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Eli Lehrer

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What the Loss of the Pinball Museum Says About D.C.

Posted: 09/29/11 01:59 PM ET

The National Pinball Museum, until recently ensconced at the ready-for-a-remodel Shops at Georgetown Park is moving to Baltimore. I visited the museum only once during its time in D.C. and probably wouldn't have visited again. (Pinball just isn't my thing.) But I was still sad to see D.C. lose it: a pinball museum -- one of only two in the world to my knowledge -- is the sort of quirky, interesting, attraction that gives a city real vitality. A true "world city" (D.C. isn't one) offers a nearly limitless diversity of experiences, cultures, and human eccentricity. But D.C. simply didn't have a place for a museum devoted to one man's obsession with a game. When what most have been a pretty sweet deal to rent space in Georgetown Park collapsed, the Pinball Museum's owner couldn't find another place anywhere in the District. (Given that such a museum is going to heavily rely on tourists and D.C. has a lot more them than Baltimore, I'd think that D.C. is simply a better place for it.) And this says bad things about the District. As writer Jane Jacobs pointed out in her wonderful The Death and Life of Great American Cities, old buildings -- even slightly decrepit ones -- are the best places of all for new, innovative ideas. Gleaming office towers don't house oddball boutiques, small business start-ups, or, yes, Pinball museums. And D.C. just doesn't have enough such space for innovative ideas. Why? A lot of it has to with the District's own overgrown regulatory state. Three aspects of it stand out.

  • The Height Limitation: The most valuable land in D.C. cannot be used nearly as intensively as the market forces would suggest. This may make the city prettier and preserve its historic character. But it also has consequences for land values: nearly any land within a short cab or metro ride of K Street and the U.S. Capitol is sought after as office space and K street is built almost entirely with glass cubes that maximize the amount of office space. The federal government's huge workforce makes this even more intense. This means, basically, that all businesses (theaters, museums etc.) that don't either house offices or directly service their occupants need subsidies or other special treatment simply to survive in D.C.'s CBD. There are plenty of legitimate theaters downtown because government agencies and wealthy philanthropists have subsidized them. Small museums and art galleries, which get no subsidies to speak of, can't really survive in the same context.
  • Historic Preservation Laws Themselves: D.C. has elaborate and burdensome laws intended to preserve old buildings; some of them pushed by people who claim to worship Jacobs' ideas. Most prominent (and silly) is a law that requires that all additions to historic buildings be designed in a "contrasting style." The results are often lousy looking to the point of comedy. The result of these laws, however, is largely to make it harder to simply let these buildings age gracefully and to do the minimum to keep them up to code. Remodels have to be "all or nothing" games because of the emphasis on preserving buildings as they were at some point int he past even when doing so is inefficient. Thus, it's almost always more attractive to turn an historic building into fancy offices than to leave it as space for art galleries and start-ups.
  • Taxes: D.C. has very high property taxes of its own. While these aren't necessarily a bad way to fund government -- they're probably better than income taxes -- they do have a cost particularly given the District's sub-par city services. Arlington, VA offers much better city services with commercial property taxes less than half (all told) than those in the District. This makes rents lower and gives areas of Arlington like Columbia Pike more quirky commercial vitality than almost any part of the District.

Bottom line: Regulations drove out businesses like the Pinball museum. D.C. can and will become a true world city when it realizes that big government regulations do not -- and cannot -- lead to genuine urban vitality.