Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


Here's where you can check out a parklet during tomorrow's Park(ing) Day

DDOT has released a list of locations where you can find a temporary parklet for tomorrow's Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day started out in San Francisco as an unapproved, guerrilla performance art project turning a parking space into a temporary park to show how much public value cities could get from the land devoted to storing even one car.

After trying to impose ridiculous requirements the first time someone tried it in DC, DDOT more recently started explicitly condoning and encouraging the idea by writing simpler guidelines and giving out permits.

BIDs in Georgetown, the Golden Triangle, and NoMa are organizing their own, as are agencies like DC Water, DPR, and OSSE, and businesses including Urbanful, Baked & Wired, Zipcar, and BicycleSPACE. There's also going to be one at the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) run by councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Gross which got left off the map.

Parklets will be open from 9 am to 3 pm (or for a subset of that time, if the organizers don't want to run it all daymidday is often the best time to head over).

Park(ing) Day festivities won't be confined to the District. Arlington is participating too, with at least one large location in Court House. There could be others throughout the region, too.

If you stop by a parklet, snap a photo and put it in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool or send it to us at info@ggwash.org. We'll feature images from parklets around the city in a roundup next week.

Public Spaces


Great park, no tables... so bring your own

There are great food trucks around DC's downtown squares, but to eat in the squares you have to sit on the grass or on a bench, which makes socializing difficult. Jacob Mason saw some people at Farragut Square who have an innovative solution: they brought their own table.


Photo by Jacob Mason.

Mason, who tweets for the new pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, said that this group works in a nearby building. One of them decided to buy it after he ruined three pairs of pants from sitting on wet grass. The group collectively carries the table to the park to eat lunch.

Parks that host a lot of office lunch workers in other cities, like Bryant Park in Midtown New York, have more tables and moveable chairs. Even across the Potomac River in Arlington, tables and chairs are common.

But DC's downtown squares, which the National Park Service manages, don't have them. (Update: The Golden Triangle BID does put them in the park on Fridays.) Franklin Square could get a few under proposed redesigns (the "Edge" is the most likely design), but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, the do-it-yourself version works pretty well, if your office is organized enough. Everyone else can sit on the grass.

Transit


This German city's monorail redefines river transportation

A suspended monorail in one German city proves that transportation infrastructure doesn't have to obstruct access to parks and rivers.


Photo by the author.

The Schwebebahn is a suspended monorail that runs 8.3 miles through Wuppertal, a city laid out linearly along the River Wupper in western Germany. Though the monorail may seem futuristic, the first segment opened in 1901 and the full line was finished in 1903.

The western end of the line, about 1.8 miles, is suspended over a few of the main commercial streets in the Vohwinkel neighborhood of the city. The rest of the line, about 6.5 miles, runs high above the Wupper to the center and eastern end of the city.

Some cities are tempted to deck over their rivers since these waterways provide one of the few linear paths unobstructed by private property through existing cities. Covering a river to build a highway or a railroad may eliminate the difficulty of razing neighborhoods, but doing so eliminates public access to the river.

Twenty years ago, Providence removed the world's widest bridge to daylight a river and create Waterplace Park, one of the city's main attractions. A decade ago, Seoul removed an elevated freeway above the Cheonggyecheon and created a popular riverside park.

Since Wuppertal's Schwebebahn is already suspended from a relatively thin monorail superstructure, it is one of the few transportation systems that runs over a river without limiting access to and enjoyment of the natural resource. In fact, a riverside park near the eastern terminal is popular spot for families to play in the river as Schwebebahn trains pass overhead.


Families play in the river as the train passes overhead. Photo by the author.

Public Spaces


Four beautiful designs for an 11th Street Bridge park

Four teams competing to design an 11th Street Bridge park over the Anacostia have released stunning images of their designs.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

The 11th Street Bridge Park idea arose during the construction for new bridges. The old bridge was taken down, but pylons in the river remained. What about making it into a park? Scott Kratz, then vice-president for education at the National Building Museum, carried this idea forward, built support, and raised money for this design competition.

The finalist teams OMA / OLIN, Balmori Associates / Cooper Robertson & Partners, Stoss Landscape Urbanism / H&oum;weler + Yoon Architecture, and Wallace Roberts Todd / NEXT Architects all designed a combination of active recreation and passive landscaped areas stretching alongside the local bridge from one bank of the Anacostia to the other.

Making a park work here won't be easy. This isn't an area where people are walking on foot already, and it's not that close to many residents or jobs. That means it will have to be a destination people explicitly travel to.

There will need to be a good way to get there, too. There's no Metro station right near either end (Navy Yard is not so far but not so close), and the streetcar planned to cross the river, which could stop along the route, faces an uncertain funding picture. (Tiny ferries, maybe?)

This piece of the above image illustrates the challenge very starkly:

This is the east side of the bridge. The closest buildings are in the lower right. The bridge starts in the upper left. In between is the ultimate pride and joy of a generation of DDOT engineers.

However, the Anacostia absolutely should become a destination. There are now some attractions along its banks that didn't exist recently. More will come. And over time, the river itself can evolve into a place instead of a barrier. This bridge park could be a big piece of that.


Image from OLIN + OMA.

OLIN + OMA envision a series of trapezoidal spaces with elevated or angled roofs creating vertical variation. Each piece would serve a different purpose, including a playground, interactive art, amphitheater, plaza, urban agriculture, picnic garden, and so forth.

Image from OLIN + OMA.

This design shows the park brimming with activity. One question is, would it also work at times when the park isn't busy, or would the many drops and rises make it feel dangerous when quiet?

Balmori + Cooper Robinson's design has fewer, more open spaces with a curvilinear feel. There is a lot of greenery with canopies for shade. A large, wavy spine rises above the park, evoking the symbolism of a bridge and the idea of connecting both sides of the river in a "thread" (linking is a major theme in most designs, not surprisingly).


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

An "aperture" through the surface lets people look down into the water below.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

This feels like a very calming space that evokes nature. Is that ideal, or is that redundant next to the very large Anacostia Park along the east bank? It also seems to connect the bridge more closely to the west side of the river, which is at once logical (because there isn't the same massive freeway barrier on the west side, but there is a big park already) but also less connecting.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

The team of Stoss and Höweler + Yoon Architecture use a boat motif to link up a series of angular modules that can variously become a plaza, farmers' market, art exhibition, street theater, and more, flanked by two buildings that can serve as a cafe and education center (two elements the design competition asked all teams to include).


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

Flexibility could be useful for the bridge park to add amenities as the surrounding areas grow and when, in the future, residents from more-distant neighborhoods or even tourists might regularly be coming to the banks of the Anacostia on a nice day.

This design puts less on the bridge itself and more activity over the east bank of the Anacostia, between the riverbank and the freeway.


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

Besides the two buildings, most of the bridge is, like New York's High Line, linear space that feels like somewhere to walk. This can work if a lot of people want to actually come and walk here (the High Line is in the middle of a massively dense area).


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

The design from Wallace Roberts Todd + NEXT Architects unifies the bridge with a large wire-frame canopy that can integrate with each of the activities along the bridge, like a decorative roof for an amphitheater and a climbing structure in a playground.



Images from WRT + NEXT.

This design also puts a lot of activity on the bridge through a series of sections. It seems to have the most focus on physical activity and play, and seem most similar to the initial rough concepts the park team put out before the competition.

What elements do you think would work best or not work so well from these designs? You can access the large PDFs here.

You can see the design boards in person at THEARC Gallery, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, from September 14 to October 11, at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE) and the District Architecture Center downtown (421 7th Street NW) from September 24 to October 11. The teams will present to a jury and answer questions on September 29 and 30 at THEARC, which the public can also watch.

Architecture


Gehry trims Eisenhower Memorial tapestries

Architect Frank Gehry and the National Capital Planning Commission continue to tweak designs for the proposed Eisenhower Memorial. The latest change removes two of the three metal tapestries that had largely defined the original proposal.


The revised design, without side tapestries. All images from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

The new design is the product of negotiation between Gehry and NCPC, who last April declined to approve the plans, and sent them back to Gehry for revisions.

On the memorial's east and west sides, two lone columns now replace the twin columns and side tapestries. The remaining columns align perfectly with the adjacent buildings, forming the north corners of a rectangle.


How the columns changed.

NCPC staff seemed pleased with how the revision respects the building line on Independence Avenue, Maryland Avenue may be a different story.

Staff had been concerned that the memorial intruded into the right-of-way along Independence and Maryland Avenues. And while the revised design is clear along Independence and on the north side of Maryland Avenue, the remaining tapestry still crosses into the Maryland Avenue right-of-way.

During discussion, NCPC staff and Gehry staff alluded to other designs they had considered and then rejected, with smaller tapestries and even no tapestries at all.

Craig Webb of Gehry Partners said the architects and the Memorial Commission rejected the versions with a smaller south tapestry, because that it would look too much like a flat object and no longer tie the space together.


Comparison of April (above) and September (below) Maryland corridors

The various NCPC members reiterated their points from April. DC Mayoral appointee Rob Miller criticized the size of the columns, and at-large presidential appointee Elizabeth White criticized the size of the tapestries. Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and Peter May of the National Park Service both lamented the loss of artistic authority, but insisted the design is still good.

Congressman Darrell Issa reiterated his desire to complete the memorial. After the meeting, it's clear that he does not want the project to fail on his watch.

Issa, who sits on NCPC as Chairman of the House Oversight Commission but rarely attends meetings, dominated the discussion. He alternated between complimenting the design, criticizing the Memorial Commission, and lamenting the decrepit plaza in front of the Department of Education.

He laid out his view of the situation bluntly: while insisting he would be glad to build the memorial as presented, he noted that the design might never be built with tapestries for financial reasons.

But, he said, "The one thing we can't do… is go back to square one."

Overall, the commission reacted surprisingly in favor of the design compared to last April. The final approval will likely come at the next NCPC meeting, when the project is expected to return for a vote.

Issa offers a chance for Gehry to walk away

One reason the Memorial Commission has had trouble raising private funds is because of opposition to Gehry's design by Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan. However, she has said repeatedly that she is only opposed to the tapestries and would support everything else if the tapestries disappeared.

Issa, who lives in Southern California, recounted meeting with Gehry over the summer. Gehry told him the tapestries are crucial to his vision, but that he doesn't want to "get in the way" of completing a memorial in general.

Wary of being caught in a political failure, Gehry has apparently offered to drop the tapestries and drop his imprimatur. In that scenario, the design team would complete the project without its tapestries.

Issa provided a polite compromise suggesting NCPC approve a staged design, where the federal government would fund the reconstruction of the park elements, leaving funding for the columns and tapestries up in the air.


The memorial core, with D-Day and youth sculptures visible.

It would be an immense shame for a project like this to collapse into design by committee.

At its core, the memorial is a brilliant concept. It does what the best memorials do: speak to our fundamental values through the life of a specific person. Putting Eisenhower's personal life in the context of the crises he faced, it challenges our leaders rather than flattering them.

The design as a whole emphasized this. Now, as the process nears its conclusion, any further edits should clarify Gehry's vision and not dilute it.

Roads


When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

Public Spaces


Bury power lines under streets, not sidewalks

DC is about to launch a massive project burying 163 miles of power lines. The project will improve power reliability, but hidden issues could impact neighborhood streetscapes and tree canopies.


Photo by Timothy Hoagland, Casey Trees.

After the 2012 derecho caused widespread power outages, DC began development of a plan to improve reliability during extreme weather, called DC Power Lines Undergrounding (DC PLUG). DC PLUG will cost nearly $1 billion to underground power lines throughout the city, which will improve power reliability during extreme weather.

But how will the lines be buried? Right now, the plan doesn't specify where in the streetscape the underground lines will go. Burying the power line under sidewalks would allow DDOT and Pepco to avoid digging up streets during construction, but could hurt the health and safety of thousands of trees.

Approximately 8700 street trees are in the right-of-way along the 163 miles of power lines that DC PLUG has tapped for burial.

Instead of burying the lines under sidewalks, Casey Trees recommends burying the lines in the roadway:


Casey Trees' preferred underground placement location. Image from Casey Trees.

If DC and Pepco bury lines in the roadway, the majority of communities with trees threatened by this project won't be affected during construction. The city won't have to recover or replant thousands of trees, and will preserve the beauty of DC's historic tree-lined neighborhoods.

Above ground wires won't disappear

Don't get too excited over the prospect of a wire-free city. It would take $5 billion to fully underground every above ground wire within the city's 21 identified vulnerable areas, never mind every wire in the city - money that's not in the budget.


Locations of proposed underground lines. Image from Casey Trees.

According to DDOT and Pepco, DC PLUG will only bury the "primary" power lines of the 21 least reliable feeders. So even if your street is in an area targeted by DC PLUG, you'll still have above ground wires. That's because utility poles, secondary service lines, and other telecommunications wires will remain above ground. Streets where DDOT and Pepco propose to bury lines will see changes like this:


Before and after undergrounding of primary power lines. Images from DDOT.

Comment on Tuesday

Residents still have time to weigh in on the undergrounding project this week.
The DC Public Service Commission is holding a community hearing tomorrow night at 6:00 pm. The hearing location is the DC Public Service Commission hearing room, 1333 H St NW, 7th floor east tower.

If you're unable to attend the hearing in person, you can still submit written testimony to the Commission at 1333 H Street, NW, Suite 200, West Tower, Washington DC 20005 until September 15.

The commission will vote on the plan after a congressional review period ends in October.

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