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In the four decades after it opened, the National Air and Space Museum has become one of Washington's most well-loved attractions. Its building hasn't aged so well.
The window walls are outdated, skylights leak, the mechanical systems are dying, and the terraces are leaking into the basement car storage. But much worse than that, the stones that clad the building are bowing and cracking, which threaten to make it uninhabitable.
Usually, there's nothing wrong with getting wrinkly at 40, but here, the 12,000 stone panels are pretty much the only thing keeping water out of the building. When they deform, they expose the building to more and bigger leaks. They could also break and fall onto someone.
We think of stone as unfailingly solid. But, like in most buildings built after 1900, the stones at the Air and Space Museum form a veneer that carries no weight. This approach has worked quite well in most cases, but if the stones are too thin, or installed the wrong way, they can deteriorate.
When thin stones fail
The museum's stones are 5 feet long, 2½ feet high, but only 1¼ inches thick. Beginning in the 1950s, engineers and architects tried to apply stone as thinly as possible to make buildings more cost-efficient.
Things went well for denser stones like granite and on buildings in warmer climates. But beginning in the 1970s, spectacular failures started to occur when soft marble covered a building in a cold climate, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki or the Standard Oil Building in Chicago.
Imagine a slab of stone sitting in the sun. One side gets warm from the sunshine, while the other does not. The sunny side expands and contracts differently from the other. If the stone is too thin, the flexing can damage the crystalline structure.
Stone comes to the National Mall
The Air and Space Museum is clad in a stone called "Tennessee pink marble," although it's technically not marble, but a particularly crystallized form of limestone.
John Russell Pope introduced the stone to the National Mall with his 1941 National Gallery of Art. The warm color and faintly glittering texture was a welcome alternative to icy marble, dull limestone, and harsh granite. Because the National Air and Space Museum was across from the National Gallery, the Commission of Fine Arts pushed its architect, Gyo Obata, to match it.
But Pope used stones four to eight inches thick and installed them in a heavy and redundant way. IM Pei's stonework on the 1978 East Wing also had serious problems, but those stones were 3 inches thick and the problems primarily came from the way the stones hung on the building, which the Gallery was able to fix.
That will not be possible at the Air and Space Museum.
Too thin is just the beginning
The panels are pinned together end to end through holes drilled through the stone. As the panels warp at different rates, stainless steel rods apply enormous pressure to an extremely thin layer of stone. The brittle stone is liable to crack and even shed pieces.
The stones also sit on metal rails connected directly to the steel frame, so unlike with the National Gallery buildings, they're subject to the frame's motion. Already by the 1980s the Smithsonian had to widen the joints between the stones to reduce damage.
As the stone cracks, an inner cavity opens to the elements. Normal buildings have a membrane or second wall to prevent moisture from moving through the outer walls. Here, the only protection is foam insulation sprayed onto the inner face of the stone.
Finally, between the stones and walls of the exhibition halls is a large open space that carries used air back to the ventilation system. This means that the thin stones are the only thing between inside and outside. Ironically, reconstruction architect Larry Barr remarked that the constant airflow was probably the only reason there wasn't severe water damage or a mold problem. Moisture could simply never accumulate with the continuous flow of dryer air.
Some solutions are obvious, others require tough choices
The building needs a new facade, new windows, new equipment, and repairs to the terraces. You shouldn't have to renovate a building, let alone a monumental one so soon, but the renovation offers the opportunity to correct 40-year-old mistakes and build for at least another hundred.
In the 1970s, inflation encouraged cost-cutting and buildings were adding elaborate mechanical systems long before their performance was understood. Sustainability was not yet a concern for architects. The museum, which had stalled for two decades, was then rushed to be ready for the 1976 United States Bicentennial and opened days before the 4th of July.
But building technology has improved a lot, so there is a silver lining. Fixing a relatively typical problem like the terrace waterproofing affords the opportunity to replace it with more proven systems, brush up the planting, and improve circulation around the site.
Much better glass technology including durable films to block unwanted radiation, newer seals, and better insulation would make for a better experience on cold days and muggy afternoons. The design team is even considering installing solar panels onto the roof, reducing carbon footprint and partially shading some of the skylights.
Other projects, such as redesigning the entrance for security purposes, offers the opportunity to make the building's entrance more engaging. A similar level of attention could be paid to the Independence Avenue side of the museum, which stands out as particularly pedestrian-unfriendly.
The big decision is how to replace the stone and its supporting system. The museum asked Quinn Evans Architects to prepare for a reconstruction of the exterior, in four options: thicker Tennessee stone, sturdier pink granite, a ceramic system, or titanium. The latter two would bring new materials to the Mall and disrupt the match between this and the National Gallery, but would be more resilient and arguably interpret the building's content better than stone.
The four options are deceptive, because of the wide range of textures possible with each material. Titanium can come in flat, smooth panels, or it can be scalier, like the titanium used on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Ceramic systems, too, can take a wide range of textures and forms. The options go beyond just copying the 2.5' by 5' stones as the rendering above suggests.
In any event, it makes little sense to fret over preserving the architecture. It is not a universally loved building. In a chat about America's landmarks, Stanley Tigerman characterized it as "not even architecturally interesting," pointing out that the building's content occupies a more prominent role in the memory of Americans than the architecture itself
Perhaps a little bit more ambition and thought can mean we needn't repeat this renovation in 2055.
Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.
In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.
Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.
The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.
When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.
By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.
And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.
A block of spacious front yards
Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.
Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.
The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.
Map from the 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas.
An alley out of nowhere
One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.
The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.
From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.
An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek
In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.
Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.
In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.
Indentations in the land mark the ghost road
Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.
The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.
Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.
The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.
1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.
The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.
From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.
The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.
Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.
The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.
The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.
DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.
You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.
The Kennedy Center is getting a great addition, but the design throws a spotlight on the institution's physical isolation from the rest of the city.
The new 60,000-square foot building will include a large base tucked under an intensive green roof and three house-sized pavilions made of glass and ultra-white concrete. Two pavilions would sit on land, while the third would literally float in the Potomac.
The new design cuts the Kennedy Center off from the rest of the city
If I were to pick a word to describe the project, it'd be "islands." To me, the project creates a string of beautiful islands near the Kennedy Center.
Unfortunately, my word choice is also an appropriate metaphor for the Center's relationship with DC's fabric.
In J. G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island, an architect crashes on a London highway, stranding himself alone on a median. Penned in by speeding traffic, he can't leave. Unable to get anyone's attention, he watches as the city hum along without him. He ends up realizing he can't get out and makes do with his tiny domain.
Ballard's story is satire, but it's not that far from what has happened at the Kennedy Center.
On one side of the building, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway's flow keeps the Potomac in sight but out of reach. On the other, a vast highway trench stands between the Center, downtown, and the national memorials. A visitor could spend an evening at the Kennedy Center and come away feeling more tied to Rosslyn than the District.
A beautiful plan proves too expensive
When Congress created the Kennedy Center, federal leaders had a bold vision to disperse the city and rebuild it around a series of highways. The I-66 trench is one of the few parts of that project that ever got built, a small piece of the inner beltway.
Even before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, writers were fighting for a less dislocated site. The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, went after the Center's car-dependent design in a 1965 column. After its construction, proposals to make a connection other than an off-ramp came from every direction for years.
The closest DC has come to bridging the gap between the arts center and downtown came in a 2003 plan designed by Rafael Viñoly. It proposed extending E Street out to a monumental plaza on a deck, with I-66 below. Buildings on each side of the connection would have served two of the Center's most cramped activities: arts education and rehearsal.
But decks over transportation infrastructure are hugely expensive, even for the modest buildings proposed. The plan required $400M in federal funding to reconstruct the intersection, and it would cover only a fraction of the I-66 spaghetti. After the Iraq War, the money dried up and the Kennedy Center decided to make do.
The two land pavilions frame the Lincoln Memorial, but how do you get there? Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.
A more pragmatic design
In 2012, the Center asked New York architect Steven Holl to design a scheme that would at least fulfill its needs for practice facilities, multipurpose rooms, bus parking, and offices. Atop the building, a new park would pull do double-duty as an amphitheater for free simulcasts of performances inside. In general, the spaces support the more diverse cultural offerings that have become the norm for arts institutions since the 1960s.
Plan of the proposed design, oriented so the top part of the map is east. Image from the Kennedy Center.
To connect the Center to the river, a bridge would cross the parkway to the floating pavilion, which would house a cafe and an informal event space. Pedestrians could walk from the Kennedy Center to the trail below, while people walking by could stop in for a show. It's not the grand steps Viñoly's plan imagined, but adding activity to a relatively isolated stretch of the trail might actually be better than building a big bridge that suffocates the trail below.
I think the new building's design would quickly earn it a place among DC's great landmarks. Holl's architecture focuses visitors' attention onto experiences of aspects of the physical world, particularly the ground, sky, water and light. For years, his designs have toyed with how they sit on the ground and how spending time in a particular place changes the one's perception of it. The floating pavilion, with views subject to the tide as much as sunlight, will be a world-class extension of Holl's history.
It's a good project, and it's great that it doesn't get in the way of bigger plans.
An institution can only be as urban as its site.
At the National Capital Planning Commission's December meeting, members criticized the addition for only making a visual connection and nothing more. "It does nothing to tell you that there's an entire city on the other side of that gap," DC's acting director of planning, Ellen McCarthy, said bluntly.
Mina Wright of the US General Services Administration went further, calling the proposal an "opportunity lost to fix some ill-conceived traffic patterns, which will be fixed one day." She brought up her agency's ongoing redesign of the Potomac Hill complex which sits directly across I-66 from the Kennedy Center. To her, the design means giving up on a grander vision and limiting what the GSA can do with its site.
I-66 interchange dwarfs DC's biggest buildings and cultural centers. Image from Bing with edits by the author.
But maybe it's wrong to expect the Kennedy Center to put forth a grand vision for the site. The Viñoly plan offered yet another grand plaza, with swooping roads enabled by even more grade separation. It only solved connectivity issues that were within the Kennedy Center complex; it didn't provide ways for the Kennedy Center to be one point in a richer fabric.
Relying on a prestige project to patch up basic infrastructure, whether it's an arts institution or the Olympics, places a lot of trust in an organization that has narrow goals. The design process would never be as inclusive as it could be if it focused on restoring a lost neighborhood.
Repairing the fabric is already the long-term goal, set by NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts in 2010. The problem is that their plan still assumed a massive deck over a sprawling highway even though the exorbitant costs of a smaller deck sank the last project.
The highway was the problem in 1958, it was the problem in 1971, and it's still the problem. The solution is to replace it with surface streets.
Freeway removal is not the radical idea it was in 2003. There are multiple examples of traffic dissipating into the grid at speeds safer for everyone. That's particularly true if transit substitutes capacity is replaced in a plan like Metro Forward, which would ease Virginia's capacity crunch.
A city-led infill project is the most promising way to put the Kennedy Center back into Washington. There's more potential in the site than just a grand entry. It would give DC a much richer public realm in a neighborhood trying to break out of its beige boxes. The proposed design fits well into a future that corrects the mistakes that got the Kennedy Center stuck on a freeway island.
Holl's watercolor suggests a future bridge across the highway. Can't we do better? Image by the Kennedy Center.
Even as we discuss living in space, vestiges of the past are all around us. Neighborhoods are have reclaimed call boxes, named restaurants after area founders, and installed heritage trail markers. Giving history center stage puts life today into proper perspective.
Centuries before wrist watches or mobile phones helped us keep our schedules or Twitter gave us the news, sextons tolled church bells to tell everyone what time it was. Some churches in downtown Washington still ring their bells today, but in Anacostia, the oldest church bell tolls no more.
Built in 1879 at the corner of Washington & Fillmore Streets (now 13th & V Street SE), Saint Teresa of Avila is the oldest surviving church east of the river.
While the church remains an integral part of the neighborhood's social fabric, a bell in its rear hasn't been struck for years, according to conversations with a number of local residents.
In 1893, 14 yeas after St. Teresa's opened, the congregation acquired a bell so it could tell the community it was holding services. With no place to install the bell atop the church, St. Teresa's built a wooden tower in the rear, and with the aid of horses, a crude winch, and a series of pulleys, raised the bell to the top. The city ruled the wooden tower a fire hazard in 1965, which led to the construction of a concrete and steel bell mount. The bell rests in that mount today.
"In former days bells were endowed with a large measure of personality, and were popularly supposed to be in league with the spirits of the air and other supernatural agencies," reported the New York Times in the late 19th century. "In consequence of such beliefs many of the old cathedral bells in England and on the Continent of Europe have some fine legends or fanciful stories connected with them in which they are made to play the part of good angels or ministering spirits with voices of warning or of hope and cheer to the children of men."
I've heard many stories about the St. Teresa bell over the years. Earlier this year, a nonagenarian fondly recalled to me that as a child, when the lamplighters came around and the evening bell rang at St. Teresa, it was cue to go home. Others have recalled that in early April 1968, the bell rang simultaneously with small-scale riots breaking out on Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road. More recent history agrees that the bell rang up until the mid-1980s and that new church leadership along with noise complaints from some of the neighborhood led to it being discontinued.
"One of the blessings about the Historic District and my block in particular was the abundance of places of worship," writes Angela Copeland, a resident of the 1300 block of W Street SE and administrator of the Great Ward Eight Facebook page. "When I first moved here, there used to be several religious parades conducted by multiple churches including St. Teresa. I don't see them so much anymore. I've visited St. Teresa. It's historic value to the neighborhood and the District's Catholic community cannot be overstated."
With the neighborhood slowly regenerating and being reborn, appeals to Anacostia's history are everywhere
If you've walked through Lanier Heights in recent years, it's clear that new construction has changed the neighborhood. Some residents want to change zoning laws to limit that trend, while others welcome it. Both groups faced off at a meeting on Tuesday.
Over the past five years or so, multi-unit condos known as pop-ups have replaced a number of single-family row houses in Lanier Heights. Several more of these projects are already under way, making it clear that pop-ups are the trend in the quiet, residential neighborhood.
Some long-time residents are mad as hell about it, saying pop-ups block sunlight and crowd yard space. They contend that buildings block views, damage historic row houses, and make it hard to find parking on the street. The result, they argue, is that it's much harder for families with children to live in the neighborhood.
Those who support pop-ups say that people's rights to build onto their property, which can increase its value, shouldn't be limited. They also point out that expanding houses or converting them into multiple units increases the city's dwindling housing supply.
A change in Lanier Heights' zoning laws would limit pop-ups
To stop future pop-ups, these residents have proposed a change to Lanier Heights' zoning designation. They want to downzone the neighborhood from R-5-B, which allows property owners to build to the back and the front of their lot and up to 50 feet in height, to R-4, which would limit the number of units in a row house to two as well as put a cap on how much of its lot construction can occupy.
Neighbors Against Downzoning has officially rejected the proposed zoning change, and at Tuesday's meeting residents added a number of additional reasons not to downzone.
Some pointed out the technical failings of R-4, citing ways developers could get around the proposed restriction. An architect in the audience voiced his opposition, saying that the difference between R-5 and R-4 is too minor to warrant changing. "We're fighting over 10 feet," he explained. Many lots in Lanier Heights aren't even eligible for R-5 development, making the debate a moot point for much of the neighborhood.
Others voiced broader opposition to restricting development. "I agree, we have a problem," one resident said. "However, I don't agree that downzoning is the solution. I believe in density, I believe in growth, I believe in diversity, and I think this downzoning will have unintended consequences."
"We're in the middle of a housing crisis in this city, and downzoning will only exacerbate that," another resident said.
He was not the only one to point out that many row homes in Lanier Heights neighborhood are valued at over $1 million, making them financially out of reach for many of the young families residents claim to want. Several younger residents explained that owning a home in Lanier Heights simply would not have been possible were it not for the smaller, more affordable condos available in pop-up buildings.
A solution could come in the form of a new type of zoning
While most residents are interested in protecting Lanier Heights' historic row homes, what became clear at the meeting is that R-4 downzoning is a far-from-perfect solution. ANC 1C commissioners brought up conservation districts and historic preservation designations as other possible solutions, but acknowledged that each has its downsides.
There's rumor that the DC Office of Planning's zoning rewrite will put forth a new zoning designation that would essentially fall between R5 and R4, and that might be an ideal compromise. But given how drawn out the zoning update has been, it's anyone's guess when the new code will go into place.
Neighbors should work to establish common goals
ANC Commissioner Marty Davis suggested a next step that's practical for all parties. "The one thing this neighborhood doesn't have," he said, "is a plan saying 'This is what we like. This is what we want Lanier Heights to be.' Help us make that plan by going to http://www.envisionadamsmorgan.org and expressing your opinion."
Davis encouraged everyone in Adams Morgan to join a community-wide meeting about these and other zoning issues on January 24.
As for downzoning, ANC1C will deliberate and vote on the substance of Lanier Heights' zoning proposals on Wednesday, December 3rd at 7:00 PM at Mary's Center. If you live in the neighborhood and have an opinion on the matter, come to that meeting to share your thoughts with the commission.
How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.
Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighborhoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.
Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.
Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.
Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.
Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.
Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at email@example.com.
The organizers behind the 11th Street Bridge Park have picked a design that could be the city's most brilliant piece of architecture in decades. Now comes the hard part: making this vision work in a spot surrounded by water rather than homes and businesses.
The winning proposal concentrates activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. All images from the design team.
From a field of four competitors, the jury picked a design team led by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), best known in the United States for the Seattle Public Library, and landscape architect OLIN Studios, which designed Canal Park near the Nationals ballpark and will renovate Franklin Park downtown. Together, they created a design that can do what the bridge park's organizers wanted: reconnect neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia to the river and each other.
In the best case scenario, someone walking along the Anacostia up from Poplar Point in summer 2018 would see the riverbanks rise gently for hundreds of feet, crossing to form an X shape. At first glance, it's simple: almost like two logs falling across a stream, some kind of primitive bridge. But up close, the renderings and plans show a string of spaces that would appeal to people across the city.
The design creates iconic spaces and helps reconnect Anacostia to the river
From a functional perspective, it's best to look at the design like it's an extension of the ground on either bank. A long bar from Capitol Hill interlocks with a loop from Anacostia, making the bridge feel like an outgrowth of the banks and not a discrete transitional space. Multiple programs fill in the in between space. Some are shady and enclosed, like the amphitheater, while others are open and dramatic, like the overlook.
The designers also chose to place the anchor elements, like the environmental education center, the cafe, and the playground, closer to the Historic Anacostia side. One reason is to encourage more people to visit the east bank, which I-295 cuts off from the river.
Anacostia also needs those activities more, especially the play space. They will serve a basic need while also generating the traffic that makes parks feel safe. What's better is that the environmental education center has eyes on both the main deck and the secluded space below it.
As the section above shows, the cafe also sits between levels, so someone sitting on the upper lawn can see through the restaurant and onto the environmental center's boat launch below.
The other elements, like the dramatic overlook, the main plaza, and the amphitheater sit closer to the Navy Yard. These are iconic attractions, for tourists, local bikers passing by, and I suspect even weddings, like at New York's equally dramatic Fort Tryon Park.
Finally, the ecological design is appropriately balanced. Along the main paths are spaces that people can play on. They're visible, but not in the way are the hands-off landscapes, like wetlands, oyster banks, and swales to filter rainwater. OLIN found a way to integrate ecological urbanism into the project without compromising the people habitat. They even proposed a wooded berm to block out traffic noise from I-295.
The project reflects the sophistication of the designers, who have shown that they can stand up to criticism and push their designs as the demands of money, politics and gravity weigh down their vision.
Public input can help this bridge soar
How will the organizers and their team face down the remaining challenges? Some are design issues, as competition entries are never quite figured out, and designers often fill renderings with aspirational eye candy. I think the public can help in this case by identifying those problems constructively and allowing the design team the room to solve them.
Scott Kratz, the man behind the bridge, has done that. He deserves commendation for the long-running and effective public outreach that formed the foundation of the competition designs. Respecting residents as experts in their own lives and the designers as experts in their fields, he has arrived at something that could work well. More of that is ideal.
The bigger challenge is getting people there. This bridge is in the middle of the river, with the Navy Yard at one end and a highway interchange at the other before reaching nearby neighborhoods. That means there's little of the incidental activity that helps public spaces like this to be busy and safe.
New infill development could help, like the planned Maritime Plaza along the river on the north side. So would the redevelopment of Poplar Point, if it ever happens. Even without those, adding more destination activities to the nearby riverbanks, as in the WRT/NEXT design for the bridge, might have the same effect.
If the city builds the streetcar across the river, including a stop at the bridge park, it would open easy access to the park up beyond the immediate neighbors.
But a growing appeal around the park could cause a rise in rents and influx of expensive retail, displacing the groups the bridge was meant to serve. The four or so years before the park opens could be spent developing strategies to add housing diversity without disrupting lives and preventing the poor from enjoying the benefits of good urbanism and great architecture. The bridge has been an excellent catalyst for design, perhaps it can also be a great catalyst for social policy.
In Washington, some people criticize proposed buildings or developments to kill them and preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, designers criticize something with the hope of refining it. What can we refine with the 11th Street Bridge Park? Now is the time to start talking.
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