Visitors to this year’s annual AIA Convention in Washington, D.C., discovered that the city is booming, and that the boom is tinted in varying shades of green. According to the most recent U.S. Green Building Council data, the District ranks number one per capita in its list of top 10 states for LEED–certified commercial and institutional green buildings.

A project in the historic Shaw neighborhood is of particular interest for what it says about using existing legacy buildings as a strategy for shaping more sustainable communities. The site is at what used to be one of the city’s historic 19th-century markets, at 7th and O streets, N.W. A vibrant gathering place for the community well into the 20th century, the O Street Market suffered from the 1968 riot and eventually closed. But a local grocery chain opened across the way in 1980. Unlike the Victorian brick confection with its wayfinding tower, the new supermarket followed a familiar suburban pattern: The long, one-story cinderblock building turned its back on the street and opened out onto a large surface parking lot. The store’s management clearly anticipated that most of the customers would arrive by car, especially since the neighborhood had become somewhat sketchy and unwalkable.

The supermarket was welcomed, but never embraced as a landmark. Directions to the neighborhood continued to refer to the O Street Market. The supermarket was subsequently torn down and the older building is now being restored as a lynchpin in the ongoing revival of that area of downtown.

Consider the fate of both projects. The older building was an asset; the newer one, a liability that had to be demolished and carted away before the community could move forward. The architect of the O Street Market did not design a building with a limited shelf life. It was an investment in placemaking that was meant to last. The supermarket built a century later was designed to be disposable. It was an investment that sought a quick return on the dollar. The architecture did not define place; the building could have slipped comfortably into any highway strip development.

What will future generations say about what we design today? Will we leave an in-place resource that they can adapt for their purposes? Or will the ground have to be cleared and the rubble of our shortsightedness carted away?

Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President