Monday, February 12, 2007

Rhode Island Place: A Lost Opportunity

With the various home renovation projects I’ve done over the past few years, I make the trip to DC’s Home Depot quite often. And every time I’m there, I wonder about the thought process of the people who approved that whole mess. The piece of land now occupied by the shopping center is some of the best situated real estate in the city: high up, with great views of the Capitol dome, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and most of the city, it is served by Metro’s Rhode Island Avenue station, and it sits just outside of the downtown area.

Why, oh why would anyone have approved the ghastly suburban low density sprawl development that is Rhode Island Place?

By building a strip mall right in the heart of DC, we miss out on the kind of great urban development that could have happened there, that could have benefited DC with more tax revenue, and could have been done in such a way as to benefit the residents of Ward 5. Instead, we have acres and acres of underutilized land, stores, such as Home Depot, that ruin small, locally owned businesses and suck the profits right out of DC, and a suburban-modeled parking lagoon that creates traffic problems and ensures that few will ever walk there.

I suppose Vincent Orange, who, as a council member, wanted to bring economic development to his ward. (He also threw his support behind the dubious New Town development at the Capitol City Market.) But development like Rhode Island Place is actually counterproductive. (For a good discussion of all this development, check out this post on Rebuilding Place in the Ubran Space.)

The only pro I see to the development is the sales tax revenue from Home Depot that would otherwise have gone to Maryland or Virginia. But other than that, the whole development does more harm than good. The amount of wasted land up there is incredible. The city could have created a walkable, mixed use neighborhood, centered around a business district that could have supplied all the same amenities: a Giant like the one in Columbia Heights, locally owned small businesses, even chain stores, along with an urban Home Depot, if we must. They could have created community amenities as well, such as a well-situated park that takes advantage of the great views, a recreation center, a job training center. Perhaps, with such a clean slate of land and great metro and street access, someone (the city? The business community?) could have thought outside the box and created some sort of small business incubator, with affordable office space, like has been done in other cities. And, of course, a mix of market-rate and affordable housing. Instead, we got a strip mall.

The idea of economic development is to help pull people out of poverty, but low paying retail jobs do not pull people out of poverty. Empowering people to start businesses and to get job training will, in the long run, help those most in need. I only hope that Fenty will do something like this and not be wooed by all the rich and powerful developers who feed on tax breaks and special deals at the public real estate trough.

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