Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

This statue salutes just how thrilling riding a bike can be

Last year, a new statue went up in the City of Fairfax that captures the essence of why people love to bike.


"The Cyclist" by Larry Morris. Photo by the author.

The statue is at the corner of University Drive and Armstrong Street, by Fairfax City Hall. Part of a public arts initiative and designed by Larry Morris, it debuted around the time of the region's annual Bike to Work Day.

The sharp angles on the bike and rider, along with the rider's scary whipping in the wind, depict the ideal bike ride as a speedy and fun. The statue itself looks like chrome, which is both often associated with fast vehicles and helps emphasize how important visibility is for safety.


A real bike next to the statue. Photo by the author.

Here on Greater Greater Washington, we often note that supporting bike transit is smart policy; riding a bike is environmentally friendly, and it can relieve traffic congestion. What we don't always mention is just how much fun riding a bike is—after all, cyclists rank among the happiest commuters. Artwork like this can help communicate that message.

When DC's fish market comes ashore, it will re-create a historic food destination

The Maine Avenue Fish Market on the Southwest Waterfront, the oldest open-air seafood marketplace in America, was exiled offshore in 1960. There are now plans underway to expand it back onto land and expand its offerings beyond just seafood.


The renovated oyster shed in the foreground, along with a proposed distillery, and under-construction office building. Rendering by Hoffman-Madison Waterfront/McGraw Bagnoli Architects.

Today, the barges the market sits on hugs two piers that jut into the Washington Channel. Market vendors alternately look up or down upon their customers, depending on the tides. The piers will remain essentially untouched, but today's ragtag parking lot will be replaced with a "shared space" Market Square, stretching east to the newly installed stoplight at Maine Avenue.

Five small buildings and temporary kiosks on the square will house a variety of local food businesses. Closest to the piers, a pair of World War I-era structures built to shuck oysters will be become an oyster bar and dining patio. These new businesses could open as soon as spring 2017.


Perusing the fish market in 2006. Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography.

A pair of three-story buildings on its eastern side, near a 10-story office building with several restaurants, will house a rum distillery, a restaurant with wine bar, and a deli. Two additional single-story pavilions could house vendors selling sandwiches, coffee, bread, and flowers.

An additional pier, now under construction just east of the market, could provide room for four additional waterborne retailers. Market services like fish cleaning would move into a new building under the highway bridge. A quarter-acre of outdoor dining space will ensure that everyone can get a seat.

McGraw Bagnoli Architects, whose prior work includes the interior of Right Proper brewpub, designed the new structures.

Oyster shucking shed at the fish market
The oyster shed today. Photo by Payton Chung.

"By and large, we love the way it is," developer Monty Hoffman told the Washington Business Journal's Michael Neibauer. "We're embracing it and we plan to add more on the land side," as part of "repositioning it for the next generation."

Hoffman-Madison Waterfront holds a long-term lease on the market as part of its larger redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. Next door is The Wharf, where nine blocks of mixed-use development are now under construction.

HMW filed the plans with the federal Commission on Fine Arts, which reviews developments along the waterfront and other scenic locations. The CFA applauded the plans for "maintaining the vitality and eclectic character of the beloved Maine Avenue Fish Market."

They also noted the fine line that the development faces in combining a messy, 200-year-old social institution, 100-year-old buildings, and shiny new buildings, and "cautioned against trying to recreate this random, energetic character in the architecture of the new buildings, which will inevitably result in a falseness made obvious by the authenticity of the existing context."

Yet expanding the fish market onto shore also honors its history. The site was once home to Eastern Market-style municipal market halls for fish and for produce. When those were demolished in 1960 along with the rest of the Southwest neighborhood, some of the fish vendors decamped to their boats, leasing dock space directly from the District—but, under federal law, selling only seafood. With this plan, the Maine Avenue market can come full circle and once again serve Washingtonians a complete meal.

Silver Spring is a more complete place thanks to its new library

Downtown Silver Spring's library opened just over a week ago, and it's more than just a building full of books. The new library is full of things that are there to help the community, like meeting spaces and a coffee shop and, in the future, a transit stop.


Residents at the new library's grand opening. Images by the author unless otherwise noted.

Downtowns and town centers are reemerging as increasingly important parts of their communities, and libraries are a big part of that. Parents, for example, can bring their kids during the day before hosting a book club meeting later that evening, and community leaders can use the space to host their meetings.


Meeting space at the library.

Libraries are also not strictly quiet places like they once were. Vibrancy and social connections are a big part of the library experience. You can meet friends, or have kids' play dates—here, you'd do that in the new "Early Literacy Center" on the 5th floor. If you do want the traditional solitude, you can go to a designated "quiet" room, where you can join students quietly typing on their laptops or visitors reading the newspaper.

The library's design puts community first

Why has Silver Spring's library become such a community focal point for residents? After the closure of Border's Books and the rather large Mayorga coffee shop, downtown Silver Spring was left few community gathering areas. Back in 2008, when it came time for the community to give input on the library, people knew they wanted an urban, community-friendly structure.

Among the items included a bulky pedestrian bridge that would connect the library to Silver Spring's main parking garage. Although the bridge concept was cancelled, the library's final plan actually included even more add-ons and amenities. For example, when residents learned that the new plan would include a coffee shop within the building, they raised over $53k to support the opening of a "second location" of the popular local Kefa Café, right inside the library's main entrance.


Kefa Cafe at the library.

In addition to a coffee bar, the library also features other unusual features such as the "Genius Bar" like reception desk, where patrons can check out an E-Reader or a laptop as well as get traditional research expertise from librarians.

Finally, the soon-to-open "Bonifant - Library Residences" will feature 149 mixed-income condos focusing on seniors that will also include 10,000 square feet of additional retail space directly next to the library.


Bonifant Library Residences image from Montgomery County.

This isn't the first time Silver Spring residents have come together to shape their community. Back in 1992, when Mall of America wanted to build the "American Dream" mega-mall in downtown Silver Spring, the residents rose up to fight the behemoth structure. What they wanted instead was community-focused development that truly represented the neighborhood. Today, the Silver Spring Library represents a legacy of this kind of community engagement and is a model for downtown libraries all over the nation.


A rendering of the Purple Line in front of the Silver Spring library. Image from Montgomery County.

The library will have its own Purple Line stop

The new Silver Spring Library has a host of features that aren't traditional for libraries.

For starters, a Purple Line stop is going to run through it, setting it up to become one of the first in the nation to include a built-in train station that will connect it to major regional transportation lines.


Purple Line route map from the Maryland Transportation Authority.

In the future, library patrons will be able to take the Purple Line directly to University of Maryland's campus for further research or take a quick ride to the Silver Spring Transit Center to connect to Metro lines.

Can a park bridging the Anacostia bring investment without displacing residents?

If the plan to build a park over the old 11th Street Bridge comes to fruition, there's no question it will change Anacostia. For now, the people behind the park are working hard to ensure that the people who are there now will be able to stick around to enjoy it.


A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park from the Navy Yard. Image from OMA+OLIN.

The 11th Street Bridge park is a proposal to build a spectacular public space on remaining parts of a disused bridge over the Anacostia River. Having just selected a design this spring, its director Scott Kratz and his team are developing the design, raising money, and running engineering tests. Despite reports that they don't have money, the project is going according to plan.

While waiting to begin construction, Kratz and his team have started to address a big worry many have voiced about the project: the risk that it will spur gentrification east of the Anacostia River, specifically in the HIstoric Anacostia neighborhood.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

This Saturday, a group of real estate experts, planners, and community leaders will present a preliminary plan meant to ensure that the Bridge Park benefits all residents, not just those who can afford to buy in a hot market. Called the Equitable Development Task Force, the group will hold meetings on each side of the river. At both meetings, they'll present a plan and then look to the experience of residents to refine their objectives and methods.

I spoke with Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park's director last week. He said that technical problems like designing and building the park seem simple compared to the challenge of making sure it adds social landscape without displacement and disaffection.

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

Back when the idea of reusing an old highway bridge as a park was just talk, over on the west side of Manhattan, real estate prices were doubling and tripling around the High Line, a park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. In just a few years, the Meatpacking District went from slaughterhouses and sex work to a high end retail district with equally high-end apartment buildings.

Many writers have compared the Bridge Park to the High Line, and while there are some key differences, they share a cultural cachet: they're both infrastructure-reuse projects by fashionable design firms in distinctive locations with attractive, historic neighborhoods nearby.

Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia already have many qualities that make a neighborhood desirable. With a signature project, the market could heat up. Kratz laments that already, two years too early, real estate listings for locations miles away are hyping the unbuilt park as an amenity.

With wealthier residents often come resources, government attention, and more retail. At the same time, the consequences of displacement are serious.

Residences east of the River are overwhelmingly rental, so they can turn over faster, without wealth accruing for renting residents the way it does with homeowners. Unemployment is high. A disproportionate number of residents suffer from diseases associated with poverty, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. Their lives will not get easier if they have to move farther from the city's core, where both mobility and access to social networks is harder.

The problem, with most incidences of gentrification, Kratz says, is that markets are way faster than governments or non-profits. Attempts to freeze rents or rush in new construction always happens too late. Social organizations are left trying to fix problems that are arising faster than they can hope to address them.


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

Unlike a lot of projects, the Bridge Park is well-positioned to be proactive about confronting these problems and ensuring that the project benefits as many people as possible. Officials know more or less when the project will come online, 2017 or 2018, and they know exactly what area it will affect.

Originally, Bridge Park staff focused exclusively on keeping the existing housing affordable. But after meeting with residents from east of the Anacostia River, they realized that that was too narrow a focus.

Now, they've widened the goals to doing a small part in helping nearby communties grow wealthier and more socially connected. The staff want to use the 11th Street Bridge Park to catalyze the amount of affordable housing in the area, increase employment, and promote locally own businesses that keep wealth in the community.

These are huge goals, especially for an organization that exists mostly just to build a park. To meet them, the Bridge Park team is considering possibilities on two levels: measures it can actually take, and ways it can influence things through publicity and connections.

To take action, the Bridge Park needs help from the community

Kratz realizes that neither he nor the Equitable Development Task Force can figure out how to solve a problem like displacement. So, first the Bridge Park team reached out to organizations who have been grappling with these issues in nearby communities organizations for years. Then, they looked at similar projects outside the region, to see if there were any specific lessons for signature parks in mixed-income areas.

The Task Force won't release the full panel until tomorrows's meeting, but Kratz provided some example approaches. Conceptually, they realized they could work at two scales: what the Bridge Park can directly control and what it can only the influence through its publicity and connections.

Kratz concedes the Bridge Park can't control all that much when it comes to affordable housing, But he also says the hope is that his team can unite area political leadership, which could then shape development through community land trusts that assemble equity for below-market housing, renovation assistance to homeowners, and political pressure for public investment.

One example of this kind development the task force will highlight is the extensive affordable housing program spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine.

Kratz says the Bridge Park can work directly on workforce development. The park is effectively a giant green roof that can serve as a training ground for employment in sustainable infrastructure. Related interventions might be the wellness and urban agriculture goals of the park, which could reduce job-impeding health problems.

Finally, the task force has suggestions for fostering local businesses. One is to model the Bridge Park's cafe after Union Market, a space that serves as an incubator for restaurants. The Bridge Park's visibility could launch a small business to commercial self-sustainance without the large capital investments required to start a restaurant.

Kratz notes that these ideas are only small parts of a solution. But, he emphasized that the Bridge Park's ambitions were most likely to succeed when they built on the work community groups were already doing on both sides of the Anacostia.

To be sure, the Bridge Park staff have met with existing organizations and asked how the project can fit into their existing strategies. The staff has also attended community meetings to hear residents' concerns and needs and to learn about how residents live and what they value. The Equitable Development Task Force used this first round of feedback to write this round of ideas and they're now looking for a second round of feedback.

Real estate advisors, landscape architects, and ordinary citizens have their own kind of expertise. Understanding the extent of each and building on it, I think, can be the beginning of a successful, community-led growth into a bigger, broader community. If it works, it can be an example to follow when other signature public projects risk large-scale disruption.

NoMa is lighting up its underpasses. Next up: L Street

The L Street underpass in NoMa is about to get a whole lot brighter. A new art installation called "Lightweave" will go into the space, continuing the neighborhood's plans to brighten and activate the four underpasses at its heart.


Image from NoMa Parks Foundation.

The installation includes lights that drop from the ceiling in a discontinuous, undulating manner somewhat similar to clouds, images on NoMa's Flickr page show.

"The jury made its decision to select 'Lightweave' based on excellence and innovation of its design but also its remarkable complementarity with the L Street plaza, planned for the west side of the underpass," said Charles Wilkes, chairman of the NoMa Parks Foundation, in a statement.

The L Street plans are the second in NoMa's efforts to activate and brighten the underpasses on K, L and M Streets, and Florida Avenue NE where they pass under the Amtrak tracks. Construction at L Street should begin late this year.

The foundation announced plans in April for a series vaults made up of lightsaber-like LED lights for the M Street underpass. The installation is called "Rain" and was designed by Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects.

One thing the conceptual plans for L Street do not include is seating or gathering spaces for residents and visitors, an issue that ANC commissioner Tony Goodman raised in relation to the M Street underpass at a community meeting on Rain in April.

San Francisco-based Future Cities Lab is the designer of Lightweave.

NoMa will hold a community meeting on the L Street underpass plans on July 13.

The wheels on the bus go... not to the right

The new Circulator route on the National Mall hit a snafu this week. Three buses blocked an intersection for over half an hour by not deviating from their routes even when a traffic collision made staying the course impossible.


Buses and cars behind a collision. Photo from Jeff Sellenrick.

When two tour buses collided, they blocked cars from continuing on Madison Drive across 14th Street and toward 15th. Rather than turning and going to 15th another way, the Circulator buses waited at the intersection, blocking other vehicles from turning left or right.

When Jeffrey, a reader who told us about the situation, asked his bus driver why they didn't try to use a detour, the driver replied that making a right-hand turn to try and circle around the collision wasn't part of their route. Another driver said they were waiting for permission to make the detour.

The total delay was around 40 minutes.

Obviously, buses aren't mechanically barred from making right turns. And a number of contributors can recall times when their Metrobus drivers, whose rules come from WMATA rather than DDOT, have taken detours.

We're left, then, with this question: What's DDOT's plan for when buses arrive at an unexpected impasse?

Spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans told me that Circulator drivers sometimes take detours when there are severe accidents, and that the decision to do so or not is made by the bus operator, who works for a company that DDOT contracts. Once drivers make a decision, DDOT tries to let the public know what's going on via Twitter.

To be fair, detours aren't always simple matters

Bus detours require a lot of communication between passengers, drivers, and the dispatchers that monitor bus movements. A bus needs to get back to its route as quickly as possible, both so that people can get to where they need and expect to go and so people waiting down the line aren't doing so in vain.

Another issue is that buses that need to make wide turns can't use just any road. Also, for buses using the Mall, which is much different from the regular street grid, it can be particularly difficult to find an alternate route that works: "circling the block" can mean going a mile out of the way.

Circulator drivers didn't cause the initial traffic jam. But they may have made it worse than it had to be. Hopefully, fewer traffic collisions and better training and coordination for DDOT's bus drivers can help prevent a situation like this in the future.

When dreaming of Olympics or anything else, beware of "planning down"

A team of architects and business leaders met in secret for many months to devise a big proposal for the Olympics in DC. Some parts of it have merit (and some don't), and ideas should always be welcome. But some things about the way they talk about the need to "transform" DC feel wrong.


Hand drawing city photo from Shutterstock.

It's terrific that some wealthy business leaders want to help the District. A generation ago, people in the suburbs were turning their backs on DC. Even now, as Jonathan O'Connell notes in his article on the Olympic bid, too often DC, Maryland, and Virginia compete to out-subsidize large businesses just so they'll move a few miles across a border.

The Olympic bid group didn't have that attitude. Russ Ramsey, who led the effort, lives in Great Falls, Virginia, but he wanted the Olympics to revive the area around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia can certainly benefit from having more friends, and areas around it more investment.

However, there's something a little disquieting about a group of business leaders and architects formulating this plan in secret, drawing pictures of stadiums on all manner of public land and arguing it would have lasting benefits for the city without really speaking to the public about what they'd like to be left with after an Olympics.

Let's call this "planning down"

There was a lot of discussion recently about "punching down" as a concept in comedy (see: criticisms of Trevor Noah, or criticisms by Garry Trudeau). Basically, it's when comedians make fun of groups of people who are less powerful in society than themselves. This secret planning feels like something similar; let's call it, "planning down."

"Planning down" would be what happens when one group of people decide they know what's best for another area whose populace is less powerful. Many residents felt this way when they heard about the machinations for the Olympics. Those of us who did should hold on to the feeling, as residents in poorer neighborhoods feel the same far more often.

John Muller, for example, has often written about communities in Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, and elsewhere where residents feel government officials come in for "public meetings" seemingly already having decided what they want. (The same thing often happens in more politically powerful neighborhoods, but residents have more success forcing their views into the debate.)

We need to have discussions about the futures of such communities that truly engage residents in thinking about what they want for their communities. (Some government agencies have indeed done this.) There are certainly constraints—there are specific economic criteria a neighborhood needs to support a grocery store, for instance. But I think people can understand these constraints and work with them if given the chance.

The planning profession, in fact, enshrined principles around public participation in its ethical codes after the era of urban renewal which demolished many working-class neighborhoods to build "towers in the park," like in DC's Southwest Waterfront and parts of many other US cities. (You're more likely to encounter dismissive non-listening from certain transportation engineers.)

However, public engagement isn't the same as "letting the neighborhood decide." Sometimes, deferring to neighbors means letting a more-powerful group use zoning, preservation, or other tools to exclude others. For a non-Washington example, look at Toronto's "density creep" controversy, where a group of people in million-dollar homes worried about new half-million-dollar homes hurting their property values. You could say those doing the excluding are "zoning down"; it's not planning down to criticize the practice.

Some decision-makers fear taking any action unless every community stakeholder is in agreement. That's not the way to avoid planning down. It's possible to involve people in a conversation, then move ahead with some decision recognizing that no choice, whether to act or not act, will be universally popular. The key is to listen first (and hopefully make the right choice).


Superhero businessman photo from Shutterstock.

DC doesn't need to be "saved"

O'Connell concludes his article on the Olympic bid by asking, "The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington?" It would be most welcome to have private-sector individuals wanting to do more for DC, or the region, or their specific communities. We just need them to lead more from behind, facilitating conversations rather than deciding unilaterally what the future should be.

Many of us in the Greater Greater Washington community are somewhat more privileged than many DC residents as well. We should keep these same lessons in mind just as much when we talk about neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or elsewhere, especially if we don't know many people in those areas.

We can't just say we know what's right for other, less privileged areas; we need to understand the circumstances and hopes of the people who live there. We can't do that entirely on a blog that's easiest to read if you work in an office with a computer, either.

We can all do more to strengthen the public dialogue around planning, to encourage planning up instead of planning down. And we should. Greater Greater Washington is going to be working on building these bridges and elevating voices from diverse communities much more in the future. Stay tuned.

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