Housing Complex

Livable. Walkable. Federal?

“How many of you go to L’Enfant Plaza to dine or for entertainment?” the General Services Administration’s Genevieve Hanson asked a crowd of about 50 developers and interested members of the public last week. Two hands went up.

Hanson rephrased her question: How many of the audience members considered the area just south of the National Mall a fun and pleasant place to hang out? Again, two hands.

It’s surprising any were raised at all. The enclave of federal government buildings between 6th and 12th streets SW is, in Hanson’s words, a “concrete jungle” and a “food desert.” It’s also a park desert, a housing desert, and an entertainment desert. Sterile during the day, the area—it’d be wrong to call it a neighborhood—is dead at night, save for the steady buzz of speeding cars on the Southwest Freeway.

We can thank the federal government for that. The area was a proper neighborhood—a poor one, sure, but a dense and lively residential community—until Congress authorized the Redevelopment Land Agency to evict residents and bulldoze homes in the interest of “urban renewal” in the 1950s.

In the District, we’re accustomed to hearing that we’re a company town whose fate is tied to that of the feds. We weathered the recession, we were told, because the government stayed open and kept us afloat. Sequestration, we were warned, would fall disproportionately on us.

Yet when it comes to the Southwest quadrant, the paradigm has been turned on its head. Here, the federal government’s pain in the District’s gain. And we’re poised to gain in a big way.

The General Service Administration recently received responses from 10 developers to a request for information about transforming “Federal Triangle South”—the area bounded by Independence Avenue to the north, 6th Street to the east, Maryland Avenue and D Street to the south, and 12th Street to the west—from a concrete office park into a livable, walkable community. GSA won’t release the names of the respondents, and developers I contacted either denied that they’d responded or declined to comment, but the request for information, issued in December, envisions a “vibrant mix of uses” for the area, with “ground floor retail, amenities, or cultural uses in Federal buildings to activate the street.” It’s part of a broader framework, the National Capital Planning Commission’s Southwest Ecodistrict plan, that aims to transform the area into a bustling, retail-filled, pedestrian-friendly destination, including at least 1,000 housing units.

But smart urban planning isn’t what drives GSA’s decision-making. The agency, which manages federal buildings, was spurred to act here by money matters.

“It came out of a certain desperation,” said GSA Public Building Service Commissioner Dorothy Robyn at the event with Hanson last Wednesday.

Robyn explained that while the Federal Buildings Fund had sustained the Public Building Service for 40 years, in the past three years, Congress has operated in a “difficult budget environment” and has diverted funds from the fund for use elsewhere. GSA continues to charge its tenants—the federal agencies—market-based rent for their buildings, Robyn said, but appropriators haven’t allowed her to put all that money back into acquiring and maintaining federal buildings. The shift has “pretty well wiped out our capital program,” she said.

All the better for the District. With GSA looking to cut costs and consolidate its workspaces—some of which are outdated anyway, with the budget crunch simply serving as a catalyst for changes that were already needed—the District has a chance to reclaim an area that hasn’t really been a part of the living, breathing city for the past half-century.

And it’s not just any area. The 22-acre Federal Triangle South ought to be one of the most desirable places for Washingtonians to live and developers to build. It’s as central as you can get, within walking distance of both the National Mall and Southwest Waterfront, which is undergoing its own metamorphosis. It is, in Hanson’s words, an “incredible transit node,” with the only Metro station serving four lines in L’Enfant Plaza, as well as the Virginia Railway Express, numerous bus lines, and easy access to interstates 295 and 395.

It’s not only Federal Triangle South that stands to benefit. The broader Southwest Ecodistrict plan, which aims to transform 110 acres between the Mall and the Waterfront into a “showcase of sustainable urban development,” is getting a big boost from GSA’s newfound urgency in overhauling Federal Triangle South.

The Ecodistrict initiative sets out a 25-year timeframe for implementation of the plan, but according to Elizabeth Miller, who’s leading the project for National Capital Planning Commission, “it actually could happen much quicker based on the initiative that GSA is putting into this right now.” Federal Triangle South is also the “cornerstone piece” of the Ecodistrict, says Miller, and it’s where NCPC would have recommended starting if GSA weren’t already taking the lead. Miller says NCPC and GSA collaborate daily on the project.

The challenge, of course, is to avoid making the same mistakes that the federal government made the last time it tried to revamp this part of town—or to make new ones. Miller says she and her colleagues constantly ask themselves how they can be sure their modern conception of what makes a good city is more enlightened that of their predecessors in the 1950s. Her answer is that, in effect, they’re not going for modern this time around.

In the mid-20th century, Miller says, the concept of zoning was relatively new across the country, and cities were enamored with the idea of separating different uses. It made sense to planners back then to create a district devoted entirely to offices and to transportation to those offices, as more and more people chose to live on the periphery or in the suburbs.

But since then, Miller says, planners have learned that “you can really make great places and better urban places when you really mix those uses.” Integrated uses means not only shorter commutes and a livelier neighborhood, but also greater sustainability from an energy standpoint. And so rather than reinventing the city once again, NCPC is aiming to follow the tried-and-true model of neighborhood building that existed before planners tried to get too clever, including a recreation of the original L’Enfant grid by bringing back streets that were wiped out in the 1950s.

NCPC’s renderings of the neighborhood show an unrecognizably green and diverse district, anchored by a retail- and tree-lined 10th Street Southwest—which is currently home to that enormous wannabe-Stalinist driveway known as the L’Enfant Promenade. It won’t come easy: Robyn told me that the Federal Triangle South project, with all of its “moving parts,” will be even more complex than GSA’s current attempt to swap the obsolete FBI headquarters for a new site in the region. But from the city’s perspective, and particularly that of the Office of Planning, this is simply too good an opportunity to let pass without persistent lobbying for the most walkable, livable, attractive neighborhood possible. After all, if we screw it up, it might be another 50 years until we have another chance to fix it. So this time, let’s get it right—and quickly, before GSA fills its coffers again.

Illustration by Jandos Rothstein

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