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.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

From Mica for NGA, the FTC building

(Photo: General Services Administration.)

Today's Post has an op-ed, "Kick out the FTC to make room for art?," about Congressman John Mica's arm-twisting with regard to the Federal Trade Commission building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which Rep. Mica thinks would make a good addition to the National Gallery of Art.

From the article:

Specifically, Powell says, the museum would create exhibit space for prints and drawings (it owns 105,000 works on paper, most of which are rarely displayed); an education center; and a better, more accessible library. It could build a pedestrian tunnel under Constitution Avenue, like the one that connects its East and West Buildings. It could keep the space open at night, which would further enliven Penn Quarter.

“We haven’t expanded since 1978,” Powell says, “and the collection has grown enormously since then.”

The stunning transformations of the old Pension Building into the National Building Museum and the U.S. Patent Office into the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum show what can be achieved. Other, even bigger blueprints to improve Washington are gathering dust in this period of austerity: Michael Kaiser’s plan to draw pedestrians from the Mall by covering the highways that isolate the Kennedy Center, for example, and age-old ideas to make better use of Washington’s riverfront."

While I have thought about this more from the standpoint of powerful Congresspeople and their ideas (e.g., a Congressman who I think went to Catholic University got the Armed Forces Retirement Home to sell CUA 20 acres of land just across Harewood Road for a minimal price) and getting their way, it is true that by expanding the cultural footprint of the NGA in this manner, it would help to activate Pennsylvania Avenue, which for the most part is a forlorn collection of federal buildings that have minimal non-office activity.
"Old" Post Office Building, DC, postcard
It's the reason that converting the Old Post Office Building to some kind of vibrant mixed use building has always been doomed, because it's very difficult for outlying properties disconnected from vibrance to generate vibrance all by themselves except for extraordinary circumstances (e.g., a casino, which doesn't generate external vibrance as much as internal vibrance anyway).

-- Press release, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, "Norton Calls GSA to Account for Failure to Develop the Iconic Old Here"

Note that the Reagan Office Building complex has the same problem as the Old Post Office Building in terms of activation for non federal uses. They try really hard, program the public spaces, have a couple of restaurants, etc., but it's mostly a pain in the ass to get into the building, so people don't bother, as various failed restaurant ventures have learned to great cost over the years (Panevino, Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, etc.).

Converting the FTC building to another NGA gallery building could help make a non-federal use of the Old Post Office Building become viable.

At the same time, we don't want to lose the value of federal buildings in the city, and dissipate the value of agglomeration. On the other hand, federal uses in the city seem to have plenty of options in the central business district, as well as in NoMA and on M Street SE and M Street SW.

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