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Architecture


Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is lucky to have over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap! Visiting a public gardens can refreshing your mental, spiritual, and physical being. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.


The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens. Yes, there is green space on the National Mall and it is not all lawn! The Smithsonian Gardens are made up of 12 distinct spaces—from a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History to the contemporary, sunken Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

All are free to all visitors, and many host educational programming and docents give regular tours. One of the most informative tours is hosted by Horticulturist Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October.

Getting There: Take Metro to the Smithsonian station or any of the surrounding metro stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator, 70 Metrobus lines, and 30 Metrobus lines.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall and easily accessible is the US Botanic Garden. Along with the adjoining National Garden, Bartholdi Park, and Capitol Grounds, it has administered through the Architect of the Capitol and is not part of the Smithsonian as is commonly assumed.


The US Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden is one of the few tourist sites open on both Christmas and New Year's Day. Over the past few years, it's become more and more crowded on those dates as the secret has spread, so go early and be prepared to stand in line to view the annual holiday garden railroad display.

Getting There: Take Metro to the L'Enfant station or any of the surrounding stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator and 30 Metrobus lines, which stop in back of the Botanic Garden. Often I take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and walk across the Mall rather than switch trains.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If you want to avoid crowds, try the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays timed around Easter, but come back in late May/early June for stunning roses and later in the summer for tropical gardens that include a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

Getting There: I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk up the steep hill along Quincy Street to get to it, but there are a few buses that get you closer (the H6 and the 80).

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. The Arboretum was closed three days a week due to the recent sequester and budget cutbacks, but thanks to fundraising by the Friends of the National Arboretum, the grounds are now back open every day of the year except December 25.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is under the US Department of Agriculture and its mission has been more one of research than of public outreach and education, but with a new director just named that has given local gardeners hope of great things to come. The grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Getting there: There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but that service was infrequent and then was cut entirely a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance. (A bus route from the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station would be a dream...)

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. If you go on a weekday, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

This is the true hidden oasis of the city—a former waterlily nursery now a national park. It is also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct sun and are best viewed in mid-day during July-August.

Getting there: You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. The secluded, walled garden is on the south-facing side of the Cathedral and is downhill from it as well, giving it a great perspective on the building.


The Bishop's Close.

The garden itself is sunny and bright to support the roses and English-style perennial borders, but there are some shady quiet spots for contemplation, quiet reading, and reflection.

Getting there: Take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, both Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria are free and run by their local county parks systems. Both take an effort to access by a combination of Metro and local bus systems, but are worth it for an afternoon outside of the city. Better access by transit would increase the usefulness and value of both of these gardens to their surrounding communities.

Getting there: Go to Brookside by taking the Red Line to Glenmont and walking one mile along Glen Allen Road. To get to Green Spring, take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street and then transfer to the 29N bus towards Vienna. Get off at Little River Turnpike and Green Spring Road.

A new local nonprofit, DC Gardens, sprung up last spring to bring the profile of local public gardens in the DC region to the attention of both out-of-town tourists as well as to those who live here and only think of DC garden tourism as a once a year trip to see the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms in bloom. On the site, you can view many of our public gardens month-by-month and learn what events, festivals, and activities are going at each.

A version of this post first ran in May 2015. With the summer weather back and in full effect, we thought it an opportune time to spread the word again!

Development


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.


WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.


(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Public Spaces


Four wild ideas for memorials in DC

What if we re-thought how we commemorate important people and events? A federal competition is asking that question, and four finalists will now create memorials that answer it.


All images from NPS/NCPC.

The jurors for Memorials of the Future picked design teams whose proposals center on topical subjects: national parks, climate change, immigration, and personal subjects. Each of the designs envisions using space outside of the National Mall, and three put digital, interactive technology at the forefront. Two don't create new public places at all, but rather add to existing ones.

Each of the four finalists will get $15,000 to bring their concepts to life over the next three weeks, and they'll meet a few times along the way to get feedback from the competition's sponsors (the National Park Service, National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute). Then, in September, a jury will pick a winner.

What's most intriguing about this competition, though, isn't the question of whose design will be "the best"—at the end of the day, there aren't plans to actually build any of the memorials. It's all about the thoughts the designers are provoking.

These designs are saying something new about the concept of memorialization. They all push back on the 20th-century idea that you need a large, permanent commemorative site that tells a single side of an event. Even if nothing as radical as these ideas is realized, this kind of research is a great way of challenging conventional wisdom without much pressure.

Here are the finalists:


American Wild

American Wild: A Memorial

Washington, DC is a much bigger destination than any of our country's individual national parks. This project proposes bringing the sights and sounds from these parks into the capital.

The designers are Shelby Doyle, Justine Holzman, Forbes Lipschitz, Halina Steiner, and their ambition is to project a a monument onto Metro stations. Short of that, they'd build small theater pods across the city.

While regular WhichWMATA players will note the image shows the U Street station, the team proposes installing the first display at Anacostia.


Climate Chronograph

Climate Chronograph

Because climate change is a slow and invisible process, its impact is hard to visualize. Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter's entry tries to bring it to light with a grove of cherry trees standing on ground sloping into the river at Hains Point. As sea levels rise, the brackish water would submerge more and more of the trees, killing them.

The project includes a platform to observe the site. The designers hope it becomes a stark visualization for people as they return to DC multiple times over their lives and see fewer living trees.


THE IM(MIGRANT)'s primary site is Randle Circle.

THE IM(MIGRANT)

This design by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Janelle L. Johnson, Michelle Lin-Luse, and Radhika Mohan takes place along Minnesota Avenue, playing on the theme of moving (along a road, in this case). The team proposes scattering exhibits and audio presentations in existing infrastructure from the 11th Street Bridge Park to Randle Circle.

The exhibits would tell varying stories of migration, inside the United States as well as internationally. Randle Circle, now just a traffic island, would become a plaza for performances, rallies, and day-to-day use.


VOICEOVER

VOICEOVER

This project by Troy Hillman, Amy Catania Kulper, Anca Trandafirescu, and Yurong Wu records oral histories from local residents. Autonomous parrot-shaped drones would then visit parks, perch, and replay the stories. Hearing about how people relate to a place or event, the creators say, will enrich visitors' experiences.

I think five years ago, this would have seemed completely absurd. But drones have becoming increasingly autonomous as they become more common.

Plus, in contrast to some of the other smartphone apps where the user is in full control of understanding the content, the experience here would be far more public; users wouldn't be able to shut off parts of stories, be they uncomfortable or heartwarming.

Each of these are interesting provocations, even if I'm not sure I'd personally want them to come to fruition. But with people still clamoring for space in the city, hopefully some sponsors will pick out one or two ideas to put into their memorials.

Public Spaces


You know the memorials DC has today. How should they be different in the future?

Washington remembers national events through big, permanent structures. Is that the only way to do it? A competition is asking designers to come up with alternatives that are less expensive, more interactive, and more flexible.


American Wild would bring National Parks into metro with video and audio projections. Image from NCPC.

TheMemorials for the Future competition asks designers to rethink commemmoration. Sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and an architecture nonprofit called the Van Alen Institute, they will announce four finalists tonight, from a pool of 30 semifinalists.


Neighborhood Memorials repurposes existing infrastructure.

The sponsors are looking ways out of a big problem: too many people want to leave a permanent mark on the National Mall. Unfortunately, the Mall has run out of space. Worse, designs have gotten bigger over time.

Since it's hard for Congress to say no, the competition is a way to show future memorial sponsors alternatives. Maybe a commission will consider a digital memorial instead of wedging bronze into a grass triangle. Perhaps people would rather remember their cause if it brought trees to a neglected neighborhood instead of another statue kids can't play on.


Re-frame, Re-cast, Re-tell: Freedom Stories along the Anacostia is a return to memorial trees, in underserved neighborhoods. Image from NCPC.

Judges already picked picked 30 semifinalsts, which are online. Each one consists of a single image and a paragraph that proposes a novel way to commemorate an overlooked issue.

The ideas are little out there. And most descriptions come in overcomplicated verbiage. That's OK. This kind of competition is all about coming up with novel ideas in a risk-free, low cost environment, winnowing them down, and refining them. That will start Tonight when jury of planners, architects, and administrators announces five finalists.

Spending a few thousand to explore some ideas ahead of time is a great way to not spend many millions on something suboptimal later. Think of it as design research.

Politicians have become obsessed with size.

Why change at all? Washington is known around the world for large memorials that use space and sculpture to create an emotional response.

This image is only 100 years old. Before the McMillan Commission, the National Mall was a winding garden like New York's Central Park, littered with illustrative monuments, like statues and memorial trees. The McMillan Commission's philosophy changed to a much more immersive format.


Photo by Damon Green on Flickr.

Generally, before then Washington's memorials were like the 1876 Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park: a statue with a clear message standing in a public square. Compare that to the 1921 Lincoln Memorial. It's a building at the end of a two-mile long axis. Visitors must climb steep stairs to enter into a spare, dimly-lit room, and reflect upon an ambiguous psychological portrait of the president.


Architect Henry Bacon used technology unavailable in 1876, like electric light to increase the dramatic effect. Photo by Rizwan Sheikh on Flickr.

The new way of commemorating worked. So, memorials started taking over more space. The problems was compounded as modern tastes started asking for nuanced narratives and educational elements. The embodiment of this trend is probably the FDR Memorial completed in 1997. Presenting a panoramic take of Roosevelt's presidency, it takes criticism for being scattershot fantasy and not nearly inclusive enough. All that over an enormous 7.5 acre site with expensive foundation work.

What else could we try?

Many of the design pitches reflect these trends away from a single focus and an unchanging narrative.


An installation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Image from NIH.

The most radical of the sketches crowdsource their content and last for only a short period of time. These follow in the footsteps of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which assembled thousands of grave-sized fabric quilts, hand made by a deceased person's loved one into a massive display. Aggregated, the units of personal sentimentality showed it to be a public crisis.


Homes for the Homeless, installed in Adams Morgan. Image from NCPC.

Home for the Homeless would mimic how social media's digital records in physical form around the city by giving physical spaces to tell homeless stories. MonYouMent lets people mark out their own important sites.


MonYOUment is a kit to allow anyone to make a small monument. Image from NCPC.

Others fall into what the art world calls "indexical," meaning that it's an abstract but physical connection to some event, rather than a work that's designed to represent something and therefore laden with its creators biases, like Abraham Lincoln in front of a grateful freed slave.


Content of Confinement transports a literal piece of Topaz Internment Camp to the Tidal Basin. Image from NCPC.

That's what you see in re-doing the topic of the existing granite and bronze Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II with a literal piece of the ground in an internment camp amid the Japanese-donated Cherry Blossom trees on the Tidal Basin.


Visitors would leave physical check marks in A Monument to Democracy. Image from NCPC.

The Memorial to Democracy asks visitors to assemble abstract markers into shapes, each symbolizing a person.


Climate Chronograph would disappear as Hains Point does. Image from NCPC.

Or, there's Climate Chronograph on Hains Point, which disappears under rising waters to mark out melting ice caps.


Virtual Memorial would annotate existing monuments and historic sites. Image from NCPC.

Multiple ideas rely on smartphones to remember people. Projections onto public surfaces are one way, more introverted proposals are augmented reality and audioguide options that anyone could access to interpret the world around them.


Pop-up Portal would use digital media to share experiences and current events. Image from NCPC.

More ambitious are the ones that try to use those digital programs as mediums in public. There's something powerful about showing novel content—provided it's not hijacked into Memorial McMemorialface, but what's the public benefit of content that can be accessed on a phone in bed at home?


Cultur-Altar brings a ritual space to Eastern Market. Image from NCPC

The one that I really do like is the Cultur-Altar. It's built around a ritual, rather than an object. Artifacts of memory are brought to Eastern Market during commemoration and burned afterward. The idea of letting go of artifacts while keeping a memory alive is more about building social ties than making a mark.

After all, Washington is a living city and the mall has been its most evocative when the buildings fade into backdrops, whether for rallies or picnics.

Sustainability


This map tells you if your water pipes are made of lead

Are you concerned about lead in your drinking water? If you live in DC, this map from DC Water will tell you whether or not the pipes at your place are made of lead.


Map from DC Water. Click for the interactive version.

Lead poisoning, which can do all kinds of damage to the human body, has been in the forefront of many people's minds since a water contamination crisis fully erupted in Flint, Michigan earlier this year. In April, the Washington Post reported that dangerous levels of lead had been found in the water at three District elementary schools.

Lead pipes were common in houses built well into the 20th century, and while having them does not at all guarantee you'll get lead poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing to curb their use.

When you enter an address on the map, a dot shows whether the pipes inside a house and outside of it (the ones that connect it to the water main) are lead. Gray means the pipes are lead, green means they aren't, and white means DC Water doesn't know.

The map does include a note saying that some of the info on the maps might not be fully up to date or accurate for every single District residence, and that customers should let the agency know if they have better information.

Do you know of other maps that give residents important information about the infrastructure they use every day?

Public Spaces


If you want more trails in Prince George's, you'll like this plan

Prince George's has a ton of trails, but they're not all well-connected to each other. The county's Department of Parks and Recreation recently released a draft of a plan for fixing that, as well as building hundreds of miles of new trails. It's looking for public input to make the plan as strong as possible.


Image Prince George's County's draft Trails Master Plan.

There are currently over 300 miles of trails in Prince George's. Many are loop or recreational trails, such as the Watkins Regional Park loop trail, and are located within M-NCPPC property. They provide excellent hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking opportunities. Other trails, such as the Anacostia Tributary trail system or the Henson Creek Trail are great trails that connect parks and neighborhoods.

But while Prince George's has excellent individual facilities, it's not all that easy to get from one county trail to another, which makes it challenging for people to get to various destinations on foot or bike.

That's where the Trails Master Plan, created by Prince George's Department of Parks and Recreation, comes in. The county will use the plan to create a trail network that "provides all residents and visitors with access to nature, recreation, and daily destinations; enriching the economy, promoting sustainability; and increasing opportunities for health." This plan will contribute to achieving Formula 2040, the county's general plan for completing 400 miles of new trails over the coming decades ("nine miles of trail per year over the next 30 years").

There's more than one type of trail

One of the plan's key roles is to make recommendations for which type of trail should go in which locations, depending on the type of use it will get.

Primary trails will form a nearly nearly-contiguous network of paths for walking and biking that not only connect M-NCPPC parks, but also link various activity centers identified in Prince George's Plan 2035 General Plan. There are currently 65.6 miles of primary trails in Prince George's, and the plan aims to get the number up to 293.


A primary trail. Image Prince George's County's draft Trails Master Plan.

Also part of the plan are secondary trails, which will include mostly paved paths that are designed to connect neighborhoods and other parts of the built environment with the primary network. These will be for shorter trips, and may not be used as heavily as the primary trails. Prince George's currently has 110.5 miles of secondary trails, and the plan calls for 399.

The third major trail type in the plan is the recreational trail, which is designed to meet fitness, nature-access, and recreational needs. Recreational trails are often made of soft surfaces, and are primarily for mountain biking, hiking, and equestrian trips. The plan recommends an additional 102 miles of recreational trails to expand on the existing 153.


Image Prince George's County's draft Trails Master Plan.

Where trails are going

Here are some of the plan's key recommendations:

  • A primary trail along Central Avenue, which would create a connection between DC's Marvin Gaye Trail and the Largo Town Center Metro

The Marvin Gaye Trail. Image from Google Maps.
  • An extension of the WB&A Trail along MD-704

The WB&A Trail. Image from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy/TrailLink.
  • A secondary trail connecting the Woodrow Wilson Bridge with Oxon Hill Farm National Park
  • A recreational trail linking Rosaryville State Park with Jug Bay
The plan also makes recommendations for how the Department of Parks and Recreation can best manage and maintain the county's growing network of trails. Although maintenance and operations may not be as exciting as building new facilities, keeping trails clean, safe, and comfortable are critical to keeping trail users happy.

Specifically, the plan suggests setting aside money specifically for trails so it can take care of needs like resurfacing, repairing bridges, and small construction projects. The plan also recommends a monitoring program to keep tabs on trail conditions so routine maintenance and furniture inspection is sure to get done.

What do you want in Prince George's trails plan?

The Department of Parks and Recreation is hosting a public meeting today, June 7, to share its draft and solicit comments and suggestions from Prince George's residents and other trail users. It's at 8pm at the Department of Parks and Recreation Auditorium, 6600 Kenilworth Avenue, Riverdale, MD 20737.

Also, the public comment window for the draft plan is open until June 23rd. You can view the draft plan and leave feedback here.

Transit


Metro wants you to know when an 8-car train is coming

To make it clear when an approaching train will have eight cars rather than six, Metro has started displaying the number "8" in green on station display boards. The idea, presumably, is to space passengers more evenly along the platform. Will it work?


A PID with green 8s next to eight-car trains. Photo by the author.

Because Metro operates both six and eight-car trains, not every train services the entire length of the platform. When an eight-car train does arrive, there is often extra space in the last two cars because relatively few passengers move to the end of the train. Noting these longer trains in a different color on the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) may encourage more people to move down the platform.

Will this help or confuse riders?

This will only serve its purpose if passengers know what the green 8s mean. While the green color does stand out against the orange and red text (for most—it might not be so easy to tell the difference if you're color blind), it is not initially clear that the change in color is intentional. When I first saw the green color, I just assumed the board was broken.

The green color could also lead to confusion for some riders. Since Metro names the different lines by color, seeing a green eight could make some think a Green Line train is arriving.

One thing to know is that the PIDS are capable of displaying only three colors (red, orange, and green), and with red and orange already used for the other information, green is the only remaining available color.

One in a series of changes

The green 8s represent one of a number initiatives that Metro has recently undertaken. A few months ago, it began testing floor decals that mark where six-car trains end on the platform. Metro is also rolling out new information screens that do a better job of prioritizing multiple streams of information.

Going back a few years, Metro even changed the programming on the PIDS so that the text is easier to read at a distance.

These additions, along with new mezzanine lighting and station manager kiosk screens, offer passengers tangible improvements in their daily commutes. No doubt the Metro system faces enormous challenges when it comes to maintenance, but it's nice to see other, smaller changes not falling by the wayside.

Development


The FBI building's new owner will be allowed to build tall, and D Street is coming back

Reconstructing D Street NW and allowing buildings taller than DC's usual height limit are likely at downtown's J. Edgar Hoover Building, once the FBI moves out. The National Capital Planning Commission's staff backed these proposals, and today the official commissioners will likely accept them. The staff left a third question, how wide the sidewalks should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, up for debate.


Photo of the J. Edgar Hoover Building site before its construction, with lot boundaries outlined in yellow. Photo from NCPC.

The single brutalist building sits on two parcels, called "squares," which D Street bisected before the 1960s. The FBI plans to trade the land with a developer (where it would move is TBD), and the NCPC's decision will make clear exactly what could be built on the land once the FBI moves out.

The first recommendation from the NCPC staff is to return the 70-foot wide swathe of land where D Street once ran to a public right-of-way. That doesn't mean this space will be a typical street. Since the rules are just shaping the building's mass, NCPC's staff left open the door open for other possibilities, like pedestrian-only and pedestrian-priority woonerf spaces between the two restored blocks.


The FBI site in the Pennsylvania Avenue special planning area. Image from NCPC.

The North block will be tall and dense.

The second rule NCPC is poised to adopt is that buildings on the large northern block, called Square 378, will rise to 160 feet. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act specifically allows buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to climb that high, measured from Pennsylvania Avenue. The 1974 plan that created these square guidelines has sculpted the surrounding cityscape, so although some buildings reach 160 feet by the White House, those buildings' bulk steps back in tiers several times away from Pennsylvania. The Newseum is a great example: it's only 90' at the Pennsylvania Avenue property line, but rises to 140' at the apartment building at the rear.


Maps showing heights around the FBI Building. Buildings to the west (left) tend to be taller. Map from NCPC.

Buildings on the north block also have to fill out much of the block on the first floor. Because of its size, the block will almost certainly end up as a few different buildings above grade. The 2016 D-7 zone caps offices and hotel density, but allows unlimited apartment density, and planners will likely insist on some mix of uses. Plus, with buildings aligned to the property lines, the likelihood of an internal semi-public central space, similar to CityCenter, is higher.

The southern block is wedged between priorities

The future of the southern, triangular block is more complicated because of the way Pennsylvania Avenue was reimagined in the 20th Century. In order to shape the scenic view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue symmetrically with Federal Triangle, planners want the new buildings to have horizontal setbacks, like New York skyscrapers. More importantly, the size depends on how wide planners choose to make the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.


The current building is set back 75 feet from the curb, which is enough for three rows of trees. Image from NCPC

The current FBI Building sits nearly 75 feet away from Pennsylvania Avenue's curb and 40 feet from the property line laid out in the L'Enfant Plan:

That's the result of a 1964 plan that envisioned the avenue as a grand federal space and nothing else. Providing space for parade grandstands was more important than street activity. Later planners went for a more modest setback, but recently, facades have risen close to the property line, as at the Newseum.


The Newseum is much closer to the street than the FBI building.

With a re-opened D Street and a 50-foot sidewalk, the south site will be small. Leaving a larger footprint seems like the best way to get an active ground level. Setbacks a few floors up would protect the views and leave a large enough footprint for uses other than high-end residential, at least at the lower levels.

The NCPC report leaves this issue up for debate, apparently because of a conflict between two roles it has to uphold. One is to preserve the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan that created these guidelines in the first place. The other is preserving the L'Enfant Plan, which says buildings should rise at the property line. In fact, the District's Historic Preservation Office feels that not building to the property line would have a negative effect on the L'Enfant Plan. Their objection might be a formality, but it's enough to leave it up for a longer debate.

It comes down to the roadway

NCPC's staff mildly recommends mirroring the setback on the south side of the street, at Federal Triangle, to create a more symmetrical streetscape and leave generous sidewalks to handle the crowds. Where buildings rise from the historic streets, like between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the 20-foot sidewalks can get crowded.

This rationale leaves out an important detail: the reason those sidewalks seem crowded is the width of the roadway.


L'Enfant's design for Pennsylvania Avenue had an 80-foot roadway, 30-foot sidewalks, and 10-foot buffers. Image from NCPC.

There's nothing sacred about that width. In the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a much narrower roadbed there. Then, at the cusp of the automobile age, the McMillan Commission and others decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue to make it more striking. As with the other roads widened in the wake of this plan, the reality of streets congested with fast moving vehicles was obscured behind glamorous renderings of grand boulevards.


The McMillan Commission and its successors widened the roadway to 107.5 feet. Image from NCPC.

The truth is that Pennsylvania Avenue will never be symmetrical. On the north side, multiple landmarked buildings rise taller than Federal Triangle. One side will have some street bustle, the other will be formal. It may be better to accept this asymmetry and design around it.

While part of NCPC considers what will replace the FBI building, other staff are studying how to make Pennsylvania Avenue more lively in the long term. If that's the goal, right-sizing the street is the best way to get the sidewalks to handle crowds. It wouldn't be the first time space allocated to cars in the early 1900s was returned: the two gravel paths on the Mall were turned over to cars for decades before pedestrianization in the 70s. The aesthetic impact remains the same.

NCPC planners will move on to finer grained detail with today's decisions out of the way. A reopened D Street and a dense north block are steps in the right direction. Planning the south block for a future where pedestrian space and monumental views aren't beholden to car traffic follows as well.

Preservation


"Net zero" energy building gets the thumbs up; Graham Davidson says more nutty things about climate change

The American Geophysical Union got historic approval for a large solar array atop their Dupont Circle building. But first, Hartman-Cox Architects partner Graham Davidson suggested that stopping climate change was much less important than stopping buildings from getting taller.


Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

The AGU, an association of "earth and space scientists," is trying to renovate their headquarters at 20th Street and Florida Avenue, NW. AGU wants to make the building "net zero," meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes, on average.

To do that, the new building will have more efficient windows and walls, will tie into the sewers to exchange heat, and on top will sport a large solar array.

The attractive current building is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, but is "non-contributing," meaning it wasn't built at the same time as most of the historic buildings in that area and therefore gets more leeway. Still, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gets to review the design.

At last month's meeting, several board members fretted that the solar panels might be too prominent for the "delicate" building and the historic district.

In response, the architects at Hickok Cole lowered the solar array and added some semitransparent panels around the edge, so it wouldn't shade the street as much. They also made other changes to the window design, entryway, and plaza in front.

 
Previous design (left) and new design (right).

When seeing the project again on May 27, board members were impressed. Joseph Taylor said it would become "An icon on Florida Avenue." They unanimously supported the project moving forward.

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

One board member, architect Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox, had previously suggested a building like this might be appropriate "in some remote part of Seattle," but not in Dupont Circle.

At the most recent meeting, Davidson reiterated his opposition to having more buildings in DC follow AGU's lead. He said,

On the one hand, we have the desire to make buildings that attempt to be environmentally responsible ... but results, quite frankly, in buildings that are peculiar and certainly a big shift in aesthetics from what we're used to.

On the other hand, we have the desire to maintain the character of the city. That's what our job is, and the character of the city is unique. It's why people like to come here to visit, and what they expect to see. It's why people live here and why people live in the neighborhoods. Proposing buildings such as this, adding arrays to buildings like this, in such a manner does change the character of the neighborhood and the city.

So I was largely persuaded by the staff report [which endorsed the project] ... but I am very concerned about precedent in this case. When one person on the edge of the historic district, with a noncontributing building, builds a solar array that increases the allowable height of buildings by more than a story, we are going to have hundreds of other buildings that are proposing the same thing.

That's right—if saving the planet means buildings can get a little taller, well, that's not a tradeoff Davidson would make, anyway.

It's also somewhat unclear what he was talking about, as on the AGU renovation, the solar array will be lower than the building's current penthouse (though higher than the current cornice, the top of the building visible from the street).

He further suggested that, since other energy-saving features will have a bigger impact than the solar array, it was just "great for marketing" by letting AGU "say [it's] net zero."

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

Historic preservation cannot be so concerned with the architectural appearance of buildings that it loses sight of the bigger preservation challenge, that of preserving our very cities from the dangers of climate change.

If the sea level keeps rising and much of DC ends up underwater, it is not going to matter how tall buildings are or the "aesthetics" of the historic district. People are not going to live in the neighborhoods any more (and I actually don't think the aesthetics of Dupont Circle are the biggest reason people live there—it's for proximity to jobs and transit, though the aesthetics certainly matter).

Fortunately, many preservationists do agree, including the historic preservation office staff, members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, and most of the board.

Board member Andrew Aurbach and chair Gretchen Pfaehler also noted, in the meeting, that the preservation office is trying to start a project that would define clearer preservation standards around sustainability. This, Pfaehler said, would "further integrate and stregnthen the relationship between preservation and sustainability" and "make this kind of dialogue and review and approval happen very easily and smoothly."

According to Pfaehler's statements at the hearing, the proposal is waiting for action by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). This is a good step and should move forward. If it does, it could clarify to Davidson what his priorities should be, or perhaps clarify to Mayor Bowser that the city would be better served with a different architect on the board.

History


One of Silver Spring's earliest schools had a merry-go-round, boat rides, and a carnival

Once houses had gone up in postwar suburbs, communities needed stores, schools, and other services. Sometimes builders provided these, but other times it was up to the public sector or entrepreneurs. That's how Silver Spring's Alexander School came to be.


The Alexander School, c. 1955. The Ferris wheel, bought used from a Pennsylvania carnival, is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Kaye Kendall Giuliani.

Meeting suburbia's need for childcare and schools

In Silver Spring's Four Corners community at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, suburbanization began in the 1920s and accelerated through the 1930s and into the war years. By 1942 enough families had bought homes that Montgomery County met the demand for new schools by building Four Corners Elementary School. Plans to build 238 temporary houses for wartime workers exacerbated the need for more educational infrastructure.

For younger children and to provide daycare during the summer, Hilda Hatton bought a six-acre former farm, one of the area's last remaining large agricultural parcels, and founded the Benjamin Acres School. Named for the colonial land patent out of which the property was carved, the Benjamin Acres School opened in the summer of 1943 as a day camp and nursery school for children ages four to 14.

Hatton operated the school until 1947 when she relocated to Annapolis and reopened it as a boarding school. She sold the property, which by that time included a two-story residence that had been converted into a school building and a swimming pool, to Ernest L. Kendall. Kendall (1906-1990) was an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.


Ernest L. Kendall teaches a history class at the Capitol Page School. Library of Congress photo.

Ernest Kendall goes to Washington

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931. He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After school he began working in public education and by 1930 he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford. Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at the George Washington University.

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic. The legislator suggested Kendall join the Capitol police force or that he start a school for pages. Kendall chose the latter. The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, a dank space in the Capitol basement, where Kendall developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia. Kendall received a contract to continue as the school's principal through June 1947. At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed. Four months later, he bought Hatton's Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the "Alexander School"—to get a top listing in telephone directories—and set about navigating Montgomery County's tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school's facilities.

"He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school. So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place," recalled Kendall's son Fred, who began his career as a camp counselor and who later became the Alexander School's principal. "It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there. Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things." Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building. "He added a merry-go-round. He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version. And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature," explained Fred Kendall.


Former Alexander School/North Four Corners Park Location. Base map from Google Maos, inset from Sanborn Fire Insurance.

Suburban amusement park, or school?

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts. The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems. During the school year children performed in elaborate productions and in summers it was filled with cots for naptime.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility. Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts. Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday. And, Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

"The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents," explained Fred Kendall. "His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work. And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare." A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school. Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather: "If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus."


Newly renovated North Four Corners Park and former Alexander School site. Photo by the author.

Ernest Kendall sold the school in 1983 to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. Twelve years later it was again sold, this time to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as expansion space for the neighboring Four Corners Local Park. The expansion plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency's plans. During that time the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015. The new space represents not only an improved Montgomery County amenity—increased parklands—but it also marks a new era of suburban recreation in the space first begun nearly a century ago.

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