Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Springfield Town Center might save enclosed malls

Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.


Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.


The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

Malls still have a place

The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

Malls must adapt to survive

As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

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Events roundup: Roar into the new year!

Start your new year right with events about Route 1 in Fairfax, car technology, DC's 11th Street Bridge, trees, and more.


Image by BeyondDC.

Growth and the environment on Route 1: Development along Route 1 in Fairfax County can make the area more lively, and if done right, also help improve water quality at the same time.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth will follow up its recent walking tour of the area with a talk by Danielle Wynne of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works about the county's ideas for redeveloping the area and protecting the environment. Join the discussion on Wednesday, January 7 at 7:15 pm at 2511 Parkers Lane in Alexandria.

Transportation tech about the car: Despite growth in transit, walking, and bicycling, many people drive and technology can help with that as well. This month's Transportation Techies Meetup features researchers and companies working on apps and technology to improve your driving and parking. This month's meetup is Thursday, January 8 at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd in Arlington, from 6 to 9 pm (presentations start at 6:30).

11th Street Bridge Park design: The team that created the winning design for a new park across the Anacostia River will talk about their work at a panel discussion at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, on Thursday, January 8, from 6:30 to 8 pm. The event is $12 for NBM members and $20 for nonmembers; buy tickets in advance.

Casey Trees for the kids: If you are an environmentally conscious parent with young children 2 to 4 years old, join Casey Trees for a tree-focused story time, this Friday, January 9, 10-10:45 at the Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave SE. It features environmentally-focused books, songs, and craft time, and every family will leave with a scavenger hunt to complete.

ACT with David Alpert: This month's meeting of the Action Committee for Transit will feature Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert, who will talk about how blogs, advocates, businesses, and government officials all have to work together to win support for transit and other projects. The meeting is Tuesday, January 13 starting at 7:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Center, One Veterans Place.

Talk about the transition: A group of DC advocacy organizations has been working to get ideas from residents around the city for Muriel Bowser's mayoralty. The work will culminate in a town hall meeting on Saturday, January 17. The organizers hope to draw a representative sample of residents from all parts of the District.

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.

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The sound of children playing bothers some Columbia Heights residents

Some condo residents in Columbia Heights want to dismantle the playground for the preschool in their building because, they say, the children make too much noise.


Image from AppleTree.

The board of the Lofts of Columbia Heights, at 14th and Girard Street NW, made plans to dismantle the playground behind the building that serves the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.

My 3-year-old son is a student there. The kids visit the playground once or twice a day. They go outside for 30 minutes mid-day to meet the curriculum requirements for "gross motor skills development" and in the afternoon for the after-school care program.

Reporter Michael Allison Chandler interviewed a resident, James Abadian, who believes the playground constitutes common space that the board can control. But school officials disagree. Reached by phone, Jack McCarthy, CEO of the AppleTree Institute, said that the school actually owns the space and that the development agreement for the building included an early childhood center, which includes the playground as well as the school.

The condo board had planned to tear down the playground over the Thanksgiving break without informing the school, and posted an RFP soliciting a company to remove the playground equipment. A letter from the school's attorneys stopped that action.

Playground conflicts are a familiar refrain in DC

AppleTree has seven campuses. Its Lincoln Park facility has also had issues with neighbors and cannot use the backyard of its own building for recreation. Ross Elementary experienced similar conflicts with its Dupont Circle neighbors as more families started staying in DC once their kids entered school.

My son's school only serves the 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergarten grades. All children then move on to enroll at other public and charter schools around the city for elementary school. AppleTree is determined to overcome the achievement gap, with strict requirements for attendance and classroom behavior. It's known for rigorous academics and lots of testing; children are assessed five times a year to support curriculum development.

Teachers trained by the larger AppleTree Institute go on to many of the highly sought-after charter schools in the city, like Inspired Teaching and Creative Minds. It's been great for my son, who has not only adapted to the concept of "circle time" but is also close to reading and is adept at basic math skills.

Kids need outdoor space

I know of kids in the school whose parents forbid them from playing outside at home, fearful of their neighbors. They are grateful for a safe, affordable place to send their children to learn.

The playground at AppleTree Columbia Heights is small. It's nestled between buildings and there is no green space. Parents consider the limited space a negative when choosing schools in the lottery. But 3- and 4-year-olds need space to run and move.

A larger DC Department of Parks & Recreation playground is just down the street, but taking a whole class of young children down there once or twice a day is demanding on the teachers, the children, and on all the neighbors in between. Also, the DPR playground is not as secured as the AppleTree playground, with litter and public access all day and night.

Chandler wrote in the Post that the condo board would like to instead turning the space into a barbecue lawn or an area for "silent study" for AppleTree students, an absurd concept for normal development of preschool-age children.

The school has already limited playground hours out of deference to resident complaints. Kids also don't go outside when it's colder than 40 degrees, so this issue is moot for at least the next week or two, and much of the winter. AppleTree also has agreed with the condo board not to host evening events, limiting parents' ability to get to know each other and get involved in school activities.

But one source of noise will never stop: the bustle of 14th Street. The building is a couple of blocks south of the Columbia Heights Metro station and amidst dense development, so there is heavy foot and vehicular traffic. I regularly see emergency vehicles. These are normal urban noises, and the sounds of children playing fit right in with that.

On the other hand, across 14th Street at Girard Park I regularly see drugs and stolen bikes exchanged, along with boom boxes, street harassment, and other loud adult activities. The residents may not be able to control that with a lease, but which source of noise is a greater detriment to the community at large?

It's clear that finding appropriate space for charter schools is a growing challenge in the District, particularly in the dense neighborhoods where they are most needed. I hope the condo residents can "play well with others" and help the school and its students succeed. Taking away a playground from preschoolers is not the answer.

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The Kennedy Center is isolated from the rest of DC, but it can't fix the problem by itself

The Kennedy Center is getting a great addition, but the design throws a spotlight on the institution's physical isolation from the rest of the city.

Proposal seen from the Roosevelt Bridge. Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

The new 60,000-square foot building will include a large base tucked under an intensive green roof and three house-sized pavilions made of glass and ultra-white concrete. Two pavilions would sit on land, while the third would literally float in the Potomac.

The new design cuts the Kennedy Center off from the rest of the city

If I were to pick a word to describe the project, it'd be "islands." To me, the project creates a string of beautiful islands near the Kennedy Center.

Unfortunately, my word choice is also an appropriate metaphor for the Center's relationship with DC's fabric.

In J. G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island, an architect crashes on a London highway, stranding himself alone on a median. Penned in by speeding traffic, he can't leave. Unable to get anyone's attention, he watches as the city hum along without him. He ends up realizing he can't get out and makes do with his tiny domain.

Ballard's story is satire, but it's not that far from what has happened at the Kennedy Center.

On one side of the building, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway's flow keeps the Potomac in sight but out of reach. On the other, a vast highway trench stands between the Center, downtown, and the national memorials. A visitor could spend an evening at the Kennedy Center and come away feeling more tied to Rosslyn than the District.

A beautiful plan proves too expensive

When Congress created the Kennedy Center, federal leaders had a bold vision to disperse the city and rebuild it around a series of highways. The I-66 trench is one of the few parts of that project that ever got built, a small piece of the inner beltway.

Even before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, writers were fighting for a less dislocated site. The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, went after the Center's car-dependent design in a 1965 column. After its construction, proposals to make a connection other than an off-ramp came from every direction for years.

The closest DC has come to bridging the gap between the arts center and downtown came in a 2003 plan designed by Rafael Viñoly. It proposed extending E Street out to a monumental plaza on a deck, with I-66 below. Buildings on each side of the connection would have served two of the Center's most cramped activities: arts education and rehearsal.

But decks over transportation infrastructure are hugely expensive, even for the modest buildings proposed. The plan required $400M in federal funding to reconstruct the intersection, and it would cover only a fraction of the I-66 spaghetti. After the Iraq War, the money dried up and the Kennedy Center decided to make do.


The two land pavilions frame the Lincoln Memorial, but how do you get there? Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

A more pragmatic design

In 2012, the Center asked New York architect Steven Holl to design a scheme that would at least fulfill its needs for practice facilities, multipurpose rooms, bus parking, and offices. Atop the building, a new park would pull do double-duty as an amphitheater for free simulcasts of performances inside. In general, the spaces support the more diverse cultural offerings that have become the norm for arts institutions since the 1960s.


Plan of the proposed design, oriented so the top part of the map is east. Image from the Kennedy Center.

To connect the Center to the river, a bridge would cross the parkway to the floating pavilion, which would house a cafe and an informal event space. Pedestrians could walk from the Kennedy Center to the trail below, while people walking by could stop in for a show. It's not the grand steps Viñoly's plan imagined, but adding activity to a relatively isolated stretch of the trail might actually be better than building a big bridge that suffocates the trail below.

I think the new building's design would quickly earn it a place among DC's great landmarks. Holl's architecture focuses visitors' attention onto experiences of aspects of the physical world, particularly the ground, sky, water and light. For years, his designs have toyed with how they sit on the ground and how spending time in a particular place changes the one's perception of it. The floating pavilion, with views subject to the tide as much as sunlight, will be a world-class extension of Holl's history.


Model of the main "Glissando" pavilion interior. Image from the Kennedy Center.

It's a good project, and it's great that it doesn't get in the way of bigger plans.

An institution can only be as urban as its site.

At the National Capital Planning Commission's December meeting, members criticized the addition for only making a visual connection and nothing more. "It does nothing to tell you that there's an entire city on the other side of that gap," DC's acting director of planning, Ellen McCarthy, said bluntly.

Mina Wright of the US General Services Administration went further, calling the proposal an "opportunity lost to fix some ill-conceived traffic patterns, which will be fixed one day." She brought up her agency's ongoing redesign of the Potomac Hill complex which sits directly across I-66 from the Kennedy Center. To her, the design means giving up on a grander vision and limiting what the GSA can do with its site.


I-66 interchange dwarfs DC's biggest buildings and cultural centers. Image from Bing with edits by the author.

But maybe it's wrong to expect the Kennedy Center to put forth a grand vision for the site. The Viñoly plan offered yet another grand plaza, with swooping roads enabled by even more grade separation. It only solved connectivity issues that were within the Kennedy Center complex; it didn't provide ways for the Kennedy Center to be one point in a richer fabric.

Relying on a prestige project to patch up basic infrastructure, whether it's an arts institution or the Olympics, places a lot of trust in an organization that has narrow goals. The design process would never be as inclusive as it could be if it focused on restoring a lost neighborhood.


Image of the 2009 Framework Plan by CFA/NCPC.

Repairing the fabric is already the long-term goal, set by NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts in 2010. The problem is that their plan still assumed a massive deck over a sprawling highway even though the exorbitant costs of a smaller deck sank the last project.

The highway was the problem in 1958, it was the problem in 1971, and it's still the problem. The solution is to replace it with surface streets.

Freeway removal is not the radical idea it was in 2003. There are multiple examples of traffic dissipating into the grid at speeds safer for everyone. That's particularly true if transit substitutes capacity is replaced in a plan like Metro Forward, which would ease Virginia's capacity crunch.

A city-led infill project is the most promising way to put the Kennedy Center back into Washington. There's more potential in the site than just a grand entry. It would give DC a much richer public realm in a neighborhood trying to break out of its beige boxes. The proposed design fits well into a future that corrects the mistakes that got the Kennedy Center stuck on a freeway island.


Holl's watercolor suggests a future bridge across the highway. Can't we do better? Image by the Kennedy Center.

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"Park-Its" now protect the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway

As of last week, rubber parking stops called "Park-Its" now protect a half block segment of the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, between 9th and 10th Streets NW.


Photo by the author.

The Park-Its are supposed to protect cyclists from drivers making illegal U-turns across Pennsylvania Avenue's bike lanes, which are in the middle of the road.

DDOT crews installed the first Park-Its last week. Workers will add more in the coming days, until Park-Its line the bikeway for the two block stretch from 9th to 11th.

Full installation of Park-Its all along Pennsylvania Avenue could eventually happen, but for now DDOT hopes to determine if this initial installation works. According to DDOT's Darren Buck, the Park-Its on 1st Street NE sometimes pull up out of the pavement.

Park-Its succeed the zebras that DDOT installed in 2013, but which proved only partially effective. For now, the zebras between 12th and 13th Streets will remain in place.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future directionor committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.

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San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below

A public art installation on San Francisco's Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.


Image from Illuminate The Arts.

The project is called "LightRail," and according to its sponsors it will be the world's first "subway-responsive light sculpture."

Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.

Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.

Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I've ever seen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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