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Former Convention Center to Be Capstone on Change

Development Could Revitalize Downtown

The former Washington Convention Center could be transformed into a shopping, dining and residential area, if all goes according to a plan unveiled last week.

The redevelopment plan was presented Wednesday to members of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association.

“Washington is at one of those rare moments in its development when it’s fundamentally changing,” said Andrew Altman, director of the Office of Planning for the District of Columbia and one of three speakers at the event. “This site will be the capstone of an effort to move the center of energy from the Mall to downtown.”

Ron Kaplan and William Alsup III also spoke in the presentation. Kaplan is the development and project manager and a spokesman of City Street Properties, the development company hired to represent the District as the executive project manager. Alsup, senior vice president for the East Regional Office of Hines, a real estate development firm, spoke as a representative of the development team hired to implement the vision of the District’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. This team includes members of eight international, national and regional companies, such as Charles E. Smith Residential and The Georgetown Co., that will work in conjunction to reinvent the site.

With the new Washington Convention Center now open for just more than a year, the Office of Planning and Economic Development recognized its opportunity to redesign the former convention center’s 10 acres of space and created a task force in 1999 to examine all of its options. After considering all public input and hosting numerous public forums, like those with the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association, and meetings with the D.C. City Council, the task force concluded that there was an overwhelming need to revitalize the downtown area for the sake of Washingtonians, so that they may have a space in the center of the city to call their own.

“Everyone on the task force recognized that it’s not very often that you get this chance to rebuild your city center. The task force wanted to remake it as something that was essentially Washington,” Chris Bender, director of communications for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re so comfortable with the vision we have because we know it’s exactly what the public asked us to do. It’s the direct response from a large body of citizens.”

In their presentation, Altman outlined the recommendations made by the task force for this site, which he described as what will be an “18-hour gathering space and a 24-hour living space.” After listening to much public opinion and considering what would be most economically beneficial for the city, the task force suggested that the space should be used for national and local retail, residential units that will be both for rent and for sale, and general space for gathering.

The committee also wants to conserve some space for a cultural attraction, though they are unsure of what that attraction will be as of now. They are currently exploring their options and trying to determine what would be best for the city. Some of the many ideas include a national music museum or a new branch for the public library.

Altman discussed the necessity of a cultural venue and explained this demand using the idea for a public library as an example. “D.C. has a 37 percent illiteracy rate,” Altman said. A new library “would help invigorate the whole system, not just the downtown area.”

The placement of a Convention Center headquarters hotel is one of two issues that are central to the next stage of planning. Currently, the city is considering putting the hotel on a site next to the new Convention Center.

The second primary issue involved in the next stage of planning concerns the development of the new Convention Center. There is room for expansion space within the new center but it has yet to be officially decided whether it will be allotted as space for exhibitions or for meetings and ballrooms.

In the presentation, Kaplan commented on the suggestions of the task force with respect to the expansion space. “There is no immediate need for exhibition space based on the studies we’ve done over the past few years,” Kaplan said. “In reality, given the amount of meeting and ballroom space, we’ve run out. This place is booked through 2012. We’re now in the financing and approval stage of this process.”

Alsup expected that the development of the site would take approximately four to five years to complete. “The city is in a unique position at a unique time with developers that are ready to move forward,” Kaplan said.

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