For Pennsylvania Avenue's Transformation, It's 1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back
The hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to "America’s Main Street" to see the Newseum's monument to the First Amendment, the row of daily newspaper front pages and its historical exhibits will soon need to travel elsewhere, a significant loss for a historic corridor already in need of more foot traffic.
Pennsylvania Avenue has been the subject of countless revitalization efforts over the last half-century, and appeared to be improving in recent years, but with the Newseum planning to close and the FBI headquarters redevelopment stuck in limbo, local officials are frustrated with the lack of progress.
"Pennsylvania Avenue was supposed to be the Champs-Élysées, and we have not realized that dream," Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans said. "We've got to stop talking and do something."
The wide avenue that connects the U.S. Capitol to the White House was envisioned by D.C.'s 18th century planner, Pierre L'Enfant, as a grand ceremonial corridor. It hosts massive public events from inaugural parades to protest demonstrations to state funerals, but when it is not the center of national attention, the street has struggled to live up to its promise.
John F. Kennedy is said to have remarked during his 1961 inaugural parade that it was sad to see a ceremonial street such as Pennsylvania Avenue in such poor condition. The avenue showed improvement in the coming decades with the formation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., a federal body that spearheaded the avenue's planning. It led to the opening of iconic buildings and public spaces like the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the U.S. Navy Memorial and the Market Square mixed-use complex.
But the organization was dissolved in 1996, and its responsibilities were divided among the General Services Administration, the National Park Service and the D.C. government. Evans said the breakup of the PADC turned the avenue's trajectory in the wrong direction and it has had a difficult time recovering.
"We have languished since that time with plan after plan, discussion after discussion, and the only viable project that has come to the avenue has been the Trump Hotel, which has been a tremendous success," Evans said. "The rest of it, nothing has happened."
The Trump Hotel opened in the Old Post Office building in September 2016. While it has been surrounded in controversy involving the president, the project revived an aging public building and introduced a luxury hotel and high-end restaurants to the avenue. At the time of its opening, planners were optimistic about the avenue's growth and excited about the potential redevelopment of another site located one block away: the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
In 2016, the GSA had appeared close to making a selection from three final suburban sites to relocate the FBI. The move would have involved a swap with a developer, allowing the winning firm to build a huge, mixed-use project on the Hoover Building site.
But following Donald Trump's inauguration, the GSA reversed course, scrapping the search that had been narrowed to three suburban finalists and later recommending a plan to rebuild the FBI's headquarters on the Pennsylvania Avenue site.
Emails released by congressional Democrats in October indicated Trump was involved in directing the GSA to pursue the demolition and rebuild on the Hoover Building site, and critics have pointed to the conflicts of interest with his hotel on the street. The GSA has maintained the decision was made by the leadership team at the FBI.
But whether or not there was wrongdoing involved, the reversal has diminished the hopes of bringing commercial activity to the Pennsylvania Avenue site and delayed any efforts to replace the crumbling Hoover Building.
"It's a dumb proposal and it's a bad idea," Evans said of the Trump administration's plan.
Evans said he has sent a letter to Trump proposing an FBI campus be built on D.C.'s Poplar Point development site, which sits just across the Anacostia River from Nationals Park. The Hoover Building site would then be redeveloped into a mix of uses, which could include office space for a smaller FBI presence to be retained on the avenue.
"It would be a real game changer," Evans said of a mixed-use project on the Hoover Building site.
Downtown D.C. BID President Neil Albert also wants to see a redevelopment of the Hoover Building site that would bring more pedestrian activity to the property.
"To reinvigorate Pennsylvania Avenue, we're going to have to open the FBI campus a little bit; make it even better by putting in some retail and other amenities that will bring foot traffic," Albert said. "Reimagining the FBI headquarters is a critical piece in reimagining Pennsylvania Avenue. One cannot happen without the other."
The latest setback for the avenue came Jan. 25, when the Newseum announced it would close after this year when it sells its building to Johns Hopkins University.
Housed in a large glass and stone building with a monument to the First Amendment and a row of daily newspaper front pages on the street level, the Newseum has been a popular attraction to bring tourists up from the National Mall to Pennsylvania Avenue. The museum welcomes more than 700,000 annual visitors, according to the Downtown D.C. BID.
"It's a loss for Downtown D.C.," Albert said. "With 700,000 people a year visiting the Newseum, the ripple effects were pretty positive on the surrounding retail and other sources of commerce in and around Pennsylvania Avenue. It's definitely going to feel an effect."
The large Pennsylvania Avenue property between Fifth and Sixth streets NW will now spend at least three years under construction, as Johns Hopkins said it plans to move in 2023. The university said it will consolidate its existing D.C. operations into the building, but it has not detailed any plans for retail or events spaces that could bring in the public.
"I don’t want an office building for a school where people go from 9-to-5 on Monday through Friday," Evans said. "What we need is activity on the avenue. I hope it's replaced with something active."
The National Capital Planning Commission, a federal agency that provides planning guidance for the avenue, would encourage ground-floor retail in the renovated Newseum building, NCPC's Elizabeth Miller said. The FBI headquarters could also add ground-floor retail even if the agency remains on the site, Miller said, similar to how the Department of Transportation headquarters in Capitol Riverfront has some retail.
"There are opportunities for some retail that brings in good foot traffic," Miller said. "We also need to look at other types of uses, cultural and entertainment uses, that could bring the same type of activity to the street."
A large mixed-use complex on Pennsylvania Avenue in between the Hoover Building and the Newseum could provide a model for the type of development needed to re-energize the corridor, Miller said. Market Square, built in 1990, features office space and condos with ground-floor retail around the U.S. Navy Memorial plaza.
Columbia Property Trust, which acquired Market Square in 2011, renovated the office space in 2016 and brought it to 90% occupied, largely with corporate government affairs tenants. The owner is now working on upgrading the retail space and working with JLL to bring new restaurants to the property.
"A dynamic mix of uses on the avenue can only help, but that change is happening with or without the FBI site," Columbia Property Trust East Region Vice President Mark Witschorik said.
Beyond the properties lining the corridor, changes could be made to the street itself that planners see as improving activity.
NCPC recently studied traffic on the street and determined that at least one of its eight vehicular lanes could be removed with minimal disruption to traffic flow. The street, which already has a bike lane running through the center, could then add a dedicated bus lane or widen the sidewalks. NCPC plans to solicit public input this year to determine the best way to reallocate street space on the avenue.
"There is precious public space along this avenue that we could look at and how we might improve it in a way that brings more activity to these public spaces," Miller said.
Evans praised the idea of removing vehicular lanes for other uses, and he said transferring control of the sidewalks from the NPS to the District could lead to more activity with uses like sidewalk cafés and kiosks. But both he and Albert expressed frustration with the slow-moving pace of change on the avenue and urged stakeholders to move forward with improvements.
"A lot of folks are rethinking Pennsylvania Avenue, but at some point in time we need to stop rethinking it and take some action on it," Albert said.
UPDATE, FEB. 5, 12 P.M. ET: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the investigation into President Trump's involvement with the FBI project and include the GSA's response.