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.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

(Not) Understanding DC's Competitive Positioning for Commerce

The Washington Business Journal has a piece, "Architect pitching global trade center for Mount Vernon Triangle," about a Chinese-American architect's idea to create an "international commerce center" over a chunk of I-395 at New York Avenue.

It's an interesting idea, but trade is a commerce-business phenomenon, not a political phenomenon, so the demand for businesses, especially international businesses, to locate in DC other than for lobbying purposes, is not great.

Compare with the old "Techworld" example. "Techworld" was supposed to be a national center for technology development, built on the block between 7th and 9th Streets on Mount Vernon Square. It's now nothing but undifferentiated office-commercial space.

These articles from the Washington Post cover the development process of that project: "Techworld Plaza: Searching for Identity; Concept of D.C. Complex Changes to Mixed Use to Attract Tenants Techworld Plaza Searches for Tenants and a New Identity in Downtown D.C.," Techworld to Start Seeking Tenants in Nontechnical Fields," and "Techworld Project Is Still Viable, but Perhaps Not on Scale Envisioned" from 1989; "Techworld Finds Tenants, but Doubts About Project Persist; Cecchi's New Lease Accords Mute D.C. Complex's Image," from 1990; and "Techworld Seeks Court Protection; Developer to Shift Ownership to Citicorp" from 1995.

Also see this relatively hilarious--in retrospect--1997 article from the Washington Business Journal, "D.C. convention center should spur development."

Businesses want to be close to their potential customers, or connected to industry knowledge and innovation clusters.

That's why the Ronald Reagan building, the "International Trade Center," fails as an "international trade center," not because it's run by government per se (although the high rents are a big issue), it's because it's located in a city that is not focused on the market economy and creating and nurturing businesses, and conducting trade. (A similar list of articles about the RRITC could be listed here, comparable to the list of articles above about TechWorld, e.g., "Reagan Building Nears Its Debut; Five Years in the Making, Federal Offices to Begin Opening Next Month" from 1997.)

L'Enfant's desires to make DC a center for national commerce were dashed 200 years ago--East Capitol Street was supposed to become the nation's commercial center--but it didn't and couldn't, because New York, Philadelphia, and Boston (among others) were already well-established, and because they had direct port access, back when water-borne transportation was the primary way to get around between nations and between cities.

Although, the proposal could help put forward ideas to tunnel part of New York Avenue, which was suggested for through traffic as part of the New York Avenue Transportation Plan, not quite 10 years ago.

Sadly, the proposal to tunnel "I-95" from the ending of I-395 at New York Avenue continuing eastbound to the DC border and the BWI Parkway has gone nowhere, but it does make a lot of sense.
New York Avenue transportation plan, concept for I-395-New York Avenue tunnel

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