Those who are regular readers of these pages know that for some time now I have been following with keen interest projects involving two historic buildings here in the nation’s capital: the West Heating Plant in Georgetown, and the Old Post Office Pavilion downtown. There have been some new developments with respect to each of these projects, which Mr. Matthews of The Georgetown Metropolitan alerted his readers to, this morning, for he has been following these projects as well. And while the details of these developments themselves mainly interest those of us who live and work in Washington, they do allow all of us to consider some important questions with respect to civic involvement in the development of our communities.
The West Heating Plant, as I have written about previously, is an Art Moderne behemoth, sitting in the lower SE corner of Georgetown just about where the C&O Canal empties into Rock Creek and the Potomac River. If you are coming into the village from the east, it is impossible to miss, for it is not only much larger in scale than most of the surrounding buildings, but its buff brick facade contrasts strongly with many of the red-colored brick facades that predominate in the area. And as I described in an earlier post, the Old Post Office Pavilion, built in the Neo-Romanesque style, has suffered from a variety of problems in recent years, but is one of the most prominent buildings in the city. It can be seen from many parts of the capital, as it is one of the tallest buildings in the Washington landscape, due to our fairly strict building height restrictions.
According to The Washington Post, the West Heating Plant is definitely up for sale now, and bids are being entertained for the Old Post Office Pavilion. While the latter seems to be on track for the best use of the building, the former does not. Unfortunately, it looks as though the developers – or at least, the ones interviewed for the story – want to turn it into condominiums. Although I will of course cover my mouth while doing so, allow me to express my reaction in the following way: [YAWN]
Georgetown does not have any large, enclosed, truly public spaces. At present we do not have anything like a town hall, courthouse, public assembly rooms, or the like, to provide indoor meeting spaces that are unaffiliated with any commercial, educational, or religious institutions. There is no community theatre or concert hall; such arts events take place either in churches or in schools, where oftentimes space and timing makes things difficult, since they cannot be dedicated solely to the use of the general public. If the West Heating Plant space were to be turned into an art museum or public arts center of some sort, a purpose for which it is ideally suited as examples from London to Barcelona show, it would be radical departure from the boring, lost opportunities that the southern, industrial half of Georgetown has presented to residents of the village over the years. As the only part of the Georgetown neighborhood with larger-scale buildings, it is a pity that once again, an old industrial site will be turned into almost exclusively private property, particularly given that it was originally built with taxpayer dollars.
Similarly, with respect to the Old Post Office Pavilion, while it is interesting to read that some groups want to use it for museum space, this is not the best use of the building. We need more hotel rooms in Washington, to start with, in order to keep people from staying in Maryland or Virginia when they visit the capital, and taking their hotel tax dollars with them. The location, right next to the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall, is superb, and the scale of the building fits a grand hotel far better than it would a museum collection, unless it were a particularly colossal museum collection. The fact that Donald Trump and his organization are looking seriously at bidding for it is, quite frankly, exactly the right way to go, as I hoped would happen in my previous blog post on the future of the Pavilion.
These two projects, and the various proposals which will come out of the sale or lease of these buildings, are just a couple of examples of how important it is for you to think about your local community, what it needs, and what it lacks, when opportunities such as these come around – for they do not come around on a regular basis. I am very much aware that the majority of my readers are young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, who perhaps do not have a great deal of power and influence in their communities just yet. However I also expect that if you are reading these pages, you are possessed not only of some degree of intelligence, but also of some degree of concern for re-building a positive, successful, civic society in the West, after many decades of mismanagement.
Someday, dear readers, you and I will be running things. And while I suspect that right now, many of you do not think about bricks-and-mortar matters such as historic preservation and putting old buildings to new uses, nevertheless you should start now to consider and discuss such things. Someday, you will be the one in the position to have some say and influence over what gets built, restored, or repurposed in your community. If you do not learn to care now, whether about urban planning, architecture, or even basic civics, you will forfeit your right to legitimately complain about the fabric of your neighborhood. And then, tragically, we will end up with more lost opportunities for improving our society.