Capital Story: Magnificent Revival-Behind Barricades: But the New Washington Is Not Just a Mega-Office Park. Complementing and Even Competing with the Smithsonian and Monumental Offerings along the Mall, a Rush of New Cinemas, Theaters, Privately Financed Museums, Quality Restaurants and Trendy Retail Stores Have Transformed the Old Downtown
Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly
Reel back to Inauguration Day, 1961: President John F. Kennedy notes pool halls, liquor stores and shabby storefronts along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue and starts plans for renewal.
Forty-four years later, following ambitious planning and partnerships and a passel of false starts, the grand avenue displays handsome new federal buildings, ambitious squares, a distinguished Canadian Embassy, a wondrously restored old Willard Hotel and more.
A remarkable economic thrust and transformation of Washington, begun in the '90s, has flourished during President George W. Bush's first term.
The fulcrum of the growth is nowhere else than the historic downtown of Washington, 138 blocks running north of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.
Parts of that territory were ravaged by the riots of the late 1960s. Many blocks just stumbled along; others were semi-deserted for decades, ghostly reminders of lost neighborhoods and life.
But no longer. The downtown area has added 47,000 jobs in the last five years. In 1980, the city had 50 million square feet of office space; today it has doubled to 100 million square feet and has become a national leader with an additional 48 million square feet predicted by 2030.
But the new Washington is not just a mega-office park. Complementing and even competing with the Smithsonian and monumental offerings along the Mall, a rush of new cinemas, theaters, privately financed museums, quality restaurants and trendy retail stores have transformed the old downtown.
The decision of sports team owner Abe Pollin in the late '90s to relocate his Washington Wizards and Capitals from the Washington Beltway to the new downtown MCI Center he built on Seventh Street (and atop a Metro subway stop) was a pivotal event. So was the 1997 decision to form a downtown business improvement district (BID) to assess all property owners and then provide special security, marketing, planning and partnership ties between the city government and developers.
It all seems to be paying off During Bush's first four years, downtown Washington has added 20 new movie screens, a new and enlarged $850 million convention center, the fabulously successful International Spy Museum, 35 new restaurants and the $274 million Gallery Place, an ambitious mixed-use, cinema-retail-residential complex.
Two new theaters--an expanded Shakespeare and remade Woolly Mammoth--will open soon. The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum reopen next year after a $300 million renovation, and construction is clipping along on the interactive 350,000-square-foot Newseum and Freedom Forum directly on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And perhaps most exciting: People are finally agreeing to live downtown. …