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History


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.


Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.


Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.

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Development


To get ideas for reusing the historic Franklin School building, DC can look to Newark, NJ

The Franklin School, at 13th and K NW, is an iconic DC building, but it has been vacant and abandoned since 2008. On a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, I got a glimpse of another use for old, historic buildings.


The Franklin School building. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Designed and built in the 1860s by Adolph Cluss, who also designed Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the Franklin building has a Great Hall that could seat 1,000. It was the centerpiece for DC's public education system—its big windows for light, along with roomy and airy spaces, made for a great learning environment—as well as a resource for community concerts, exhibitions, and public meetings.

Before being abandoned, the building most recently served as a homeless shelter. Mayor Vincent Gray pushed to renovate it, but when Mayor Muriel Bowser became mayer she reversed course and put the proposals on hold. Though Bowser solicited new proposals in October 2015, she has not provided any timeline for review and decision making.

Throughout the 2000s, the DC Council had multiple opportunities to make the building eligible to lease or sell but failed to do so. A 2005 deal to turn Franklin School into a hotel fell through because the proposed lease wasn't valid, and the discussion over what to do with the building has been plagued by a lack of focus, transparency, and analysis of redevelopment options, the kind of thing that can keep proposals with a lot of merit from ever even coming forward.

It's not as if we don't know how to preserve important historic structures. It took just two years after a 2007 fire at Eastern Market for the neighborhood jewel to reopen: Local firm Quinn Evans Architects replaced the roof while retaining many of the original iron trusses, and added sustainability features including high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, high-performance glazing, and stormwater filtration.
Thinking creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents is an essential task for every city and town.

So why have we struggled with the Franklin building so much?

Here's what Newark did with its equivalent of the Franklin School building

If I could, I'd take some of DC's leaders on a field trip to Newark, New Jersey to visit the Hahne & Company department store building.


Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

There, a truly collaborative effort between the City of Newark, Rutgers University - Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase has resulted in an old icon (a former star of local retail, it's been in disrepair for 30 years) becoming the centerpiece of Newark's recovering downtown.


Construction workers inside a gutted Hahne building. Photo from L&M Development.

During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed use, mixed-income space will be open to its first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready.

The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open this spring. Rutgers University - Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. The project has put nearly every relevant tax credit to use—historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight—4-stories above the central atrium—is being meticulously restored to its former glory.


Rendering from L&M Development.

As it turns out, Newark is a hotbed of preservation and reuse. Not far from the Hahne building, a similar coalition is nearly finished renovating the former American Insurance Company tower into a building that will have both retail and residential uses. When it comes to historic preservation, partnerships across sectors, and creating new housing, these projects are transformative.

In Newark, preservationists and other key stakeholders are taking full advantage of the assets they have available—60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents.

Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place—a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through—that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town. In the nation's capital, we have plenty of opportunities to apply these lessons.

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Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

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Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

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Architecture


Here are some ideas for designing NoMa's new park

The NoMa Parks Foundation just bought two acres on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for a new large park. There are great examples of how to use the space all over DC and beyond.


The site of NoMa's new park next to the MBT. Image by the author.

"People want an area for informal recreation and relaxation," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), on the initial ideas for the park when it announced the $14 million deal earlier in January. "Something beautiful, something that really integrates with the Metropolitan Branch Trail."

There are many features that the NoMa Green, as it is tentatively called, could include. A connection between Q Street NE and the trail will almost certainly be a part of the park. Also, a flexible space like a lawn that could be used for a variety of needs, like the NoMa Summer Screen and various seasonal festivals, could fit elsewhere in the park.

NoMa BID plans to hold a community design forum with residents for the green after it hires a design team, said Jasper. This process could begin as soon as the second quarter of the year.

Canal Park in Navy Yard could inspire the NoMa Green

The five-acre Canal Park in Navy Yard offers some ideas for the NoMa Green. Opened in 2012, the space mixes programming, including a café, water feature, and seasonal ice skating rink, with a flexible lawn space that is used for various activities throughout the year.


An overview of Canal Park. Image by OLIN.

Hallie Boyce, a partner at OLIN landscape architects, says every section of Canal Park serves multiple purposes that, in many cases, are not exactly what the design team had in mind.

"The public will use a space as they deem appropriate," she says, recalling an image she saw of a kid using a sculpture as a seat to watch a movie in Canal Park. "On the one hand, you want enough programming to attract people long-term and on the other hand there is a need to have flexibility."


Canal Park's fountains and rain garden. Image by Payton Chung on Flickr.

OLIN led the design team of Canal Park, which is built on the site of a former Washington Canal. The studio has also been selected for the 11th Street Bridge Park and the redesign of Franklin Park in downtown.

There are lots of other options too

Canal Park is just one example NoMa can look to as it begins the process of designing its new green. DC is dotted with many small parks that, while often designed during an earlier period of landscape architecture, offer templates of what works and what does not.

Folger Park in Capitol Hill and Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights are two examples of good small parks in DC that Greater Greater Washington contributors suggest. The former includes ample lawns and an iconic drinking fountain and bench.

Meridian Hill Park, while larger than the NoMa space, includes a popular lawn atop the hill and a cascade fountain down the hillside to W Street NW.


The cascade fountain in Meridian Hill Park. Image by Washingtonydc on Flickr.

Boyce points to Teardrop Park and Wagner Park in New York City when asked what she thinks are good examples of well-designed small parks outside DC. The former, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is a 1.8-acre green space in lower Manhattan that includes a unique man-made rock outcropping and an open lawn nestled between residential high-rises.


Teardrop Park in New York. Image by Calvin C on Flickr.

"There's no solution you would slap down," says Boyce, emphasising the need to engage the community and take into account form, scale, and site when designing a park. "It's about context and engaging with the neighborhood and key stakeholders first to identify [what they want]."

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Architecture


The winner of a design competition will build the WWI Memorial. Here's what that means.

Today, the sponsor of the World War I Memorial will choose the winner of its design competition, meaning we'll get a sense for what the memorial will look like in the end. Whether or not design competitions succeed depends heavily the work that goes into planning them.


Pershing Park and its memorial today. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The Memorial will go into Pershing Park, a secluded 1970s plaza at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House. Congress chose that location because it already has a memorial to General John Pershing, who led US troops in World War I.

The memorial sponsors sent out an open call for ideas last year. The winner will come from of one of the five finalists named in November 2015. After getting feedback, these five designers have revised their projects and submitted them to a jury of architects, historians, and politicians. On Tuesday (after a snow delay), the memorial commission will vote on the jury's choice.

Here's how design competitions work

Design competitions aren't part of the process for most buildings, but governments and other big institutions like them for major projects. They give those sponsoring the competition (and ultimately responsible for the building) a few options to choose from rather than picking a designer based on prior work and a business plan.

Every competition begins the same: with a design brief, a document that outlines what the sponsor wants. Then, they split into three basic formats:

  1. The most celebrated kind is an open competition where pretty much anyone can submit a design. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example, and the World War I Memorial is using this model.
  2. An invited competition, where a client looks at only a hand-picked few designers is the second type. The Lincoln Memorial is one outcome of this format.
  3. A slight variation on that is a qualified competition, where anyone can submit qualifications, out of whom a few get asked for designs. The Eisenhower Memorial followed this model, which is common for federal projects.
Most open competitions, including the World War I Memorial, have two stages. In the first, anyone can present their design in a very limited format. For the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the jury winnowed 1,200 entries to six finalist from a single drawing. Qualified competitions make the same selection by looking at past work or credentials.


Henry Bacon beat out one rival for the Lincoln Memorial, John Russell Pope. This design by Pope is closer to what the McMillan Commission envisioned. Image from the Library of Congress.

In the second round, open, qualified, and select competitions work the same. Each team works out a detailed conceptual design. In better competitions, the competitors work with the sponsor, review agencies, and constituents to refine the design. Then, at the end of this, a jury composed of stakeholders or designers picks a winner.

Well-run design competitions can have big upsides

Malcolm Reading, a design competition designer, who ran recent competitions for Gallaudet University, and the Guggenheim Helsinki, put it this way in an interview: "I would say that competitions are, in general, more meritocratic. The process itself, run properly, allows talent to rise to the top and a level of public debate and engagement that would not be possible with a direct commission."

The best example of this process working is the tightly controlled competition that brought us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Take a look at this booklet promoting the memorial. It outlines so much of what makes that design iconic: an apolitical remembrance of the dead, a list of names, and a site of personal reflection. That's interesting, because this is the design brief, written months before Maya Lin began her class assignment that eventually become an American icon.


Detail of Maya Lin's first-stage entry, showing visitors' experience at the center of the memorial and exiting. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lin realized these conceptual elements with brilliant clarity. But the competition's designer, Paul Spreiregen, had laid the groundwork for a minimalist design like hers to win. He wrote the brief to encapsulate the desires of the Veterans who commissioned it. Washington's design review agencies wanted something low, so he pushed for a landscape design in Q&As, and set up a jury of accomplished modernist designers.

History shows design competitions aren't a simple solution

Good outcomes aren't guaranteed. If a sponsor issues a bad brief, ignores problems with the site, or doesn't trust the jury, all hell can break loose.


The winning design for the World War II Memorial changed a lot. (Image from Friedrich St. Florian)

The sponsors of the World War II memorial imagined a huge project when they picked a design, including an underground museum in a floodplain. Both the design and what the commission asked for changed dramatically over years of controversy and costs.

The chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Richard Stilwell, fired the designers of the tragic winning scheme and instructed the local architect of record to execute a heroic diorama. A similarly heavy-handed client guided the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.


In the winning scheme for the the Korean War Veterans Memorial, visitors would have "walked home" between statues of troops. (Image from Lucas Architects)

The World War I Memorial designer has a lot of changes to make.

The World War I Memorial's process is mixed. The designers brought collaborators onto the design teams in the second stage for mid-point review, which is great. While the brief gives fewer aesthetic preferences than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's sponsors did, the goals of commemoration are clearer than other recent memorials.

But the memorial commission made a huge mistake when picking a site. After getting rejected from converting DC's World War I Memorial as a national one, the memorial commission went around the city's review agencies by getting Congress to pick the site.

The brief contradicts itself, encouraging designers replace the existing park because it is secluded, but also forbidding any activity-generating features and ignoring how this memorial plot connects living city around it.


Some WWI competition entrants have changed significantly already. Here's the first stage entry for "Plaza to the Forgotten War"

As a result, a surprising number of groups have spoken out against the competition. That includes the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the DC Historic Preservation Office, which led to designers needing to change their schemes significantly.


In the second-stage mid-review version, design now preserves more of the existing park. (Both images from Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

World War I has little political clout. Unlike World War II, there are no living veterans. Pershing Park has a lot of influential supporters. Whatever is chosen will change significantly. By proceeding without realistic about what they could do on the site, the memorial commission wasted the primary advantage of a competition: choosing a designer based on a concrete vision.

Much more goes into commemorating history than the spectacle of choosing designers. The jury, the site, and the ambitions of the sponsor are as important to a good outcome. In this case, the simplicity of competition seems to have hidden fundamental problems in the project.

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Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

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History


Here's an early design for Union Station

Check out this drawing of Union Station when it was in the planning phase, waiting for Congress to give the green light for construction. It's a fun reminder that even the most grandiose of buildings go through routine planning processes.


Click for a larger version of both the drawing and the accompanying news article. Images from the Library of Congress.

Published in March of 1902, the Times Washington article announcing the coming train depot calls it "a fitting gateway for the nation's Capital City, through which for all time shall ebb and flow the tides of the world's pilgrims to the national Mecca, a fitting beginning for the new Washington."

When GGWash contributor David Cranor passed the article my way, he wondered if the project finished on time or came in on budget.

"Perhaps it will be a reality in two years," reads the article, "for great railway corporations build with magic quickness" Union Station opened in 1908, but it's not clear from the article whether the builders shared that two year expectation. And even if they did, a four year delay on such a huge project doesn't exactly stack up poorly when compared to many infrastructure projects today.

The article says Union Station itself will cost $6 million (about $166 million in today's dollars), with things like buying the land and building the accompanying rail tunnel bringing the price to $14 million (about $388 million today). If you have any information on how much was actually spent on building Union Station, please share it in the comments!


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Preservation


An art deco industrial building in Georgetown could have a new use

Developers want to build a contemporary mid-rise residential tower on a prime site in Georgetown, but it'd mean tearing down a distinctive old heating plant. There might be ways to reuse the old building and build something new as well.


The West Heating Plant looking south from the C&O Canal. All images by the authors unless noted.

The West Heating Plant, which abuts Rock Creek Park on the edge of Georgetown, was built by the Federal government to provide steam heating for federal buildings in the District. Designed during World War II by architect William Dewey Foster, it opened in 1948 as one of the few examples of industrial art deco-to-moderne architecture in the District; the other is the Central Heating Plant on 13th Street SW.

The six-story structure now stands idle, having been decommissioned in 2003.

A team led by local developer Richard Levy purchased the plant from the Government Services Administration (GSA) in 2013 with plans to demolish part of the building for up to 80 luxury Four Seasons residences and use the former coal yard for a new park.

Unfortunately, preservation officials encouraged Levy's team of notable architects - British architect David Adjaye and OLIN landscape architects - to be creative with the site without preserving the building. Levy understandably leapt at the opportunity.

In a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in December, Levy outlined plans to tear down the West Heating Plant entirely. His new plan includes a 10-story tower made of blue travertine and bronze on the site of the plant, housing 60 to 70 luxury residences and the adjacent park.

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

DC has few industrial buildings and even fewer that are architecturally significant. The West Heating Plant, despite its decaying state, is significant as both a notable industrial edifice and one of the few examples of moderne architecture in the city.

Eight massive vertical windows stretching nearly the building's entire height dominate its north and south faces. A similar vertical portico dominates the 29th Street façade.


The entrance portico is an impressive vertical dominating the building's 29th Street facade.

The West Heating Plant stands out on the Georgetown skyline as one approaches from the south or east, reminiscent of the neighborhood's industrial past. Other remnants of this include the lofts in converted warehouses along the canal and the Capital Crescent Trail that was on the former Georgetown Branch railroad line.


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

The building is a worthy reminder of Georgetown's history, and an impressive example of civic architecture.

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

With or without Levy's plan to demolish the West Heating Plant, it was never really feasible to convert the existing building into residences. Floors are only located on its 29th Street side, and shoring up the columns that run up and down the building would be costly due to years of corrosion.

In addition, at 109 feet wide, the building is deeper than is preferable to get good light throughout an apartment. The design team attempted to fix this in their earlier partial-demolition proposal by adding big shafts to the center of the structure to bring in light.

To fill the building with apartments or offices, the developers would also have to add a lot of windows. This would be problematic as the brick is only loosely attached to the steel frame. Adding windows would require painstaking care and, even then, might deface the monumental qualities that give the building interest.

In other words, it is a tough sell for a residential or commercial conversion even before he exorbitant cost of cleaning up the asbestos, PCBs, and other toxins scattered throughout the site.

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

The original appeal for developers was that the West Heating Plant sits on just a fifth of the lot. When the GSA sold the facility, it anticipated the site would receive a waterfront zone district, W-2, allowing for 362,000 square feet of development up to 60 feet high, in its environmental assessment.


The West Heating Plant only sits on about a fifth of the lot. Image by Google Maps.

However, adaptively reusing the plant would offer only up to 143,600 square feet of space. While the building is tall, it only has six floors with high ceilings—13 feet on most floors and 22 feet on the first—that allows for less density than the height suggests.

To address this disconnect, the GSA imagined that a developer would build a second flat and fat structure on the coal yard south of the heating plant that would peep over the Whitehurst Freeway viaduct. Since the conversion would ruin the dramatic interior spaces and significantly alter the monolithic exterior, it would have been a pretty hollow deal for developers and preservation interests alike.


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

Levy's demolition plan is a compromise to the competing expectations of the developers and neighbors: there's no second building and the new 10 stories of apartment fit into the existing massing. That's more floors than with an adaptive reuse but less density and more open space than the GSA's scenario. The height and the park secure the great views that high-end buyers will pay extra for and the park has quieted a lot of neighborhood concerns.

It is a clever solution but it is not the only one. There are options that preserve the historic plant and also get a distinctive new apartment building.

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

If height is not really an issue, Levy could build a new 10-story building in the coal yard and reuse the actual plant for something much more creative.

There are ways to reuse the West Heating Plant that work in big messy spaces. Contemporary art institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, are a good example, especially if the first floor is open and free to the public, effectively making it an extension of the streetscape.


The Tate Modern gallery is located in the former Bankside Power Station in London. Image by Alquiler de Coches on Flickr.

The Tate Modern has been a staple of the London tourist circuit since its turbine hall hosted a series of blockbuster exhibitions shortly after it opened. This has prompted demands for contemporary art museums elsewhere with large spaces that can handle rough treatment, like the Dia:Beacon near New York City.


The turbine hall at the Tate Modern. Image by Jennifer Morrow on Flickr.

The West Heating Plant's boiler room is an ideal candidate for such a space, something the Post recommended in 2012. While only about a third the size of the Tate's 36,500 square foot turbine room, it is much bigger than the District's last proposed contemporary art museum in the Franklin School. If two floors of the plant were cleared out, Adolf Cluss's landmark school would fit comfortably in the boiler room.

The plant could also be used as a home for one of DC's excellent theaters. A big box with three stories for flies could make the cornerstone of a spectacular alternative theater venue. The industrial patina, few windows and big spaces of the old plant again could be more of an asset than a drawback.

Realistically, to keep the old and add the new, any reuse of the site would have to assume a new building on the coal yard. This would likely mean more height and density on the site in order to allow development of as much of the 362,000 square feet allowed. It would also mean no new large park.

Dropping the park from the Levy's proposal may not be a bad thing. The Georgetown Waterfront Park, just a few blocks from heating plant, was completed just five years ago and both Rock Creek Park and the C&O canal run along the site.

To offset the loss of the park, and curry neighborhood support for a higher and denser project, the boiler room of the new West Heating Plant art space could be part of a new public space with new entrances connecting it to both Rock Creek and the canal. Shops facing the canal could be added along the ground floor making it a popular neighborhood destination.

Compromises will undoubtedly be necessary to get the developer to support preserving the plant and the neighborhood to support more density on the site. But it would be well worth it.

A West Heating Plant site with both an extension of the urban fabric plus new public arts and green space at the intersection of two of DC's most popular parks might be a altogether a better deal for Georgetown and the District.

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Architecture


An NFL stadium in DC could be suitably urban, but it probably wouldn't be

Rumors are swirling once more that the Washington NFL team could be moving from its stadium in Landover, possibly to the District. A new stadium in DC is almost certainly a bad idea, though it's possible—just very unlikely—it could actually have positive effects.


RFK in the 1960s. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

The most logical place for a stadium is the Anacostia riverfront site where there's an existing, unused, aging stadium already: RFK. But RFK occupies a massive amount of waterfront land that could be far better used for new housing, fields for community sports, monuments, or just about anything else.

It's not that a stadium is so noxious. But around it is 80 acres of parking lots. Not only are they almost always empty, they're damaging ecologically, pouring stormwater runoff directly into the river, absorbing heat, and depriving the District of other ways to use valuable land.

Could a stadium exist without such surface parking lots? In theory, sure. Since games are on weeknights and weekends, one could imagine a new district with office buildings, each with underground garages that serve workers by day and football fans during games.

That, however, would interfere with tailgating, a strong fan tradition outside football games. It also would mean yielding some control over the parking arrangements, something owner Dan Snyder is unlikely to do without strong incentives. He makes big bucks on parking charges at FedEx Field (and tried to charge fans for walking to the stadium instead).

The team recently made news by hiring Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a highly-respected architecture firm, to design a potential new stadium. The team didn't announce where, but if that's DC, BIG is capable of creating something much more innovative than the typical bowl-in-sea-of-parking.

Citylab's Kriston Capps says that even if Snyder were willing to go with an urban design that doesn't involve massive surface parking, the NFL would not then let a Super Bowl be played there, and a Super Bowl represents massive revenue.

What else a DC stadium should have

If a stadium were to come to the District, a few other elements should be prerequisites for any deal:

Change the football team's name. It's offensive. This has already been discussed extensively and need not be rehashed here. But the team should change it.

No public money. Economist after economist has demonstrated that public subsidies for pro sports stadiums rarely come anywhere close to paying off for cities, and least of all for football, where teams play just eight regular home games a year.

No free tickets for public officials. The mayor and DC Councilmembers get free tickets to Nationals games. This is a big perk for top officials, who can enjoy the games and give out tickets to staff, constituents, and donors. It also means that everyone potentially voting on such a deal has a massive conflict of interest—they can spend taxpayer dollars and get a perfectly-legal kickback.

Some argue that a city-controlled box is a valuable tool for wooing economic development to DC. If that's true and not just a rationalization, perhaps there's a way to set up an independent body that gives out tickets only when there's a strong enough case, and sells or lotteries the tickets to residents the rest of the time. But it shouldn't be yet another perk of incumbency.

This probably won't happen

Unfortunately, there's little reason to believe DC would successfully push for such features or that Snyder would accept. There's too much political pressure on officials just to get the team to DC regardless of the cost, and a traditional parking lot-ringed stadium would serve Snyder's interests fine.

The chance of that got a little stronger thanks to a baffling Washington Post editorial that called a stadium at RFK "the logical and obvious move" because of its transportation access and "waterfront vistas that can't be beat." (Never mind that there are trees in the way of waterfront views from RFK; trees on federal parkland have not stopped Snyder before.)The editorial made no mention of the opportunity cost of foregoing ball fields, bucolic parks, and buildings.

If a football stadium won't be urban in nature, there's no reason to have it in DC. The District has scarce land and huge demand for housing and offices. For something that needs 80 acres of almost-always-empty land around it and gets used eight or so times a year, suburban areas are far more sensible.

Landover is a fine place for a stadium. A site in Loudoun County, near a future Silver Line stop, has been widely discussed as a likely contender, especially since Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been wooing the team, and its practice facilities and headquarters are already in Ashburn.

DC might have once needed the kind of pride and reputation that comes from having a team inside its borders, but now it has plenty of other reasons for pride (and the team will still be called Washington, anyway). A stadium that truly anchors a new neighborhood could be great, though. It's just extremely unlikely. I'd love to be surprised, though.

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