Between North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenue, G Street NW is a block of urbanist paradox. Two sites, the Government Printing Office and the Gales School, pose difficult to answer questions about the proper place for older, grittier urban uses in districts of modern office buildings. In a series of posts today, I’ll explore a block of D.C. that gentrification somehow passed over.
The Government Printing Office is a major D.C. institution. The Senate lists it as a site worthy of tourist visits. Its location on North Capitol just blocks from the Capitol suggests its importance, particularly when the oldest GPO building currently in use was constructed 105 years ago. With 1,300 employees, most of whom are located at the D.C. headquarters, the GPO is also a major employer. What’s more, sustainable transport advocates will be happy to know that over half those D.C. employees commute by public transit, as Union Station is only a block away.
The problem is that the Government Printing Office is a major industrial printer in what is quickly becoming another canyon of glassy office buildings. It has a large brick mill-style building structured for efficiency rather than interaction with the public realm connected to one-story factory space.
It has loading docks for its trucks, which constantly create traffic jams as they try to back into docks) and an enormous parking lot. It is distinctly anti-urbanist in the way that most late-20th century industry is.
The question is what should be done. The GAO wrote a report at the beginning of this year (interestingly, Eleanor Holmes Norton chairs the relevant subcommittee, meaning that the health of the District might actually be weighed in any decision) about the GPO’s need for new space. The GPO has too much space in its current location. At the same time, it is looking for renovations to make it more efficient. In particular, the GPO’s current space has too many stories for the most efficient industrial processes. As a result, the GPO could remain in its current location, with renovations that could include spreading operations out horizontally into the parking lot, or could lease the location and move out of the core city.
Hence the paradox. The building is visually interesting and quite historic, but it is also visually hostile to street life. I work a block east of the GPO and my coworker just described that block as “just dead and ugly.” Would this section of NoMa feel more with the GPO replaced by another sterile new office building? Jane Jacobs would weep. The GPO building is also lower-density than much of its surroundings. If density would be increased by exiling jobs to the suburbs (where the GPO would inevitably relocate) would that be a net positive or negative? How comfortable should sustainable transport advocates be with telling 500 transit-riders their jobs are moving out of the city? Is this the mixed-use that we want and or the underutilization of space that characterizes struggling blocks? Looking historically, urbanists generally name the flight of industry from cities to the suburbs (along with the South and overseas) as one of the major factories in urban decline after World War II. Yet on a block where light industry remains, it feels like it ought not be so close to downtown.
The GPO is an intellectually complex site (though I think that getting rid of all the parking is a no-brainer). It challenges classic urbanist ideals about mixed-use, mixed-age neighborhoods, about preservation, or even about the benefits of keeping jobs in city limits. After looking at the Gales School site in part two, I’ll begin to answer these questions in part three.