Rebuilding the Grid: DC's Old Convention Center
For years, the District has been chipping away at the Pierre L'Enfant vision of the capital, closing streets and alleys almost willy-nilly to satisfy one developer or another. Now, with a chance to remold a big chunk of downtown Washington by putting something creative and alluring on the old Convention Center site, the city is finally doing the right thing and reopening some important streets that had been shut down when that huge building went up.
Lost amid last week's D.C. Council vote to put aside Mayor Anthony Williams' proposal for a new central library on the old Convention Center site was the fact that the city has now approved a plan for those blocks between 9th and 11th streets NW from H Street up to New York Avenue. The plan, developed by a Colorado company that descended from the old Charles E. Smith apartment development firm in the District, would put 280,000 square feet of new retail space, 686 residential apartments, 415,000 square feet of office space, and 1700 underground parking spaces on the site. Twenty percent of the apartments would be reserved for affordable housing. (I love the implication of that phrase: The other 80 percent will be unaffordable. Put that on your ad campaign.)
And the District would reclaim its streets, extending I Street from 9th to 10th, and reopening 10th Street from H all the way up to New York Avenue. The new Eye Street would become a retail strip--the look envisioned in the developer's plan feels a bit too much like one of those faux city blocks you find in suburban "town centers"--but what's great about this plan is that there would be retail frontage on H, 9th, 10th, and 11th streets, and even a bit on the office-heavy side of the development, on New York Avenue. (Take a look at the architect's mockup of the Eye Street view of the project (last page on this link) and tell me if it doesn't look and feel all too much like the Chevy Chase Pavilion/Mazza Gallerie block of Wisconsin Avenue NW--way too suburban looking for a downtown development.)
The failed vote on the central library leaves a considerable hole at the center of this plan, and the half-acre public plaza envisioned as the open space people magnet of the project seems a bit on the skimpy side, but overall, this looks like it could become a walkable and inviting urban space. The trick will be to assure that the parking garage entrances, especially on the 9th street side, don't wall off the project from the surrounding neighborhoods and make this seem like a sealed suburban shopping complex rather than an integrated continuation of the Chinatown, East End and NoMa neighborhoods around it.
The city's job now is to make certain that the D.C. government doesn't once again turn out to be the major obstacle to progress on a key element in the new downtown. That means resolving the standoff over whether to build a new central library or renovate the Martin Luther King library. And that dispute, sadly, looks like it's turning into a classic case of Washington paralysis.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (Ward 3), in her final weeks on the council, first sought to get her colleagues to approve the new central library; three members of her committee--Marion Barry, Carol Schwartz and Vincent Gray--stuffed that idea. The latest wrinkle: Patterson wanted to at least leave office having put the committee's 100-plus-page research report on the library issue on the official record; she had hoped to get that done today.
But last night, Gray, Barry and Schwartz, apparently intent on stopping the library project or anything associated with it, blocked that move. Even though the committee report is chock full of statements by opponents of the new library, the three council members wrote to Patterson yesterday that "while we appreciate the work you have done and commend you for it, we cannot be supportive should there be a vote tomorrow by the committee on the 'special report.'" In other words, goodbye and good riddance. As Patterson tells me, "This is more about personalities than policy."
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