Building DC Out

There’s a giant surface parking lot amidst downtown Washington, where the convention center used to be but construction on the replacement will begin within months and then there’s little space left for downtown development:

Gerry Widdicombe, Director of Economic Development for the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) notes the difference 185,000 s.f. of retail will make for downtown. “This is really the capstone for downtown DC. We have about 5 million square feet [of buildable space] left on vacant lots or dilapidated office buildings…the old convention center site is about 2.5 million [s.f.] of that, 1.8 million is the air rights building, then we’re almost built out.” Widdicombe credits former city leaders with setting parameters of a strong residential presence rather than solely office space – despite the commercial’s greater tax base value, and for fostering a vision of a retail center. “Everything’s working pretty well. The thing we’re lacking is retail, hopefully we’ll have an Apple store, maybe a Bloomingdales, to get us over 500,000 s.f. of destination retail.” He notes that when the BID formed downtown had 95 surface paking lots and 30 dilapidated buildings. “Now we’ve got 5.”

What we need are some taller buildings. With taller buildings we wouldn’t face this sharp tradeoff between “parameters of a strong residential presence . . . despite the commercial’s greater tax base.” Instead, we’d get a ton more office space up to the point where commercial rents decline enough to make the market indifferent between housing and offices. The denser volume of people and jobs would make downtown DC a more attractive place to locate destination retail.” And the stronger tax base would allow us to have better public services and lower tax rates.

I know that many people like the look and feel of a city with no skyscrapers. But DC has both a lot of problems and a fair amount of extremely valuable land. Failing to use the land efficiently is extremely costly and makes it much harder for us to solve our problems.