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Harvey Gantt, Chairman, National Capital Planning Commission
Testimony to the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on the District of Columbia
July 15, 1998




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Thank you Mr. Chairman. I am Harvey Gantt, Chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission. On behalf of my fellow Commissioners, I appreciate this opportunity to review the Commission’s role in the new Convention Center that is being proposed for Washington D.C.

The National Capital Planning Commission is the federal government’s planning agency for the National Capital Region which includes the District of Columbia and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia. The Commission was established in 1924 and its mission and functions were reviewed and impacted in several subsequent federal statutes, including the National Capital Planning Act of 1952 and the D.C. Home Rule Act. In the Planning Act, the Commission was given “in lieu of zoning” authority to approve all public buildings erected in the Central Area of the District of Columbia. The proposed new Convention Center is such a building.

Because of perceived inadequacies in the ability of the existing Convention Center to attract larger conventions and trade shows, the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) was formed in 1976 to consider the construction of a new Convention Center. Since construction at the site preferred by the District of Columbia government, Mount Vernon Square, would require NCPC approval, WCCA began, at the start, to consult with Commission staff about the procedural requirements for approval. In addition, consultations with Commission staff were were begun on design guidelines intended to address building mass and edges, street level treatment, public spaces, and service access. During the course of the project, those design guidelines would help shape the project’s design. The process began in 1996 by WCCA contracting for a master plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would, among other things, identify the best site.

Because the Commission, a federal agency, acts as a licensing body under the Planning Act, Commission action requires compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Such compliance preceded Commission action to date.

Environmental Impact Statement

In September 1996, NCPC conducted a public scoping meeting to elicit suggestions for the scope and content of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. A draft EIS was filed with the Environmental Protection Agency in February 1997 and a final EIS was completed in April 1997. Preparation of the EIS began with a survey of 16 potential alternative sites, which, based on minimum location and size criteria, were eventually narrowed to five. After a comparison against further qualitative criteria, a determination was made that two alternative sites would be discussed in detail in the EIS, the Mount Vernon Square/Shaw site and the Northeast No. 1 site, a tract of land north of Union Station near the intersection of New York and Florida Avenues N.E. The Mount Vernon Square site was the preferred alternative of the District of Columbia Government and WCCA.

The EIS found that the proposed Convention Center at the Mount Vernon Square site would not generate significant adverse impacts on the natural environment. However, that site would generate significant impacts on local traffic.. Therefore, at NCPC’s request, WCCA executed a Traffic Management Plan (TMP) dated April 28, 1997. The TMP addresses issues such as automobile, taxi, and limousine routing; management of commercial bus parking; pedestrian and truck access; construction traffic; and coordination among relevant agencies. WCCA and the District of Columbia Department of Public Works (DCDPW) will prepare a Transportation and Parking Operations Plan (TMOP) prior to occupancy. In addition, WCCA will establish and open a truck marshaling yard to serve as a truck staging area to prevent truck queues in the surrounding neighborhood. The marshaling yard must be in place before a Certificate of Occupancy can be issued. Finally, WCCA will fund and design an expansion of the existing Mount Vernon/UDC Metrorail station.

Throughout the process, the Commission has placed significant emphasis on issues of environmental justice. Thus, pursuant to negotiations with local groups and subject to D.C. Council approval, WCCA intends to provide funds to a local community group for long-term community development projects and will participate in a Business Improvement District (BID). The District will make available grants up to $20,000 each from Community Development funds to assist existing businesses during construction.

Historic Preservation

A proposed Convention Center at the Mount Vernon Square site was determined in December 1996 to have adverse effects on historic resources in the area, including the L’Enfant Plan, individual historic structures, and National Register-listed and eligible historic districts. On that basis, consultation was begun with interested parties, as required by Section 106 of the NHPA, to determine if there were ways to avoid or mitigate those adverse effects.

NCPC led the consultation that resulted in a Memorandum of Agreement among the federal and District agencies responsible for undertaking and reviewing this project. More than 30 public meetings involving residents, small business owners, professional planning and architecture groups and civic organizations were held between February and August 1997, leading to the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on August 27, 1997. The consulting parties included groups such as the D.C. Preservation League, the Washington Chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and several neighborhood community and business associations.

The key terms in the MOA include: the provision of monies for surveying and documenting historic properties in the vicinity of the Mount Vernon Square site; the establishment of a revolving fund for property owners in the vicinity to renovate the exteriors of their historic properties; funds for cleaning and repairing Carnegie Library; and the promotion of a demolition moratorium, since passed by the D.C. Council, to protect potentially eligible historic properties from demolition for parking lots until the validity of landmark protection can be assessed.

The Commission Approval Process

As I've noted, staff has been working with WCCA from the outset of the project to address such issues as design, historic preservation, traffic and transportation, neighborhood concerns, and potential construction disruption, with the aim of achieving the best possible outcome. At the same time, the Commission was receiving regular informal briefings from WCCA in order to keep up-to-date on the progress of the project and to ensure that the developer was aware of our concerns. Approximately six such briefings were held between November 1996 and the time of the Commission’s first formal action in September 1997.

On September 25, 1997 the Commission approved the location and preliminary site and building plans and final foundation plans for a Convention Center to be built at the Mount Vernon site. In its approval, the Commission listed several design and transportation requirements, which WCCA will have to meet when submitting final site and building plans. In addition, in the MOA executed pursuant to the 106 historic preservation process, WCCA and the District Government committed to certain actions prior to construction of the building. Before the project can move forward, NCPC must approve final building plans; the next step in the process will be review of those plans. We anticipate that final plans will be submitted sometime later this year at which time the Commission will have the opportunity to review compliance by WCCA and the District government with some of the conditions which were placed at the time of preliminary approval.

Although the requirements, other than design, placed on WCCA and the District Government under the Commission's decision and the historic preservation process are too numerous to cite individually, a few examples are worth noting. For example, WCCA is committed to fund certain initiatives intended to protect, maintain, and/or rehabilitate historic buildings in the immediate area of the proposed Convention Center, including the Carnegie Library. Although it would not be feasible to develop the Mount Vernon Square site without closing portions of L, M, and 8th Streets, which are part of the historic L'Enfant plan, L and M Streets will remain open to vehicular traffic, and the District has committed to completely reopening those streets at some future date when the Convention Center has outlived its useful life.

WCCA has also conducted a Retail Study to identify new retail opportunities for the proposed convention center that will meet the needs of convention attendees and neighborhood residents, thereby promoting further retail development in the area and increasing business opportunities for the residents. A public briefing on that Retail Study was held in May of this year. Finally, WCCA has been very responsive to the Commission’s concerns about ways to adapt the design of the building to reduce its perceived mass, keep the building in scale with the surrounding neighborhood, promote pedestrian safety, and provide a more inviting and aesthetically pleasing environment. As a result of Commission recommendations and consultation with NCPC staff, the design team has reduced the mass and height of the proposed building; significantly increased the amount of window glazing, making the building far more transparent and enhancing the pedestrian experience; and added street entrances and increased ground floor retail space by 30 percent, enabling the center to better serve the surrounding Shaw community.

WCCA has also agreed to take part in a comprehensive and cohesive traffic plan for the entire area and to ensure the least possible disruption to the neighborhood during construction. In a recent letter to WCCA, the Commission has reiterated its expectations that there will be total compliance with our directives and that we will receive assurances that the design eventually approved will be the one that is built within the approved funding package. I am greatly encouraged that these joint efforts will lead to an excellent product.

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