Georgetown mall: kitsch or preservation?

It started with a 70-foot-deep hole in the ground, filled with controversy. It is Georgetown Park, the $77 million shopping, condo, and office complex being built in the heart of historic Georgetown. The complex sits on a site that began as a tobacco warehouse in the 1760s, became a railroad company stable by the 1850s, then a Chesapeake & Ohio canal house workshop, next an electric trolley power generating station in the 1890s, and finally a 20th-century repair shop for streetcars and buses.

By the 1960s the "carbarn" was transformed into a White House communications factory, with Moscow hot line and an array of testing facilities for James Bond and CIA equipment. The site, which includes the C&O canal itself, is like an archaeologist's dig of American history.

Georgetown Park's builders, the Western Development Corporation and the Donohue Construction Company, view it as a handsome, period town center combining a shopping and living area. They believe it will not impinge on the historic charm of a town of 7,000 known for its Federal, Georgian, and Victorian landmark architecture.

But from the beginning, Georgetown Park has been as tangled in a controversy as complicated at the yards of wires, beams, joists, and planks that dangle in its still unfinished 210,000 square feet of space.Georgetown Park is scheduled to open Sept. 27, and the debate may go on long after that.

The controversy includes what the Georgetown Park brochure calls "years of exhaustive consultations with national and municipal planning authorities." The "consultations" have dealt with historic landmark preservation, national park use involving the C&O canal, possible tax benefits for renovation of historic buildings, the aesthetics of planting a modern shopping mall plunk in the middle of a 19th-century village, and the possible adverse impact of a 121-store shopping complex on the quaint, mostly residential two-square-mile area that constitutes Georgetown.

Right now, the trees are feathering from bright to dark green in springtime Georgetown, and the shopping mall is masked by construction walls along the main drag of the town, near the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets. The finished Georgetown Park will face M Street with a Federal facade of snuff-brown brick, the original 1869 front wall that the Fine Arts Commission insisted had to stay.

Georgetowners have grown used to the sight of the peeling, once white brick wall, propped up by giant steel girders, looming over M Street like a set for some Eastern western. It was behind this wall that the 70-foot hole was dug to house the complex of 121 national and international shops on three levels, with a skylight-domed atrium over a "park" area filled with palm trees, a 15-foot fountain, and flowers. Its ambiance, its developers say, will be like that of the palm court at New York's Plaza Hotel.

Special artisans have been brought in to reproduce what the brochure calls "the authentic atmosphere of old Georgetown during the Victorian period at the turn of the century." So they're busy at work on the pressed tin roofs, the brass chandeliers, the scrolled, green cast-iron railings, the white globe lights resembling gaslights and Victorian wooden floors with tile trim.

Western Development president Herbert Miller says, "This area is one of the most historic sites in all Georgetown. Our objective has been a very soft, inviting, people place using its own architecture -- Victorian Georgetown. The town has more Victorian architecture than any other era, even Federal," he asserts. "It's a very opulent period, a very soft architecture." He says he envisions the central area as having the feeling of "a big Victorian park," a town meeting hall (Georgetown doesn't have one) where there could be band concerts, festivals, art shows, and school and civic events for the public.

The Citizens' Association of Georgetown doesn't see it quite that way. "That's nonsense, a Victorian shopping center. Such an animal never wert," Don Shannon, the Citizens' Association president, says. "It's kitsch, is what it is. The Fine Arts Commission sent back their original proposal [for the outside of Georgetown Park]." It included among other things, Mr. Shannon says, a black and white tile sidewalk and baroque bronze chandeliers out of keeping with the simple brick Federal architecture of the buildings existing there.

Charles Atherton, the secretary of the US Fine Arts Commission, says, "The changes they wanted to make were not appropriate for M Street, . . . Mr. Atherton says. "They had hoped to start afresh, they wanted to get decorations out on the street, had applied for ornamental ironwork that made it look like a quarter in New Orleans. We didn't like the appearance and checkerboard glazed tile on the sidewalk. They're free to do what they want on the inside." But Mr. Atherton makes it clear that the Fine Arts Commission has jurisdiction over what happens on the outside and that it is to be a plain Federal front. So the Federal brick facade of several existing buildings did not come tumbling down but has remained, masking the neo-Victorian interior. (Don Shannon winces when he hears that the red brick exterior will be painted brown. All the new developers in Georgetown, he says, "have found a source for mud-colored brick. . . . The Fine Arts Association recommends lighter colors.")

Mr. Shannon suggests several other reasons he believes the Georgetown Park project is anathema to citizens of Georgetown. Among them: the set-back, new construction behind the facade rises double the height of the low-rise buildings of Georgetown. "Much too massive, they overpower the street," Mr. Shannon says. He calls it a "megastructure."

He disputes Western Development's estimate of 350 existing shops in Georgetown, saying it's more like half that, and that an additional 120 will create a massive traffic jam of cars and pedestrians in an already clogged region. "It will be wall-to-wall people. . . . It isn't like Old Towne, Alexandria, Va., where they build 10-story buildings with a Federal silhoutte. Georgetown doesn't have that much room. We're a small town; you can't violate the scale without violating everything."

The very people, he suggests, who pay lip service to the historic charm of Georgetown "are the ones who come in and destroy it. The answer is, the developer is not coming in for anything but the great buck. Georgetown is the goose that lays the golden egg. Georgetown is a great golden goose. But if the whole thing becomes scrambled eggs, then what? . . . We're looking that right in the face right now. We say, 'No! Look, no farther, that's it!' People aren't going to live here in a place where the whole situation is out of hand." He notes that many of the small shops and boutiques that make it a pleasant residential-shopping area have now been priced out of existence by the new, high rents. "Everyone wants to have a bar-restaurant. . . .It will be wall-to-wall bar-restaurants." Speaking of the developers who are changing the face of Georgetown, he says."The frustrating thing for people with organizations like this is we can never match them full time. It's like rolling a jellybean up the mountain. These developers are sitting around 24 hours a day thinking of squeezing another buck ouf of every square foot. . . ."

In the offices of Western Development across the street from Georgetown Park, Herb Miller, the president, talks softly about the situation. He talks about the fact that he has lived in Georgetown for years and been a member of the Citizens' Association, but feels the association has become belligerent in tone in the last few years. Mr. Miller brings out a tasteful 54-page handbook for prospective Georgetown Park store owners which describes Georgetown's historic heritage, complete with antique photos and exhaustive details on period storefronts, window, door, and cornice details, approved designs that would be in architectural harmony with their concept of Georgetown Park. Mr. Miller himself shudders at what he calls the "Disneyland North" architecture of a local suburban shopping area which includes a "Georgetown" section. He and his associates stress that there will be no phony materials, that this will not be a Aormica-and-vinyl fast-shop mart. Real brass, real pressed tin ceilings, brick walks -- quality, they emphasize.

Mr. Miller also suggests that Georgetown Park is not to be compared even with such highly successful shopping restorations as Boston's Faneuil Hall, Baltimore's Harborplace, or even San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square (built on the site of an old chocolate factory).

"Those are wonderful people places in an unusual setting, and the sites are historic. But they are principally entertainment centers for leisure time. They don't offer a high degree of serious shopping as we intend to do at Georgetown Park," he says. "Fourteen million people a year go through Faneuil Hall, for instance. The difference is, we're trying to present far more serious shopping." Among the serious shops are Cartier, Mark Gross, F. A. O. Schwartz, Abercrombie & Fitch, the Jewel of Miami, Garfinckel's, Ann Taylor, Conran's, and Brentano's. Mr. Miller adds that the shopping complex is 92 percent filled with tenants. One of the criticisms of Georgetown Park has been that some of the other new developments offering shopping, residential, and office space in this area are still not filled, some only half rented. Still, one of the lures of development in Georgetown is the affluence of the Washington area -- the median family income, $21,149, is higher than that of any other major American market.

Original plans to include a "food hall" in the complex have been scrapped, he adds. As it's turned out, the first building in the Georgetown Park complex, "the market house," has become a smorgasbord of small food boutiques. Its 18 shops sell items like tempura, jellybeans fried dough, herbs and spices, "raw bar" oysters and clams on the half shell, gourmet hot dogs, cheeses, hot strudel with ice cream, and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

The market house, once a debtors' prison in the 1700s and an auto supply shop recently, is now painted brick red, with its Victorian touches restored. It had at first been presented as an old-fashioned market house with high quality food and fresh produce. Some local people are miffed that it did not emerge as that. "We're trying to have farmers' days," Mr. Miller says, "bringing in farmers from all over the area to sell their produce."

Not quite everything else has worked out as originally planned, either, sometimes to the dismay of the developers. In a complicated agreement with the National Park Service and the Interior Department, the Georgetown Park builders agreed to develop two pieces of parkland in their project. One of them was a small section of the C&O canal, now entirely drained, dry as a gulch, for extensive dredging and renovation.

Wolf von Eckhardt, the architecture critic of the Washington Post, has referred to Georgetown Park as "the colossus on the canal." And indeed, this giant red brick complex straddles the canal, half north, half south of it. The problem for the developers came when they found that the historic retaining walls of the canal were crumbling in a charming way. Since the Park Service mandated that the wall stay, the developers had to shell out nearly $1 million, according to Mr. Miller, "just to hand-set the wall; a stonemason had to hand cut the stone and hand-set it and anchor it all back into a new wall, taking 40- 50 days." They also had to deal with an unforeseen 12-foot outcropping of deep rock at the canal level, and the unexpected cost of rebuilding the historic bridges across the canal. Although the wall is deeded to the National Park Service, the developers "have to hold that wall up in perpetuity," says John Parsons, the associate regional director of the National Capitol Region of the NPS. The NPS has also stipulated that the developers build and maintain a walk down to the towpath along the canal and a park along its banks.

The building that houses Conran's is a historic warehouse, and the developers hoped to get a tax benefit on it when they rehabilitated it. Charles Fisher, historian of the technical preservation service of the Department of the Interior, explains that they didn't get it because "the important historical qualities of the building were not preserved, the masonry, the windows. Much of the brickwork is new. [It looks like a rose-colored brick patchwork quilt.] It is a rehabilitation, but it is not a historical preservation."

Complicating the controversy over Georgetown Park is another, larger issue: What will happen to the nearby Georgetown waterfront, that "industrial slum" as the Washington Star calls it, on the banks of the Potomac. At present this choice 18 acres of potentially beautiful land harbors a variety of eyesores. They include a cement factory, incinerating plant, and several ratty-looking parking lots. It also includes a bizarre little industrial railway on which a freight car appears like a phantom around noon every day, chugging down the middle of a major street and scaring the hubcaps off unwary drivers. Civic groups have campaigned for years to turn all 18 acres into a riverside park.

But the Georgetown waterfront is just around a bend in the river from a hunk of the most expensive real estate in Washington, the Watergate complex, with the Kennedy Center next door. The river view of that kind of possible profit has inspired local entrepreneurs.

Western Development's Mr. Miller is also a general partner in Georgetown Harbour Associates. In the latter role, he wants to develop a $150 million retail-condominium-office complex that would take up 3.2 acres. Mr. Miller, who owns six acres of the Georgetown waterfront area (valued at $94 million), has said he would help develop a park with 2.8 acres of the land he owns, along with 12 acres that the District of Columbia plans to turn over to the National Park Service.

The US Fine Arts Commission in 1979 vetoed Georgetown Harbour Associates' original plan for developing the waterfront area, because its chairman, J. Carter Brown, said, "You get the look of a beached whale along the Georgetown shore." Early last year Mr. Miller's firm was back with a new architect and new design, smaller in scale and attractive enough so that the Fine Arts Commission approved much of it except the height (double that of existing low-rise buildings). Last month the commission recommended to the district government that it deny a building permit for the waterfront development, on the grounds that guarantees it required had not been pinned down. The issue will probably end up in court. Meanwhile, Georgetown Park opens Sept. 27.

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