CONVENTION CENTER CONUNDRUM
[from February 1998 issue]




This is a tough one indeed. There are so many valid arguments on both sides of the Mt. Vernon Square vs. North Capitol/New York Avenue site that it may just require King Solomon to sort it all out.

Unfortunately for us DC taxpayers, however, we have no King Solomons among our political hierarchy. Thus, we'll have to muddle through this to what will probably be an unsatisfactory resolution after all.

And what will that unsatisfactory resolution likely be, you ask?

Probably staying put at Mt. Vernon Square, largely because the behind-the-scenes power brokers have made such a major commitment to the site, in terms of money, energy, and reputations on the line.

Now, we're not going to use much space to regurgitate all the arguments both pro and con; our readers know them already. And for those who don't, we suggest calling up this newspaper's own web site, http://www.intowner.com, and clicking the links button at the bottom of our home page to bring up our list and then click the site for DC Watch, a comprehensive politics and public affairs resource which contains an entire section devoted to published material on this topic.

In a nutshell, if the overriding concern is that the Mt. Vernon site won't afford any option for future expansion--assuming that such will actually be a need, then North Capitol has got to win hands down. (The perceived inevitable need for expansion in the future assumes ever-increasing numbers of people attending conventions and trade shows. We're not so sure that historic trends will continue indefinitely given the amazing developments in telecommunications, teleconferencing, the "virtual reality" opportunities that an ever-improving Internet technology will afford; or corporate and organizational concerns about stemming burdensome travel and hotel costs which will never go down.)

If the overriding concern is about ease of access between the convention center and hotels, restaurants, Washington's museums and tourist sites (which account for a large measure of why DC is such a popular meetings destination), or ease of access to politicians and government officials, then Mt. Vernon wins hands down. The North Capitol site, which its promoters keep referring to as "Union Station," is quite a long schlep from Union Station. For those of us who've had to go from the Metro to the Greyhound Bus, we can assure you that it's a tedious five block walk (there's no other practical way to get there otherwise); to continue north to where a convention center would be located would entail two more dreary blocks.

This is not to suggest that the site north of Union Station wouldn't ultimately be a terrific one, but before it can really work and before convention planners will be willing to put their people there, the city will have to make major infrastructure commitments, starting with a Metro stop (which could be financed with the $25 million just announced as being made available by the feds to upgrade the Yellow/Green line station at Mt. Vernon.) But the hotel industry would have to get some stuff going also, just as it did when the Mt. Vernon site was in early planning stages; we believe the hotels would come and we also believe that the hotels that went in near Mt. Vernon won't be empty because, even without the MCI Center's draw, there is right now lots of business to go around.

If the overriding concern is negative impact on the already fragile neighborhoods of Shaw that surround the downtown site, including the Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Historic Districts and the residential blocks to the east, then North Capitol wins hands down. We fear that, notwithstanding all good-faith attempts that may be undertaken to minimize disruption to the Shaw neighborhoods, in the last analysis they will be doomed. The convention center's design, even the improved version--assuming the center's governing board even sticks with the improved version--is, whichever way we cut the cake, still going to be a behemoth squashing the 19th century residential structures in its shadow. And this doesn't even say anything about the traffic problems that will be created regardless if the scheme to snake trucks underground even ends up working reasonably well.

Ultimately, we must look at this project from the point of view of what's best for the city overall, not just what might be good for some nearby property owners who would like to see the market value of their properties increase; nor what might be of short-term benefit to the hotel industry, and so forth. We do need to be concerned about the long-range impact--negative, we fear, if jammed in behind the Carnegie Library, but ultimately quite positive if its presence at North Capitol would spur a massive re-development of what is now virtually an unproductive and decayed area.

So, not only would the cost of construction be cheaper than at Mt. Vernon for several reasons about which others have provided detailed analysis, but its presence at North Capitol would ultimately create a mighty economic engine where now there is nothing and nothing doesn't generate tax revenue.

We are very concerned about costs, not just in a theoretical "good-government" discussion sort of way, but in a very practical way as an average taxpayer in the city. As things stand now, we--that is, us individuals--have been contributing two percent of each and every restaurant, carryout and bar bill we pay whenever we go out to eat or drink. It is disingenuous at the very least for the restaurant and hotel lobbyists to claim that it is their industries that are picking up a hefty portion of the convention center tab. No, it's their customers, and it really makes a difference in the cost of the meals we eat out, even when we eat only in modest establishments.

Furthermore, it's not clear to us that small businesses in most of the city's neighborhoods will benefit from the presence of a convention center. They are the ones that will be burdened with special assessments over the next 40 years if certain financial triggers click in as the law now provides, which they will if the costs keep escalating which they will (and are) at Mt. Vernon.

Oh, yes, conventioneers will seek out some of the "clever" shops and the national "theme" emporia that are springing up downtown, but they're not likely to do much for the neighborhood business communities which are, collectively, an extremely important part of the local economy. As a matter of fact, as hotels and their customers already seem to be gravitating to newer hostelries downtown, a number of merchants in Dupont and Adams Morgan have reported to us that they have noticed a softening of out-of-towner business.

Maybe all of this gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair would never have been necessary if the DC government, and that includes the city council (except for John Ray when he was a member and he pushed the North Capitol idea, which we will admit/remind our readers that we opposed at the time also), had engaged in long-range planning and meaningful analysis--then even we might have seen the light before now.


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