In With the New


City Finalizes Plans for Mixed-Use Project to Revitalize Old Convention Center Site

After years of deliberation and indecision, developers and city officials agreed last month to add a posh new hotel to the 0 million mixed-use development project planned for the land where the city’s former convention center once stood.

The upscale hotel, anchored by an additional 100,000 square feet of retail space below it, has been slated as the final parcel of a 10-acre site that occupies a coveted piece of real estate in downtown Washington.

The decision was announced in early May by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Hines-Archstone-Smith, which has been contracted to build a mix of offices, condominiums, restaurants and shops as well as a park and plaza in an area to be called CityCenter D.C. Officials first announced the selection of Hines- Archstone to develop the site in 2003, and construction is expected to begin in 2009.

The entire redevelopment project — which will reshape the area bounded by New York Avenue and 9th, H and 11th Streets, NW —is being promoted as a “live, work and play” community unlike any the area has ever seen.

The space had once been considered for civic use as a state-of-the-art central public library to replace the city’s existing library, a concept proposed by Fenty’s predecessor, Anthony Williams. But city officials and planners say the new hotel and retail plans are better suited for a thriving downtown core as the region continues to grow.

“It’s the right decision at the present time,” said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District. “There was some discussion years ago about adding a library, but we’re seeing a different configuration now.”

That configuration will include a significant retail portion, which will help to create a downtown shopping district akin to those in Chicago and San Francisco, Bradley said, adding that this could generate some million a year in sales tax for the city. “It’s a very significant project,” he said. “Sort of the missing piece of the puzzle.”

The retail section of the site is planned for the ground, first and second floors of the hotel, which will be more effective than situating shops at higher levels, explained Sean Madigan, spokesman for the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

“When we first started talking about the best way to use the site back in the 1990s, the area of downtown wasn’t the same cultural scene it is today,” Madigan said. “After conducting study after study after study, we decided that where we really needed to build downtown was in the retail sector.”

At the same time, the future hotel will add 400 rooms to a neighborhood that’s already been designated for another major property, the 1,150-room convention center hotel being built by Marriott International and RLJ Development at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 9th Street. That project, which will sit on 60,000 square feet and serve as the headquarters hotel for the Washington Convention Center, is scheduled to break ground next year for a 2012 opening.

Tourism and development officials insist all the extra hotel rooms are needed for this continually expanding downtown area. The city sees some 15 million visitors each year, according to the most recent estimates from Destination DC.

“I can tell you bar none that hotels bring in more money to the city than office buildings,” said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. “Hotels are 24-hour-days, seven-days-a-week tax machines. We tax the rooms, we tax the food, we tax the parking — it’s much more profitable for the city.”

Durso said the association has been advocating for a hotel in the old convention center site since the late 1990s, when discussions began about how the space should be used.

“Just having a critical mass by our convention center makes it more attractive and more sellable,” she said. “We’re very happy that a hotel is going in that space instead of a library.”

Although the decision to add a luxury four-star hotel comes at a time when construction projects throughout the region are being hampered by a slowing economy and tightening credit market, the project’s supporters don’t seem fazed. “I don’t think it’s a matter of overbuilding because we’re looking at five years out by the time this project will be done,” Bradley said. “We’re looking at continued growth, and need the development to help prepare.”

In its 2007 regional report, the Greater Washington Board of Trade predicted that the area’s population will reach 6.5 million within four years — an increase of more than 380,000 people. According to the same forecasts, the number of jobs in the area will be up to 3.7 million by 2012 — 319,000 more than existed in 2006.

Officials say the old convention center redevelopment project will contribute a good portion of those jobs. Not including this most recent addition, the project is expected to generate some 2,500 new employment opportunities, plus 3,000 temporary construction and development-related jobs. The city’s goal is to ensure that at least 51 percent of those jobs are given to D.C. residents, said Madigan of the Mayor’s Office.

The development is the latest addition to the District’s efforts to revitalize its downtown core. Just a few years ago, the prime piece of real estate was a vacant eyesore along a ragged stretch of downtown that had fallen into disrepair. It now sits next to the bustling Penn Quarter neighborhood surrounding Verizon Center and the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop.

“We really want to maximize the space for citizens in every possible way,” Madigan said, noting that the recent addition of cultural venues such as the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and National Portrait Gallery have helped to transform the once-quiet area into a trendy nightspot that attracts residents and visitors long after offices are closed.

“When you think about this new development merging with the 7th to 9th Street corridor and consider all the attractions like the Portrait Gallery and Verizon Center, you’re looking at an entire area that will be the heart and soul of the District,” said Bradley of the Business Improvement District. “It will be a very walk-able, very happening place.”

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.