The Post yesterday threw up a video of a typically ebullient Donald Trump pimping his vision for the Old Post Office Pavilion, which someday, perhaps even soon, will transform into “one of the great hotels of the world, if not the best.” As always, Trump’s aiming high, and the Old Post Office building certainly looks the part of a dowager peeress in need of a facelift. I haven’t been in there in a couple of years, but I recall that the payoff for enduring an out-of-place security check at the entrance was essentially two levels of a suburban strip mall wrapped around the site’s central atrium. If you’re looking for MSG-infused foodstuffs, cut-rate souvenirs, and treats for tour groups wilting from the August sun, today’s iteration of the Old Post Office is just the spot for you.
So, yes, I applaud GSA’s effort to spruce up the place and match the building’s grand Romanesque exterior with something Trumpy (a lesser, ersatz grandeur, methinks) on the inside. But there’s also something about this plan that rankles me a bit, this notion of hotel as panacea for the economic ills of multiple DC neighborhoods to include, now, Federal Triangle. You see the same phenomenon sweeping Adams Morgan and the U Street corridor, with boutique hoteliers looking to fill new 400+ rooms with folks boasting expense accounts and other discretionary income to invigorate local businesses.
I can understand why the hotel projects make sense from a business perspective. If you’re Jyoti or La Fourchette in AdMo – and not one of those trashy cesspools catering to the diaspora of Fairfax and PG counties (McNasty’s, anyone?) – you no doubt figure that a nice hotel a stone’s throw away will significantly boost your lunchtime traffic weekdays and also juice dinner-hour receipts Sunday – Thursday. What a deal! Follow me, if you will: more customers means more jobs, more taxes for the city (over time covering that astonishing $46 million abatement for the hotel developer), and maybe, even, a classier 18th Street strip. Can you imagine a stroll down a newly refurbished 18th, with McNasty’s and Tom Tom (already a goner!) a distant memory, considering new and improved options for just about everything? PLUS, let’s not forget all the jobs at the hotel itself and the room levies we’ll be able to wring from those sucker out-of-towners. BOOM!
Still, when I was stopped a few months ago, Planned Parenthood style, by a young man asking me to sign a pro-hotel petition, I refused. You see, as much as my signature might have helped grease the wheels for construction, and as much as that construction might have created a position that this young man would fill, I was still overcome by a terrific fear. What if this hotel, boutique-y as it was intended to be, had the effect of creating a bland street-scape, such as the one familiar to those trapped on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park? There, the Omni and Marriott hotels loom over the area like Patagonian peaks. Under their gaze, look-alike Italian joints and mediocre restaurants abound (with apologies to Lebanese Taverna and Open City), appealing, I think, to visitors hoping to play it safe and keep the check within miserly per diem limits.
(Perhaps you’re thinking, “Whoa whoa whoa, you elitist!”)
Maybe I have it all wrong. Hotel boosters for the AdMo and U Street areas, in fact, are making the opposite argument, that the new boutique hotels will bring only well-heeled customers into our neighborhoods. But if this is true, instead of mediocrity on the restaurant and bar fronts, I’d expect a further spike in prices at our favorite eateries and watering holes. I don’t think it would match the gentrification-induced inflation of the past decade – which has driven far too many olde tyme locals and cherished businesses from our neighborhoods – but I think it would be enough to notice. (To wit: Pasta Mia’s pasta entrees, circa 1998, cost $7. Now, they’re $18!) The perfect storm outcome, bringing homogenization and high prices, can already be seen on 18th Street. Yes, the Mellow Mushroom makes great pizza, but it’s a chain people. If we wanted that, we would have moved to Arlington in the first place.
By creating neighborhoods in this fashion – in catering to out-of-state consumer interests, and not local consumer interests, and caving to the immediate concerns of local business – the city risks alienating the people who made these neighborhoods desirable for visitors in the first place. I’m talking everyone who stuck it out here during the tough years as well as the newcomers who’ve at last pushed our population north of 600,000. For their sakes, I wish the city had more imagination with its community improvement plans and tried to rezone these soon-to-be hotel properties for business use. Why not put office buildings, not hotels, at these valuable locations? The jobs would be better. Local restaurants would still see a jump in their grosses and perhaps earn repeat customers. (Could someone else could comment on the relative tax gain/loss for the city, hotels vs. office buildings?)
But it’s just easier, it seems, to drop a hotel here and there instead. Sure, it’s a quick way to gin up work for the young man with the petition and goose restaurant receipts, but it still seems lazy all the same.