Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Architects try to spruce up NoMA's underpasses

Projectors could shine interactive art or sign language shapes on the walls of NoMa's underpasses. Large sculptures made of LEDs could give visual interest to the ceilings and walls. Ten teams of architects envisioned ways (some dubious) to illuminate and enliven the tunnels where K, L, and M streets and Florida Avenue cross under the railroad tracks.


Image by Citelum US.

The NoMa Parks Foundation, which is affiliated with the local BID, is conducting a design competition for the underpasses. Now, these are dark and unexciting spaces; while they will still be underpasses, NoMa hope to make them more appealing ones.

If successful, they also could help knit together both sides of the railroad tracks by creating some concrete sense of place adjacent to the urban fabric on either side, instead of just a dead zone. Some of the architects seem to have devised interesting ways of doing that; others perhaps missed the mark.

K Street

K Street is one of the hardest. It has narrow sidewalks flanking four lanes of car traffic. Relatively few pedestrians cross here.

Some of the designers seem to have embraced the car-oriented nature of this underpass and don't really try to create a pleasant pedestrian space, while others think more broadly.


All photos from the NoMa BID created by the respective architect teams.

United Visual Artists proposes linear lines of light that visually extend the street grid through the underpass. It's simpleperhaps too simple.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO uses the many columns which hold up the bridge between the lanes of traffic to create a moving zoetrope effect. This seems like a terrible idea as it only works at high speed, making it clearly geared to the driver and not the pedestrian, but at the same time, would distract drivers who need to be watching the road.

Some cities including New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Kiev have put images like this in their subway tunnels (sometimes as ads). That seems like a much smarter location since riders aren't operating the train.

CINIMOD + Studio LDVC + TALL designed a series of arcs around each end of the underpass which gradually line up to form a geometric ovoid shape as you approach the underpass. This seems like it would work well at pedestrian scale and speed and give more of a sense of the underpass being something to go to instead of merely through.

L Street

In contrast to K Street, L Street has very wide sidewalks but just two lanes of traffic. This creates far more opportunities to do something with this space. This also is the underpass with the most submissions (five).

A rendering from the NoMa Public Realm Plan showed the area packed with good-looking stock photo people like a rave is going on or something. In reality, this will still basically be a sidewalk between places, but the teams tried to make it a sidewalk you want to go to.

Narduli Studio devised a clever idea: a series of cameras that take photographs of the pedestrians and cyclists walking by, then project silhouettes of them on the wall that gradually fade over time. This would create a continuity between who is here now and who was here before, populating the underpass with the people from the past. When trains rumble overhead, the light pattern will add waves to represent sound.

Future Cities Lab (top above) and Mik Young Kim both created variants on the "make something artistic out of LEDs." Future Cities designed a weaving truss while MYK shaped them into a tree that will change color. The tree idea could give some natural feel to a place that is very utilitarian.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO, the people who also suggested the zoetrope, suggest suspending rods overhead that will sway back and forth to make it look like it's raining. I fear making people feel like they're out in the elements in bad weather is not a good way to make an underpass a welcoming space.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber's idea is to turn a wide sidewalk into what's effectively a much narrower one by building a big wooden structure with vertical poles that make a gentle arc. It's visually interesting, but makes both the center and side sections vary in width, constraining pedestrian and bicycle flow.

M Street

All three of designs for M Street are based on LED light strips.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber have another of their space-eating wooden structures.

Synthesis + Architecture & Moritz Waldemeyer would suspend some long lines of webbing. This also seems to cut down significantly on the space available for walking.

Meanwhile, Mik Young Kim (which proposed the tree of light for L Street) suggests an undulating "energy field" along the ceiling and wall, with sections popping out to form benches.

This one looks interesting, so much so that their rendering shows all of the pedestrians gawking at the ceiling but getting in the way of others. Also, apparently people would take photos of models on bicycles inside the underpass.

Florida Avenue

Citelum US's proposal, called "Luminous Aether," does the most to link the underpasses to the concept of parkland (which is very scarce in NoMa and was part of the impetus for the competition). Projections on the walls would rotate between the concepts of air, water, earth, and fire, each interacting as people walk past.

The proposal by Dulio Passariello + Ray King would project six hands on each wall making the American Sign Language letters for F-L-O-R-I-D-A. A background projection would change color throughout the day as speakers play the music of Duke Ellington and the sounds of a Florida beach.

This, especially the hands, goes the furthest to relate to the actual surrounding community as Florida Avenue connects the Metro station to Gallaudet University. Unfortunately, the Gallaudet community has not been involved in the process thus far, so this might need changes to comply with guidelines about the light and color necessary for deaf persons to see each other sign in the underpass.

Which do you like?

Overall, the CINMOD light circles (K Street), Narduli persistent mural (L Street), Mik Young Kim energy field (M Street), and Passariello sign language mural (Florida Avenue) seem best. I also really like the Citelum "Luminous Aether" projections, and perhaps that could go on one of the other underpasses (like K Street, whose designs aren't the most exciting). It's also worth considering using the Mik Young Kim tree instead of the energy field for M Street if there is room.

It's a little disappointing that so many of the designs focused on LED light strips or projections. While it's perhaps natural that designs for underpasses would be about light, they also could do more to create actual places for people to go.

Update: Tony Goodman, ANC commissioner for the area, wrote in an email:

In general I think that the designs should be brighter and more cheerful, while avoiding new obstructions that block pedestrian and bicyclist flow. For L & M Streets there should be more opportunities for people to sit, linger talk and sign as M Street especially is an increasingly popular meeting place for people in the neighborhood.

This project is entirely within public space and paid for with public money, so it's essential that the community is more involved in the implementation than they have been in this RFP process so far.

What do you think?

The roads don't work, and neither do the sidewalks: How Maryland has failed Wilson Bridge cyclists

Want to ride a bike from Virginia to DC via the Wilson Bridge Trail? Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. Thanks to poor planning and neglect, it's far easier said than done.


This sidewalk gap between Harborview and National Avenues is filled with loose gravel. Photos by the author.

Biking into DC from Alexandria and Fairfax, you ride across the Wilson Bridge and onto a trail. Then, official maps show a bike route which involves a few turns to reach the DC-295 corridor.

However, to do that, cyclists either have to make an illegal left turn on the road. Taking the sidewalk is no better, because there are large gaps in the sidewalk full of gravel which are difficult to ride on.


The bike route to the Wilson Bridge. Image edited by the author from Google Maps.

How the connection is supposed to work

You can see the bike route in the above map. It first continues parallel to Harborview Avenue (A) and ends at Oxon Hill Road. From there, you should be able to turn left onto Oxon Hill (B), left onto Bald Eagle Road (C), and then hit an access road (E) that leads to the Oxon Hill Farm Bike Trail (F) toward DC Water, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the US Naval Research Lab, and a handful of neighborhoods.

But here's the problem: Northbound cyclists on Oxon Hill Road can't legally turn left onto Bald Eagle Road (C). To get to Bald Eagle, they must either make an illegal left turn, continue up Oxon Hill and detour via Indian Head Highway (a major road), or ride north in the southbound Oxon Hill Road bike lane.

The other option is to ride on the sidewalk that runs along the west side of Oxon Hill Road. But even if we set aside that we're talking about having no choice but to bike on the sidewalkwhich shouldn't ever be the casethere are two unfinished driveways on Oxon Hill that cross the sidewalk route, each leaving a vertical drop of about four inches.

Roots of the problem

These problems aren't random. They're the result of decisions made by the National Park Service and, more recently, the Maryland State Highway Authority.

In 2010, NPS blocked an effort to create a direct bicycle and pedestrian route along I-295 between the bridge and DC Water's home on Overlook Avenue. Such a trail would eliminate this entire problem altogether, and its absence undermines the Wilson Bridge Trail's value.

As for the Maryland SHA, there is no left turn option from Oxon Hill Road onto Bald Eagle because of a 2013 SHA project to open Oxon Hill Farm Road, which created a shortcut to allow freeway traffic from the westbound Beltway to bypass Indian Head Highway en route to southbound Oxon Hill Road.

Deciding to do this meant not building Oxon Hill Farm Road to connect Forest Heights, Sachem Drive, and surrounding neighborhoods. And another Oxon Hill sidewalk gap, this one between National and Bald Eagle, has been left for so long that dirt and vegetation are beginning to stabilize the gravel.

Both issues show the SHA's underlying culture of neglect for neglect for cyclists and pedestrians.

One Fairfax cyclist, Paul Bernhardt, has found his own solution to the problem: Rather than commuting to work along Oxon Hill Road, he simply rides along the I-295 shoulder. Bernhardt's willingness to take such a dangerous route to avoid the mess around Oxon Hill Road pretty much says it all.

"I'm not going to ride two extra miles up and down a big hill just because they were too stupid to build the trail. I'm riding where the trail should have been in the first place."

What parts of the Washington region do you think are Great Places?

The American Planning Association just named Adams Morgan and Pennsylvania Avenue to its list of "Great Places in America." If you were choosing their list, what places would you pick? They would like to know.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

A variety of factors makes a place great. The best places are visually stimulating, are vibrant gathering places, and accommodate many different people doing different things. They are economic stimuli for communities and encourage personal contact. They also reflect of the culture of their communities.

Pennsylvania Avenue made this year's list of Great Streets for its "mix of civic spaces, public buildings, monuments, parks, local government, residences, hotels, theaters, and museums," and its role hosting "historic events such as presidential inaugurations, state funerals, and protests, marches, and celebrations."


Photo by Khaz on Flickr.

Adams Morgan is on the list of Great Neighborhoods for its "colorful storefronts and iconic rowhouses, ... community murals, ... international shops, restaurants, annual festivals, weekly farmers markets, and nightlife." Also, its 2012 streetscape project "improved the streets for pedestrians and added bicycle lanes, Capital Bikeshare stations, and bike racks" along with the Circulator and Metro.

APA's annual lists of ten Great Streets, ten Great Neighborhoods, and ten Great Public Spaces always generate discussion and controversy. So this year, the association is doing something a little different by asking you to suggest your own great places.

What places would you nominate? Please tell us in the comments and we will share the list with APA. You can also tweet or Instagram your nomination using the tag #MyGreatPlace.

A different kind of "fantasy map": DC, Tolkien-style

Here's a fun way to look at a map of a familiar place. Following the style of maps in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth novels, Stentor Danielson created this map showing DC and nearby parts of Maryland and Virginia as a land of strongholds, villages, and countryside.


A fantasy-novel inspired map of DC. Drawing by Stentor Danielson. Click for larger version.

The "River Potomac" and the mighty forest of Rock Creek Park are some of the biggest features.

Neighborhoods show up as villages, and points of interest get medieval-looking icons. The Pentagon is drawn as a castle and, curiously, so is Union Station. The Washington Monument looks like something Rapunzel would live in. The National Observatory replaces its atomic clock with a stone circle à la Stonehenge.

Notably missing is any of the region's major highways, bridges, or roads. Metro probably doesn't run either in Middle-Earth DC, which would probably make commutes feel like a journey to Mordor.

What do you notice?

Hat tip to io9 for discovering this fun map.

Join us at the 2014 Smart Growth Social

For October, the Greater Greater Washington happy hour comes to DC's Eastern Market, with a twist. We're joining up with the Coalition for Smarter Growth for their 2014 Smart Growth Social where you can enjoy drinks and pupusas and talk with Gabe Klein!


Gabe Klein. Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

The event is at Eastern Market, 225 7th St SE, from 6:30-8:30 pm on Wednesday, October 15. It does require a $25 ticket, which you can buy at the door or online. For that $25 you get unlimited local beer, wine, and pupusas from La Plaza (not so different from what you might spend on drinks and food at a regular happy hour); plus, it supports a good cause.

Many readers will recognize the Coalition for Smarter Growth's staff as regular contributors. Their small staff of six work for more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented places across the Greater Washington region.

There will also be a raffle for a copy of Cards Against Urbanity, but the biggest attraction for Greater Greater readers might be meeting Gabe Klein, DC's and Chicago's former transportation director, who'll be the event's special guest.

Eastern Market is a two-minute walk from the Eastern Market Metro station (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines) and there are two Capital Bikeshare stations nearby, at the Metro and at 7th and North Carolina. From Union Station or Navy Yard, you can also take the DC Circulator, or there's Metrobus 90, 92, and 30s routes.

Our happy hour moves to a different part of the region each month. In recent months, we've been to downtown DC, Arlington, and Silver Spring. Next month, we'll be back in Virginia. Let us know in the comments where you'd like us to go!

The region needs to hear the call to action on climate change

400,000 peopleor 0.1% of the US populationflooded the streets of New York City for the recent People's Climate March. But if we're to make a difference, the outpouring of support for action on climate change needs to translate to action locally.


Photo by Climate Action Network.

With the evidence, and the movement for serious action on climate change, growing every day, it's the moment for those of us in the DC region working for more sustainable, inclusive cities to push for change. In order to act globally, we have to work locally.

The march was led by those hit first and worst by climate change, from Superstorm Sandy survivors to Pacific Islanders. That's because climate change is no longer a problem of the future, but one that is unraveling before us with each extreme weather event. The derecho delivered that wakeup call to the DC region, while new reports continue to highlight the vulnerabilities of our region to storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise.

In recent years, climate change has moved far beyond the domain of liberals into the center of concern for such mainstream institutions as the US military, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Washington Post editorial board. That's because many are waking to the fact that climate change is quite possibly the biggest threat to human existence that we have ever faced.


Photo by Climate Action Network... on Flickr.

And yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence, we continue to fail to muster the political will to do much of anything about it. That's where this community has a huge role to play.

We know the role that smart, compact development and sustainable transportation options can play in cutting carbon emissions; report after report has documented how our transportation and land use decisions taken together could make an enormous difference.

Today, the average household in a dense, transit-oriented household emits approximately half as much carbon as a household in low density suburban development. With transportation and buildings together making up approximately 70% of regional emissions, steering more development toward compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods is critical.


Energy Consumption by Housing Type and Location. Image from Jonathan Rose Companies LLC and the EPA.

At the same time, the general public intuitively understands that those living in a walkable, urban community typically drive less, live in and have to heat or cool less space, own less stuff, and generally use less energy in their overall lifestyle.


Photo by Dan Alcalde on Flickr.

But of course, it's always easier to agree on solutions in theory than to agree with how to implement them in practice. Urbanists see this multiplied tens and hundreds of times over again, whether it's traffic engineers insisting we need to build ever more road capacity while shrinking biking and walking amenities, like with MCDOT's plans for White Flint. Or neighbors preventing more people from living near transit where they could drive and emit less, like at Takoma station.

These battles we fight throughout the region sometimes seem small, but added up and multiplied over time, their outcomes will mean a huge difference in our region's contribution to climate change.

We also of course need to try to pull the larger political levers available to us. The Transportation Planning Board (TPB) forecasts that it will not meet the climate change goals that the region has agreed to in its transportation plans. They say transportation emissions will continue to rise till 2040, but per capita emissions will fall. Unfortunately, the climate is not concerned with how we slice and dice the numbers so long as more carbon is pouring into the atmosphere.

A recent report by ITDP is one of the few that has mustered the courage to suggest and actually model what so obviously needs to happen: stop investing in new road capacity, and make major investments in transit, walking, and cycling infrastructure. Not surprisingly, transportation emissions would dramatically fall 40% more than following a car-centric pattern, while also happening to save the world economy $100 trillion. With 1200 new lane miles for cars in the pipeline in this region, now is the time to get serious about shifting investments away from new carbon-intensive infrastructure, and towards sustainable transportation options.


"HS" refers to ITDP's "High Shift" scenario that would entail major shifts of public investment away from car-oriented infrastructure and to walking, cycling, and transit infrastructure. Image from ITDP.

It's likely that most people aren't thinking about climate change and humanity's future when debating that new sidewalk that might tear up their lawn, or that new bus lane that might slightly lengthen their commute, and it's hard to blame them. That's why in decisions large and small, it's our job to invite our fellow residents, planners, bureaucrats, and elected officials to join us in looking at the big picture.

Too often, conversations over land use and transportation issues devolve into petty and self-interested fights. It's difficult to flip a switch and change in an instant all of the car-oriented infrastructure we've built over the last 50 years.

But if we all call on our neighbors, traffic engineers, and elected officials to pick their heads up out of the weeds and join us in taking on the biggest issue of our time, one sidewalk, bike lane, and affordable transit-oriented development at a time, we just might do our part in the biggest fight of our lives.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of 350.org and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.

Support Us