Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, July 25, 2008

If the developer doesn't care, then what happens?

Amenities building and the Senate Square Condominiums
Senate Square apartments, 200 block of I Street NE. Architect: Phil Esocoff.

I have a line:

when you ask for nothing, that's what you get. When you ask for the world, you don't get it, but you get a lot more than nothing.

The same goes with the quality of the built environment.

When you demand little, you get little in return.

If you don't demand quality, for the most part, you don't get it.

And with buildings in DC, we only get one shot, one attempt to influence what happens within our lifetimes.

The Planning and Zoning process, by not focusing very much on placemaking and the quality of the experience, and context and urban form, means that we aren't producing a quality built environment.

This mattered less, when architecture and construction were about beauty and craftsmanship, creating buildings that would last. They couldn't imagine building bad buildings, it just wasn't part of their ethic or world-view. (Also see Kuntsler's Home from Nowhere.)

Now it's all about value engineering. (There are exceptions.) So if you don't demand quality, you can rest assured that you won't get quality.

Another line I have is a take off of the book title, Architecture: Choice or Fate?

I joke that the choice of the developer is the fate of the neighborhood and city. If the architect and developer care about quality you get it. If they don't, you don't. Or if the architects are suburban rather than urban in orientation, then you can be assured that they won't get how to design and build in urban-appropriate ways.

That's why you need a strong zoning and planning environment, and a focus on urban design, to get quality. (And note, most developers in the region argue it's easier and faster to get projects through in DC than it is in places like Arlington or Montgomery Counties.)

The Florida Market "redevelopment" process has been acrimonious for a number of years. A group of us haven't been impressed with the urban renewal like proposals that emanated from the Sang Oh Choi group and we opposed them*. In order to bull the proposals through the Choi group hired connected lawyers, made donations to City Councilmembers and Mayoral campaigns, and got Vincent Orange to pass a law (he already modified the Comprehensive Plan at the Council level, without public input) "mandating" the urban renewal.

Now that law still hasn't been executed (although you can never really get a good and straight answer out of the developer's lawyer...). And since a new investor has come into the Market area owning more land than the Choi group, and because Gallaudet has indicated they have no interest in selling their land, the Sang Oh Choi group has backed off on the broad proposal, and they will focus on mandating their will in a much smaller area of the Market district.

But all along, because they had the special law passed by City Council, they have been for the most part intransigent and dismissive of public input. I argue that for the most part, the developer's legal representative misrepresents what is happening in various public forums, before ANCs, and even before the Zoning Commission. But that's the way it is in the city.

As far as the Gateway Residences project is concerned, doing something there is fine. But doing something crappy there is not.

All along, the developer had little interest in seeking out alternative input focused on improving the quality of the project.

And I would argue that the Development Review section of the Office of Planning didn't demand substantive and significant urban design improvements either.

So the project proposal, in many respects, stunk/stinks.

But somehow, after the June 5th Zoning Commission hearing, the Developer and their agents woke up and realized that the Zoning Commission identified problems with the proposal, and their concerns with lack of community input, and that the Developer had to start responding.

[Much of the change had to do with the involvement of ANC6C, and the awarding to them of party status in the matter. The project is located in ANC5B, although immediately abutting ANC6C. Many of the Commissioners in ANC6C are leagues beyond the relative rubes who are the Commissioners in ANC5B. As a result, the Developer couldn't just steamroll things through like before.]

I will admit, they did. The project isn't totally terrible.

But it still needs a great deal of improvement.

And the facade, being glassy and all, just isn't right for that particular place. Really, like with Senate Square and its use of the warehouse-industrial style in homage to the industrial character and history of the area along the northeast corridor railroad tracks emanating north of Union Station, as reflected in still extant buildings such as the Woodies Warehouse, the Sanitary Market Warehouse, the XM Satellite building, and others, they should have utilized a similar style.

This is an opportunity lost that will never be recovered. All because of developer intransigence and a belief that because they had greased the system, they could do what they wanted.
XM Satellite Building, 1500 Eckington Place NE, Washington, DC
XM Satellite Building. Photo from BeyondDC.

* Last night I received an interesting snub from one of the developer's representatives. I realized later it was because my efforts (and others) likely cost him personally millions of dollars of "rents" earned at the expense of others, through seizure and involvement of the government by eminent domain. (Of course, the developer and other partners in the project lost out as well.)



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