immediately counter-sued for $30 million. The five-year-old case, whose documents fill a shopping cart in the chambers of Superior Court Judge George Revercomb, has been delayed in its most recent motion until next September.
According to Kirk White, Brown and his legal fights have had no effect on West End development, and construction of the projects of Carr and others proceeds apace. Aside from Carr's Westbridge, the 49-unit Potomac Overlook condominium is almost completed and a new Guest Quarters hotel at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue will be ready for occupancy this fall.
On the eastern edge of the West End, ground has just been broken for the new Thurmond Arnold law firm building (another Carr project on the site of the old Good will industries headquarters), and Ulysses S. (Blackie) Auger has announced plans for a 300-unit hotel atop his House of Beef at 22nd and M Streets.
"From what I've seen so far," said Sher, "and all that's been done so far is Carr's project (Westbridge), that to me comes pretty close to the goals of what we wanted - a combination of uses in a building in one project with a fairly good site design. Over the long run I don't know what's going to happen."
Next: The politics of redevelopment.