Washington Loses An Opportunity

The nation’s capital is a city which, to the casual observer, would seem to be full of useful public spaces. Indeed, many first-time visitors are amazed at the number of parks, squares, and circles where people may gather and sit outside for lunch, stroll, or enjoy the abundant sunshine. And of course, the National Mall stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and on to the Lincoln Memorial, is an enormous swath of land to set aside and dedicate to the use and enjoyment of the American people in the heart of the federal city. Yet there are a couple of points to consider, which that same casual observer may not realize when admiring the trees, fountains, and public gardens that dot our cityscape.

The District of Columbia itself does not retain control over many of the public areas in the city of Washington which, as in the case of the National Mall, are maintained by the National Park Service. Thus, decisions on permits for the holding of events in such places are up to the federal authorities. In addition, while there are plenty of green spaces around the city in which to sit on a park bench under a shade tree, Washington is lacking in the kind of attractive, public hardscape areas that one sees in cities and towns throughout much of the rest of the world.

There are of course, at least technically speaking, a few such paved areas in the city. There is the poorly designed and unattractive Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, for example, and we cannot forget the vaguely communist and depressing L’Enfant Plaza, which Washington’s original city planner, Pierre L’Enfant, would no doubt find horrific and ask to be renamed for someone other than himself (LBJ would seem a more fitting choice.) However there is nothing, to my mind, in Washington to match grand paved spaces such as Somerset House in London, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or the Marienplatz in Munich.

Several years ago when officials decided to tear down the old Washington Convention Center, a hideous fusion of 70’s brutalism and 80’s smoked glass, they moved the site of the new Washington Convention Center a couple of blocks to the north and east. This change of location has helped to spur redevelopment of this area of the city, which is still ongoing. After the implosion and clearing of the massive old building, the city was left with an enormous empty space, taking up several city blocks and surrounded by a mix of hotels, office buildings, and historic structures. Over the past several years the city has been working with various developers to try to come up with a comprehensive plan for the site, which in the meantime has been a mixed-use property, hosting parking lots, a temporary exhibition space, Christmas market, tennis courts, and concert venue, among other things.

Today it has been announced that the groundbreaking for development of the 10-acre parcel will take place this April, even though the financing for the project has not yet been confirmed. It is hoped that the site will, as in the redevelopment of the Gallery Place and Chinatown neighborhoods several blocks to the south, become a destination to work, shop, dine, and play for city residents and visitors alike. As Washington continues to show what can be done when cities make an investment in their downtown, bringing the abandoned urban core back to life after decades of abandonment and neglect, this is all very laudable.

Yet at the same time I cannot help but reflect what a lost opportunity this is for the city, as the large, empty space is quite an impressive one – even with the parked cars and security fencing. Crossing through the space on the way to or from downtown, I marvel at how the sunlight simply loves the space, and at how even some of the not particularly interesting glass-and-steel structures surrounding the perimeter of the site seem to take on a more lofty appearance. One thinks of views of cities like Dresden, with their grand, paved public squares, busy and active throughout the day providing venues for street performers, running children, and casual strollers, while in the evening hosting markets or large open-air concert performances for the public.

Given the realities of the city’s tax situation, this is not to be, for understandable reasons. So much of the property standing in the District of Columbia is non-taxable that the city has little choice but to develop whatever space it can, for a significant percentage of the territory within city limits is taken up by structures and property owned by the government, schools and universities, and non-profits, none of whom are liable to the city for property taxes. The building of more glass-skinned boxes will not do much to improve the soul of the city’s residents and visitors in the way that keeping this land as a paved, open square would do, but it is an inevitability under the circumstances.

Therefore my advice to my readers who find themselves in Washington between now and April when construction begins, is to take the time to visit the old Convention Center site, walk around and through it, and enjoy an experience of the city which, sadly, will not be available for much longer.

Site of the old Washington Convention Center, after demolition and pre-paving

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