The USArts District: It’s a Small Idea After All

It’s official: Washington’s long-vaunted “living downtown” is to become a “Sony downtown” instead. That’s the goal of the Interactive Downtown D.C. Task Force, whose members were announced April 9 by Mayor Marion Barry. While the National Capital Planning Commission suggests revitalizing the city by monumentalizing vast new areas (see “Streetscape,” 4/12), the task of the latest downtown task force is to renew the eastern side of downtown with quasi-educational projects that emulate such corporatized “urban-entertainment” playgrounds as Universal Studio’s City Walk (in L.A.), Sony’s Yerba Buena retail-arts-restaurant complex (San Francisco), and Disney’s plan for Times Square (New York).

This goal is implicit in the membership of the new task force, which is headed by Herbert S. Miller of Western Development (Georgetown Park, Potomac Mills, and Market Square). Included are such usual suspects as Carr Real Estate Services President Robert Carr, whose company’s many failed projects are among downtown’s principal blights; James Gibson of the Federal City Council’s D.C. Agenda Project; Quadrangle Development Chairman Bob Gladstone, a longtime downtown player; former D.C. zoning lawyer Bob Peck, now commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service; and veteran Barry cronies Fred L. Greene, Alexis Herman, and Kwasi Holman.

Also on the list, however, are out-of-towners like Bruce Fabel, vice president of retail for Nike, whose Niketown superstores provide “destination retail” in a handful of American cities; Gary Goddard, who helped design Disney’s Epcot Center and Caesar’s Palace’s Magic Empire; Lehr Jackson of Williams Jackson Ewing, the retail consultant for Union Station; Mike Swinney, president of Sony Development; and Nicholas S. Winslow, president of Warner Bros. Recreation Enterprises. As these guys merge shopping, eating, and entertainment into one seamless climate-controlled environment, they’re making it a small world after all.

As a preliminary guide, the task force has issued a map of the “USArts District, a vision for America’s First City.” This fairly hilarious document presents a downtown where virtually everything has been commercialized and museumized: The FBI Building would include an “interactive FBI Museum and restaurant”; National Public Radio headquarters would be flanked by the “International Telecommunications and Internet Museum”—kids! see it with your own eyes! a 9,600-baud modem!—and the Tariff Building (long coveted by the Smithsonian) would become the “Children’s Discovery Museum” (sponsored by the Discovery Channel?).

Also envisioned are a “Music Dome” and “Cultural Arts Center” for the south end of the new Convention Center, an “International Museum of Classical Music and Opera” in the old Carnegie Library building, an adjacent “American Museum of Music,” and an “International Sports Museum” north of the MCI Arena. The existing convention center would become the “American Entertainment Zone,” if that’s not redundant. (It’s not too late to bid on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is it?)

These trendy notions are not supported by the existing zoning, the goals of the prematurely shuttered Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., or common sense. Notably lacking is additional residential space to support the incomplete Pennsylvania Quarter; the map calls for “a variety of new residential developments,” but only north of M Street. Instead, it depicts such vague whims as an “International Free Trade Zone” north of Judiciary Square. (Presumably, it would be possible to carry a hot dog from here to the new Ronald Reagan Building international trade center without paying a tariff.)

The USArts District has one obvious advantage for the bankrupt city: Some of its projects might be funded by corporate capital. It seems unlikely, however, to provide the basic amenities of genuinely lively downtowns: residents, diversity, street life. In fact, the map seems to miss the point spectacularly: When was the last time a disgruntled potential downtown visitor complained that Washington doesn’t have enough museums?

Defeat Garden According to preservationists, the garden adjacent to the apartment building at 3901 Connecticut Ave. NW was one of the last surviving Victory Gardens in the city. Undertaken during World War II, such gardens were producing 40 percent of the nation’s fresh vegetables by 1944, testified George Washington University professor Richard Longstreth to the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on March 28.

To supporters such as Longstreth, the garden was “a virtually unique historic resource in this city.” HPRB’s staff disagreed, arguing that the garden had “no legal or design relationship with 3901 Connecticut Avenue.” Representing the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, Longstreth responded that such a relationship was not necessary to establish the garden’s historic character, but the board accepted its staff’s argument. The property’s owner, Chevy Chase Land Co., quickly followed the board’s decision with more concrete action: It bulldozed the garden on April 3. The Charles E. Smith Co. has expressed interest in the property, the likely site of a new apartment building.

—Mark Jenkins & Bill Rice

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