Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

To stop sewage from overflowing into the Anacostia, Nannie is digging in

She is smooth, round, and has teeth so hard they can chew through rock. She hangs out down by the river, waiting for when she gets the thumbs up signal. Her name is Nannie. Standing 26 feet tall, she's a tunnel-boring machine that is waiting to drill a tunnel from RFK stadium, along and under the Anacostia River, where she will meet up with another part of the tunnel currently under construction.


Nannie sits ready and waiting near the parking lot of RFK Stadium, next to the Anacostia River. Image from the author.

Nannie's 96 cerulean blue grinding teeth glisten in the sun. Resting only feet away is a 109-foot deep shaft, where she will begin her descent into the underworld to dig through the compacted layers of clay and sediment material.

Named after Nannie Helen Burroughs, a prominent early 20th century African-American educator and civil rights activist in DC, Nannie is an essential component of the Clean Rivers Project, a massive engineering endeavor in the District that will fix the city's sewer system's overflow problems.

Nannie's task is to create a new tunnel large enough that the combined sewer system, which makes up a third of the District's sewer, will not overflow during heavy rainfall or snowmelt events.

Currently, heavy rains result in sewage, stormwater, and other runoff flowing into the Anacostia. For example, between October and December of 2014, the Anacostia River experienced multiple overflows at stations along its shore. There were 12 overflows on the south side of the river by Anacostia Park, which is the most of any site. Eight happened directly across, at the Navy Yard.

The Anacostia River is at the backdoor of the Nation's capitol, but is often referred to as "The Forgotten River." Once complete, the Clean Rivers Project will cut sewage and stormwater overflow by 98% in the Anacostia River and provide similar reductions for the Potomac River and Rock Creek, paving the way for a cleaner, healthier ecosystem.

Beyond runoff, the Anacostia is also polluted with chemicals and trash

Stormwater and sewage overflow is just one of many problems the river is experiencing. Years of neglect have led to a river so polluted that it's dangerous to get into the water or eat the fish.

According to a 2012 study commissioned by local, District, and federal groups, approximately 17,000 residents might be eating these fish. Some, like the brown bullhead catfish, have red fleshy tumors on their lips, which is a visible sign something is wrong. But not all of them have visible deformities, and what's going on under the skin can be just as alarming.

The same can be said for the river. After a heavy rain storm the river is visually polluted. Trash floats all along the river and collects along its shores, and the stench of waste is too hard to ignore.

Nannie should help with those problems

The Clean Rivers Project will reduce overflows, which will also help with part of the trash problem. But the river will still be polluted by heavy metals in sediment, upstream sources of pollution, and runoff that doesn't get captured by the sewage system.

Jim Foster, the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, wants to get back to the root cause of all these problems. He argues that more needs to be done if we want to make the river "swimmable and fishable by 2025" - a motto he and others are using as a goal post.

Combined sewer systems are found in many other US cities, including the District. These types of sewers consist of a central pipe that serves as a catchall for storm runoff and household and industrial sewage. During heavy rain events, the untreated sewage runs into local waterways. Combined sewer systems are found in the older parts of the city, flowing from the northern boundary through the heart of the District.

Nannie's tunnel and the Clean Rivers Project are expected to fix this problem by creating a larger sewer drain to capture all of the waste. Nannie will "drive the most important, ground—or better yet - water-breaking improvements to the Anacostia in the last century. And we will do it in the next 10 years," said George Hawkins the chief of DC Water and Sewer Authority at a public event in February.

Here's how Nannie will work

Nannie is a beast, her cutting head spinning one to two rotations per minute. Nate Wageley, an inspector with DC Water, described the process. Nannie "will basically rip the soil into shreds, or cuttings. And if you hit a boulder, there are discs that will cut them up into little fragments."

The excavated material is then softened with a foam, producing a taffy-like substance that gets transported on railway carts out of the tunnel and offsite. Nannie will travel at approximately 500 feet a week, eventually excavating a 12,500-foot tunnel. When she gets the green light, the engineers expect her to finish the tunnel in less than a year. Once complete, the foot thick concrete tunnel will have a lifespan of 100 years.

Nannie is expected to begin tunneling this summer and her portion of the Clean Rivers Project will be completed by 2018. The longer-term plan for the District, including projects along the Potomac River and Rock Creek, is currently scheduled for completion in 2025 unless it gets amended to accommodate proposed green infrastructure.

Community advocates have concerns

Some environmental advocates are concerned that the Anacostia portion of the Clean Rivers Project is solely focused on a hard engineering solution. The tunnel will improve water quality, but it does not include other softer, aboveground, measures, like green infrastructure, which would benefit residents by increasing property values. Foster worries that the communities around the Anacostia River are not seeing similar investments in green infrastructure like those planned for the Potomac River and Rock Creek areas.

In May, DC Water proposed green infrastructure on 498 acres for the Potomac River and Rock Creek neighborhoods under the Clean Rivers Project. But improvements of similar proportion have not been proposed for the communities around the Anacostia River.

"The [engineering] benefits don't accrue to the community. Planting trees and doing rain gardens and landscapes improves the assessed value of a community, it raises the aesthetics and helps improve the infrastructure that people use every day," Foster says. "They get the gold mine, and we get the shaft."

Despite concerns about equity of the project, the District is taking serious steps to clean up its waterways. "Everybody has to do a little bit. Everyone has some skin in the game. In the end of the day, it's not about the river. The river represents what's happening in the community," says Foster.


Wider lanes make city streets more dangerous

The "forgiving highway" approach to traffic engineering holds that wider is safer when it comes to street design. After decades of adherence to these standards, American cities are now criss-crossed by streets with 12-foot wide lanes. As Walkable City author Jeff Speck argued in CityLab last year, this is actually terrible for public safety and the pedestrian environment.


The rate of side impact crashes is lowest on urban streets with lanes about 10.5 feet wide—much narrower than the standard 12 feet. Graph by Dewan Karim via Streetsblog.

A new study reinforces the argument that cities need to reconsider lane widths and redesign streets accordingly. In a paper to be presented at the Canadian Institute of Traffic Engineers annual conference, author Dewan Masud Karim presents hard evidence that wider lanes increase risk on city streets.

Karim conducted a wide-ranging review of existing research as well as an examination of crash databases in two cities, taking into consideration 190 randomly selected intersections in Tokyo and 70 in Toronto.

Looking at the crash databases, Karim found that collision rates escalate as lane widths exceed about 10.5 feet.

Roads with the widest lanes—12 feet or wider—were associated with greater crash rates and higher impact speeds. Karim also found that crash rates rise as lanes become narrower than about 10 feet, though this does not take impact speeds and crash severity into account. He concluded that there is a sweet spot for lane widths on city streets, between about 10 and 10.5 feet.

In Toronto, where traffic lanes are typically wider than in Tokyo, the average crash impact speed is also 34 percent higher, Karim found, suggesting that wider lanes not only result in more crashes but in more severe crashes.

The "inevitable statistical outcome" of the "wider-is-safer approach is loss of precious life, particularly by vulnerable citizens," Karim concluded.

Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?


Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:


Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

Federal review pushes the Kennedy Center's new buildings to dry land

The Kennedy Center has tweaked its plans for expansion. The small addition will still connect the Kennedy Center to the Potomac River, but none of it will be floating in the river.


The revised expansion scheme for the Kennedy Center. All images courtesy of the Kennedy Center and Steven Holl Architects.

When the arts center released plans for an expansion in 2013, they were looking for a way to reach out beyond big white box and white tie events. The 60,000 square foot expansion was to contain education rooms, informal performance venues, and a bridge to the Potomac River pathway.

The Kennedy Center's balcony has a gorgeous view of the river, but with no way for visitors to get to it, it's just the backdrop to the lobby. The center has tried to bridge the divide for decades with several schemes for grand staircases. But they had proved too costly for the Kennedy Center to do without federal help.

The designers the Kennedy Center hired, Steven Holl Architects, proposed something more clever than stairs. Their proposal featured three white pavilions: two sitting in a garden atop buried practice rooms and one across a bridge over the parkway, floating in the water. With arts activity in the nearby parkland, the Kennedy Center was not just visually connected to the green space, but rather was functionally mixing with it.

The expansion is still happening, but it's going to be more conventional

The new proposal features a shorter bridge across Rock Creek Parkway, ending at a sculptural ramp and staircase down to the riverfront trail. To keep the blend of park and arts space, the designers placed planters and benches along the route. Alternating solid and minimal railings extend, framing views of the river similarly to how the windows in the pavilions do.


View looking from across the bridge down to the Potomac and Rock Creek Trail.

The cafe and performance space that occupied the floating structure will now go in a third pavilion east of Rock Creek parkway. The multipurpose space will seat 160 people in a space with views of the river. Toward the land, the pavilion overlooks a reflecting pool through a retractable glass wall.

Moving that pavilion makes it harder to spontaneously drop into a show. On the other hand, the architects noted that it will make back-of-house activities like cooking and moving instruments easier since the new location sits atop the expansion's buried infrastructure.


The relocated river pavilion encloses the park area more.

The reorganization does change the the way the site connects to the city. The new location of the river pavilion may make the upper-level garden feel more enclosed and internal. On the other hand, since visitors won't have to pass through the floating pavilion to get to the upper-level park it may feel more public.


Interior of the new River Pavilion, configured as a cafe.

Opposition arose during the federal process

The Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission's professional staff supported the original design on the basis of extensive engineering studies. But at NCPC's December 2014 meeting, testimony from recreational boaters and Georgetown residents persuaded commissioners to rejected the staff report and give only partial approval.

Critics singled out the floating pavilion as a problem. The NCPC's chairman, Preston Bryant, who represents Virginia, said he believed the building went against federal directives not to build in flood-prone areas.

Boaters and Georgetown residents favored an alternate scheme that did not put any structures near the river, including the bridge across the parkway. This second design came from the project's environmental assessment, which requires federal agencies to study a few alternative solutions to their needs. For buildings of this size, the second or third designs are usually just a formality. Not here.


Top: The new design. Bottom: The environmental assessment's Alternative B.

The revised scheme uses the environmental assessment's Alternative B as a starting point, but adds the bridge and landscaped ramp. When the architects presented this design at the May 7th NCPC meeting, several commissioners who had criticized the design earlier reacted positively, indicating future approval.


View up the access ramp and toward Georgetown.

There's still a long road ahead of the project

The change in the design means delays. Peter May, the National Park Service's representative on the NCPC noted that the Park Service would have to re-do parts of its environmental assessment and cultural resource studies because the connection to the park is too different from any of the original alternatives to proceed.

May suggested that there could be a separate study for the bridge, allowing the Kennedy Center to proceed with construction. Still the Commission of Fine Arts will have to grant a second conceptual approval to the design, the architects will have to work out some of the design again. For this and other reasons, the Kennedy Center expansion won't open until 2018.

Washington's process is difficult. Still, this project's arc shows that it is possible to bring distinctive architecture and placemaking to the Monumental Core, with the right attitude. The designers and their client didn't simply do what critics asked, or fight back endlessly. They relied on their expertise to do it in a way that is true to the rest of the design. That is hard, and they deserve credit for it.


Public iterations of the expansion. Clockwise from top right: September 2013, December 2014, February 2015, May 2015.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. 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, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!


The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.


The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's 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.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are 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 midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.


The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.


Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

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