Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

First flowerpots, and now, a cycletrack

Last week, people noticed flowerpots appear on 6th Street NE between Gallaudet University and Union Market. But that wasn't all. Yesterday, officials put in the next piece: a cycletrack.


Photos by Mike Goodno of DDOT.

This is a "tactical urbanism" project by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Gallaudet University to make 6th Street NE safer for all users, including a new 2-way cycletrack and small plaza.

6th Street NE between Florida Avenue and Penn Street is extremely wide, with 70 feet of asphalt for only two parking lanes and two driving lanes. Each lane was 22 feet wide before DDOT recently re-striped the road. This is double the width of typical travel lanes.

The new layout still provides parallel parking on both sides, but also adds a two-way cycletrack on the east side while narrowing the travel lanes to 12' wide. This is similar to Option 3 for 6th Street in the ongoing Florida Avenue Safety Study, which will set plans for a future project to permanently rebuild the street.


Drawing from DDOT.

Gallaudet has been a huge supporter of this project, and worked with DDOT to have this open now that their Neal Place entrance will be open full-time. The university owns most of the real estate on both sides of 6th Street NE and they were concerned about the campus community crossing the street to access Union Market and other businesses. They also have high hopes for future growth on this street.

While most of this land is now used for maintenance or parking, Gallaudet is planning a new campus neighborhood to improve the campus experience, provide revenue and improve links to the surrounding neighborhoods and Metro. The university recently chose JBG as the development partner for this 1.3 million square foot project.

The changes on 6th Street were able happen so quickly because DDOT did not need to remove any travel lanes, parking, or other elements which require more time to approve. This has also recently become a highly-traveled pedestrian area not only because of Gallaudet and Union Market, but also because KIPP has opened a high school at the former Hamilton School on Brentwood Parkway.

The planters at the Neal Street NE campus entrance will help protect a small plaza on either side of the street. This will make it easier to cross between Gallaudet and Union Market by shortening the crossing distance and making pedestrians more visible. Gallaudet provided and will maintain flowers in the pots.


Photo by Mike Goodno.

This cycletrack will transition to the existing bike lanes on 6th Street south of Florida to K Street NE (which will eventually be rebuilt as part of the Florida Avenue NE project). For access to the southbound 4th Street NE/SE bike lane or to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, DDOT is planning new bike facilities for M Street NE.

The funding comes from DC's new Sustainable DC Innovation Challenge program. David Levy, program manager for Sustainable DC, says the program "funds innovative pilot projects that demonstrate ways to make the District more sustainable."

Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said planners are "always looking for ways to improve safety and create usable public space. We did some short-term improvements on Maryland Avenue NE at 7th Street earlier this year, so it's definitely more and more in our toolkit, but we don't have other locations identified just yet."

A project like this will have a major impact on safety for all users, and was completed very quickly through collaboration by many partners. Where else are there opportunities for tactical sustainability projects like this?

Flowerpots create a safer pedestrian crossing from Gallaudet to Union Market

Large flowerpots recently appeared on 6th Street NE along a crosswalk connecting Gallaudet University to Union Market. These aren't the work of a rogue gardener; they're a way for the city to narrow the crossing and enhance pedestrian safety.


Images by @GnarlyDorkette on Twitter reposted with permission.

Twitter user @GnarlyDorkette, a Trinidad resident and Gallaudet Deaf interpreter, posted these photos of the new flowerpot.

6th Street is only striped as a two-lane road, but it's a very wide two-lane road, with lanes formerly 22 feet wide. Drivers often used it as a four-lane road, said Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The road is part of the area that has long been a wholesale food market. There was a lot of truck traffic, but very little pedestrian traffic, and so it wasn't a top priority to change. But now this is a popular destination. Union Market opened two years ago and has become a bustling food destination with 34 carefully-curated vendors. Its success has drawn other businesses as well, like the Dolcezza gelato factory across the street. And a lot more Gallaudet students are walking over.

The university recently modified its gate on 6th Street to allow people with university IDs to pass through 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Zimbabwe said. All of this led DDOT to install the flowerpots to keep drivers on the two official lanes and encourage them to pass slowly.

What about Florida Avenue?

There's another wide road adjacent to Gallaudet that neighbors say could use some narrowing: Florida Avenue. The roadway there is three lanes each way but narrower elsewhere, and the traffic volume doesn't warrant six lanes. There's a study underway to look at widening the extremely narrow (and non-ADA compliant) sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

Zimbabwe said that study is about to wrap up, after which DDOT will submit proposed changes to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its Constrained Long-Range Plan. Departments of Transportation submit their projects for that plan each December, and Zimbabwe wants to get the Florida changes in this year.

The extra step is necessary, Zimbabwe said, because Florida Avenue is part of the "expanded national highway system" under the recent MAP-21 federal transportation bill, and is a major artery in the regional traffic models. DDOT expects to be able to modify the road, but has to jump through some administrative hoops first.

Between NoMa, Union Market, H Street, and more, the number of shops, restaurants, and other destinations around Gallaudet University has exploded in recent years. This makes it even more important to ensure the streets are safe to cross on foot for everyone of all ages, walking speeds, and hearing abilities.

Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Gas is suddenly cheap(er); the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn't the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That's why gas prices always fall in the fall.

But that's not enough to explain this autumn's decline, since gas hasn't dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that's also only part of the explanation.

The bigger piece is that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it's totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that "OPEC is over."

It's that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven't changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn't changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale isn't limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That's a mathematical certainty. But it's not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn't very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here's what it doesn't mean: There's never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we've only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn't be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody's guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn't change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that's necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we've made on those fronts and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Making room for transit can make better streets for everyone

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.


The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it's how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.


Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.


A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U's cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There's also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there's a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it's a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.


Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U's three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn't until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line's busiest.


Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn't created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state's traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It's likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places.

MARC will add a bicycle car to some weekend trains

MARC plans to allow bicycles on some weekend trains on the Penn Line before the end of the year, a MARC official said last week.


Photo by John on Flickr.

Bicycle advocates have long asked MARC to allow passengers to bring ordinary bicycles aboard MARC trains. MARC allows only folding bicycles on regular passenger cars.

However, MARC is now spending $359,000 to convert two single-level passenger cars to passenger/bicycle cars, Chief Mechanical Officer Erich Kolig explained to the MARC Riders Advisory Council on October 16. MARC plans to add one bicycle car to certain weekend Penn Line trains. There will be a bicycle symbol on the Penn Line schedule to denote these trains. The other bicycle car will remain in reserve.

The single-level cars have three seats on one side, and two seats on the other. In the bicycle cars, there will be 29 bicycle racks instead of seats on the three-seat side. The bicycle racks will accommodate full-length bicycles, tires ranging in diameter from 10 inches to 29.5 inches, and most fat tires. They are angled to preserve aisle space.

If the bicycle cars on the Penn Line are successful, MARC will convert two more cars and add bicycle service on Friday afternoons on the Brunswick Line, which will allow people to take their bicycles to Harpers Ferry on the train and then ride back to Washington on the C&O Canal trail.

Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Area governments take a small step on carbon emissions, but stall on real action

Greenhouse gas emissions are building in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change that is threatening our world. Our region needs to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors, but the regional Transportation Planning Board still won't commit to a specific target.


Photo by John Quigley/Spectral Q reposted with permission.

In 2008, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) published its climate change report establishing a scientifically-based regional goal to reduce carbon emissions to 80% of 2005 levels by 2050. All 21 local government members of COG reaffirmed the commitment in 2010 when they signed the compact called Region Forward.

But so far, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB), COG's most powerful committee which sets transportation funding priorities, has no plans to meet that target and is actually moving in the opposite direction. TPB staff are quick to note that per capita emissions are declining slightly, but if overall emissions continue to rise until 2050, they will worsen the climate change problem.


Carbon Dioxide emissions from transportation, 2015-2040.

Many leaders want to tackle climate change, but TPB balks

Last week the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' (COG) air quality and climate change committees met together for the first time. They focused on the wide and broadening gap between our region's accepted climate emissions reduction goals and where we are headed within the transportation sector.

The overall tone and broad participation reflected optimism and ambition about taking on this challenge. Many members spoke strongly in favor of moving urgently to tackle transportation emissions, led by Roger Berliner of Montgomery County, Jay Fisette of Arlington, Phil Mendelson of DC, and Tad Aburn of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

They and others repeatedly asked the important question: will TPB accept and plan for the regional goal of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions from transportation by 2050?

Amongst all the supportive voices, it was difficult to see exactly what was holding the group back from making a more forceful decision. Perhaps it was the way the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Maryland Department of Transportation muddied the waters by raising scenarios that were not relevant to what was being proposed.

When Jay Fisette asked point blank if there was any legal prohibition on TPB adopting a self-defined climate change goal, TPB head Kanti Srikanth answered, "no." But he also said that he was sure "there are stakeholders on TPB that would have a different view."

Mr. Srikanth, until recently the head of planning for the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT) Northern Virginia District, didn't say so, but those stakeholders most resistant to achieving climate and smart growth goals in COG's transportation plan have long been the departments of transportation of Maryland and Virginia, and some local DOTs.

In the end, a small step

Ultimately the two committees adopted a weak, but still helpful resolution urging that all COG committees adopt the existing 80% reduction target, and created a working group to "explore establishing a target for screening for the regional transportation plan."

Many of the meeting participants had hoped for a more explicit commitment, so the Coalition for Smarter Growth is pressing the TPB to make a specific commitment to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation by 80% using a strategies that link land use changes with greater investment in transit, walking and bicycling.

Our most populous suburban areas hold the key

TPB's recent assessment of the region's transportation projects includes some stunning statistics that show how such an approach can make real progress on reducing emissions from transportation.

For example, the commute mode share for the "regional core" (DC, Arlington, and Alexandria) shows 70% of commute trips today are by walking, cycling, or transit. This is a direct result of mixed-use, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented community development.


Commute mode share by core, inner suburbs, and outer suburbs.

For what COG terms the "inner suburbs" (Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George's), 37% of commute trips today are something other than people driving alone. Not bad, but they also don't show much progress by 2040. For the outer suburbs, it's 21% today and 28% in 2040.

These very populous counties could do much more to shift mode shares and reduce vehicle miles traveled and emissions by accelerating what they are already planning: a combination of transit-oriented development at existing transit stations and transformation of their commercial strip corridors into mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented communities.

The outer jurisdictions would also benefit from more mixed-use centers. Finally, significant investment in dedicated lane commuter transit service would benefit both the outer and inner areas.

But we'll never move the needle on transportation emissions with our current plans. The regional transportation plan for 2014 includes a whopping 1,200 new lane miles and 25 new grade separated interchanges, compared to just 44 new miles of transit.

Many of those projects would go in the so-called "inner suburbs," and many were conceived years and even decades ago when everyone assumed people would drive more and more every year. Now that it's clear people are driving less, and walking, cycling, and riding transit more, how many of those road projects could be downsized, translated into a dedicated transit lane, or eliminated altogether?

Last week's meeting and resolution were a good start for bringing renewed attention to the actions our region must take to help fight climate change. Now, setting clear CO2 and vehicle miles traveled targets for transportation, and creating a real plan to get us there, are essential. If you think TPB should ensure our regional transportation plans will contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you can send them an email here.

Intelsat building gets a greener, but not more urban front

The former headquarters of Intelsat, a space-age building on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness Metro, will get a new entrance. The change will soften a harsh corner, but it won't fully repair this non-urban building's relationship to the street.


the new proposed entry. Bottom: the plaza today. Image from VOA via NCPC.


The existing plaza. Image from Capital City, yeah! on Flickr.

The current entrance on Connecticut Avenue is set back far from the street and up a huge flight of steps. It's not ADA compliant, and it's a pretty bleak, bricked-over expanse. The building's new owner will remove the plaza and replace it with a garden, fountains, and a more visible entrance.

How this building came to be

The building, rebranded "4000 Connecticut Avenue," is a product of DC's unique relationship with the federal government. The State Department owns the land as part of the International Center, a campus meant for embassies and governmental buildings. It leased it to Intelsat when that was still an international treaty organization.

After Intelsat went private, Congress changed the law in 2008 to legalize Intelsat's lease. That opened the door for the 601 Companies to acquire the lease and reposition the building as an office building.


The existing site plan with pedestrian improvements. The main entrance is at the right. Image from VOA via NCPC.

Opened in phases between 1984 and 1988, the building is one of the more notable modernist buildings in DC. Its architect, John Andrews, was an influential Australian architect who made his name designing dramatic brutalist buildings in Canada.

By the time Intelsat ran a competition to design its headquarters in 1979, the two energy crises had put the focus on efficiency. Architects worried that the new expectations would smother exciting design under layers of insulation. And so Andrews' building won heaps of praise for delivering the large, energy efficient buildings corporations wanted without losing any of the expressive geometry he was known for.


Sectional diagram showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.

One thing that earned Andrews particular praise is the way he repeated the same three or four elements, like the octagonal blocks, round towers, and courtyards, to create different effects. The main entrance on International Drive looks like a Battlestar Galactica set. The south entrance is a quiet corporate park. And the north entrance, at Van Ness and Connecticut, closest to the Metro and points downtown, echoes the monumental entries of neoclassical federal buildings and their brutalist successors.


Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

What didn't work, and what will get better

Unfortunately, like most grand entries of the period, the entry comes across as stark and intimidating. So it makes sense that 601 Companies wants to make it more welcoming and visible as it becomes the main entrance of the building.

The changes, designed by VOA Associates, will also improve pedestrian circulation around the building, especially the green area along Connecticut which is apparently called "Squirrel Park."


The new entryway will get rid of a large decrepit plaza. Image from VOA via NCPC.

More openness of the park areas is great. Like a suburban office park, the grassy areas around Intelsat are unwalkable or underused. These changes will make them more into an asset to the community. To me, new entry area is definitely an improvement, aesthetically, making it much more inviting. There are more places to sit, the high-end granite and marble will be nice additions, and the front door details are more humane than Andrews originally planned.

But it still feels like a more ambitious alteration would be appropriate. The accessible entrance is still separate from the main one, and the renovation does not fix the fundamental error of the building, one that goes back to when the site was the secluded campus of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

Now, the site supports an office building that is part of the city. Andrews's building has a lot of value architecturally, but its value to creating a distinctive place around a Metro station is equally important. The site deserves a bolder adaptive reuse, one that will fill in some of the unusable green space, correcting its outdated disconnection from the neighborhood, even as it preserves the existing building. A good adaptation would make the geometry of original building even more powerful.

But for now, this is okay.

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