50 Florida Avenue NE needs to be retail

The main reason our neighborhood has been so liveable all these years – and stands to become even more attractive as time goes on and higher density developments inevitably grow up around us – has to do with the modest use of our lots.

Our buildings are as tall as they can possibly be and still allow street trees (and street life) to thrive. That, combined with the mandatory setbacks, also allows us to grow things (and, as one neighbor observed, to capture solar light for aesthetics and energy).

If we allow ourselves to become a terrarium at the bottom of a canyon, we will not only regret it ourselves, we also risk spoiling this area for the generations ahead. Eckington’s layout anchors the whole neighborhood. Years from now, people who come into the area for the first time will hopefully see a graceful transition between NoMa’s modern, most-bang-for-the-buck, early 21st-century taxpayer-subisidized developments and our human-scale rowhouses. What we don’t want is, "Look at that pocket of regular houses! How did that manage to survive under all of this?"

Despite some shreds of hyper-excited consumer consciousness, I believe most Eckingtonians realize we have something no amount of money can buy. The fact is, the higher residential boxes are stacked, the less connected to the community their inhabitants feel. They may feel a sense of proprietorship over the streets themselves and any businesses they patronize regularly, but they aren’t all that likely to know and interact with their neighbors over a larger area. They are usually content becoming acquainted with people on their own floor or in their own building.

In other words, as a rule their circle is very small. And their approach to life tends to shrink along with it. They will not represent more eyes on the street, because their vision won’t extend that far. They will not gain from the experience of living amongst those of different backgrounds and socio-economic levels. They won’t see a neighbor’s kid who has outgrown his coat, they won’t know his family’s circumstances, they won’t consider offering to pay him to rake their leaves. They will see a kid who doesn’t look or talk like or dress like them (or their kids). And they won’t even represent more feet on the street, except on certain well-beaten "safe" paths.

Eckington needs to serve as a role model for neighborliness, a reminder of what a community can be like when people have the power to plant sunflowers in their back yards, shout a barbeque invitation over the back fence, shovel each other’s sidewalks, address the environment’s ills on an individual basis. DC needs more mixed neighborhoods, not more mixed developements.

The argument that advocates of slow growth, smart growth, organic growth are holding back the rest of the community is an old one. It’s old because it works, time and time again – especially when it’s augmented by lots of spending by big money players who have a lot a stake. Interestingly enough, these folks usually head to their single-family homes that have fences and backyards. They don’t live in the condos they’ve built, no matter how luxurious. Still, we fall for it, over and over again, so beware.

And the suburban argument doesn’t wash either. Most DC residential areas have either all or some of the benefits of suburban living. That’s what makes DC, DC. Now, thanks to the real estate bubble and the subsequent taxpayer bailout of the construction/real estate industry, it also has plenty of new mid-rise, high-density developments. Those who want to go rah-rah, can. They needn’t spoil it for the rest of us.

Besides, it seems to me the best way to get retail development into the area is to demand this property stay commercial. Plenty of people will be moving into the NoMa area. Why not give them a destination on this side of Florida Av? This site (maybe even the existing building, maybe) would work nicely for mixed retail. Several floors could be a micro mall, others could be devoted to entertainment (billiards, ice/roller rink, IMAX theatre) or arts/arts education (dance/yoga center, galleries, music lessons/studio, theatre), to health and wellness outlets (post-natal slimming/shaping, fitness, hair, nails, etc.), and the top could become rooftop dining. Or some categories could be united under one theme, ala The Mansion 7 in Bangkok.

The trouble with NoMa is that few developers are willing to risk anything. They stick with residential/office space and cram in a little retail on the ground floor. This produces a wan shopping experience. I remember my first impression of DC’s downtown. After Manhattan (or even Boston), it was a real let-down. No single block had much appeal. The shops of interest to me were scattered amongst businesses that were irrelevant or boring. I didn’t want to wander around all day and maybe find something. I wanted my excitement concentrated in one place. That’s what it takes to create a vibe, not more of what we already have. Otherwise, NoMa will just become another of DC’s nive-to-five districts.

If we exercise the power the law already gives us to insist on smart, sustainable development, we could retain the advantages we have and still gain interesting shopping destinations nearby – increasing the value of our homes and still having an attractive, neighborly, reasonably safe (yes, I still believe that) place to live in the process.

50 Florida Avenue NE is zoned commercial, and commercial is what we need. We need to oppose the developer’s requests for a zoning change. If the corporation didn’t do even its basic homework, why would we expect any better planning and vision in what it’s proposing? (Or maybe it did do its homework, and counted on us being as naive – or as easily divided and exploited – as we have been in the past).

One Response to “50 Florida Avenue NE needs to be retail”

  1. kgarry Says:

    Capitalism, by its very nature, demands new markets, more buyers, and results in concentrations of wealth, power and supply. Add the legally-constipated side dish known as corporate entities and you have a recipe for human disaster. Hell, even Adam Smith, capitalism’s original cheerleader, was aghast at the very thought of corporate institutions. But today most Americans can only define “progress” in terms of expansion: bigger, wider, longer, more more more. Renovation and re-use is seen as retarding development; tear it down and build something big, shiny and new. Jobs depend upon it! Until America undertakes this paradigm shift and suffers another 60s-style rebirth — a new consciousness-raising, if you will — the planet will continue to suffer until human beings are finally removed from the equation.

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