The National Capital Planning Commission voted 7 to 4 to approve the controversial Techworld proposal this week, rejecting a recommendation from its staff to oppose it on the grounds that the project would adversely effect the federal interest by blocking off the historic Eighth Street vista.
International Development Inc., Techworld's developer, is seeking a rezoning from the D.C. Zoning Commission to build a $240 million high-technology trade center and hotel complex on two blocks across from the Washington Convention Center and just below Mount Vernon Square. The proposal includes a request for zoning changes that would allow the developer to build a bridge across Eighth Street, and increase the height and density of the project.
The NCPC staff recommended several weeks ago that the planning commission reject the proposal, despite the fact that IDI had already slightly redesigned the massive project in an effort to overcome objections voiced by the NCPC and the zoning commission earlier this year.
The NCPC, split by a difference of philosophy concerning its role in the planning process, adopted instead a statement saying it would approve the project with "appropriate height and bulk modifications." The statement, however, spliced together from comments presented by Deputy Mayor Curtis McClinton praising the development and amendments from commission members, did not say what modifications it considered appropriate.
The commission's position will be presented to the zoning commission at a public hearing next week.
While the NCPC is chartered specifically to protect the federal interest in Washington, a majority of the commission members said they believed that the economic benefits of the project outweighed concerns for the federal interest.
IDI President Giuseppe Cecchi defended his proposal before the zoning commission earlier this week, bringing numerous witnesses to testify that the project would only work if he was given permission to build it as designed.
The most controversial aspect of the proposed design is a six-story high span across Eighth Street that would connect two of the three office buildings in the development and provide additional floor space. Cecchi has said that the span, starting five stories above ground level and faced with reflective glass, would be "unobtrusive."
According to NCPC staff, the span would reduce the vista along Eighth Street to a keyhole and the scale and design of the proposal would "establish devastating precedents for future private development throughout the city."
Several preservationist groups and other citizens organizations testifying before the zoning commission this week also protested the proposed span and the scale and massing of the project.
Eighth Street, specifically the section between Mount Vernon Square with Pennsylvania Avenue seven blocks south, is considered by preservationists to be an important element of the original L'Enfant city street pattern. It is the only individually designated vista on the city's list of historic properties.
But NCPC member Ann V. Todd said that while she had problems with the proposed bridging of Eighth Street, that "it was also a part of the federal interest that we don't have a growing south Bronx kind of problem" in the area around the convention center, where developers have been slow to build. Other commission members said they felt that it was more important to bring jobs to the city and support a project that could act as a catalyst for development in that area.
McClinton, the city's economic development chief, defended the project and the proposed spanning of Eighth Street by saying that he was convinced the project needed the open, continuous floor space the span would allow, and that the project would bring additional business to the convention center.
"The D.C. convention center has become less competitive since it opened because other cities have expanded their convention space," said McClinton. "The city needs this project to enhance the convention center.
Cecchi told the zoning commission earlier this week that the high-tech trademart, which would provide permanent and temporary exhibit space for high-tech companies, would be a "complementary" development for the convention center.
Reginald Griffith, executive director of the NCPC, however, argued emotionally for adoption of the staff recommendation.
"If this were on any street but Eighth Street it might be acceptable, but this street is very special," said Griffith. "We've got to be as strong as we can on the issue of the federal interest."
Griffith said that the economic benefits to the city were "worthy," but that they could be met in a way that would not "adversely effect what we have defined as the federal interest." He proposed an alternate design for the project that included removing the span and filling in areas of the open courtyards.
The majority of the commission members said, however, that it was not their place to act as design specialists, and that they felt that forwarding the staff's concerns to the zoning commission would be sufficient to allow that panel to make the proper determinations on height and bulk.
The four NCPC members voting against the project said they were doing so on the basis that the commission's charter was to protect the federal interest and that the job of weighing that interest against economic benefits was the business of the zoning commission.
"The NCPC is the only agency in Washington called on to protect the federal interest," said commission member Helen M. Scharf. "I fear we will be obligating commission members who will follow us if we decide this issue on something other than the federal interest."
Jack Finberg, representing the General Services Administration, John G. Parsons, representing the secretary of the interior and Marion Morris from the office of Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) joined Scharf in opposition.