Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I've written about this before, but it is still striking. I had occasion to take a walk down M Street today, going to the Navy Yard. This was the exact same walk I once took daily 6 summers ago, when I was an intern at NAVSEA. I've remarked before on how much this part of DC has changed. Once, it was nothing but abandoned row houses, muffler shops, and empty lots. But since NAVSEA moved in, office towers have been springing up. There's a hotel and condos now. An excellent website, Near Southeast, catalogs these developments.

Probably most symbolic of the changes is the new ballpark. I can see it going up from my office window. Just last week, a new portion of the upper deck blocked off my view of Coast Guard Headquarters forever. There is a lot of talk of how the stadium will anchor development, a "ballpark village." I'm not so sure - I think it will be fairly lively... 81 days a year. Down the street, the Nationals' owner is putting up an office tower, which is where the webcamera that took the above picture is installed. On the roof, the national ensign is flanked by the District flag and a banner bearing the curled W of the Nationals. It is distracting - right outside my window, flapping in the breeze, reminding me that baseball season is so close.

I think that office tower, and all the others like it, will have more impact on the neighborhood. Probably the biggest change to the area, after NAVSEA, is the new Department of Transportation Headquarters. Seven thousand people are moving in soon, and they will be here 5 days a week. That means more food services, more traffic, crowded Metro trains, more everything. The District is creating a second downtown.

Washington is surrounded by the infamous Beltway, but it is divided by the less well known Southeast Expressway. This highway runs from the old Long Bridge Potomac crossing near the Pentagon, then east across the city, just south of Capital Hill, terminating at Pennsylvania Avenue where it crosses the Anacostia. Almost the entireity of SE and SW Washington are walled off from the rest of the city by a raised expressway, similar to the erstwhile Central Artery in Boston. The central business district of the District is K Street. But for a number of reasons, another is slowly growing here in Southeast. In a few years, everything that exists in Downtown will exist here on M Street SE, in miniature. Numerous office and condominium high-rises, cultural centers, major federal headquarters, etc. It is a novel experience, watching as a new neighborhood is created, essentially from whole cloth.

I have to wonder if there is a better way, though. Not that there is anything glaringly wrong with the new Southeast, or even the existing Downtown. But it is being done in a fairly piecemeal fashion, each owner developing their plot as they see fit. Though I don't necessarily think a centrally plan would be any better, a scheme, a guide, an aesthetic, might be helpful. DC is more than just its monumental core. In addition to it's massive public spaces and institutions, it must have all the parts of a modern, working city. But with so much space given over to government facilities, the Mall, Rock Creek Park, the Smithsonian (all on prime, central real estate), and prohibited from building skywards, the city must be especially efficient with its design and use of space. Otherwise, more people will move out to Rockville and Manassas, and work in Bethesda or Tyson's Corner. The challenge is to grow as a livable, working city without losing the character that makes Washington completely unique. And with its heightened pace of change, the M Street Corridor exemplifies that struggle. I think it would be wise for citizens of other growing cities to watch what happens in DC very carefully.

If Washingtonians want to look for an example to follow, I don't think they need look much farther than across the river. Arlington has been very successful in creating a core around the corridor from Rosslyn to Ballston, along the Orange Line. Towers rose near the metro stations, surrounded by restaurants, shops, and services, trailing off into the residential single family homes. I think M street from the Waterfront to the Navy Yard has similar potential, and the District should move now to encourage that, regulating enough to maintain a "sloping" neighborhood from towers to townhouses.

I can't say why I find this interesting - I don't actually live in DC, and once this assignment is over, I won't work here either. But complete makeovers of entire sections of major American cities are unusual events - the only larger recent occurrences I'm aware of are the Big Dig, the reclamation of Stapleton Airport in Denver, and Ground Zero. Each has taken a different approach, so the comparison should be valuable to the next generation of city planners. But its value to me, and most readers, will be as an intellectual exercise. How do you redesign a city?

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