Sunday, November 26, 2006

Learning from Verizon Center


In the EIS and in several responses to comments, the question of the compatibility of the arena with surrounding uses is addressed. Some of the responses are confusing, such as this phrase used several times throughout the documents:

“Experience has shown that arenas and other sports facilities thrive in combination with a strong mix of commercial and residential land uses, both as proposed elements of a larger master plan or as a catalyst for urban development.”

The writer seems to be saying that sports facilities are not only financially successful in mixed-use environments (which is good for the developer but doesn’t really address the current concerns of the community) but that sports facilities also encourage nearby urban development. Or something like that; what does “both as proposed elements…or as a catalyst” really mean? Both/or? Come to think of it, how could a sports facility thrive as a “proposed” element? A virtual thriving? In any case, the “prime example” for this auspicious collocation of uses is Verizon Center:

Opened in 1997, the Verizon Center has proven to be compatible with commercial and mixed-use redevelopment in this downtown neighborhood. Washington’s Comprehensive Plan, the District's official public policy statement on land use, transportation, housing, the environment, public facilities, urban design, and similar issues, proposes the introduction of high density residential uses to the mix of uses immediately adjacent to the Verizon Center.
An interesting case, because Verizon Center had a controversial genesis. Look at the grain of this area of Washington relative to Brooklyn. A large arena a few blocks from I-395, served by a modern subway system with large parking lots at suburban stations, is perhaps not that far out of place in a city of large footprints and wide streets. But the selected site at Seventh and F streets NW required the demolition of buildings and closing of streets in order to achieve a large enough footprint, breaking the historic urban plan layed out by Pierre L’Enfant for the nation’s capital.
As Glen Worthington, a student at Georgetown University Law Center has pointed out, “ For all practical puposes, the proposed D.C. Arena (now MCI Center) was going to be built regardless of historic preservation concerns…The Mayor (Marion Barry) and similarly powerful parties – both municipal and private – wanted the project to proceed, and so it did. The story of the MCI Center is not a little-engine-that-could story about persevering through a burdensome planning process; rather, it is a bulldozer story about plowing through the historic preservation obstacles meant to derail such projects” P. 23. And, when weighed against potential economic benefits to the District of Columbia which will result from the arena project, “…any street can be closed as long as public comment is allowed – comment, of course, can be ignored…no matter how many groups agree that there are substantial adverse effects to historic structures, losses to historic preservation can always be outweighed by economic benefits”(P. 27). Sound familiar?

Richard Layman, in his blog on Washington’s urban design issues, has noted that Verizon Center did not begin the revitalization of 7th Street NW; it started long before. Rather, the arena’s major accomplishments - in the eyes of the city’s business community - was to encourage suburbanites to “sample” the city, and encourage others in the business community to invest in commercial activity downtown, neither of which are particularly the challenge for us in Brownstone Brooklyn. On the other hand, Verizon Center also hastened the displacement of smaller retail outlets as well as Chinatown itself, and the urban fabric that contributed to making the East End something different from the typical mall. Now, as the arena is full with basketball, rock concerts and wrestling, the streets are indeed attracting big box retail and chain stores and yes, suburbanites as well because, well, the East End is looking a lot more like a suburban mall. Never mind that while the District spent $80 million dollars on infrastructure costs, and the arena is exempt from property taxes, by all accounts the challenges of affordable housing, traffic, and a dysfunctional public school system remain unadressed. According to the District of Columbia Police Department’s web site, in the area around Verizon Center total crime is up 46% this year.

In today’s Times, Tom Wolfe,
writing about the debate on 2 Columbus Circle, recounts how the chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission acquiesced to the commissions diminishing authority by only promising he was “going to hold a hearing…hold a hearing….hold a hearing...hold a hearing”. In the theme of cynical big city politics, sing to that tune in Chicago.

How have we come to call the lowest common denominator in culture “progress”? The national chains of retail outlets, working along with retailing experts and consultants, provide very precise guidance for what “works” for retailing, and what doesn’t. These specifications are formulas for contemporary shopping, tested in modern cities like Los Angeles and Cleveland; not intended for the mom and pop stores of days gone by. And while national chains can provide a “quality” product – I’ll confess that I like my Starbucks as much as the next person – the relentless roll of accruing capital in fewer centers comes at the cost of individual communities' sense of place.

So also in today’s Times, there’s
controversy about locating an F.A.O. Schwarz in Park Slope. “It’s not a Park Slope place”, explains a denizen, Gropp Lowry. And keep in mind, we’re talking about a toy store, not the “extreme sports” venue planned for Atlantic Yards. (see P.11)

To dismiss that sense of place as anti-development or anti-progress misses the fact that places we know reflect who we are together. There is meaning in urban form, the living history of the development of a community is to be found only in the built form and layout of the streets. Like plastic surgery, you can change it, but you can’t invent this meaning anew. The physicality of a place is significant beyond the intentions of a design team. The cultural history of a place makes its streets.

So the battle is joined. It’s Team Progress vs. Team Meaning. Watch for it on the next Apprentice.

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