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.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

It's time to retire the old saw about the Reeves Center being a great economic development contribution to U Street

In honor of the City Paper article, "Swap and Go," quoting City Administrator Alan Lew about how moving government agencies, from the Reeves Center, to Anacostia, will make Anacostia better:

1. For 20 years, the nearby properties on the adjoining blocks continued to suck.
2. Few if any new businesses were generated by the existence of the property during its existence
3. Most of the retail businesses operating in the building failed, or certainly, left owing DC Government hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent.

I first wrote about this in August 2005, energized in part by the failure of the two "government" office buildings on the 600 block of H Street NE to have any more general economic benefit to the greater community, rather than to the community development corporation collecting the rent checks.

Not to mention the issue of degrading agglomeration benefits of keeping government agencies close together, rather than separating them, a phenomenon that I also call intra-city sprawl.

Reeves Center Myth Revisited
Re-reading the Post article ("Williams Proposes Moving Metro Offices to Anacostia") it quotes Mayor Williams as saying he was inspired to suggest this development at the Anacostia Metro Station by the actions of Mayor Barry's building of the Reeves Center.

Reeves CenterThe Reeves Center is pretty typical of the urban brutalist DC urban renewal projects from the mid-1970s onwards.

IT IS A MYTH that the Reeves Center sparked the revitalization of U Street. It is an urban brutalist* monster that sucks the life off of the street. Many of the retail businesses in the Reeves Center have failed--most leaving lease debts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars--debts that the District government had to eat.

The other three corners of the intersection have fast food places or a vacancy. AND, it took more than 10 years after the Reeves Center before "revitalization" started happening--much of it being sparked by the opening of the Green line subway stations. (Granted, the construction of the Metro on U Street contributed to the problems.)

And still, the area around Reeves Center is a vacuum. What life around it has it engendered?

Why is learning from Jane Jacobs and other practitioners of urban vitality so difficult?

Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, ORRight:  Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, Oregon. Photo by PPS.

Counter point

One could argue that the movement of the Dept. of Consumer and regulatory Affairs and Office of Planning to offices at the Waterfront Metro station has been key to the increased vitality at that location.

If that is the case, and I would argue that it is, it is because unlike the Reeves Center, these buildings were designed to connect to and strengthen the area around the building. Plus they are part of a mixed use complex, including residences, and an updated Safeway Supermarket.

So the lesson is that if you are gonna do such a move, make the buildings connect, not disconnect. Also see "Development economics and Anacostia."

* I know, I know. Reeves Center isn't urban brutalist, but it is hulking and disconnected. More of a superblock styled building.

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At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Cavan said...

Richard, please read the comments about the Reeves Center through a political spectrum. Nobody really believes that it was the catalyst for reviving U St. It's just about being polite in public to Councilmember/former Mayor Barry. his vote is very helpful for making the land swap/stadium deal work. That's just politics. It's better to be polite than go on and on in the interest of the exact truth.

It's ok to say that at the present time, especially since everyone knows that the history books will say otherwise.

At 4:43 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

It's not ok, because it reinforces the wrong lessons about revitalization, and it happens over and over in the city, with other projects, especially for Anacostia, but Georgia Ave. too.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Just out of curiousity, how often are you in Anacostia, Richard?

Also see my comment on GGW about the ton of amenities already present in the neighborhood (two bars/sit down restaurants, galleries, thrift shops office transit historic housing etc)

At 7:22 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

@Cavan, yes, part of it keeping Marion happy. But to quote Calvin and Hobbes:

"“History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction. That's why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices.”

While Richard is entirely right the form of the building is flawed from an "Activiation" standpoint, I don't think that is entirely helpful going forward. Other qustions:

1. Did the building bring in other private investment?

2. Did it bring real estate valuations up at all.

3. Is the building interesting enough that you want to save it for the future?

I was driving on Georgia Ave again and it did strongly remind me of 14th st back in say 1998.

At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Richard layman said...

Charlie -- actually, your points 1 and 2, with an additional point, did other businesses open up (a slight wrinkle on point one, because it has two elements, in property, and in operating businesses) are the criteria that I use (and so should everyone else) in making assessments on whether or not buildings or projects contribute, positively or negatively, to revitalization.

The point you make about spurring private investment is a key element of Goetze's _Building Neighborhood Confidence_. He makes the point that govt. investment isn't to make people dependent, but to prime the pump and their confidence in the area, so that they will invest on their own.

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

h st. ll -- (1) it's been a few months since I've been to Anacostia I think... but (2) that's not the point really. I agree that amenities are such are starting to redevelop.

I probably didn't make it clear. I have nothing against Anacostia. The point I was making is that plopping down a govt. building, mostly, doesn't spur additional investment UNLESS (and this is the Waterfront Station counterpoint) it's part of an overall, integrated program, with the right kind of urban design and placemaking elements.

The Reeves Center was never that.

(There are a lot of reasons for this. Government workers are cheap. They mostly eat lunch in. And they don't shop during lunch hour. And people who come there for work purposes don't linger in the area either. They are very focused. If, and this has to do with agglomeration, the destination is located around other things and is part of a chain of trips, it's possible to capture some of the visitors attention in terms of buying/eating.)

2. HOWEVER, there is the downside about spreading city agencies all across the city, which reduces the agglomeration benefits of proximity, and increases the amount of travel to get from place to place.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Oh yeah, I was not offended or saying you were wrong. First Q was just out of interest, second part was just a reference to a previous point (as you often do)...

And I agree with your assertions about govt workers. I don't think they will be a huge part of the success EOTR - though I think Mayor Gray's idea of free rent for a time for vendors at St. E's Pavilion is great. That is excellent economic dev

Agree about agglomeration, but it is a small (in land area) city and bringing the various downtown projects on to the tax roles will provide substantial revenues.

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

BTW ya'll going to the streetcar community open house tomorrow at the testing track? I'm going. Looking forward to it.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I wanted to, but already had plans to go out of town. How'd it go?

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

It was nice. Jazz music (recorded) was playing and there was a diversity of ages, genders and races amongst the people that attended (while I was there).

The vehicles looked great and are quite spacious. They should open on time or at worst be delayed a month or two.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yep, I figure 2014 for revenue operation is more believable. And yes, they are like the Portland vehicles so they should be fine as well (spacious).

... although the PCC cars in SF are fun too. (But those traditional cable cars in New Orleans... not too comfortable.)


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