Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

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Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Public Spaces


Work on the Rock Creek Park Trail will fulfill a long-ago promise

Two complementary projects starting in the near future promise to completely change the bike trails in Rock Creek Park. Both will address trail issues first raised over 20 years ago.


Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The first project will rebuild Beach Drive and 1.5 miles of the 5.9 mile trail that runs alongside it. It will reconfigure the part of the trail that runs through the tunnel that goes under the National Zoo, build a new bridge over Rock Creek, and reshape the trail's intersection with Shoreham Drive. It should start this year, and finish in 2018.

Meanwhile, the District Department of Transportation wants to start a complementary project in the spring of 2017 that will build one new mile of trail within Rock Creek Park and rehabilitate another 3.5 miles of trail.

This project has been a long time coming. It was first publicly announced in October 2005, at which time work was to start in January 2007 and be finished by the end of that year, but since DDOT and the NPS couldn't agree on some details, it's been delayed. But it actually goes back even further: Many of the problems it's hoping to address (along with some the FHWA project will address) were first identified all the way back in 1990, in a National Park Service report called "Paved Trails of the National Capitol Region." That plan is currently being updated.

But at the Bicycle Advisory Council's March Meeting, DDOT's Michael Alvino said the project is moving forward. A rebuilt and expanded Rock Creek Trail promises to make the trail safer and and more useful. Here's a rundown of the specifics:

Rose Park and the P Street Ramp

Rose Park is on the east side of Georgetown, south of P Street and east of 27th. On the east side of the park there is a trail, about 40 feet above the parallel Rock Creek Park Trail (RCPT), called the Rose Park Trail. From M and 28th to P and 25th, that trail will be widened by about one foot, making it about six feet wide.

From the northern end of the Rose Park Trail, a ramp connects P Street to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. Right now, there's a trail connection on the downhill side of that ramp, and there's now a plan to install a second path along the uphill side. This should help cut down on the number of times cyclists need to cross the ramp, and help minimize times those climbing up the hill and others biking down come into conflict. This project will add trails to both sides of the ramp.


Trail at the P Street Ramp. All images from DDOT unless otherwise noted.

The Devil's Chair

The Devil's Chair Bridge just north of Q street requires trail users to make two quick 90 degree turns to cross Rock Creek. While it won't be realigned, it will get a wider curve on the Mt. Zion cemetery side. Also, the fenced in landing on the opposite side will be replaced with a curved approach.


The north landing of the Devil's Chair Bridge.

Trail straightening

DDOT will straighten the trail in several places. One example of what this looks like is below the Calvert Street Bridge, where the trail curve has resulted in a well-worn desire line. Realizing the people have spoken, DDOT will make the desire line the new trail, and the curved portion will be removed.


Straightened Rock Creek Trail beneath Calvert Street.

New access to Harvard Street

Between Cathedral Avenue and Klingle Road, a distance of about a mile, the only trail access point is Zoo Drive, just south of Harvard Street. Zoo Drive gives trail users a roundabout access to Harvard Street, but only when the Zoo is open. The trail project will create new, more direct access to Harvard Street, via a route that is not impacted by Zoo hours. A small trail spur will connect to a crosswalk across Beach Drive. On the other side of Beach, trail users can connect to Harvard Street at Adams Mill Road via a five foot wide ramp. Part of the ramp can be bypassed by a set of stairs with a bicycle runner.


New trail connection to Harvard Street.

Paved desire line north of Tilden

Just north of Tilden, the current trail splits in two. A paved trail connects to the parking lot off Broad Branch Road and a desire line leads to the current crosswalk. DDOT will pave the desire line, connect the two trails and create a new curb ramp at the existing crosswalk across Broad Branch.


Twin trails between Broad Branch and Tilden.

Improved Beach/Blagden/Broad Branch intersection

The double intersection of Beach Drive with Blagden Avenue on one side of Rock Creek and Broad Branch on the other side will be reworked to make it safer for trail users, and to create a better connection to the trail along the south side of Blagden Street.

The new intersection will remove the slip lane from Beach to Blagdon to slow down turning vehicles. Three new crosswalks with curb ramps and new sidewalk on the east side of Beach will connect the RCPT to the trail along Blagden. Another curb ramp will connect the end of the RCPT to Beach.


New Beach Road intersections with Blagden and Broad Branch.

New trail along Piney Branch Parkway

In addition to improving miles of existing trail, DDOT will build about one mile of trail along Piney Branch Parkway. Connecting, via a crosswalk across Beach, to a new section of trail that the FHWA will construct adjacent to Beach Drive, the Piney Branch Trail will climb up to Arkansas Avenue on the north side of Piney Branch Parkway, passing under 16th Street on the way.

Once at Arkansas Avenue, DDOT will extend the trail east to Taylor Street and west to 16th Street.


Piney Branch Trail terminus at Arkansas Avenue.

Klingle Road connection

The current trail spur to Klingle Drive will be removed and a new one will replace it about 10 feet closer to Rock Creek. This will allow DDOT to install two new crosswalks to the sidewalk on the other side of Klingle and use the existing median as a pedestrian refuge. The sidewalk along Klingle will also be improved, connecting to the new FHWA-built section of trail along Beach to the Piney Branch Trail.


Crosswalk to Klingle Road Sidewalk.

As comprehensive as these projects are, and as much of an improvement as they represent, they—and other ongoing or previously completed projects—still don't address all the needs identified in the 1990 Paved Trails report. In fact only one of the four "high priority" projects have been completed. We still need a complete trail between Broad Branch and the Maryland boundary, a re-design of Zoo security "so that the streamside trail can be used 24 hours a day all year", and a trail along Broad Branch (though a plan to install a sidewalk and bike lane is scheduled for construction in 2019).

Since the Klingle Valley Trail is currently underway, there is only one unaddressed medium priority project: using the Lover's Lane path to connect the trail to Massachusetts Avenue.

Finally, the three unaddressed low priority projects are a trail from W Street and 44th to Rock Creek via the Whitehaven Parkway and Dumbarton Oaks Park, rehabilitation of the Oregon Avenue/Bingham Road loop and the addition of a trail along Park Road NW from Beach Road to the Piney Branch Parkway.

Still, this project represents a major step towards the fulfillment of that plan.

Pedestrians


This Annandale park is getting a new foot bridge, after all

In late March, a foot bridge in Annandale disappeared altogether because Fairfax County officials said they couldn't afford to fix or replace it. On Wednesday, however, the county said it will build a new one.


This bridge is gone, but a new one will replace it soon. Photo by Rick Carlstrom.

On March 23, the county removed the bridge, which crosses a tiny stream in Annandale's Broyhill Crest Park, after determining it was in danger of collapsing. At that time, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross told residents that, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority, a replacement bridge would cost $80,000 and there was no money in the budget for a new one.

But in an April 20 email to the Broyhill Crest community, Gross said she and Frank Vajda, the Mason representative on the Park Authority Board, continued to work with Park Authority staff on finding a way to replace the bridge. "Leaving the community bereft of a pedestrian crossing for a long period of time was unacceptable," she said.

"I am happy to report that the Park Authority came through, funding has been identified, and the order for a new fiberglass bridge has been placed," she continued.

A prefabricated bridge should arrive in about four weeks, and the project should be finished in about six.


The trail between Murray Lane and Lockwood Lane where a new pedestrian bridge will be installed. Photo by the author.

"In the meantime," Gross said, "Park Authority maintenance staff will be working at the site to stabilize the stream banks and prepare for installation of bridge foundations prior to the placement of the new bridge."

Gross estimated using park maintenance staff instead of contractors for some of the work will save about $20,000. She can't say what the final cost will be because "we don't know what problems they might run into." The county will still have to hire contractors to install the piers and do some of the stream restoration work, she said.

Local residents who had spoken up about the unsafe bridge for years and urged the county to fix it had been disappointed that the county would simply remove it without any plans for replacing it.

Crossposted from Annandale VA. Also, this post was updated to reflect Penny Gross' comments on costs and savings.

Bicycling


A safer bike ride through Rock Creek Park is on the way

Later this year, work will begin to reconstruct Beach Drive and parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail. The road will get a lot of work that should mitigate the environmental damage it causes, and the trail—in particular, three spots that consistently give cyclists and pedestrians trouble—will get wider.


A cyclist navigates the National Zoo tunnel under Administration Hill. Photo by Jay Mallin on Flickr.

Headed up by the Federal Highway Administration, the project should take between two and three years. It will focus primarily on Beach Drive, a 6.5 mile long road that runs from the Maryland state line to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, rehabilitating nearly a dozen bridges and rebuilding the roadway and adjacent parking lots.

New pavement markers and centerline rumble strips will also go in, along with new steel-backed timber guardrails and better lights and signs.

To mitigate stormwater runoff, stormwater management elements like bioretention ponds and bioswales will go in at strategic points along the road, and workers will stabilize the creek bank with retaining walls.

In addition, DC Water will take the opportunity to add 16 manhole vaults to the Rock Creek Main Interceptor beneath Beach Drive. This will allow DC Water to rehabilitate the interceptor and Beach Drive sewers at a later date without cutting Beach Drive's newly-added asphalt.

Rock Creek Park Trail is a big part of the project

As part of the road rehabilitation, the project will resurface and widen parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail in the sections closest to Beach Drive.

The main section of the Rock Creek Park Trail is a 5.2 mile stretch from Peter's Point along the Potomac River, just south of the Roosevelt Bridge, to Broad Branch Road, near the Forrest Hills neighborhood. Another 0.7 mile long section starts north of there at the intersection of Joyce and Beach Drive and then follows Beach to Bingham Drive.

The FHWA work will focus on a piece of the main section from Shoreham Drive just south of Connecticut Avenue to Bluff Bridge just south of Tilden Street.

Changes to several problem areas along the trail, which users have long said were dangerous, will be a signature of the project.

The tunnel that runs under the National Zoo's administration building is currently an unappealing option for cyclists and pedestrians because there is little space set aside for them, and what is there is totally unprotected. As of now, it's the only option for getting through the park when the trail section that runs through the zoo is closed.

To make it more appealing, the FHWA will narrow the travel lanes inside the tunnel and widen the sidewalk from two feet to five feet, with a new 21 inch tall crash-worthy railing. "Cyclists Must Dismount" signs will also go up.


FHWA will widen the sidewalk through the Zoo tunnel. Image from US DOT.

Just south of the Zoo tunnel, the trail currently crosses Rock Creek on a notoriously narrow five foot wide sidewalk. The FHWA will build a new 11 foot wide, 140 foot long bridge just upstream from the existing zoo tunnel bridge that will serve as the new trail bridge. The existing sidewalk will also remain.


Rendering of the new trail bridge adjacent to the Zoo bridge. Image from US DOT.

Another trouble spot is where the trail crosses Shoreham Drive, the ramp that runs from Beach Drive to Calvert. There, trail users must cross two lanes of fast moving traffic on a diagonal crosswalk without the aid of a traffic-control device.


Shoreham Drive intersection and trail reconfiguration

Already improved once less than 10 years ago to remove the old dual crosswalk configuration, the crosswalk will be straightened to take the shortest path across the road. The crosswalk will also be widened to 12 feet, and include a pedestrian island. The trail just north of there will also be straightened, and the intersection with the trail along Cathedral Avenue will get separate paths for those going north or south.

The trail is getting work in other places too

The FHWA will pour new asphalt, straighten the trail in several places, and widen it to ten feet in most places, eight in others (it's currently between six and seven feet wide in most places).

The FHWA will also construct a new trail, running from Porter Street to Bluff Bridge and connecting to a 0.8 mile long trail that DDOT plans to build later along Piney Branch Parkway from Beach to Arkansas Avenue. All trails will be designed for speeds of 18 mph (designated speeds for bikes mostly have to do with the turning radius and the amount of space at turns).

Delays and completion time

The project, promised since before the adoption of the Park's General Management Plan in 2006, has been delayed again this year. Last year WABA announced that these projects would start in the fall of 2015 and then in December the Park Service said they would start this spring, but since then the proposal due date has slipped from November 5th to March 29th, putting them a little less than five months behind, with a "no earlier than" date of August 2016.

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Public Spaces


Mike Feldstein revived Dupont Circle. We'll miss him dearly.

Mike Feldstein, a Dupont Circle ANC 2B commissioner who pushed to make sure we get the most out of our public spaces, passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.


Mike Feldstein. Photo from ANC 2B.

Mike had a full and rewarding career long before he became active in civic affairs in Dupont Circle. A New York native, Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked for the US Agency for International Development and as a policy planning staff member for the State Department. He represented the US around the world, and served as a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

He became involved in the ANC when another remarkable Commissioner, Curt Farrar, had to step down for health reasons. Mike's passion, from day one, was the Circle itself. He was determined to turn an urban park into a vibrant, exciting place once again.

In his quest, he became the Godfather of Dupont Circle.

When Mike was first elected, he told his fellow commissioners, "we should do more with the Circle. Seventy-five years ago, there used to be band concerts out there. There were events happening out there all the time. We should bring it back to life." Of course, we all agreed, but no one had any idea how to bring the Circle back to life.

Except Mike.

He assembled a group of volunteers who shared his vision. They came up with a name: Dupont Festival.

They spent many hours over many months convincing the National Park Service to let them sponsor and hold events in the Circle. This was no easy task, as the folks at NPS entrusted with the park were in no hurry to risk anything. If something went wrong, those bureaucrats would bear the blame. So getting permits for any event was a huge undertaking.

Mike used the World Cup to bring Dupont together

One of the earliest efforts was Soccer in the Circle. Two of his volunteers, Aaron DeNu and Michael Lipin, had the idea of hosting a giant viewing party for the opening of the World Cup in June, 2010. This would involve getting NPS permission to put up two giant screens in the park, and then—after securing permission—raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, and then assembling the manpower to put on the event and clean up immediately afterwards.

Honestly, I don't think anyone on the ANC except Mike Feldstein thought it would ever happen, but we all went along with the idea. After countless meetings, they got NPS to agree to allow use of the park, and then convinced the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association to donate something like fifteen-thousand dollars to help pay for equipment rentals and related expenses. They got FIFA and ESPN to give them the rights to stage an open air broadcast of the cable tv feed. The Screaming Eagles, DC United's booster club, would be volunteer marshals and would handle cleaning up.

On Saturday June 12, 2010, crowds began assembling at 6:30am to watch the first of three games. Because South Africa was the host country, the time difference meant a very, very early start. It was South Korea versus Greece, and the early crowd included large numbers of people from the Korean and Greek communities, including embassy staffs. With the 7 am kickoff, we were pleasantly surprised to see the park packed with people that early in the morning. We had no idea just how packed it would become.


Soccer in the Circle. Photo by David on Flickr.

By the time the third game began at 2pm, the park had been rocking for more than six hours. It was estimated as many as 15,000 people had attended at one time or another. CNN was doing live cut-ins, as was ESPN. All the local stations were there. We were seen literally all around the world on CNN International. The crowd was well-behaved. There was only one arrest, for public intoxication. Every restaurant within shouting distance of the circle ran out of beer and was scrambling for more in the intense heat of that June afternoon.

The US and Britain played to a 1-1 tie, and, immediately after the game ended, the Screaming Eagles began a clean-up blitz. Dozens of them filled plastic garbage bags with whatever trash was left over, even though the crowd had put most everything in trash cans. Within an hour, the park was cleaner than it had been the day before. Timing was crucial, because the match ended at 4:15 pm, and the annual Pride Parade kicked off at 6:30. So the soccer triple-header was only the start of a day-night doubleheader that brought a hundred thousand celebrants to our neighborhood: soccer in the morning and afternoon, and then the Capital Pride Parade. Wow! Just celebrating the day with more than 100,000 of our closest friends!

A finer day there never was.

Soccer was just the start

After the success of Soccer in the Circle, the NPS permits came easier. And, eventually, the Park Service even developed a separate policy for urban parks. Previously, NPS rules, regulations, and policy were pretty much one size fits all, whether we're talking about Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Dupont Circle. Whether the change was a direct result of what was happening at Dupont is not clear, but events like the soccer viewing certainly didn't hurt.

Mike and his Dupont Festival team—Will Stephens, Andy Klingenstein, and Aaron DeNu—made Groundhog Day great again, bringing it to Dupont Circle with the help of Potomac Phil. They found Phil in Miss Pixie's on 14th Street, brought him out of the closet and out of the shadows. We've had band concerts, Shakespeare, dance celebrations, Earth Day, science fairs, and more Soccer in the Circle viewings—both the US Mens and Womens teams—and so much more.

Mike believed strongly that parks and open urban spaces are to be celebrated, cherished, and used. He believed that free events, open to the public, are a way to build community. And he used his vast experience as a State Department official to navigate the bureaucracy and help achieve his goal of restoring Dupont Circle to its role as the center of our neighborhood life.

Mike strongly supported new housing, but wanted to make sure it was done right. "If we delay someone for a few months or a year, that's not always good," he said. "But if we tear something down, it's gone forever. And if we put up something bad, it may last for a hundred years."

Mike strongly supported walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and mass transit options. His New York background made him a dedicated urbanist.

We loved Mike dearly and grieve the loss of a true friend. He was a pleasure just to be with. Kibitzing with Mike was one of life's joys. He leaves behind countless friends, and a legacy of making our neighborhood a better place. He had a vision and made it reality. He was the Godfather of Dupont Circle and he really did bring the Circle back to life.

There will be a celebration of Mike's life later on May 1st, with the location to be determined.

Sustainability


See how much more land is paved now than in 1984

In 2010, there was much more pavement covering more of the region than 26 years earlier. These images from the University of Maryland, highlighted by NASA's Earth Observatory blog, show the change.

The region has grown, in population and in economic activity, and some new impervious surface is a consequence of that. However, the region can grow in ways that minimize impervious surface, by building larger buildings in the core and transit-oriented development around Metro stations. Or it can grow in more environmentally destructive ways, through sprawl.

Some of this new impervious surface reflects already urban places getting denser. That's a good thing; by adding a little impervious surface in Arlington or along Connecticut Avenue, for example, the region saves a greater amount from being built outside the Beltway.

But much of this new surface isn't responsible development. The NASA post points this out, saying,

In addition to the widening of the Beltway, notice how pavement has proliferated in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia and Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland. The District of Columbia was already densely developed in 1984, so the changes there are less noticeable.

The map also doesn't even zoom far enough out to show places like Frederick, Howard, Prince William, Fauquier, and Stafford counties, where the change is even more dramatic, and where even less of the new pavement is in places that are walkable or oriented to transit.

This is an effect of "height-itis"

Week after week, local boards in many jurisdictions make decisions, like taking housing away from the Georgetown Day School project in Tenleytown, which remove a little potential housing in the core. Those choices don't keep even one square foot of land unpaved (and even if they did, it wouldn't be worth the tradeoff), but they do push a little more growth out to where it affects maps like this.

Our region can protect natural resources, but not until people are willing to make them a priority. Until then, this trend will continue.

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

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