Pennsylvania Avenue is in a slump, but there’s a plan to breathe new life into it

Perhaps the best measure of a corridor’s economic strength is how much companies are willing to pay to be there. And by that measure, Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, is in a down period.

Of course, it’s still a far cry from the early 1970s, when Pennsylvania Avenue was at its low point and Congress created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. to create a development plan for the corridor. The PADC, which was dissolved in 1996 after leveraging $1.5 billion in private development, is widely regarded as the spark that launched the avenue’s revitalization.

“Today the success of the avenue is a direct result of the PADC plan,” said Sarah Moulton, an urban planner with the National Capital Planning Commission, which has just launched a multiyear, multiagency, multijurisdictional effort to revitalize America’s Boulevard.

The PADC plan has never been updated, and as a result, the avenue is showing its age.

Average rent in the 13 Class A office buildings along the corridor is running $671 per square foot, according to the NCPC. Rent in the overall Downtown Business Improvement District averages $755 per square foot.

It is “downright confusing” to get events approved. Several of its public spaces — Freedom Plaza, Pershing Park — are underwhelming. Infrastructure and furnishings are deteriorating. There’s very little in the way of sustainable building or amenities to serve a growing number of downtown residents.

Nearly 40 percent of its office space is leased by law firms, and four of those firms are leaving, threatening to push the Pennsylvania Avenue vacancy rate from 11.6 percent today to 21.8 percent not long from now.

“Today we really need a competitive avenue that benefits the city and the nation,” Moulton said. “Today the avenue is at a transition point. There is some serious competition in the city these days.”

“We need to determine,” she added, “what the function and role of the avenue is in our 21st century capital city.”

The first step in the Pennsylvania Avenue initiative, Moulton said, will be to develop a work plan. Then the 10-agency steering committee will tackle near-term needs and, finally, long-term actions. A long-term vision will be crafted, as will a framework to govern the avenue.

Big changes along the corridor are happening simultaneously with the initiative: The Old Post Office overhaul into a luxury, Trump hotel, the possible relocation of the FBI, improvements to the National Theatre, the 1301 E St. NW redevelopment, the possible designation of Pershing Park as the nation’s official World War I memorial.

Arrington Dixon, an NCPC member who also served on the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., urged a focus on economic growth.

“It’s like C.R.E.A.M.,” he said, “cash rules every action made. What can we do that will work and serve the public that will also bring the vitality we need for economic purposes.”

Reporter’s Note: Dixon was referencing the Wu Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M., which stands for “cash rules everything around me.”

A public workshop is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. July 23 at the NCPC offices.


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