Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Council member Jack Evans wants to resurrect the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation -- and he wants the D.C. government to run and finance it.

Back in 1963, when John F. Kennedy's inaugural motorcade went up Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the White House, Kennedy was appalled at what he saw: two- and three-story 1850-era townhouses on the north side of the street, mostly containing pawn shops, TV repair stores, wig and costume outfitters, and souvenir shops. The only buildings of note were the _Evening Star_ building and the Willard Hotel (then run-down and struggling). On the south side was Federal Triangle. As his limousine reached what is now Freedom Plaza, he encountered a trash dump.

Kennedy got his aide, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to get to work on a plan to rejuvenate Pennsylvania Avenue. But Kennedy died just as Moynihan's plan was coming together. President Lyndon B. Johnson used an executive order to create a Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the D.C. city commissioners redid some zoning rules to help keep the street from being improperly developed. But with repeated threats to their existence, most businesses along the avenue began closing and the street looked like a ghost town.

Moynihan quit the Johnson administration, but got back into government with the Nixon administration. Congress had balked at Johnson's proposal to use 100 percent federal funds to reconstruct the north side of the avenue. Moynihan how had a master-stroke of an idea: Create a $200 million revolving fund with federal money. The federal money would be used to jump-start redevelopment, but private developers would find most of the money and build the buildings.

Congress approved the plan, which created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation in 1973. Elwood Quesda, who'd built L'Enfant Plaza after its original developes went bankrupt, led the corporation.

By this time, the ugly, massive, brooding J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building had already been constructed, largely ruining the PADC's plans. But the PADC got its way on almost everything else. It cajoled Congress into spending $100 million to buy land for much wider sidewalks along the street, it killed plans to tunnel an expressway below the avenue, it helped save the Willard Hotel and the Old Post Office Pavilion, and it got a boulevard constructed down the middle of the street to improve visibility. In 1975, it managed to get Market Square going -- just the sort of mixed-use building it wanted all along the north side of the street to enhance foot traffic and make the street-level retail viable (especially at night).

Two new public areas -- Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park -- were built as part of the PADC's efforts.

Between 1973 and 1996, the PADC got private industry to pony up $1.5 billion to rebuild Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since the PADC's dissolution two decades ago, Pennsylvania Avenue has languished. Renovations to the new buildings on the north side got rid of the housing, the street-level retail shuts down at night, and Congress allowed the Newseum and Canadian Embassy to be built -- creating huge holes with no retail and no housing along the street. Freedom Plaza has not worked out as planned, and is a barren, sizzling hot skateboard park.

With the FBI leaving Pennsylvania Avenue in 10 years, local business people have been urging the creation of a new PADC to take over redevelopment of the Avenue. Evans, a tool of local business, agrees and wants a new corporation.

The problem: The District oversees the street itself. The National Park Service manages the sidewalks. The General Services Administration owns the real estate on the south side. And there are about 20 private landowners on the north side. Those are some big players the city would have to cajole to get on board with projects.

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