Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth


This federal building is missing a corner. Here's why

The Department of Agriculture South Building an archetypal federal building: big, beige, and boxy. But it's missing a corner. Why? The L'Enfant Plan and a street that no longer exists.

The South Building, with the Jamie L. Whitten Building to the north. Image from Google Maps.

The South Building's fašade stands about 30 feet back from Independence Avenue. The south entrance to the Smithsonian metro stop fits so cozily into the corner, it almost looks as if the notch was built just for it. Of course, that doesn't square with the history.

This building was an exercise in making efficient use of the land. Unlike Federal Triangle, or Southwest's modernist buildings, its walls run right up to the property line. With long, thin wings connected at the perimeter, the South Building was as efficient as an office building could be before air conditioning.

When completed in 1936, it was the largest office building in the world. Only the Pentagon would unseat it. On Independence Avenue, its facade runs for 900 feet of beige brick and green-painted steel.

The architect, Louis Simon, wouldn't have built the setback if he didn't have to. Looking at a satellite photo provides no clues. But, if you look at an older satellite photo, the reason becomes obvious.

The South Building in and its context in 2012. The missing corner is on the left side of the image.

The South Building in and its context in 1941.

Pierre L'Enfant's Virginia Avenue slightly clips the block. You can't see it now, because urban renewal replaced that section of Virginia Avenue with bas-relief urbanism and highway ramps. Ironically, the sightline the architects so carefully avoided was erased thirty years later.

And this brings up the last reason it's so mysterious: the architects went out of their way to hide the difference between the corners. Rather than clipping it diagonally along the property line, Simon's team designed an orthogonal setback that seemed like it was the natural place for the wall.

With two pedestrian bridges and a long walk in between each corner, it's really hard to notice the difference. I wouldn't have noticed it had it not come up in the dispute over the Eisenhower Memorial's setbacks.

For now, it's another one of DC's carefully hidden quirks, like the off-axis position of the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial sitting slightly to the south where Maryland Avenue would be. As Southwest is rebuilt, and Virginia Avenue returns, the purpose of the notch will become more clear.


Could rooftop apartments transform suburban retail?

Suburban retail areas are redeveloping into mixed use neighborhoods all over the DC region. Usually redevelopment means mid-rises replace single-story retail, but could another model work? What if retail strips added rooftop apartments?

Concept rendering. All images by the author.

From more livable communities to less congested highways, mixed-use development has many benefits, and is in high demand. In places where market demand or zoning regulations prohibit larger scale mid-rises, maybe innovative design can help bring those benefits too.

Imagine a row of small apartments added to a big box store's roof. Let's explore how that might work, using the Safeway supermarket in Seven Corners as a test subject.

The Safeway, as it exists now.

Since the building is so wide, a narrow second story near the back would be completely invisible from the front. Thus, the building can accommodate apartments with minimal to no effect on the store's appearance.

What could fit?

The rear wall of this Safeway is long enough to fit 10 apartments, each 25 feet long, with a gap in the middle to provide access to stairs. The paved area behind the store is wide enough to accommodate stairs and a narrow parking lane for residents, with enough room left over for two vehicles to pass each other.

A terrace in front of the apartments acts as a walkway, providing access to each unit. Rows of windows high on the front wall bring sunlight in without compromising privacy or subjecting residents to views of the store's roof.

Inside, each unit is a 300 square foot efficiency style apartment.

These apartments may not be luxurious, but maybe that's OK. Given rising demand for mixed-use living, apartments like these could provide scarce affordable housing to tenants who want to walk to shopping areas. Perhaps retail workers at the very stores below might be able to live here.

Meanwhile, nearly invisible apartments atop strip malls might conceivably face less opposition from surrounding communities than large new buildings. Or maybe not; that's hard to predict. But new housing has to go somewhere, and it's better if we can fit more of it in existing communities. Maybe this is a way to do that.

Is this actually realistic?

There are clearly challenges to making an idea like this work.

First, the structural challenge. Since the roof wasn't designed to support a second story, the building would likely need structural reinforcement. That's unlikely to happen in a functioning supermarket that's open to customers. But it may be practical during renovations, for adaptive reuse, or in new buildings.

Second, the regulatory challenge. Many suburban retail strips are retail-only because that's what the zoning allows. Since it often takes years to go through the difficult process of getting zoning approval for mixed-use, it's often only worth developers' trouble for large projects.

Finally, the developer challenge. Developers often specialize in one type of project. Toll Brothers builds suburban houses, Abdo builds urban mixed-use mid-rises, Macerich specializes in shopping malls. It would likely take a special case for a suburban retail developer to take on apartments, or an apartment developer to build a big box.

But people used to cite similar challenges as impediments to New Urbanism, and it's booming. Where there's a will, there's a way.

And there could be a will. Demand for convenient mixed-use living keeps growing, while our cities keep getting more and more expensive. Something is going to have to give. This idea could provide affordable housing that's walkable to convenient destinations.

It just takes a little creativity. And, maybe, a small scale pilot project or two.

Public Spaces

With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro's Silver Line isn't the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.

All photos by Dan Malouff except where noted.

The Plaza (that's its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.

The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo by Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn't open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There's no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.

Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).

Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it's clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren't welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It's a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It's not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


More households near transit mean more transit riders

Pop quiz! Can you name the 5 Metro stations that have the highest number of households within a half-mile walk?

Here's a hint: More riders walk to those 5 stations each morning than to just about any others in the system.

It's not a coincidence. According to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, "the more people can walk to transit, the more people do walk to transitand data across Metrorail stations prove it."

But there's at least one surprise: 3 of the 5 stations with the most households in a half-mile walkshed are in Maryland or Virginia, not the District.

Households and walk ridership per Metro station. Image by WMATA.

Columbia Heights has by far the most households within walking distance. That makes sense. It's one of DC's densest neighborhoods, and the Metro station is right near its center.

But the second most household-rich Metro station is Arlington's Court House. Rounding out the top 5 are Ballston, Silver Spring, and Dupont Circle.

All 5 of the most household-rich stations are also among the top 10 stations with the most riders who walk to the station each morning. The rest of the top 10 walking stations are Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Bethesda.

More riders may be walking to jobs from the downtown stations, or from Rosslyn, but those are the destinations, where riders in the morning are getting off. The origin stations are the more residential ones.

All in all, Metro's stations fit neatly along a trendline that shows a strong correlation between more households nearby and more riders arriving to stations by foot.

Even the outliers tell a story. U Street and Mount Vernon Square have the 6th and 7th highest number of households nearby, but they underperform on walking Metro ridership. One might speculate that Mount Vernon Square is so close to so many offices that more people simply walk. U Street is a little farther away, but it's still close enough to downtown that buses and bicycles may be better options for a large portion of riders.

What else pops out as interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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