The Auditorium Commission's willingness to consider Foggy Bottom for the cultural center ignited a lengthy battle over the center's location. In November, the Auditorium Commission voted in favor of the Foggy Bottom site. But the Federal City Council, a private group of corporations and business leaders, voted for L'Enfant Plaza. D.C. and RLA officials also favored L'Enfant Plaza. But the west leg of the proposed Inner Loop (a six-lane, high-speed freeway in downtown D.C. which formed an ellipse centered on the White House) cut through the Foggy Bottom site, and the planned highway would have to be moved west to accommodate it. In late October 1956, the NCPC agreed to consider moving the freeway and the Auditorium Commission agreed to study a number of new sites as well. As the January 31, 1957, deadline for the Auditorium Commission's report neared, the Commission proposed three sites for a cultural center: Foggy Bottom (its nominal preference), L'Enfant Plaza, and a site a block east of L'Enfant Plaza (the current site of the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building and Constitution Center, a private office building). The proposal to Congress included a 10,000-seat convention hall, music hall-auditorium, theater, and tourist center. The cost was pegged at $36 million ($282.1 million in 2011 dollars). The RLA pressed for the L'Enfant Plaza site, although it agreed that perhaps the single proposed cultural center might be broken up into several structures. A fourth site in Southwest D.C. (bounded by 7th Street, 9th Street, Maine Avenue and and G Street) was proposed in February 1957. The Auditorium Commission also said it would be acceptable to move the cultural center slightly west in Foggy Bottom, so that it sat on the banks of the Potomac River rather than a few blocks inland. Three months later, in April 1957, House and Senate subcommittees overseeing the District of Columbia voted to approve the Foggy Bottom site as well. The Senate followed suit in May, but the House refused to appropriate money to purchase the land. Eight months later, with the Auditorium Commission defunct, a number of civic leaders and members of Congress proposed that the cultural center be built on a site on the National Mall south of the National Gallery of Art (where theNational Air and Space Museum is now). This proposal proved so unwelcome that Congress shifted again and chose the Foggy Bottom site for the cultural center. President Eisenhower signed legislation creating the National Cultural Center (later renamed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) on September 2, 1958.
With the cultural center set for Foggy Bottom, plans began moving ahead again on L'Enfant Plaza. In November 1958, the RLA and Zeckendorff began negotiating over the price of land and the composition of the buildings to be built at L'Enfant Plaza. In December 1959, Zeckendorf won approval to build a 1,000-room hotel and five privately owned office buildings on L'Enfant Plaza. The Redevelopment Land Agency also approved the condemnation and razing of 14 city blocks for construction of the plaza, hotel, and office buildings.Construction was scheduled to begin on January 1, 1961, but was delayed due to unresolved design issues with L'Enfant Promenade, the short time-frame to prepare detailed construction plans, and because Congress had not granted air rights above 9th Street SW to the developers.
For four years, construction of L'Enfant Plaza and the hotel were delayed. Zeckendorf agreed to build the promenade, plaza, and all surrounding buildings as a single project in April 1961 and pay $20 per 1 square foot (0.093 m2) for the land. These pledges led the Redevelopment Land Agency to award the 14-block area to Zeckendorf in October 1961 for $7 million.
Zeckendorf had assigned I.M. Pei, at the time a staff architect in his firm of Webb & Knapp, to provide the overall design of the plaza, promenade, and park (including building siting).Pei was also the lead architect for the North Building (955 L'Enfant Plaza SW) and South Building (950 L'Enfant Plaza SW). But by 1962, although the hotel had retained its size, the number of office buildings had shrunk from eight to three. Zeckendorf added an underground shopping mall of shops and restaurants to the project in November 1962, and construction on the promenade and plaza was slated to begin in April 1963. But Zeckendorf's vast real estate empire began to suffer severe financial difficulties in 1964. (The company went bankrupt in 1965.) With Zeckendorf unable to make good on his construction pledges, the Redevelopment Land Agency forced him to withdraw and sell his interest in L'Enfant Plaza in November 1964.
Constructing L'Enfant Plaza
The buyer of Zeckendorf's property and leases was the L'Enfant Plaza Corp. (also known as L'Enfant Properties, Inc.). L'Enfant Plaza Corp. was a syndicate led by former United States Air Force Lieutenant General Elwood R. Quesada, and included Chase Manhattan Bank president David Rockefeller, D.C. businessman David A. Garrett, investment banker André Meyer, and the real estate investment firm of Gerry Brothers & Co. Quesada said that if the Redevelopment Land Agency approved the sale, his company would begin immediate construction of the promenade, the parking garage beneath it, and the plaza using Pei's 10-year-old plans. The agency gave its approval on January 21, 1965, and the sale was finalized on August 30.
Construction of L'Enfant plaza and promenade quickly moved forward. Site preparation began in November 1965. Air rights over 9th Street SW were granted for a rent of $500 per year for 99 years on November 23, 1965. The actual groundbreaking for L'Enfant Plaza occurred on December 9. The project still encountered delays, however. The federal government, which was building the James V. Forrestal Building at the northern end of L'Enfant promenade, was a year behind in its construction schedule by June 1967, causing the northern end of the promenade to remain incomplete. Meanwhile, over-optimistic construction schedules and labor shortages had delayed the construction of L'Enfant Plaza's North and South buildings (which were the first structures to be built by L'Enfant Plaza Corp.) by six months. The $23 million complex neared completion in January 1968, and the office buildings, plaza, and promenade opened to the public and for business in June 1968. The plaza was formally dedicated on Saturday, November 16, 1968.
Vlastimil Koubek was the architect of the West Building (475 L'Enfant Plaza SW) and East Building (or L'Enfant Plaza Hotel; 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW). In February 1969, Koubek, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, and developer William Zeckendorf ceremonially broke ground for the West Building, which with 640,000 square feet (59,000 m2) of interior office space was the largest private office building at the time in Washington. In June 1972, the United States Postal Service purchased the West Building for its national headquarters.
A third architect, Edwin F. Schnedl, designed the shopping mall and food court areas. Known as "La Promenade," the shopping mall connects all four buildings and the Metro station together underground.
In 1970, Benjamin Banneker Park became the southern terminus of L'Enfant Plaza. Pei had initially proposed a large pedestrian bridge lined by retail businesses and restaurants extending from the L'Enfant Promenade across Banneker Overlook and Interstate-395 down to Maine Avenue SW and the waterfront. This structure was never built for cost reasons. In June 1970, the Redevelopment Land Agency transferred the 4.7 acres (1.9 ha) which constituted Banneker Overlook to the federal government for use as a park. The park was designed by Daniel Urban Kiley, and contains a low granite wall surrounding a commemorative fountain and minimally landscaped lawns leading down to F and 9th Streets SW. The name of the park commemorates Benjamin Banneker, a free African American astronomer and author who in 1791 assisted in the initial survey of the boundaries of the District of Columbia. The park, which was dedicated on November 19, 1971, was the first public space in Washington to be dedicated to an African American.
Construction on the hotel was to have started in the spring of 1970. However, delays meant that work on the 1,000,000 square feet (93,000 m2), $23 million hotel and office building did not begin until June 1971. The Hotel opened with a three-day gala which concluded with its dedication on May 31, 1973.
Washington Metro's L'Enfant Plaza Station opened on July 1, 1977. The initial entrances were in the courtyard of 400 7th Street SW and at 7th Street SW at Maryland Avenue SW. The entrance inside L'Enfant Plaza, which connects with the "La Promenade" underground shopping mall, opened in October 1977. In June 1992, Virginia Railway Express opened its new $1.1 million L'Enfant Station on Virginia Avenue. L'Enfant Plaza also boasts a 16,050-space parking garage underneath the plaza's northern section, the second largest in the city.
L'Enfant Promenade descends on either side of Banneker Overlook to form Benjamin Banneker Circle. F Street SW runs southeast from the circle to 9th Street SW. A pedestrian walkway and bridge leads northwest from the park to I-395, which crosses the Washington Channel just west of the park.
L'Enfant Plaza originally housed an 800-seat motion picture theater. The theater struggled financially, and closed in the spring of 1970.The American Film Institute (AFI) began renting the theater shortly thereafter for screenings of its films. The theater re-opened as a commercial movie house in August 1972. It closed again, and in February 1973 opened as a stage for live plays. In April 1973, the AFI moved to the Kennedy Center. A month later, the theater reopened yet again as the "new" American Theater (a live theater). It closed again, and reopened in May 1975 under new management. The space continued to operate as a movie and stage theater into the late 1980s, until it closed permanently.
In 1981, Eastern Realty Investment Corp. (the real estate investment arm of the Electric Supply Pension Scheme, a pension plan based in the United Kingdom) purchased L'Enfant Plaza itself, La Promenade, the North Building, the South Building, and the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel building.
L'Enfant Plaza suffered a very serious fire in the mid 1980s. A serious fire consumed the top four floors of the U.S. Postal Service headquarters on October 15, 1984. More than 200 firefighters needed two hours to put out the fire, one of the largest in D.C. history. It caused an estimated $100 million in damages and injured 25 firefighters. (District of Columbia law required sprinklers in very few buildings.)
Property tax issues dogged L'Enfant Plaza in the late 1980s. In 1981, L'Enfant Plaza and its constituent buildings and shopping mall was the city's most expensive property, valued at at $78 million ($189 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars). In 1985, the assessor's office in the District of Columbia Department of Finance and Revenue valued the hotel at $83.7 million ($171.3 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars).Eastern Realty challenged the valuation, and the D.C. property tax Board of Equalization and Review reduced the assessment to $65.1 million ($133.2 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars). Eastern Realty still felt the valuation was too high, and asked a D.C. Superior Court to lower the structure's value to just $44.5 million. The court declined to overturn the equalization board's ruling. In 1986, the tax valuation was set at $98.5 million ($197.9 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars), but after an appeal and the assessment dropped to $62.1 million ($124.8 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars). The 1987 assessment was $93.2 million ($180.7 million in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars), but when the equalization board refused to reduce the assessment Eastern Realty sued. A private appraiser hired by the owners valued the hotel at $54.6 million in 1986 and $63.4 million in 1987, while the city appraiser claimed $83 million in 1986 and $85 million in 1987 (unusually large discrepancies). The differences meant that Eastern Realty owed either $2.3 million or $3.3 million for 1986/1987. In July 1990, the court reduced the 1985 assessment to $44.5 million, the 1986 assessment to $54.6 million, and the 1987 assessment to $63.4 million.Another round of tax battles ensued over the next three years. The city assessed the hotel at $93.2 million in 1988, $97.4 million in 1989, $102.2 million in 1990, and $103.9 million in 1991. A second D.C. Superior Court reduced the assessments to $63.4 million for 1988, $71.1 million for 1989, $61.7 million for 1990, and $63.9 million for 1991. Similar tax battles occurred over much the same period regarding the North Building, with similar results.In the midst of its tax battles, Eastern Realty spent $35 million in 1988 to renovate the office buildings and hotel at L'Enfant Plaza. The upgrades included adding sprinkler systems and smoke detectors through all the structures, upgrading the elevators, and improving the electrical system. The electrical system upgrade caused a major problem for the owners, however. In February 1992, contractors working on the electrical system caused a short beneath the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel that injured two workers, and forced the hotel and about a third of the mall's businesses to close until power was restored (which occurred more than two weeks later).
In early 1996, Eastern Realty sold the South Building to VIB Management Fund, a Dutch real estate investment company, for $52 million. In September 1996, a second Dutch real estate investment firm, Sarakreek Holding N.V. (itself a subsidiary of the Tiger/Westbrook Real Estate Fund of New York City), purchased the plaza, North Building, hotel, and shopping mall for $185 million. That year, sports team owner Abe Pollin briefly considered building his MCI Center (now known as the Verizon Center) at L'Enfant Plaza, but built it in Chinatown instead.
In 1998, the Urban Land Institute recommended redeveloping L'Enfant Promenade to create a more tourist-friendly environment as well as creating a link with the southwest waterfront. Although this concept garnered little attention at the time, it proved to be the genesis of a major plan that emerged around 2010 to radically change the nature and look of L'Enfant Plaza. A year later, Sarakreek Holdings replaced the Pei-designed fountain with a glass pyramid skylight over the center section of La Promenade.
In 2001, Sarakreek Holdings sought to sell its L'Enfant Plaza holdings. The same year, VIB Management Fund sold the South Buliding to Heyman Properties (a local D.C. real estate investment company) for $55 million. On November 3, 2003, the JBG Companies, a local real estate investment and development firm, purchased L'Enfant Plaza, the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, and the North and South office buildings from Sarakreek Holding for $200 million. Under the terms of various agreements and contracts of sale, the cost of upkeep for L'Enfant Plaza's automobile access ramps, landscaping, maintenance, stairwells, three-level parking garage, and the roadway around the plaza itself (but not L'Enfant Promenade) are divided between Heyman Properties (which pays 18.22 percent of total costs) and JBG Companies (which pays 81.78 percent).
JBG Companies hired architect César Pelli and the architectural firm of Hickok Warner Cole to draft a 10-year, $200-$300 million master site plan that would renovate all three existing buildings, bring improve street-level retail opportunities, and add one or more residential buildings (similar to the "Banneker Village Center" plan proposed by the city). In May 2004, the National Children's Museum proposed building its new museum in the center of L'Enfant Plaza. But when the pace of redevelopment of L'Enfant Plaza slowed, the Children's Museum decided in November 2004 that it would build elsewhere. In February 2005, L'Enfant Plaza was considered as a site for the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture. But in January 2006, the Smithsonian chose a site on an empty block of Madison Drive NW between 14th and 15th Streets NW (west of the National Museum of American History).
Various proposals to redevelop or eliminate Banneker Park in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s also threatened to radically change the nature of L'Enfant Plaza. By the early 1990s, the park and suffered from lack of maintenance, deterioration of some of its features, and the fountain had stopped running. In 1996, the nonprofit Washington Interdependence Council won permission from the National Park Service (NPS, which managed the park at the time) to raise $3 million in funds to build a life-size statue of Banneker for the park and to make other improvements (such as bas relief sculptures depicting Banneker's achievements on the limestone circle surrounding the overlook). In 1997, the NPS partially restored the park (including restoring signage, getting the fountain running again, and adding a small interpretive exhibit), and D.C. and federal officials sponsored a rededication ceremony there. The following year, Congress approved construction of a Banneker memorial in the park. By 1999, however, the park's renovation had expanded into a $17 million project that included a visitor center, clock, history exhibits along L'Enfant Promenade, and a skyway over I-395 to connect the park to the waterfront. But the National Capital Planning Commission rejected placement of a statue in the park, ordering the Washington Interdependence Council to study a statue in the middle of L'Enfant Promenade.
The skyway idea, however, captured the interest of city planners and became part of a plan to build a baseball stadium at the southern end of L'Enfant Plaza. The D.C. City Council approved a plan in March 2002 to redevelop the southwest waterfront which included construction of a tour bus parking garage beneath Banneker Park and stairs down from Banneker Park to Maine Avenue SW. The skyway/stairs concept soon became caught up in other plans for Banneker Park. In 2004, the city proposed razing Banneker Park and building a new baseball stadium on the site. The proposal called for covering over a portion of I-395, and creating a skyway or stairs to link the stadium with the waterfront. The city's proposal also would have implemented the Urban Land Institute's 1998 proposal and created "Banneker Village Center," a project which would redevelop L'Enfant Promenade and line it with retail businesses, high-rise residences, and tourist attractions. But when the stadium threatened to complicate planning for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, city officials withdrew their support so that the waterfront development could proceed. Even though the Banneker site had drawn the most interest from Major League Baseball, the cost of using the Banneker Park site also cost the proposal support. (The stadium, named Nationals Park, was later constructed in 2007 in Southeast Washington.)
In 2004, the D.C. Preservation League listed Benjamin Banneker Park as one of the most endangered places in the District because of proposals to redevelop the park's area. The League stated that the park, "Designed by renowned landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley ... is culturally significant as the first public space in Washington named for an African American and is usually included in Black History tours".
In 2006, the District government and the Federal Highway Administration issued an environmental assessment for "improvements" to the promenade and park that described some of these redevelopment proposals. In 2011, a proposal surfaced that would erect a structure housing a "National Museum of the American People" at or near the site of the park.
"La Promenade" shopping mall undergoing renovation in February 2011.
Redevelopment of L'Enfant Plaza into a high-density, environmentally-friendly, sustainable-living extension of the National Mall began in 2006. The powerful National Capital Planning Commission, which develops long-term plans for the capital city, has termed this redevelopment the "Southwest Ecodistrict."
The JBG Companies began the redevelopment of L'Enfant Plaza in 2006 when it secured a $242 million mortgage for its renovation projects.
That same year, the NCPC and District officials held joint hearings to identify needs and solicit ideas for L'Enfant plaza. Maintenance of the plaza had become a major issue, as bricks in the esplanade were broken and much of the landscaping was in poor condition. The hearings identified an immediate need to plant trees along the esplanade, build bike lanes, and install public seating. But the hearings also gave new life to the Urban Land Institute's 1998 redevelopment ideas, and formally adopted them as a tentative design plan for L'Enfant Promenade.
In 2009, the NCPC convened a "10th Street Task Force" that would more radically redesign L'Enfant Promenade. The task force (which was charged with looking at L'Enfant Plaza, Banneker Park, the Maryland Avenue SW corridor, and nearby federal office buildings as a whole) proposed creating an "eco-district" which would be energy neutral, accommodate multimodal transportation, add residential housing, and create street-level retail aimed at tourists and residents equally. The goal was to produce a formal redevelopment plan by early 2011. The same year, the commission looking into the feasibility of establishing a National Museum of the American Latino tentatively considered Banneker Park as the site of a potential museum, but the site did not make the commission's short list of preferred locations. In November 2009, JBG Companies began renovating the eastern portion of La Promenade, and planned to renovate the western section in 2010 and 2011. The $40 million effort, designed by the SmithGroup architectural firm, added large windows overlooking the grassy terrace of the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building to the east and moves most of the fast-food operations into the eastern portion of the mall. The retail shopping area will be expanded to 205,000 square feet (19,000 m2). The plaza glass pyramid will be removed, and a greatly expanded atrium and pedestrian entry way installed over the center portion of the mall. The plan is to situate restaurants under this enlarged glass atrium, to provide diners with a more pleasant experience. JBG Companies also said it would renovate the North Building and the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, and proposed renovating the South Building (with its owner's consent) to fit the new look of the plaza.
In 2009, the NCPC released its Monumental Core Framework Plan, a comprehensive plan for creating places and spaces around the National Mall to increase the availability of space for new museums and memorials while adding residences and retail features that would make the city a more attractive place to live and work. The plan was adopted by the United States Commission of Fine Arts (a powerful federal body with design approval over construction within the national capital region) on March 19, 2009, and approved by the NCPC on April 2, 2009. The Monumental Core Framework Plan proposed adding a new visitor's center and memorial at Banneker Park, an intermodal transportation hub beneath Banneker Park, demolition of the Forrestal Building and its annex, and construction of apartment and office buildings along L'Enfant Promenade with retail and dining space at the street level to accommodate tourists and residents alike. The framework plan also proposed covering over I-395 between Banneker Park and L'Enfant Plaza, covering over the CSX railway tracks (which currently cut L'Enfant Plaza off from the Forrestal complex of buildings), re-establishing Maryland Avenue SW between 12th and 7th Streets SW (it currently does not exist there, due to the presence of the railroad tracks), and restoring the view of the U.S. Capitol building along Maryland Avenue SW.
But in September 2009 JBG Companies proposed a much more extensive redevelopment of L'Enfant Plaza. The firm's plans included construction of two 12-story office buildings in the center of the plaza, an extended-stay hotel above 9th Street SW (north of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel) and either an office building or a residential building over 9th Street SW (south of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel). (One source claimed this would be an apartment building.) Heyman Properties, owner of the South Building, sued shortly thereafter to stop all renovations and the proposed buildings, saying the construction projects would harm the value of its property. Nonetheless, JBG started renovating the eastern part of La Promenade in late 2009, planned to renovate the western section and install the enlarged atrium beginning in late 2010. JBG presented its master plan to the NCPC in early 2010. In November 2010, JBG Companies released an artist's conception of its proposed plaza building, a two-tower, Gehry-like structure with wavy glass walls.
L'Enfant Plaza was considered a masterpiece when it opened in 1968. Washington Post architectural critic Wolf von Eckardt called it "a triumph of good architecture over bad planning." He believed it would be D.C.'s version of Rockefeller Center or the Place Ville-Marie, and predicted people would throng the plaza—which he felt would be the "city's major urban attraction." Von Eckardt piled praise on the plaza itself, calling it "exceptionally attractive" and "modern America's most beautiful 'outdoor salon'". He also lauded the "marvelous" cruciform-and-globe light fixtures and the huge "dramatic" fountain. Architects Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Louis Justement felt the esplanade and plaza were an "essential...appropriate entrance to the Southwest." Five years later, in 1973, von Eckardt continued to sing the plaza's praises despite its shortcomings. Although he recognized that the plaza was largely devoid of foot traffic most of the time, he considered it a "superb work of urban design" on par with the great plazas and squares built in Paris under Napoleon III or Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.
Such high praise did not last. Even von Eckardt felt the Forrestal building was an "esthetic disaster" (sic) and "silly"—"like an elephant tottering on the legs of a giraffe." He heartily disliked the design of the plaza itself ("all the charm of an empty freeway") Banneker Park, with its minimalist fountain, came in for similar criticism. He declared that the city's decision to cancel the skywalk to Maine Avenue SW ruined the southern end of the Promenade: "It ends with a whimper." Two years after L'Enfant Plaza opened, Washington Post architecture critic Eugene L. Meyer called it a "ghost town", and said it was "not living up to its advance billing." One of the Zeckendorff architects who worked on the design, Araldo Cossutta, declared it a "product of outmoded city planning". The complex's reputation did not improve over the next 30 years. In 2003, Washington Post architectural critic Benjamin Forgey was just as critical:
The Pei solution was elegant on paper but, as we know, it did not work very well in practice. The plaza today is lusterless and very nearly lifeless, and the 10th Street connector, renamed the L'Enfant Promenade, seems just another pretentious, failed dream. ... Much of the fault clearly rests with the plan itself. Life is sucked out of the plaza by an extensive, wrongheaded underground retail mall. The wide, ceremonial roadway is simply too much for too little, like a symphonic fanfare introducing a high school band recital. And there's little reward for taking the road—it leads only to a dreary auto turnaround overlooking the (equally dreary) redeveloped Southwest waterfront.
He also noted that Pei himself fiercely fought construction of the Forrestal Building, knowing that it would severely compromise the Promenade's view of the National Mall. Art critic Hank Burcahrd called L'Enfant Plaza a "pitiful and pitiless 'plaza' that dishonors the name of L'Enfant" in 1992. The complex's popularity with citizens hadn't improved, either. Another Washington Post reporter noted in 2005 that L'Enfant Plaza "shuts down" at night and on weekends, creating an effect described as a "Valley of the Tombs". In 2010, the Washington City Paper said L'Enfant Plaza "could easily contend for the honor of being modern urban design's grandest mistake.” It called the complex an "unmitigated urban planning disaster", and strongly criticized the Forrestal Building for isolating the promenade from the rest of the city.