The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the mold of Moynihan, new revival planned for Pennsylvania Avenue

Daniel Patrick Moynihan spent 40 years improving Pennsylvania Avenue before his death in 2003. (CRAIG HERNDON)
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“The main street for both the city and the nation” ought to be “lively, friendly and inviting as well as dignified and impressive,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan said of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961.

Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy administration, spent the next 40 years, including four terms in the Senate, working to elevate the dingy street into something America could be proud of.

Today, the neighborhoods north of Pennsylvania Avenue are booming in ways they never did during Moynihan’s time. Penn Quarter and Chinatown are some of the city’s most expensive places, whether you are renting an apartment, a storefront or an office. They are home to most of the city’s biggest sports and entertainment attractions. Between the new music venues, fashion retailers and CityCenterDC, no part of the District or the region has a more 24/7 feel.

And yet on the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue NW a few blocks south, it still feels like the 1990s: badly lit, quiet after working hours and not much to do. There is a feeling now that the work of Moynihan and others is not done, which is why a collaboration between planners, government agencies and private landowners have begun rethinking how to revive the corridor again, through the newly launched Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative.

Moynihan began his work on Pennsylvania Avenue shortly after John F. Kennedy took note of the street’s shortcomings during his inaugural parade, as Moynihan described in 1985 letter to The Washington Post:

“… waving first to the left then to the right, and looking hard at downtown Washington for what was most likely the first time in his life, he saw that the area was all but derelict. It was not a slum; no one lived there. It was simply a setting of used-up buildings that had been or were being abandoned, as downtown floated out Connecticut Avenue, leaving the Capitol behind.”

Moynihan successfully lobbied Congress to create the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. in 1973. Among the improvements that followed were the preservation of the Old Post Office Pavilion, the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and the construction of the Canadian Embassy, Market Square and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Eventually the Newseum and its accompanying condominiums arrived.

But for all the work of Moynihan, who died in 2003, and architect John M. Woodbridge, there are some shortcomings on Pennsylvania Avenue and there are some unique obstacles to addressing them.

Unlike most streets in D.C., the National Park Service — chronically short of funding — is in charge of the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue. The pavers on the sidewalk are cracked or missing in places, but new ones are no longer being manufactured. The benches and trees are in similar states.

The streetlights are deliberately understated in deference to views of the U.S. Capitol, but the effect on the sidewalk is more darkness than streets the District manages nearby. On top of that, the Pennsylvania Avenue streetlights aren’t connected to a common grid, making repairs or changes much more difficult.

Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown Business Improvement District, said the conditions are the result of poor urban design approved before the District was granted home rule. “It’s like a bad ’70s show,” he said.

Federal buildings along the southern side of the avenue are bound by security requirements that further dampen opportunities for the retail and sidewalk cafes that have begun populating other parts of the city.

“I think if you look at it from a bird’s eye view, it’s really beautiful, but I think we need to figure out some ways to get some more people down there to use it,” said Elizabeth Miller of the National Capital Planning Commission.

NCPC, the planning agency, is heading up the new initiative along with the District, the General Services Administration, the National Park Service and private landowners. A public workshop has been planned for July 23.

Miller said it was an appropriate time because of the coming redevelopment of the Old Post Office by Donald and Ivanka Trump, planned improvements to the National Theatre and other private development being planned, including eventually the Hoover Building.

“With the growth of the city and new emerging neighborhoods, and the fact that the avenue itself and many of the buildings along it are 30 or 40 years old, I think it’s time to think about what role Pennsylvania Avenue has in the city,” Miller said.

Widdicombe said that although Moynihan is no longer in the Senate, he hopes Capitol Hill will eventually take notice.

“This is also a message to Congress: If this is America’s main street, it’s looking a little shabby,”  Widdicombe said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz