For those of you who are wondering what’s up with the status of plans to redesign Eastern Market Metro Plaza aka “Capitol Hill Town Square,” (or going back several years back, the Gateway project, with actual arches or gates) all in order to create a L’Enfantian landscape – well, I did too and I had a little bit of a hard time getting answers. But there now appears to be a reason. The project, to be funded with a $2.75 million earmark secured between 2004 and 2007 by House Appropriations juggernaut and nearby resident and Barracks Row shopper Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is stalled, or at least in a fallow period. There has been no new Town Square activity for the past five months that I could trace.
I spoke with Barracks Row Main Street, neighbors, various members of a task force from the merchant associations, Capitol Hill BID, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, and various past and present Ward 6 area representatives, all led by Barracks Row Mainstreet board members Tip Tipton and David Perry, and made attempts to speak with city agencies involved in the talks to recreate the seven-acre park area around the Eastern Market Metro and found out, that for now, the “Park is parked.” Thanks, Tip, for the frank assessment.
The earmarked money not spent for the design plans detailing the three visions for the plaza is being held in CDs under the care of Barracks Row Mainstreet, to be spent on a required Environmental Assessment (EA). This is where things have slowed, as informal chats with representatives of various agencies such as the DC Department of Transportation (DDoT) and the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) have not yet yielded a sponsoring agency for the EA. An agency, or agencies, whether federal or local, must agree to do the EA for the project to move forward.
Staff-level talks will continue, the principals say, although calls and/or emails to various government agencies were not returned, and Barbara Riehle, of the Eastern Market Metro Community Association (EMMCA) noted that the NCPC appeared to be the anticipated lead agency back in November, while a representative of DDoT told her the project was not on its radar. We need a government suitor, here!
“There is no ‘formal’ approval of the triptych. It has been informally shown, with other proposals to OP [Deputy Mayors Office for Planning and Economic Development], NCPC, [U.S. Commission of] Fine Arts, and HP [D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office in the Office of Planning]. Their informal comments have been taken into account. At this time there is no initiative to move this project forward; I would hope that sometime it can be moved in the same manner as all the other Great Streets initiatives throughout the city,” said Dick Wolf, task force member and recent past president of the Restoration Society.
After much effort, I finally received this weekend the almost-50 page task force final draft report issued in January. It has to date – almost 6 months later – not been publicly disseminated (even after multiple requests from EMMCA) although several people thought it had been posted on the website (it had not). David Perry noted it would soon be posted to the Capitol Hill Town Square website www.capitolhilltownsquare.org and may be up by the time of this posting. The written report estimates total construction costs, in 2009 dollars, to be about $30 million for the Triptych design option. Improving the existing layout (i.e., not redirecting traffic) would cost the least – about $18 million- while the Central Park layout plan would be about $28 million. The task force endorsed the “triptych” design, according to the report, and to David Perry, who noted the tally of a straw poll as 13-2.
Riehle of EMMCA, who lives in the affected area on the 800 block of D Street SE, objects to the task force report as not being final, as it did not include minority views or input or a vote. She pointed to how the favored design of an oval or an ellipse would basically put a highway outside her front door through the redirection of Pennsylvania Avenue, SE.
“EMMCA was formed about two years ago when some of us first learned of plans. Barracks Row [Mainstreet] had established a ‘task force’ for this undertaking and had appointed a ‘D Street Representative’ without any discussion with D Street residents,” a representative from EMMCA asserts.
“All of the houses on D Street are really beautiful. It would be a shame to run a highway past them,” Riehle said.
“EMMCA would never have signed off on this report as written. I am marking it up tonight and will deliver a copy of the marked up version to Tip’s office tomorrow by noon,” said Riehle.
Task Force members stress that there is no officially sanctioned plan yet and all three designs will be submitted to the agency or agencies doing the EA.
“I would like to get the process started. It would probably take a year or more to get the final [EA] report. …. It might end up being a shared responsibility with one agency taking the lead and the other agency taking partial responsibility–the [city] Office of Planning [and Economic Development], DDOT, probably others..there are several… and the historical preservation people would want to be involved,” Tipton mused. “To be candid,” he added, “we hope we don’t have to pay all of it (the remainder of the $2.75 million earmark, for the EA.] “We hope the DC government will pay part of it.”
“We have had some meetings with a couple of consultants–to get EA mobilized,” said Tipton. However, he said, “ I am a very busy person and there are periods of nothing happening. Since we’re not going to construction until the EA is bid, I don’t think the recession has had much to do with it, frankly,” he said, countering another task force member’s suggestion that a downturn in the economy had put a damper on the project. “It is a matter of not getting to it.”
As for funding the remaining $30 million if the triptych goes forward, well, that is for another day, another earmark or funding source.
This contrasts with the great activity of the previous year , including public meetings and gatherings to discuss submitted design plans drawn up by top area architect Amy Weinstein and landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, the latter of whom community members approached back in 2003. Talk of the project once included plans for two gates marking the beginning and end of Barracks Row. This didn’t come to fruition because the Plaza turned out to be federal land, according to Tipton, meaning it couldn’t really support commercial activity like a Farmer’s Market and other vendors, as envisioned by Barracks Row.
“I got that [land] transferred to the DC government–for administration and control. It is still owned by the National Park Service…” But, since administration and control has now been transferred to the DC Government, “we can have vendors on it. It took about two years to get that law passed,” Tipton said. By 2008, planning for the plaza “was reinitiated by Barracks Row [Mainstreet],” according to the task force’s website.
There are possible plans for a kiosk/information hub and several Catholic University student design proposals that may or may not result in an interim measure for the Plaza area, operating under the auspices of a DDoT advisory committee, and/or to be funded by DD0T, but more on that later. I am not finding a meeting of minds there and it needs to be explored further. “There is no contract or guarantee that any of them will be chosen. The project process is winding down,” said one person aware of the activity.
“CUA had a competition and came up with three ideas and was planning to circulate them,” said Chuck Burger of the Community Impact Advisory Committee on the impact parking fund. ” … DDoT offered that if we wanted to go for something more substantive they would provide matching funds, but we are not at that stage yet. We are collecting all that information.”