The developer of Fort Lincoln, the partially built new town in Northeast Washington, soon will be asking city officials to approve major changes in the town's master plan that will shut the door forever on the visionary -- if unrealistic -- blueprint drawn by federal officials trying to create a symbol of the Great Society in the late 1960s.
Built on a rolling, wooded site at the intersection of South Dakota Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, Fort Lincoln today lies largely unfinished. There are some housing units, one school, an elaborate jungle gym and a park, but none of the office space has been built and, in general, Fort Lincoln has not developed according to the promise and guidelines laid out in the 1967 master plan.
The original plan, put together by federal and District officials, was for a "new town in town." To create an urban environment, the planners included high-density office and housing in the plan, along with extensive parks, playgrounds, schools, three community shopping malls, hotels, a monorail and a seven-acre lake.
Development of the new town faltered from the very beginning, however, largely because federal agencies that had promised grants and special programs failed to deliver.
And although the master plan gradually has been altered over the years to accommodate the changing economics of the housing market, little has been done to bring back to Fort Lincoln the comprehensive planning approach first used for the 360-acre site.
Now Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., the private development company completing the project, is on the verge of bringing to the city a new master plan for Fort Lincoln, one that will wipe out the last unworkable Great Society ideas, including the lake, two-thirds of the office space and many of the proposed parks, will reduce the number of housing units, and will eliminate the hotels and two of the shopping centers.
"We're going to look at Fort Lincoln in terms of the needs for today rather than what was drawn up in the 1960s," said Michele Hagans, president of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. "We're going to build for the market, with a more-campus-like office environment, something with much less density than was originally planned."
Although office development is often the last part of a new town to be built, Hagans said that Fort Lincoln's master plan called for very-high-density, high-rise office buildings, similar to those downtown.
"But we're not downtown, we're here on the edge and we've decided to market what we have here, which is land," Hagans said. "A lot of businesses have activities that don't need to be housed in expensive downtown offices, such as data-mail processing and accounting. We think we can offer facilities for such activities at competitive rates."
Hagans' principal hope is that Fort Lincoln can serve as an in-town site for quality high-technology office parks on a par with projects being built in Reston.
"This is the largest piece of undeveloped land this close in to the central business district," said Ralph Taylor, vice president of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. "We've shifted the economics of what we are offering businesses, and we think that if it can be developed in Fairfax County and Prince George's, there's no reason it can't be built here."
The biggest change in the master plan will be for the high-density office core known as the town center. Originally planned to have roughly 3 million square feet of office space, a hotel and two or three apartment buildings, the town center now will be a collection of one-story offices totaling only about 1 million square feet of space spread out over a greater area than originally proposed, Hagans said.
The hotel and apartments will be eliminated, as well as a proposal for underground parking.
Hagans said that the company will request a change in the master plan to allow light industrial uses for the land that fronts New York Avenue, across Fort Lincoln Drive from the proposed town center, and that this will be something that has a relatively low traffic impact, such as a mailing facility.
Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. already has asked for a master plan change to include some industrial zoning on a corner of the new town that lies south of New York Avenue to permit a bus maintenance facility. That request is pending before the D.C. City Council -- along with other piecemeal master-plan changes. However, it is uncertain that any of the private bus companies will be willing to locate there.
Trailways Bus Co. has been working with Fort Lincoln and city officials to reach an agreement on a plan to build a Trailways bus maintenance garage on the Fort Lincoln site, but city officials said there has been no decision yet. Complications stemming from the city's dumping of sludge on the site have made it difficult for Trailways to reach a compromise with the various city offices involved, according to Taylor.
The developer also has proposed changing the master plan to eliminate two of the three planned community shopping centers, and to scale down plans for the remaining mall. The new master plan would cut ancillary office space and a proposed hotel from the plans of the remaining mall.
"We don't think there is a market here for hotel development," Taylor said. "There is plenty of that going in around the convention center, and I don't think we can compete." He said the shopping center would be between 100,000 and 200,000 square feet, about the size originally planned, and that construction could start within the next 18 months, although that is dependent on a request for a federal urban development action grant.
Although the housing development at Fort Lincoln has been the most successful element so far, the new master plan will call for roughly 2,000 fewer units than proposed, at much lower densities and targeted for more varied income levels than originally proposed, Hagans said.
"We've discovered that, if you design the housing units so that each unit has direct access to the outdoors and individually metered utilities, it gives people a stronger sense of home ownership," Taylor said.
There are 1,115 housing units already built at Fort Lincoln, including condominiums, high-rise apartments and town houses. Over the next two years, the company expects to build 500 more housing units, of which 100 will be rentals, according to Taylor. Before Fort Lincoln is completed, there also will be a 1,000-unit high-rise condominium and a section of very expensive homes clustered on the hilly section of the site that lies along the District-Maryland border, he added.
In the original plan, that section had been designated as office space, but Taylor said that they are now doing a topography study to determine how many houses in the $275,000-to-$350,000 range could be built among the trees.
"When you have the federal government financing your project, you can do all the grading you want," Taylor said. "We, however, will have to find out what the site can accommodate as it is. It's very hilly."
While the new plan will retain most of the originally designated open space, Taylor said that the nearly 80 acres of parks will be maintained by individual condominium or homeowner associations or office-condominium associations, rather than by the city government or the National Park Service, as originally proposed.
Lloyd Smith, chairman of the Fort Lincoln Civic Association's planning and zoning committee, said that the citizens of the new town generally support a more comprehensive planning approach, but that they also are concerned that industrial development could increase traffic and noise.
Hagans said that final drawings of the new plan will be presented to the National Capital Planning Commission in July but that Fort Lincoln New Town Corp. will start to work with the civic association next month on the specifics of the plan. If approved, the changes in the master plan then would go to the city council for final action.