by FERN SHEN and GERALD NEILY
Residents of Remington and Charles Village who fear that a Lowe’s home improvement store proposed for their neighborhood will be a big, incongruous swath of car-centric suburbia need only look down the road, at D.C.’s Rhode Island Place, to see their nightmare scenario brought to life.
It may be unfair to compare for various reasons, but still, there are some striking similarities between the Baltimore and DC projects: starting with the fact that both the proposed 11-acre development in North Baltimore and the already-completed plaza in the District near the Rhode Island/Brentwood Metro Station, involve the same developer, Rick Walker.
Another similarity? The retail mix. (What’s been talked about so far in Baltimore is a Lowe’s, a supermarket, an Anna’s Linens and other stores. The DC development includes a Home Depot, a Giant supermarket and an Anna’s Linens.)
More importantly, though, the pitch in both cases is identical: big box retail usually associated with the ‘burbs will be designed to mesh with the urban community. But that never happened with Rhode Island Place, according to this 2002 Washington City Paper article, which describes the development on Rhode Island Avenue this way:
“A huge wall lumbers around the outside of the facility, greeting newcomers with a faceful of concrete and carving out a crude square of commerce from the surrounding community.The wall rises from a patch of dirt along Brentwood Road NE and slowly, one rectangular slab at a time, reaches several stories into the sky. The wall is gray with an underlying touch of purple. At times, it is capped by a shiny metal railing, at times by thick Jersey barriers.”
A recent visit to Rhode Island Place confirms this overall impression. The site is bounded by industrial to the south, residential to the east, Metro to the west and a varied mix to the north. (The residential is best described as 1930’s suburban, like Hamilton, with traces of early Northwood.) The sprawling development is not well-connected to the adjacent Metro station.
Some folks at the D.C. Office of Planning apparently foresaw all these problems. They hired consultants Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn to “encourage the developer to create a project that is urban in character, attractive as possible, and that has strong linkages with the Metro site,” according to the WCP article.
“On Jan. 16, 2001, EEK architects handed over their recommendations, which concluded that the current plans for the Brentwood project had ‘no sense of place’ and exhibited ‘poor integration [with the] neighborhood.’ They also offered more than 30 pages of suggestions on how to improve the design, including options on how to integrate the two sites,” according to the Washington City Paper piece, by Felix Gillete.
What happened to EEK’s recommendations?
They were “tossed in the dumpster,” according to Gillete, who doesn’t fault the developer so much as the politicians and upper-echelon planning officials who failed to insist he build something better.
But the piece is also clear-eyed about the inherent challenges for anybody trying to revive an ailing city without resorting to flawed suburban solutions. For those pondering matters of not just community organizing strategy, but civic soul-searching, it’s a worthwhile read.