For years, businesses and government have been trying to make it easier to move between the Mall and downtown. When the General Services Administration built the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, it included a pedestrian extension of 13th Street two-thirds of the way through the Federal Triangle. The GSA created space for restaurants, installed contemporary sculpture, and tried to program cultural events in the space to promote it as a link between downtown and the Mall.
“It’s long been part of the holy grail for us to see the boundaries between the Mall and downtown sort of melt away,” says Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District. “When we started the BID about a decade ago, we estimated that 2.5 million to 3 million people who came to cultural things around the Mall came into downtown. Today it’s 8 million, and it’s on its way to 10 to 12 million. And those increases are in the face of roughly the same 20 million people who come to the Mall each year.”
With Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s new facility near Pennsylvania Avenue and the Newseum’s recent opening there, a critical mass is forming, Bradley says: “There really is now a downtown that is a destination for culture and entertainment, too.”
Here’s the problem: Congress isn’t in any rush to move the FTC out of the Apex Building. In 2005, Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican who chaired the House subcommittee on government infrastructure, introduced legislation to transfer the building from the FTC to the NGA. Nothing happened. Mica said late last year that he planned to reintroduce it early this year, but that hasn’t happened. His staff says the bill remains a top priority, but it doesn’t offer any timelines.
Since Mica introduced his bill, Democrats have gained control of Congress, and the NGA seems to have few Democratic allies. In fact, powerful Democratic opponents to the plan have come forward: DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who chairs the House subcommittee on economic development, emergency management, and public buildings, and Michigan representative John Dingell, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, oppose moving the FTC.
There are no estimates of what it would cost the federal government to find 350,000 square feet—or more—of new office space for the FTC. Norton, who seems stunned that NGA officials never approached her to discuss their space needs, refuses to speculate. “They surely knew they weren’t going to get a government building,” Norton says. “This isn’t news to them.”
While Norton seems adamant, don’t count out the NGA yet. Its trustees are well connected: Board chair John Wilmerding has advised Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton on her collection, and Walton and the NGA worked together on the attempted co-acquisition of a Thomas Eakins painting. Walton is also a major Republican donor. NGA vice chair Vicki Sant and her husband, Roger, cofounder and former chair of energy giant AES Corporation, are major Democratic donors, and Roger Sant is also chair of the Smithsonian’s board of regents. Sharon Percy Rockefeller, wife of West Virginia Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller, also sits on the NGA’s board.
Other than Apex, what options does the NGA have? There’s no place else in the neighborhood to go. Would the NGA have to find a building somewhere else in Washington?
“Right now I would take nothing off the table,” Powell says.
Even if it was 20 blocks away from the East and West Buildings?
“I would say we would certainly seriously consider any possibility so long as it is related to the gallery’s collection and the gallery’s mission,” Powell says.
“They should come to talk to us about that,” Norton says. “They’ve been fussing around with this one or that one. I don’t recall them ever coming to talk to me. As the old song goes, ‘You’ve got to come by me.’ ”
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