A recent trip to Houston again reminded me of how different downtown districts in cities can be, and of what Washington's downtown might or might not become.
Houston's downtown is a collection of skyscraper office buildings with an occasional governmental, cultural or retail building -- library, concert hall, convention center, defunct department store -- interrupting the pattern. Filled with commuting workers from 9 to 5 on Monday through Friday, Houston's business core seems almost ghostly during nights, weekends, and even weekdays when the heat and humidity soar.
By contrast, Washington's downtown, once on the verge of being a low-rise version of Houston, is now well on its way to becoming what's being called a "living downtown" -- a place to work, live, shop and be entertained.
More than ever before, Washingtonians are energetically supporting the revitalization of the capital's old downtown district, generally the area bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue on the south, 15th Street on the west, M Street on the north, and the Capitol on the east.
The District of Columbia Downtown Partnership -- a coalition of city officials, retailers, hotel operators, bankers, real estate developers and brokers, attorneys, architects, contractors and nonprofit groups -- was organized in 1984 specifically to advocate and further the cause of making D.C.'s downtown "live." Financial and moral support have come from such participants as Hecht's and the District government.
Cochaired by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Carol B. Thompson and Garfinckel Community Affairs Director Robert G. Vandemark, the Downtown Partnership takes its cues from the city's 1982 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for preservation of small and historic buildings, intensification of both retail and arts-related activities, enhancement of public spaces and facilities, and housing.
Given the Partnership's constituency, skeptics might assume that its hidden agenda, notwithstanding its advertised agenda, is the unbridled proliferation of office buildings. Indeed, economic and physical growth, including office development, is on its list. But its objectives are clearly broader.
The Partnership sees itself, above all, as a point of "access" and a forum where business, government and other public and private interests can share concerns, discuss and devise policies, and initiate actions aimed at vitalizing downtown.
Some of its specific goals include: Improving the economic health of the retail shopping district -- not only for large department stores but also for smaller merchants -- to generate more sales, jobs and taxes.
Improving security downtown by promoting uses that animate the streetscape round the clock -- restaurants, clubs, hotels and housing -- and increase the number of "eyes on the street."
Sponsoring festive public events that attract large numbers of people to the streets and stores in and around the downtown district.
Capitalizing on and enhancing unique transportation resources that make downtown easily accessible by car, bus and subway.
Educating developers, government officials and citizens about good design, especially urban design.
Imparting memorable visual identity to the downtown district and its neighborhoods through streetscape improvements, landscaping, landmark-making, public art and signage.
It's clear that the resources and potential exist for old downtown to become the most exciting place around. In just the last couple of years, there have been dramatic increases in the numbers of restaurants, hotels and nightspots, as well as office space and parking.
Downtown could become an authentic arts district. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, National Building Museum, Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art are parts of the scene, along with Gallery Row and the Washington Project for the Arts.
The historic Lansburgh's department store building on Eighth Street is soon to be redeveloped and will include housing. The Convention Center, Techworld and Chinatown anchor downtown's northern edge and, despite some obvious architectural liabilities, eventually could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and billions of dollars northward from the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. They, too, will contribute to off-hours street occupancy.
In the three years since its founding, what has the Partnership accomplished?
To enhance transportation opportunities, it has worked with the Council of Governments, the Department of Public Works and consultants to study the feasibility of a year-round bus loop serving the retail core. A shopper's shuttle previously operated only during the Christmas season.
It initiated a feasibility study that, it claims, contributed to preservation of the Warner Theatre. Recently the Partnership decided to join in the effort to seek historic landmark status for Garfinckel's department store building.
The Partnership was instrumental in supporting the decorating of streets during the last Christmas shopping season, something that hadn't been done for 20 years.
An outdoor farmer's market near Gallery Place resulted from the Partnership's efforts. It is trying to get merchants to coordinate store hours and promotions and is also persuading parking garage operators to stay open and charge reduced rates for evening and weekend parking.
Despite these notable accomplishments, downtown's most serious problems -- the absence of significant housing, especially at affordable prices, and the steady disappearance of small-scale merchants and moderately priced merchandise -- continue.
To considering these and other unresolved problems, the Partnership recently sponsored a design "charrette," an intense, two-day working and brainstorming conference aimed at generating design proposals and public policy recommendations for old downtown and its three primary subdistricts -- the shopping district, the arts district, and the convention center district.
Charrette participants included architects, city planners, artists, and landscape architects organized into teams. At the conclusion, each team presented plans for improving the image, workability and vitality of old downtown.
Multi-interest activist alliances, such as the D.C. Downtown Partnership, which welcomes new members and representatives from any interested group, seem to be a much needed alternative to the more traditional, single-interest alliances -- chambers of commerce or merchants' associations.
Given its mix of cultural, professional, business, governmental and citizen points of view, the D.C. Downtown Partnership can voice its ideas and recommendations perhaps with greater credibility than other organizations.
Of course, one still wonders if critical decision makers -- the mayor, City Council, Congress, or the president -- will listen and act.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.