Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Neil Flanagan

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  

A private school's plan could totally revamp public space in Tenleytown

A private school in Tenleytown has big plans for its property. The scheme could kick off revitalization of Wisconsin Avenue north of that area's Metro stop.


Plan of the Georgetown Day School's proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation. Click to enlarge. Image from GDS/Esocoff & Associates.

In 2013, the Georgetown Day School surprised everyone by announcing that it had purchased two major sites adjacent to its 42nd Street NW upper school: a suburban Safeway store and a triangular parcel that currently hosts a car dealership.

The Safeway had been the site of three hotly-debated redevelopment proposals. The Martens car dealership lots, too were candidates for a large residential development. Many neighbors worried that if GDS built a large, closed-off campus, it would squash efforts to make Wisconsin Avenue a walkable corridor with neighborhood-serving retail.


The area around Georgetown Day School. Base image from Google Maps.

Instead, the school may end up creating the most vibrant streets in Tenleytown. What the school has revealed could be the seed of a more diverse, livelier neighborhood.

The proposal has a lot going for it: it's an ideal use of the District's planned unit development system (PUD), it's got a strong architectural voice leading the way, and it has the beginnings of excellent urban design.

School and city meet at 42nd Street

GDS's upper school will remain where it is, south of Davenport Street and west of 42nd. The middle and lower schools will move into a large three-story building, topped with an athletic field. They will share the building with facilities for athletics, the arts, and the whole school community.


Plan of the GDS proposal at 42nd Street elevation. Click to enlarge. Image from GDS/Esocoff & Associates.

Next to its current underground gym, GDS will add an athletics building on lots that it purchased separately. The current plan replaces parking lots to the north of Davenport with a wide green buffer and either exercise courts or a learning garden. It will create a very nice campus for the school, especially if the design breaks up the large school building.

Across 42nd Street is where the neighborhood has a big opportunity. On the long, triangular dealership parcel, GDS will build two nine-story buildings, similar to the ones that line Connecticut Avenue. GDS is doing this to shore up its financial endowment, but the surrounding community will benefit from what's happening as well.

While nine stories still counts as low-rise, it's still higher than the parcel's current zoning will allow. GDS is using the Planned Unit Development process, which allows them to combine all of the development rights for the site. By building less than is ordinarily permitted on the school site, they can shift that density onto Wisconsin Avenue, the area's major corridor. This re-balancing of zoning to tailor a large project to its neighborhood is exactly what PUDs were created to do.


Section showing the buildings designed around grade change. (Courtesy GDS / Esocoff & Associates)

The narrow parcel sits where Wisconsin abruptly climbs a hill into Tenleytown. There is a nearly two-story grade difference from north to south and east to west. The plan handles this difference elegantly: small, neighborhood-style retail spaces face Wisconsin Avenue. A larger anchor store will sit under those shops, facing 42nd Street.

The two buildings will house around 350 apartments, including six built-in townhouses fronting 42nd street. Because of the grade change, residential lobbies will sit on the second floor on 42nd street. Like bay windows, they can be generous and private while facing a busy street. The lobbies both sit off of a short pedestrian street that fully separates the two buildings.


Plan of the Davenport Plaza and "Spanish Steps" (Courtesy GDS / Lemon|Brooke)

The public space is most important part

That gap between the buildings is why this project seems particularly promising to me. It connects the two existing segments of Davenport street with a small pedestrian-plaza and a dramatic flight of stairs. Davenport was never built here, but the result is a long block and a missing connection. Without the steps, the climb is just one long slog.

The new passage will make that length into two shorter, friendlier blocks, with a place to linger when going up and down the hills. And visitors at Fort Reno Park, DC's highest spot, will get a view of Virginia that's tightly framed from ground to sky.


One popular option for the corner lot is a skate park. Image from GDS/ Lemon|Brooke.

There are three other ways the project will shape public space. One is a small triangle parcel at Ellicott Street. This will be created by closing a slip lane between Wisconsin and 42nd Street. There, landscape architects Lemon|Brooke are considering a number of options for the space, including a small plaza, a playground, and a demonstration garden.

The plan also proposes reconfiguring 42nd Street as a friendly side street. The northern residential building will occupy a sliver of the right-of-way, and parking spots would yield space for bigger sidewalks. The new school building will supplant the bunker-like Safeway and WMATA chiller plant. The schools's main meeting space, dubbed the "Athenaeum," may open onto 42nd Street as well.


Massing perspective of 42nd Street. Image from GDS / Esocoff & Associates.

The final way the project will define public space is the tapered end of the north building. It's the only flatiron lot north of Cathedral Commons. By its sheer visibility, it would be a landmark on Wisconsin Avenue. If done right, its slender proportions could echo the towers that are Tenleytown's most famous features.

This project has an experienced architect

The aesthetics of such a large project are very important. Fortunately, GDS has a good architect partner in Esocoff and Associates. Esocoff designs in a refined postmodernist style. He's best known for five brightly colored, curved brick buildings built on Massachusetts Avenue in the last decade.

Esocoff has a big body of work beyond that, including the original GDS upper school on Davenport. Back in the late 80s, 42nd Street was basically a back alley. So, that building turns its back on the neighborhood. In an interview, he said it was now time to do the opposite: the whole precinct could be a vibrant anchor for the north end of Tenleytown.

In the 1970s, when Esocoff studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, his teachers obsessed over how buildings fit into the city. They imagined every part of a building as a fragment of something at the next larger scale. The biggest scale was a city.

He told me "the whole area should seems seamless, like it's inevitable," but that individual buildings "should feel as surprising as they are inevitable." I think it's possible to see that in the way Davenport Plaza splits off from Wisconsin Avenue in a big, broad arc.

He hasn't pinned down an aesthetic yet. He said it probably wouldn't look like Mass Ave. Instead, he pointed to Kalorama, where his office is currently working on the old Chinese embassy. It's an apt example. Like Tenleytown, Kalorama is very green and hilly. It's also much denser.

The community can be a partner in shaping how Tenleytown grows

Excellent design lets a corridor of nine story buildings sit comfortably next to large houses. Similarly, there's a lovely, pedestrian-only flight of stairs. It's rich fabric shows what happens when one generation gives thoughtful density to those that follow.

Honestly, in GDS's proposal, there's just nothing worth saying "no" to. The challenge for the community is to work with the design team to refine the proposal. Through the PUD process, the school has opened a dialogue. There's a risk the ANC could go down the rabbit hole getting concessions from the developer without a focus.

Instead, they'd serve the community best by doubling down and insisting that GDS get the basic elements of walkable urban design right: adaptable public spaces, permeable facades, pedestrian connectivity, and memorable architecture.

If they push the design for those criteria, the design will naturally develop a character suiting Tenleytown's history and geography. But more importantly, it will be a part of a thriving urban environment.

Can a park bridging the Anacostia bring investment without displacing residents?

If the plan to build a park over the old 11th Street Bridge comes to fruition, there's no question it will change Anacostia. For now, the people behind the park are working hard to ensure that the people who are there now will be able to stick around to enjoy it.


A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park from the Navy Yard. Image from OMA+OLIN.

The 11th Street Bridge park is a proposal to build a spectacular public space on remaining parts of a disused bridge over the Anacostia River. Having just selected a design this spring, its director Scott Kratz and his team are developing the design, raising money, and running engineering tests. Despite reports that they don't have money, the project is going according to plan.

While waiting to begin construction, Kratz and his team have started to address a big worry many have voiced about the project: the risk that it will spur gentrification east of the Anacostia River, specifically in the HIstoric Anacostia neighborhood.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

This Saturday, a group of real estate experts, planners, and community leaders will present a preliminary plan meant to ensure that the Bridge Park benefits all residents, not just those who can afford to buy in a hot market. Called the Equitable Development Task Force, the group will hold meetings on each side of the river. At both meetings, they'll present a plan and then look to the experience of residents to refine their objectives and methods.

I spoke with Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park's director last week. He said that technical problems like designing and building the park seem simple compared to the challenge of making sure it adds social landscape without displacement and disaffection.

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

Back when the idea of reusing an old highway bridge as a park was just talk, over on the west side of Manhattan, real estate prices were doubling and tripling around the High Line, a park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. In just a few years, the Meatpacking District went from slaughterhouses and sex work to a high end retail district with equally high-end apartment buildings.

Many writers have compared the Bridge Park to the High Line, and while there are some key differences, they share a cultural cachet: they're both infrastructure-reuse projects by fashionable design firms in distinctive locations with attractive, historic neighborhoods nearby.

Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia already have many qualities that make a neighborhood desirable. With a signature project, the market could heat up. Kratz laments that already, two years too early, real estate listings for locations miles away are hyping the unbuilt park as an amenity.

With wealthier residents often come resources, government attention, and more retail. At the same time, the consequences of displacement are serious.

Residences east of the River are overwhelmingly rental, so they can turn over faster, without wealth accruing for renting residents the way it does with homeowners. Unemployment is high. A disproportionate number of residents suffer from diseases associated with poverty, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. Their lives will not get easier if they have to move farther from the city's core, where both mobility and access to social networks is harder.

The problem, with most incidences of gentrification, Kratz says, is that markets are way faster than governments or non-profits. Attempts to freeze rents or rush in new construction always happens too late. Social organizations are left trying to fix problems that are arising faster than they can hope to address them.


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

Unlike a lot of projects, the Bridge Park is well-positioned to be proactive about confronting these problems and ensuring that the project benefits as many people as possible. Officials know more or less when the project will come online, 2017 or 2018, and they know exactly what area it will affect.

Originally, Bridge Park staff focused exclusively on keeping the existing housing affordable. But after meeting with residents from east of the Anacostia River, they realized that that was too narrow a focus.

Now, they've widened the goals to doing a small part in helping nearby communties grow wealthier and more socially connected. The staff want to use the 11th Street Bridge Park to catalyze the amount of affordable housing in the area, increase employment, and promote locally own businesses that keep wealth in the community.

These are huge goals, especially for an organization that exists mostly just to build a park. To meet them, the Bridge Park team is considering possibilities on two levels: measures it can actually take, and ways it can influence things through publicity and connections.

To take action, the Bridge Park needs help from the community

Kratz realizes that neither he nor the Equitable Development Task Force can figure out how to solve a problem like displacement. So, first the Bridge Park team reached out to organizations who have been grappling with these issues in nearby communities organizations for years. Then, they looked at similar projects outside the region, to see if there were any specific lessons for signature parks in mixed-income areas.

The Task Force won't release the full panel until tomorrows's meeting, but Kratz provided some example approaches. Conceptually, they realized they could work at two scales: what the Bridge Park can directly control and what it can only the influence through its publicity and connections.

Kratz concedes the Bridge Park can't control all that much when it comes to affordable housing, But he also says the hope is that his team can unite area political leadership, which could then shape development through community land trusts that assemble equity for below-market housing, renovation assistance to homeowners, and political pressure for public investment.

One example of this kind development the task force will highlight is the extensive affordable housing program spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine.

Kratz says the Bridge Park can work directly on workforce development. The park is effectively a giant green roof that can serve as a training ground for employment in sustainable infrastructure. Related interventions might be the wellness and urban agriculture goals of the park, which could reduce job-impeding health problems.

Finally, the task force has suggestions for fostering local businesses. One is to model the Bridge Park's cafe after Union Market, a space that serves as an incubator for restaurants. The Bridge Park's visibility could launch a small business to commercial self-sustainance without the large capital investments required to start a restaurant.

Kratz notes that these ideas are only small parts of a solution. But, he emphasized that the Bridge Park's ambitions were most likely to succeed when they built on the work community groups were already doing on both sides of the Anacostia.

To be sure, the Bridge Park staff have met with existing organizations and asked how the project can fit into their existing strategies. The staff has also attended community meetings to hear residents' concerns and needs and to learn about how residents live and what they value. The Equitable Development Task Force used this first round of feedback to write this round of ideas and they're now looking for a second round of feedback.

Real estate advisors, landscape architects, and ordinary citizens have their own kind of expertise. Understanding the extent of each and building on it, I think, can be the beginning of a successful, community-led growth into a bigger, broader community. If it works, it can be an example to follow when other signature public projects risk large-scale disruption.

Federal review pushes the Kennedy Center's new buildings to dry land

The Kennedy Center has tweaked its plans for expansion. The small addition will still connect the Kennedy Center to the Potomac River, but none of it will be floating in the river.


The revised expansion scheme for the Kennedy Center. All images courtesy of the Kennedy Center and Steven Holl Architects.

When the arts center released plans for an expansion in 2013, they were looking for a way to reach out beyond big white box and white tie events. The 60,000 square foot expansion was to contain education rooms, informal performance venues, and a bridge to the Potomac River pathway.

The Kennedy Center's balcony has a gorgeous view of the river, but with no way for visitors to get to it, it's just the backdrop to the lobby. The center has tried to bridge the divide for decades with several schemes for grand staircases. But they had proved too costly for the Kennedy Center to do without federal help.

The designers the Kennedy Center hired, Steven Holl Architects, proposed something more clever than stairs. Their proposal featured three white pavilions: two sitting in a garden atop buried practice rooms and one across a bridge over the parkway, floating in the water. With arts activity in the nearby parkland, the Kennedy Center was not just visually connected to the green space, but rather was functionally mixing with it.

The expansion is still happening, but it's going to be more conventional

The new proposal features a shorter bridge across Rock Creek Parkway, ending at a sculptural ramp and staircase down to the riverfront trail. To keep the blend of park and arts space, the designers placed planters and benches along the route. Alternating solid and minimal railings extend, framing views of the river similarly to how the windows in the pavilions do.


View looking from across the bridge down to the Potomac and Rock Creek Trail.

The cafe and performance space that occupied the floating structure will now go in a third pavilion east of Rock Creek parkway. The multipurpose space will seat 160 people in a space with views of the river. Toward the land, the pavilion overlooks a reflecting pool through a retractable glass wall.

Moving that pavilion makes it harder to spontaneously drop into a show. On the other hand, the architects noted that it will make back-of-house activities like cooking and moving instruments easier since the new location sits atop the expansion's buried infrastructure.


The relocated river pavilion encloses the park area more.

The reorganization does change the the way the site connects to the city. The new location of the river pavilion may make the upper-level garden feel more enclosed and internal. On the other hand, since visitors won't have to pass through the floating pavilion to get to the upper-level park it may feel more public.


Interior of the new River Pavilion, configured as a cafe.

Opposition arose during the federal process

The Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission's professional staff supported the original design on the basis of extensive engineering studies. But at NCPC's December 2014 meeting, testimony from recreational boaters and Georgetown residents persuaded commissioners to rejected the staff report and give only partial approval.

Critics singled out the floating pavilion as a problem. The NCPC's chairman, Preston Bryant, who represents Virginia, said he believed the building went against federal directives not to build in flood-prone areas.

Boaters and Georgetown residents favored an alternate scheme that did not put any structures near the river, including the bridge across the parkway. This second design came from the project's environmental assessment, which requires federal agencies to study a few alternative solutions to their needs. For buildings of this size, the second or third designs are usually just a formality. Not here.


Top: The new design. Bottom: The environmental assessment's Alternative B.

The revised scheme uses the environmental assessment's Alternative B as a starting point, but adds the bridge and landscaped ramp. When the architects presented this design at the May 7th NCPC meeting, several commissioners who had criticized the design earlier reacted positively, indicating future approval.


View up the access ramp and toward Georgetown.

There's still a long road ahead of the project

The change in the design means delays. Peter May, the National Park Service's representative on the NCPC noted that the Park Service would have to re-do parts of its environmental assessment and cultural resource studies because the connection to the park is too different from any of the original alternatives to proceed.

May suggested that there could be a separate study for the bridge, allowing the Kennedy Center to proceed with construction. Still the Commission of Fine Arts will have to grant a second conceptual approval to the design, the architects will have to work out some of the design again. For this and other reasons, the Kennedy Center expansion won't open until 2018.

Washington's process is difficult. Still, this project's arc shows that it is possible to bring distinctive architecture and placemaking to the Monumental Core, with the right attitude. The designers and their client didn't simply do what critics asked, or fight back endlessly. They relied on their expertise to do it in a way that is true to the rest of the design. That is hard, and they deserve credit for it.


Public iterations of the expansion. Clockwise from top right: September 2013, December 2014, February 2015, May 2015.

Imagine a Kennedy Center that's part of downtown

The Kennedy Center is a marble island cut off from downtown by highways. What if instead, it was the heart of a new urban neighborhood linking Georgetown and the National Mall?


Watercolor perspective. All images from Aragon, Hensley, and Sponseller.

In 1997, Andrea Aragon, Jon Hensley, and Robert Sponseller created the above rendering for Capital Visions: Architects Revisit L'Enfant: New Plans for the Millennium, an exhibit at the National Building Museum whose projects considered how different values could reshape the historic Federal City in the 21st century.

Their plan contemplates a Foggy Bottom where urban fabric replaces a mish-mash of midcentury projects like I-66, the Watergate, and the State Department. The stub of I-66 and the Whitehurst Freeway are totally gone. A new Roosevelt Bridge runs directly onto Constitution Avenue, and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway runs underground from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to Constitution Avenue.


Public space diagram. The dashed line is an underground parkway. The dots are commemorative sites, like the Arts of War and Peace on the Memorial Bridge.

A restored version of the L'Enfant grid, with some additions, takes the place of what's there now. E Street, which is currently a trench, becomes a boulevard that runs to the Kennedy Center and down to the water. New buildings with new uses break up what are currently blocks and blocks of Federal offices. Beyond new activity on the street, the reclaimed blocks offer acres for new residential and commercial development.


In this vision, buildings define the outflow of Rock Creek. Washington Harbor is on the left.

In addition to the practical street grid, the designers connect three neighborhoods with major corridors, punctuated by landmarks and parks, not unlike Pierre L'Enfant did in 1791.

E Street extends to the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown is just a skip away. The plan also extends Virginia Avenue and K Street across Rock Creek, which itself pools at an artificial basin since the Whitehurst Freeway is gone. The basin joints the burbling creek, the still canal, and the powerful river.


The continuous waterfront extends Georgetown, DC's hottest neighborhood in 1997.

Along the Potomac, a boardwalk runs from Washington Harbor to the realigned Roosevelt Bridge. Buildings run right up to the edge of the waterfront. Kayakers and rowers move downstream from Thompson's Boathouse to a new wharf at the Kennedy Center.


The proposed new Kennedy Center. A glass atrium connects E Street with the river.

The designers make some rather extreme changes to the Kennedy Center itself. The venue's three main halls have to be structurally independent for acoustic reasons, so they strip off Edward Durrell Stone's critically reviled exterior and work their exteriors into the street design. They also demolish and move the Opera House so pedestrians can walk from the White House, along E Street and down steps to the Potomac.


Navy Hill fits neatly into the city. The telescope is not exactly where it's depicted.

The plan also integrates Navy Hill, which the General Services Administration is currently transforming it into State Department buildings. This was the original Naval Observatory and later housed the CIA. The designers could have left it as a semi-rural hill, but instead, the they integrated the historic buildings back into the grid and made one of the remaining telescopes into a local landmark.

It's worth mentioning that a few buildings need demolishing for the plan to work. To reconnect 22nd Street, the designers cut the State Department back to its prewar section, the "War Department Building." They also do away with better-liked 20th century projects, like the Pan American Health Organization and the Watergate complex.


A grid of normal urban blocks replaces highways and mega-developments.

What's great about speculative designs like this is that when politics and economics aren't an issue, designers are free to examine radical ideas that put our collective values up for debate. How that makes us think about pragmatic issues is important.

Should we preserve unloved buildings? How do we balance monuments and background buildings? Does recreation outweigh ecology? The project raises more questions than answers, and that's great.


Nolli map of the entire project.

Residential on top of the MLK library just doesn't work

The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.


One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.

When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.

At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.


The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.


An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Up top, more floors didn't add up

Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.

CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.

Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.

Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.

Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.

The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.

Below, a long process for what is approved

Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.


The agencies that will have a hand in the design. Chart from NCPC.

So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.

  • Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
  • If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
  • The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.

  • Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.

The Air and Space Museum needs a new skin

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.


Photo by Terry (α) on Flickr.

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.

The stones started bowing due to a phenomenon called "thermal hysteresis."

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.


The warping is visible when the sun hits the panels at a low angle. Image from Google Maps.

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.


The south side elevation shows more damage where the tiles are more exposed to sun.

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.


Section drawing of how the stones sit on the steel frame.

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.


Earlier design for the museum. Image from the Commission of Fine Arts / HOK.

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.


Four possible options for replacing the 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.

The Kennedy Center is isolated from the rest of DC, but it can't fix the problem by itself

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.

Proposal seen from the Roosevelt Bridge. Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

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.


Model of the main "Glissando" pavilion interior. Image from the Kennedy Center.

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.


Image of the 2009 Framework Plan by CFA/NCPC.

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.

New density will change the face of upper Northwest

Despite some bruising battles in Upper Northwest, big changes are underway. Over the next two years, a large number of residential buildings that are opening may change the area's politics for good.


Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

Upper Northwest has a reputation for being full of people who hate new buildings, are suspicious of cyclists, and worry that students will die chasing ping-pong balls into the street. After seeing their neighborhood commercial strips reduced to mattress stores while others thrived, many residents started looking for another way.

They saw how progressive urban design made other neighborhoods safer, more lively, and better for people of all ages. Already, we're starting to see the effects: dense mixed-use areas and walkable blocks of single-family homes can be good neighbors. The new residents will probably like the new vitality even more.

New buildings make good neighbors and better neighborhoods

Cathedral Commons symbolizes the area's anti-development reputation. In 1999, Giant Food proposed rebuilding the midcentury shopping center at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street in Cleveland Park. Some residents were fiercely opposed, and the fight dragged on through multiple revisions, an attempt to landmark the dreary building, and an expensive lawsuit against the final mixed-use proposal.


Cathedral Commons residential building under construction. Photo by the author.

Still, a strong enough coalition of people who were frustrated with opponents' demands formed to push the project through. Cathedral Commons will finally open by the end of 2014, and even at 15 years after the start of this fight, the development's arrival is better late than never. It's undoubtedly an improvement on what was already there, and new families that move into the neighborhood will likely see the project as an amenity and wonder why anyone ever opposed it.

Up Wisconsin Avenue, the Tenley View apartments are also under construction. First proposed in 2004, the current scheme surfaced after the financial crisis in 2011. After a lengthy "Planned Unit Development" review, DC's Zoning Commission approved the building in 2013.


Tenley View under construction last week. Photo by the author.

One condition of the approval for Tenley View bans not only stores selling pot and porn but also mattresses and picture frames. That may seem odd, but those low-volume destination stores represented a low point in Tenleytown, before the new library and the Cityline building that added new residents atop a historic Sears. As new buildings have attracted foot traffic, restaurants and stores that serve local needs have returned.


Mattress store. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

On Connecticut Avenue, new projects like Woodley Wardman and the 212-unit 2700 Woodley Road delicately add density to established neighborhoods. And despite an expensive legal challenge from well-connected neighbors, a rental building at 5333 Connecticut broke ground last winter and will open next May.


2700 Woodley Rd. Image by DMSAS.

In Van Ness, the Park Van Ness building is replacing a strip mall. The large, well-designed building promises to bring much-needed street presence in an area that suffered from banal midcentury design.


A rendering of Park Van Ness on Connecticut. Image from Torti Gallas.

Academic villages bring activity, if not ideal design

Also in Van Ness, the University of the District of Columbia is constructing a new student center where a large plaza once sat empty most of the week. The new building will make UDC's brutalist campus more extroverted.


The blank UDC Plaza before construction began.


The new UDC student center focuses on the Van Ness Metro station.

American University is making even more dramatic changes. It's about to replace a large surface parking lot with a new residential complex. Bowing to opposition, AU set the buildings back far from the street, which isn't ideal for putting eyes on the street. But it's a step in the right direction for a long-term construction project.


East Campus site plan. Drawing from American University.

Closer to Tenleytown, AU's Washington College of Law is constructing a large campus that will discourage car trips and bring new activity to Tenleytown. The law school is currently on a relatively isolated stretch of Massachussetts Avenue in Spring Valley, and the move will make the campus more accessible to downtown. That's crucial for a law school that relies heavily on practicing teachers.

For development to work, the political process needs to change

There is a common thread between all of these projects: getting them into the neighborhood required a lot of work on the ground. But more and more residents are recognizing that Upper Northwest can grow without losing the characteristics that make it so desirable. The strife has even created networks of people favorable to Smart Growth, like Ward 3 Vision.

The downside of the fight is that it makes the process of planning a community feel piecemeal and time consuming. Facing a lawsuit against something the ANC approved can feel hopeless. Neighborhood meetings during dinner time make it hard for residents to get involved every time. And the negotiations over individual projects often get too bogged down in details for people who haven't been following a project since the beginning.

At the heart of it is that each process lacks guidance. For development in upper Northwest to continue in a way that benefits all parties, decision-makers need to engage the public at a more basic level. I'll address that process in my next post.

In some DC neighborhood commission races, urbanism, walkability, and growth are the issues

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) in many DC neighborhoods have a reputation for just being obstacles to any change, but that's not always true. In many parts of the District, ANCs have been a positive force for steps to improve communities. Will this election bring representatives who would continue or arrest those trends?

Each ANC covers one or a few neighborhoods and is divided into Single-Member Districts of about 2,000 residents each. You can find your district at here and a list of candidates here.

All of the regular neighborhood battles crop up in ANCs as well: density, bike lanes, sidewalks, parking. Good ANC commissioners work to shape change for the better instead of block it. They find ways to build consensus for better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. They work to make development projects better respond to community needs rather than just oppose them or push to make them smaller. They listen to neighbors, but also recognize that after everyone has a chance to be heard, there comes a time to make a decision and move forward.

Here are a handful of the many ANC races across the city. In these districts, a resident stridently opposed to a change or to a particular project may be challenging a more constructive commissioner, or someone is challenging a more obstructionist incumbent, or two candidates with differing views are vying for an open seat.

3E (Tenleytown)

Many parts of Ward 3, in upper Northwest DC, have warmed up to urban-friendly growth in the past few years and even led with key steps to improve walkability. A lot of that comes from hard work of a few ANC commissioners who face challengers in Tuesday's election.

ANC 3E includes the Wisconsin Avenue corridor from Tenleytown to Friendship Heights. The commission worked out a good deal for a new parking-free building at Brandywine and Wisconsin and endorsed new bicycle boulevards.

Tom Quinn represents 3E04 in Friendship Heights east of Wisconsin Avenue, and received our endorsement two years ago. He has been a champion of smart growth with particularly enthusiastic support for the zoning rewrite. Quinn faces Sandy Shapiro, who has said she would like the physical neighborhood to stay the same and expressed a desire to further delay zoning changes that have been under consideration for six years.

In 3E01 around and west of the Tenleytown Metro, the incumbent is stepping down, and the two candidates present dramatically different views. Anne Wallace has expressed a desire for a mixed-use and multi-modal Tenleytown. In an interview on TenleytownDC, she talked about how much she loves the diversity of the neighborhood and wants to see it thrive.

Her opponent, Kathleen Sweetapple, is running on a platform criticizing the current ANC commissioners and their efforts. She often says she worries about "outside influences," "one-size-fits all approaches" and smart growth strategies that she says do not fit in Tenleytown. Tenleytown needs responsive commissioner, but one who sees neighborhood's issues in connection to the challenges that all of the city faces.

3G (Chevy Chase)

In the leafier parts of Chevy Chase DC, Barnaby Woods, and Hawthorne, ANC3G has been fairly moderate, pushing for positive change instead of outright opposition on a new building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue and strongly supporting pedestrian safety activities.

Carolyn "Callie" Cook, the incumbent in 3G01, dissented from the rest of her ANC to oppose the new residential building at 5333, supporting instead a legal challenge to the by-right building. She testified to keep in place the District's often-abused disability parking placards. Brian Oliver is running against Cook. He is a parent of school-aged children and is interested in school improvements, revitalizing the Connecticut Avenue commercial area, improving parks, the library, and sidewalks.

In 3G06, an open seat, Dan Bradford is a small businessman who has promised a balanced focus on issues like pedestrian safety while seeking to preserve the vitality of the current community. In contrast, Alan Seeber has been a strident opponent of the more progressive elements of the zoning rewrite, and continues to criticize the idea of reduced parking minimums in transit zones. He also promises to fight any increased cross-town bus transit if it runs on roadways through Chevy Chase.


ANCs 3B (left) and 3G (right).

3B (Glover Park)

Farther south in Glover Park, the incumbent in 3B01, Joe Fiorillo brings an honesty and enthusiasm to a diverse district that includes both single-family homes and high-density apartments. Two months ago he voted in favor of a small new development in his district. That move brought him an opponent, Ann Mladinov, who felt that she and her neighbors were not heard in the process.

She's facing no opposition, but it's worth mentioning that GGW contributor and editor Abigail Zenner is on the ballot to represent 3B03. She will surely make as valuable a contribution to the ANC as she has to Greater Greater Washington!


District boundaries for ANC 2B.

2B (Dupont Circle)

Moving eastward, ANC 2B, which spans from the Golden Triangle area to Rock Creek to 14th and U, will be changing substantially between this year and next. Four of the nine members are not running for re-election this year, and two of those districts are contested along with two others where an incumbent faces a challenger.

In 2B02, west of Connecticut Avenue, Daniel Warwick and Jonathan Padget are both vying to succeed Kevin O'Connor, who moved out of the neighborhood. Perhaps reflecting the way this district is rich in transit, bicycling, and walking, both candidates answered a question about parking by discussing ways to reduce parking demand rather than add more parking.

Warwick served as the ANC's Public Policy Fellow recently and also helped start the transportation committee. He has a very deep understanding of many issues, as is clear from his interview on the Short Articles About Long Meetings blog. Padget expressed good ideas as well, but in much less detail, and Warwick's valuable work on the ANC already seems to make him an ideal candidate.

Nicole Mann, who commutes by bicycle every day from north Dupont to H Street, has been an integral part of the ANC's transportation committee, which I also serve on. She is bidding to represent 2B08, as recent ANC chair Will Stephens is stepping down. Meamwhile, Mann's opponent, Robert Sinners, sounded quite pro-car-dependence and anti-new-residents in his SALM interview.

The ANC's chair, Noah Smith, has has done an excellent job as commissioner and chair of the transportation committee. He also drawn a challenger in his district 2B09, Ed Hanlon, who focuses extensively on his complaints about growth and argues for one-side-of-the-street parking which would be very problematic without additional tweaks in Dupont Circle.

In the neighborhood's southeast, commissioner Abigail Nichols in 2B05 has been a regular voice against new housing, nightlife (sometimes with good reason, sometimes not), and other elements of a vibrant, urban neighborhood. Jonathan Jagoda takes a more balanced view of many of these issues.

6B (Capitol Hill)

Last year, we highlighted two key races in southern Capitol Hill's ANC 6B, where residents staunchly opposed to development on the Hine school site were running on an anti-growth platform against Ivan Frishberg and Brian Pate in the two districts closest to the site.

Pate and Frishberg are stepping down this year, but the races in those districts still maintain the same tenor. In 6B05 northeast of 8th and Pennsylvania SE, Steve Hagedorn is running for the seat. Hagedorn has been involved with the ANC already as part of its Hill East Task Force, and as a volunteer with Congressional Cemetery.

He faces Carl Reeverts, one of the leaders of the Eastern Market Metro Community Association (EMMCA), which has organized opposition to Hine and is part of litigation trying to block or delay the project. Ellen Opper-Weiner is also stridently against the development and many other changes in the neighborhood.

Just to the west, the race in 6B02 pits Diane Hoskins, a wetlands lobbyist and environmentalist (formerly with the District Department of the Environment) against Jerry Stroufe, another EMMCA leader who ran last year against Frishberg.

And many more!

There are hundreds of ANC seats across the city, many contested, many not. Many have a spirited contest which doesn't turn on policy to the extent that some of these do. And there are far more races worth talking about than we have time or space to discuss.

What ANC races in your area are worth watching?

The 11th Street Bridge Park gets a brilliant design. Will it succeed?

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.


A diagram of the different activities on the bridge.

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.


A section showing how the park is laid out.

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.


An outdoor theatre would have multiple levels.

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.


A detailed section drawing. Click to enlarge.

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.


Views extend across different levels, improving visibility and making the site feel safer.

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.


Section drawing showing the design's ecological features.

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.


Trees could buffer the park from I-295.

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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