Having already discussed the specific sites of the Government Printing Office and the Gales School, it’s now time to step back and look at the ecology of the entire block of G Street NW, between North Capitol and Massachusetts.
Taken together, you have a block of the city that gentrification somehow forgot to hit. On every side of this block are office buildings, built fairly recently. It looks like Farragut North or Metro Center.
Only here does D.C.’s older brick vernacular remain. On each side, work is exclusively the 21st century combination of white collar desk jobs and low-paid service sector support. Only here do past economic strata—industrial and indigent—remain. This block stands as a challenge to the current paradigm of development, a lone holdout against the expansion of the CBD ever further.
This block is also all that we must preserve and simultaneously all that we try to destroy. These buildings are historic and rooted in place, but they are as a result inefficient in an area of high economic value and transit-accessibility. These buildings keep the city mixed-use, but do so in a way that leaves the street even more dead than the canyons between offices. They capture all of the city’s past, leaving behind both the neoliberal dullness of the present but also its prosperity.
What is to be done? What is to be learned?
The solution, I think, lies not on G Street but on the streets around it. The diversity and history that these two sites bring to the neighborhood is valuable, but currently the price paid by the neighborhood—the scary emptiness of the street and the opportunity cost of what those properties could be used for—is too high. The value of these properties could be retained without the costs if downtown D.C.’s development patterns were to change.
In Manhattan, the few remaining areas that still have light industry are completely integrated into an urbanist environment. The Garment District, for example, which still engages in low-intensity industry, similarly to the GPO, could hardly be said to lack vibrancy. Many of Boston’s major homeless shelters and soup kitchens are in fancy downtown neighborhoods. But those neighborhoods have enough of a street life, with ground-floor commerce and residences and many different building types, that they can easily absorb what might otherwise be a turn-off for pedestrians. D.C.’s downtown isn’t like that. It’s much more like the Lower Manhattan of fifty years ago: so perfect for business that nothing but business can survive, eventually sending the neighborhood south again.
I don’t predict that either the GPO or the Gales School will survive another twenty years. The GAO will conclude that efficiency calls for selling the GPO to private developers and relocating out of the city. The Central Union Mission will get an offer that a social service agency can’t refuse. And that block of G Street NW will feel more inviting, draw more people onto public transit, send more tax dollars to the D.C. government, and be one more part of a revitalized NoMa. It will be regrettable, even though it will probably be for the best. But we should change zoning, lift height restrictions, and do all the other things that would help us make this area vibrant and put more jobs near transit without needing to bulldoze the past for a downtown that equates health with sterility.