Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


A greener Eastern Market plaza may be on the way

Where today the parks around the Eastern Market Metro are mostly tired expanses of grass with a few trees, the parks soon could contain an expanded library, formal playground, cafe-style tree bosque and several stormwater management features. The roads and sidewalks around the square could also get a better layout.


The Metro entrance, library entry pavilion, and water feature on the southwest parcel. All images from Esocoff & Associates unless otherwise noted.

The $45 million redesign has gone through years of planning and outreach. The project originally started as a Congressional earmark to Barracks Row Main Street, which funded the Capitol Hill Town Square study in 2008 that considered ways to redesign the intersection, including possibly rerouting Pennsylvania Avenue around a square similar to Stanton or Lincoln parks.

Any changes to Pennsylvania Avenue ran into fierce opposition from immediate neighbors. But the project team continued studying ways to redesign the parks and started a new round of public engagement in 2013, this time assuming Pennsylvania stayed where it is.


The plaza now. Image from Bing Maps.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates recently revealed a final design coming out of numerous community meetings and feedback on two concepts from January.

The most dramatic change would be on the southwest parcel with the Metro entrance. A new pavilion would lead to a massive below-ground expansion of the Southeast Library, across the street from the square. A long courtyard and a water feature would connect this pavilion with the Metro.


Staircase for the new pavilion.

The parcel would also get a shaded tree bosque (an urban grove of shade trees similar to the one at New York's Lincoln Center) with a crushed gravel surface, movable furniture, and an open space along the "desire line" path where people most often walk between the Metro station and Barracks Row.


Artist's rendering of the bosque.

A straight pedestrian path along the South Carolina Avenue axis would divide the northeast section, the largest parcel. A fenced-in children's play area and an open lawn would flank it on the each side. The play areas include a landscape with "Anacostia Hills," a "Floodplain," a "Valley," and a "Ridge," and on that landscape, children will find a tree house, water pump, a pair of jungle gyms and a swing set.


The playground and promenade.

The wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue would become a pair of bioswales surrounded by wrought iron fencing. The bioswales will absorb up to 70% of the stormwater runoff from the inside portion of Pennsylvania Avenue during most storms. Meanwhile, the fences prevent pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the block.

The smaller triangular parcels on the southeast and northwest sides would become green space with stormwater management gardens and trees surrounded by an outward facing bench. The southeast parcel would be further expanded by closing D Street in front of the Dunkin' Donuts and adding the land to the park.


Site plan for the smaller triangular parcels.

Around the square, the plan would make changes to street directions and sidewalks to provide better flow and greater pedestrian safety. The segments of D Street along the northeast and southwest edges would reverse to carry traffic away from 8th Street instead of toward it. 8th Street would get a new left turn lane for those turning west onto D Street south of Pennsylvania.

To aid pedestrians, many intersections would get curb bump outs and pedestrian islands. The northbound bus stop on 8th would move south of Pennsylvania, while southbound buses would stop just across the street from that spot, closer to the Metro station.

Building the parks and plazas will cost an estimated $13,500,000, while the expanded and renovated library would cost $22,800,000. With DC management fees, a maintenance endowment and other costs, the project team estimates the whole project would need a budget of a little over $45,000,000.

The team is still accepting comments and will issue a final report in September. Barracks Row Main Street has some money to help pay for development, but from the (somewhat vague) statements from the project team, it appears they would be looking for city funding to help make the project a reality.

Public Spaces


Arlington's Court House parking lot will become a park

Arlington may be a paragon of Smart Growth and sustainable transportation, but if you go to the county offices at Court House, a giant surface parking lot dominates the landscape. That could soon change with recommendations to turn it into a new town green with parking below.


All images from Arlington County.

County planners presented three options last night which incorporated input from a task force and the public. All three options keep most or all of the current parking lot as a new green, with only small amounts of parking at surface level.


Courthouse Square today and the parcels for possible redevelopment.

They mainly differ in minor aspects of the layout. Concept A is oriented more north-south, B diagonal, and C east-west. They all recommend development on the Verizon plaza south of 14th Street, and redeveloping some of the nearby buildings, though with varying options for where to put taller buildings versus shorter ones.

The county would also move office space into one of the new buildings. On Option C, that could include an "iconic wing" at the southern end of the square; in exchange, some of what's now the AMC theater would become open space as part of the plaza, with a small "market shed" near where the theater now stands. The other options would leave all of the current parking lot as open space.


View concept: A   B   C  

County staff emphasized that, as with many of these studies that create a few options, the options simply illustrate various pieces that planners can ultimately mix and match.

They will seek feedback in person and through an online survey to develop a final plan, which they will show to community groups in September and October, the Planning Commission in November, and bring to the County Board in December.

What do you think would be the best design for the square?

Events


Events roundup: Silver Line opens, Rapid Transit happy hour, central public spaces, and more

Years of anticipation have led up to this weekend: The Silver Line will officially open to passenger service. Don't miss a ride on the first train! On Wednesday, drink to rapid transit in Montgomery County or discuss Pennsylvania Avenue or Arlington's Courthouse Square.


Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

And at long last... it's here!: The first Silver Line train taking passengers on the new tracks will leave at noon on Saturday, July 26. Let's ride together! We'll be congregating at the new Wiehle-Reston East station leading up to the noon train.

We had been organizing carpools, but it's not necessary to drive there any more: Fairfax Connector is running shuttle buses all morning from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, so Metro on out to WFC and hop on a bus (or bike, or drive yourself) to get to the opening.

We'll meet at the north entrance to the station. From the Fairfax Connector bus bays, go up the escalators to the glass enclosed area of the plaza. There's a large space here, and we'll have signs to help you find us. See you Saturday!

The future of America's Main Street: Pennsylvania Avenue is a major symbol of our nation's capitol, but poor urban design and aging infrastructure inhibit activity there. The National Capital Planning Commission and other federal agencies are hosting a workshop to kick off a new study for the street. It's Wednesday, July 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500 North.

Rapid transit happy hour: Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Communities for Transit, and Friends of White Flint also on Wednesday, July 23rd at 5:30 pm at Paladar Latin Kitchen (11333 Woodglen Drive, Rockville, 20852) to hear the latest news about the MD 355 corridor and our booth at this year's Agricultural Fair. Did we also mention that Paladar has $5 Mojitos and Margaritas at happy hour? RSVP here.

A new Courthouse Square: Come and get a first look at the future of Courthouse Square. Planners will unveil three draft plans based on input from the public and a working group. See them on (once again) Wednesday, July 23rd at the 1310 N. Courthouse Road Office Building, third floor, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm (Metro: Court House).

Remember Southeast Southwest: Come out of the heat and watch the latest in the Summer in the City Film Series Thursday, July 24th, from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Southwest Library (900 Wesley Place, SW). This week's film, Southwest Remembered, follows the effects of urban renewal in Washington during the 1940s. Southwest was one of the first neighborhoods to undergo this effort, which displaced more than 23,000 residents in the process.

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.

Public Spaces


"Let's use this space!" say mysterious signs around Silver Spring's unfinished transit center

While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.


Photo by the author.

Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.

Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."

They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"

Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.

After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.


The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"

Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."

This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.

The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."

So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.

Public Spaces


A "no cellphones" express walking lane appeared on a DC sidewalk. What's the story?

A curious thing appeared on a downtown DC sidewalk this week: Dedicated lanes for pedestrians talking on cellphones, with an express lane to the side for everyone else.


Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

The lanes aren't a half-baked experiment from DDOT. They're actually a stunt from National Geographic.

National Geographic workers added the sidewalk lanes on 18th Street NW between K and L streets, with permission from DDOT, to film people's reactions for an upcoming TV show about human behavior.

Film crews recorded pedestrians' reactions for several hours yesterday. The most common reaction seemed to be curiosity, but according to Yahoo! Tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, the new lanes did inspire many people to move to one side or the other.

This might have drawn inspiration from a "tourist lane" New York-based group Improv Everywhere painted on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2010.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Sustainability


A sunken gas station sculpture sends the wrong message about the Anacostia River

Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.

Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.


Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.

Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public's perception of the river.

We "have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region," says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the "forgotten river," in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.

Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, "We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature."

But others disagree.

Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, "My concern is about the location in the Anacostia Rivernot the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River."

"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages," said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. "People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn'tit's filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.

"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven't made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia--and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help."


Photo of the Anacostia River used with permission from Krista Schlyer.

How about the Potomac?

While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.

More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.

The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.

Could the project harm the environment?

Sherman says the project will have "no impact on the environment," but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.

The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: "Any disturbance could skew the sampling results."

DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.

In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. "As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns," the statement reads. "As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River's ecosystem."

"I've got nothing against the artist or her message," said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. "A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it's too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn't. Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations."

I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.

Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.

Taxis


"Sharing" isn't a good term for services like Uber and Lyft. Is there a better one?

Many of the services that call themselves "sharing," like "ridesharing" (Uber, Lyft), "car sharing" (Zipcar, car2go), bikesharing (Capital Bikeshare), "home sharing" (Airbnb), and others, are not really "sharing" as we typically think of the term. Do we need up with better words to describe these new business models?


Photo by Via Tsuji on Flickr.

The "sharing economy" (early on called "collaborative consumption") is a rapidly-growing sector. Most of its businesses allow people to temporarily use some good for a fee where typically, and formerly, people would own it (like a bike, a car, or an apartment).

But many commentators have pointed out that the term "sharing," at least as we learned it as children, generally means letting people use something you have for free, not renting out something you have, and definitely not a company owning a bunch of things which it rents to people or paying someone to do work on your behalf.

Companies like Uber and Lyft have been dubbing their services "ridesharing." These companies contract with drivers who can make money by offering rides. Jason Pavluchuk from the Association for Commuter Transportation argued that calling these services "rideshare" made it harder to advocate for other models that more aptly deserve the term, like carpool and vanpool services where people actually ride together.

There's also slugging, a longstanding practice where people commuting, such as on I-95 in Virginia, pick up other people at a designated spot who are going to the same destination. (The drivers don't charge for this; they do it to get the right to use the carpool lane.)

Uber and Lyft are really new variants on taxi service. They let people use a car they might already own (though Uber is also offering loans to drivers to get new cars), but they are still doing it as a job. If you use such a service, you're not sharing someone's car; you're paying them to give you a ride.

Other companies like Sidecar have envisioned a model where people already driving from one place to another offer rides to someone who happens to be going the same way. That's a little bit more "sharing" than the app-based taxi-like services.

Services like Zipcar and Capital Bikeshare also could have somewhat more of a claim to the term "sharing." In those cases, at least, there is a pool of vehicles which multiple "members" all use together. They all pay, but basically are pooling money to have a shared resource instead of owning.

What do you think counts as sharing? Is there a better term for these services?

Public Spaces


America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but


Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgracefix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconicbut grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvaniamost notably the FBI Buildingare openly hostile to pedestrians.


The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.

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