The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

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.  

Zoning


Get to know DCĺs new zoning with this map

After years of delays and extensive public input, DC's zoning board approved a new zoning code in January. It will actually take effect in September. This map helps homeowners understand how the new zoning applies to them.

The zoning update includes some key steps forward, like allowing some homeowners to rent out garages or basements where it's illegal today.

Otherwise, unless you live downtown, nothing dramatic will change. The zoning update generally doesn't change the density and form someone can build in your neighborhood. Most specific rules, like how big and what shape a "court" can be, also don't change, and you're not expected to know them all unless you're an architect or land use attorney.

But what does it mean?

The reason so little seems to be changing is because the zoning code basically consists of three parts: an administrative framework, rules for development in general, and land use rules specific to each zone district.

Most of the rewrite was reorganizing existing rules written in 1958 and patched several times over the years. That means updating the language, addressing new uses, and closing loopholes. Sure, there are some big controversial city-wide changes like permitting granny cottages in single family residential areas and reducing parking minimums.

What will likely change is the name of the zone you live in. In the old code, most zones were R (Residential) or C (Commercial); now, residential zones include the old R, RF (for residential flats, like row houses), and RA (for apartments); many commercial zones, which have long allowed residential and commercial together, are called MU (mixed-use), or D for downtown zones, and so on.

This table shows how the existing zone districts fit into the new zones. The interactive map (image at the top of the post) lets you compare old and new zoning side by side.

There are a lot more zone districts now—sort of. Some neighborhoods (like Cleveland Park) have "overlays" that customize their zones. Many changed the underlying zoning dramatically, which wasn't readily understandable without flipping back and forth between sections.

In the new code, instead of overlays, there is just a new basic zone with all the rules from the underlying zone or the overlay. For example, the old R-1-B zone with the Foxhall and Tree and Slope overlay (for areas near the Potomac river on the west side of DC) will be R-9. The R-1-B zone with Naval Observatory overlay will be R-12.

The actual effect of the overlays remains, but you don't have to reconcile two totally different sections of zoning code to figure out what's going on. I think it's a lot simpler to understand, whether you're designing a building or imagining what your neighborhood could look like.

Public Spaces


Four wild ideas for memorials in DC

What if we re-thought how we commemorate important people and events? A federal competition is asking that question, and four finalists will now create memorials that answer it.


All images from NPS/NCPC.

The jurors for Memorials of the Future picked design teams whose proposals center on topical subjects: national parks, climate change, immigration, and personal subjects. Each of the designs envisions using space outside of the National Mall, and three put digital, interactive technology at the forefront. Two don't create new public places at all, but rather add to existing ones.

Each of the four finalists will get $15,000 to bring their concepts to life over the next three weeks, and they'll meet a few times along the way to get feedback from the competition's sponsors (the National Park Service, National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute). Then, in September, a jury will pick a winner.

What's most intriguing about this competition, though, isn't the question of whose design will be "the best"—at the end of the day, there aren't plans to actually build any of the memorials. It's all about the thoughts the designers are provoking.

These designs are saying something new about the concept of memorialization. They all push back on the 20th-century idea that you need a large, permanent commemorative site that tells a single side of an event. Even if nothing as radical as these ideas is realized, this kind of research is a great way of challenging conventional wisdom without much pressure.

Here are the finalists:


American Wild

American Wild: A Memorial

Washington, DC is a much bigger destination than any of our country's individual national parks. This project proposes bringing the sights and sounds from these parks into the capital.

The designers are Shelby Doyle, Justine Holzman, Forbes Lipschitz, Halina Steiner, and their ambition is to project a a monument onto Metro stations. Short of that, they'd build small theater pods across the city.

While regular WhichWMATA players will note the image shows the U Street station, the team proposes installing the first display at Anacostia.


Climate Chronograph

Climate Chronograph

Because climate change is a slow and invisible process, its impact is hard to visualize. Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter's entry tries to bring it to light with a grove of cherry trees standing on ground sloping into the river at Hains Point. As sea levels rise, the brackish water would submerge more and more of the trees, killing them.

The project includes a platform to observe the site. The designers hope it becomes a stark visualization for people as they return to DC multiple times over their lives and see fewer living trees.


THE IM(MIGRANT)'s primary site is Randle Circle.

THE IM(MIGRANT)

This design by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Janelle L. Johnson, Michelle Lin-Luse, and Radhika Mohan takes place along Minnesota Avenue, playing on the theme of moving (along a road, in this case). The team proposes scattering exhibits and audio presentations in existing infrastructure from the 11th Street Bridge Park to Randle Circle.

The exhibits would tell varying stories of migration, inside the United States as well as internationally. Randle Circle, now just a traffic island, would become a plaza for performances, rallies, and day-to-day use.


VOICEOVER

VOICEOVER

This project by Troy Hillman, Amy Catania Kulper, Anca Trandafirescu, and Yurong Wu records oral histories from local residents. Autonomous parrot-shaped drones would then visit parks, perch, and replay the stories. Hearing about how people relate to a place or event, the creators say, will enrich visitors' experiences.

I think five years ago, this would have seemed completely absurd. But drones have becoming increasingly autonomous as they become more common.

Plus, in contrast to some of the other smartphone apps where the user is in full control of understanding the content, the experience here would be far more public; users wouldn't be able to shut off parts of stories, be they uncomfortable or heartwarming.

Each of these are interesting provocations, even if I'm not sure I'd personally want them to come to fruition. But with people still clamoring for space in the city, hopefully some sponsors will pick out one or two ideas to put into their memorials.

Public Spaces


You know the memorials DC has today. How should they be different in the future?

Washington remembers national events through big, permanent structures. Is that the only way to do it? A competition is asking designers to come up with alternatives that are less expensive, more interactive, and more flexible.


American Wild would bring National Parks into metro with video and audio projections. Image from NCPC.

TheMemorials for the Future competition asks designers to rethink commemmoration. Sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and an architecture nonprofit called the Van Alen Institute, they will announce four finalists tonight, from a pool of 30 semifinalists.


Neighborhood Memorials repurposes existing infrastructure.

The sponsors are looking ways out of a big problem: too many people want to leave a permanent mark on the National Mall. Unfortunately, the Mall has run out of space. Worse, designs have gotten bigger over time.

Since it's hard for Congress to say no, the competition is a way to show future memorial sponsors alternatives. Maybe a commission will consider a digital memorial instead of wedging bronze into a grass triangle. Perhaps people would rather remember their cause if it brought trees to a neglected neighborhood instead of another statue kids can't play on.


Re-frame, Re-cast, Re-tell: Freedom Stories along the Anacostia is a return to memorial trees, in underserved neighborhoods. Image from NCPC.

Judges already picked picked 30 semifinalsts, which are online. Each one consists of a single image and a paragraph that proposes a novel way to commemorate an overlooked issue.

The ideas are little out there. And most descriptions come in overcomplicated verbiage. That's OK. This kind of competition is all about coming up with novel ideas in a risk-free, low cost environment, winnowing them down, and refining them. That will start Tonight when jury of planners, architects, and administrators announces five finalists.

Spending a few thousand to explore some ideas ahead of time is a great way to not spend many millions on something suboptimal later. Think of it as design research.

Politicians have become obsessed with size.

Why change at all? Washington is known around the world for large memorials that use space and sculpture to create an emotional response.

This image is only 100 years old. Before the McMillan Commission, the National Mall was a winding garden like New York's Central Park, littered with illustrative monuments, like statues and memorial trees. The McMillan Commission's philosophy changed to a much more immersive format.


Photo by Damon Green on Flickr.

Generally, before then Washington's memorials were like the 1876 Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park: a statue with a clear message standing in a public square. Compare that to the 1921 Lincoln Memorial. It's a building at the end of a two-mile long axis. Visitors must climb steep stairs to enter into a spare, dimly-lit room, and reflect upon an ambiguous psychological portrait of the president.


Architect Henry Bacon used technology unavailable in 1876, like electric light to increase the dramatic effect. Photo by Rizwan Sheikh on Flickr.

The new way of commemorating worked. So, memorials started taking over more space. The problems was compounded as modern tastes started asking for nuanced narratives and educational elements. The embodiment of this trend is probably the FDR Memorial completed in 1997. Presenting a panoramic take of Roosevelt's presidency, it takes criticism for being scattershot fantasy and not nearly inclusive enough. All that over an enormous 7.5 acre site with expensive foundation work.

What else could we try?

Many of the design pitches reflect these trends away from a single focus and an unchanging narrative.


An installation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Image from NIH.

The most radical of the sketches crowdsource their content and last for only a short period of time. These follow in the footsteps of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which assembled thousands of grave-sized fabric quilts, hand made by a deceased person's loved one into a massive display. Aggregated, the units of personal sentimentality showed it to be a public crisis.


Homes for the Homeless, installed in Adams Morgan. Image from NCPC.

Home for the Homeless would mimic how social media's digital records in physical form around the city by giving physical spaces to tell homeless stories. MonYouMent lets people mark out their own important sites.


MonYOUment is a kit to allow anyone to make a small monument. Image from NCPC.

Others fall into what the art world calls "indexical," meaning that it's an abstract but physical connection to some event, rather than a work that's designed to represent something and therefore laden with its creators biases, like Abraham Lincoln in front of a grateful freed slave.


Content of Confinement transports a literal piece of Topaz Internment Camp to the Tidal Basin. Image from NCPC.

That's what you see in re-doing the topic of the existing granite and bronze Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II with a literal piece of the ground in an internment camp amid the Japanese-donated Cherry Blossom trees on the Tidal Basin.


Visitors would leave physical check marks in A Monument to Democracy. Image from NCPC.

The Memorial to Democracy asks visitors to assemble abstract markers into shapes, each symbolizing a person.


Climate Chronograph would disappear as Hains Point does. Image from NCPC.

Or, there's Climate Chronograph on Hains Point, which disappears under rising waters to mark out melting ice caps.


Virtual Memorial would annotate existing monuments and historic sites. Image from NCPC.

Multiple ideas rely on smartphones to remember people. Projections onto public surfaces are one way, more introverted proposals are augmented reality and audioguide options that anyone could access to interpret the world around them.


Pop-up Portal would use digital media to share experiences and current events. Image from NCPC.

More ambitious are the ones that try to use those digital programs as mediums in public. There's something powerful about showing novel content—provided it's not hijacked into Memorial McMemorialface, but what's the public benefit of content that can be accessed on a phone in bed at home?


Cultur-Altar brings a ritual space to Eastern Market. Image from NCPC

The one that I really do like is the Cultur-Altar. It's built around a ritual, rather than an object. Artifacts of memory are brought to Eastern Market during commemoration and burned afterward. The idea of letting go of artifacts while keeping a memory alive is more about building social ties than making a mark.

After all, Washington is a living city and the mall has been its most evocative when the buildings fade into backdrops, whether for rallies or picnics.

Development


The FBI building's new owner will be allowed to build tall, and D Street is coming back

Reconstructing D Street NW and allowing buildings taller than DC's usual height limit are likely at downtown's J. Edgar Hoover Building, once the FBI moves out. The National Capital Planning Commission's staff backed these proposals, and today the official commissioners will likely accept them. The staff left a third question, how wide the sidewalks should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, up for debate.


Photo of the J. Edgar Hoover Building site before its construction, with lot boundaries outlined in yellow. Photo from NCPC.

The single brutalist building sits on two parcels, called "squares," which D Street bisected before the 1960s. The FBI plans to trade the land with a developer (where it would move is TBD), and the NCPC's decision will make clear exactly what could be built on the land once the FBI moves out.

The first recommendation from the NCPC staff is to return the 70-foot wide swathe of land where D Street once ran to a public right-of-way. That doesn't mean this space will be a typical street. Since the rules are just shaping the building's mass, NCPC's staff left open the door open for other possibilities, like pedestrian-only and pedestrian-priority woonerf spaces between the two restored blocks.


The FBI site in the Pennsylvania Avenue special planning area. Image from NCPC.

The North block will be tall and dense.

The second rule NCPC is poised to adopt is that buildings on the large northern block, called Square 378, will rise to 160 feet. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act specifically allows buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to climb that high, measured from Pennsylvania Avenue. The 1974 plan that created these square guidelines has sculpted the surrounding cityscape, so although some buildings reach 160 feet by the White House, those buildings' bulk steps back in tiers several times away from Pennsylvania. The Newseum is a great example: it's only 90' at the Pennsylvania Avenue property line, but rises to 140' at the apartment building at the rear.


Maps showing heights around the FBI Building. Buildings to the west (left) tend to be taller. Map from NCPC.

Buildings on the north block also have to fill out much of the block on the first floor. Because of its size, the block will almost certainly end up as a few different buildings above grade. The 2016 D-7 zone caps offices and hotel density, but allows unlimited apartment density, and planners will likely insist on some mix of uses. Plus, with buildings aligned to the property lines, the likelihood of an internal semi-public central space, similar to CityCenter, is higher.

The southern block is wedged between priorities

The future of the southern, triangular block is more complicated because of the way Pennsylvania Avenue was reimagined in the 20th Century. In order to shape the scenic view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue symmetrically with Federal Triangle, planners want the new buildings to have horizontal setbacks, like New York skyscrapers. More importantly, the size depends on how wide planners choose to make the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.


The current building is set back 75 feet from the curb, which is enough for three rows of trees. Image from NCPC

The current FBI Building sits nearly 75 feet away from Pennsylvania Avenue's curb and 40 feet from the property line laid out in the L'Enfant Plan:

That's the result of a 1964 plan that envisioned the avenue as a grand federal space and nothing else. Providing space for parade grandstands was more important than street activity. Later planners went for a more modest setback, but recently, facades have risen close to the property line, as at the Newseum.


The Newseum is much closer to the street than the FBI building.

With a re-opened D Street and a 50-foot sidewalk, the south site will be small. Leaving a larger footprint seems like the best way to get an active ground level. Setbacks a few floors up would protect the views and leave a large enough footprint for uses other than high-end residential, at least at the lower levels.

The NCPC report leaves this issue up for debate, apparently because of a conflict between two roles it has to uphold. One is to preserve the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan that created these guidelines in the first place. The other is preserving the L'Enfant Plan, which says buildings should rise at the property line. In fact, the District's Historic Preservation Office feels that not building to the property line would have a negative effect on the L'Enfant Plan. Their objection might be a formality, but it's enough to leave it up for a longer debate.

It comes down to the roadway

NCPC's staff mildly recommends mirroring the setback on the south side of the street, at Federal Triangle, to create a more symmetrical streetscape and leave generous sidewalks to handle the crowds. Where buildings rise from the historic streets, like between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the 20-foot sidewalks can get crowded.

This rationale leaves out an important detail: the reason those sidewalks seem crowded is the width of the roadway.


L'Enfant's design for Pennsylvania Avenue had an 80-foot roadway, 30-foot sidewalks, and 10-foot buffers. Image from NCPC.

There's nothing sacred about that width. In the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a much narrower roadbed there. Then, at the cusp of the automobile age, the McMillan Commission and others decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue to make it more striking. As with the other roads widened in the wake of this plan, the reality of streets congested with fast moving vehicles was obscured behind glamorous renderings of grand boulevards.


The McMillan Commission and its successors widened the roadway to 107.5 feet. Image from NCPC.

The truth is that Pennsylvania Avenue will never be symmetrical. On the north side, multiple landmarked buildings rise taller than Federal Triangle. One side will have some street bustle, the other will be formal. It may be better to accept this asymmetry and design around it.

While part of NCPC considers what will replace the FBI building, other staff are studying how to make Pennsylvania Avenue more lively in the long term. If that's the goal, right-sizing the street is the best way to get the sidewalks to handle crowds. It wouldn't be the first time space allocated to cars in the early 1900s was returned: the two gravel paths on the Mall were turned over to cars for decades before pedestrianization in the 70s. The aesthetic impact remains the same.

NCPC planners will move on to finer grained detail with today's decisions out of the way. A reopened D Street and a dense north block are steps in the right direction. Planning the south block for a future where pedestrian space and monumental views aren't beholden to car traffic follows as well.

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Public Spaces


Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

Georgetown Day School recently downsized its plans for a mixed-use project in Tenleytown. Aside from cutting 50 units of housing, the developers also canceled plans for a pocket park. We called that a loss, but some skeptics said it wasn't a big deal because the park would have been very small. But when it comes to parks, quality is way more important than size. These 10 "teacup parks" show that.


Paley Park in Manhattan. Photo by Mike Boucher on Flickr.

In its original proposal, GDS offered to close a slip lane between Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street and create a pocket park of roughly 7400 square feet. The school offered a few designs, including a splash pad, a skatepark, and a demonstration garden. With the reduction in size, GDS will still close the slip lane for safety reasons, but it will just be another grass triangle.

Opponents of the GDS deal claimed that this small park was just too small, unlike what's typical in Ward 3. Fort Reno, for example, is 33 acres, or 1.5 million square feet.

But little parks can be everything for building engaging streets, something Tenleytown does not have. Here are 10 great park and plazas less than 15,000 square feet that make their neighborhoods a lot better.

Here are 10 great park and plazas that take up less than 15,000 square feet yet still make their neighborhoods a lot better.

1. Paley Park, New York City


Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

If you ask a planner for an example of a pocket park, they'll probably bring up Paley Park. At 4200 square feet, it's smaller than the Ellicott Park would have been. But a water feature, movable seating, and a few delicate trees create a beloved retreat in one of the busiest, loudest parts of Manhattan.

2. Bethesda Row Fountain


Just a slightly thicker street corner. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Because of the lively nearby streets, this tiny triangle of land in Bethesda has been swamped since it opened in 2000, despite being a mere 1500 square feet.

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza


The plaza hosts frequent events. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Designed by ZGF architects, buildings frame this 12,000 square foot plaza, which is just as lively hosting public events or a farmers market as it is demonstrations or a children's splash park.

The design screens the play area from traffic with adult benches. Photo by Bill McNeal on Flickr.

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles


Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

Residents turned a leftover sliver of concrete in Silver Lake into this 2000 square foot parklet, where desert plants shield seating from traffic.

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park


Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

A small neighborhood park, this fits play structures and a field into less than 8,000 square feet. It's hardly the National Mall, but it's still incredibly useful and convenient for its neighborhood.

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York


Fowler Square's temporary configuration. Image Courtesy NYC DOT.

New York's Department of Transportation connected a little island by transferring a single block from cars to pedestrians to create an 8,400 square foot plaza. Although drivers originally opposed it, it has become the highest-rated of New York's plazas and enough of a neighborhood amenity to make the change permanent.

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia


Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

One corner of a neighborhood park, this skate park's small, 6,000 square foot size works well for inexperienced, younger skateboarders.

8. Fox and Laurel Park and Community Garden, Los Angeles


Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

In a space just twice the Ellicot Park lot (15,000), surrounded by a storage facility, the city fit two playgrounds, native plantings, and a community garden.

9. This private park at Brown University


Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

This quiet space between academic buildings and houses takes up 5,500 square feet, but manages to pack in a secluded urban room.

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)


Is this what they call Tactical Urbanism? Image from Google Streetview.

Some residents took a play set out to one of DC's many leftover grass triangles. It's not pretty, and probably not legal, but it's a lot more use than most of them get.

Small can still be great

Whether or not Ellicott Street gets a park, there many neighborhoods in DC that would benefit from a few pocket parks. Meanwhile, Tenleytown is trying to revamp its public spaces through the Main Street program. These examples show that it's foolish to get hung up on the size of a discrete strip of land. With busy nearby streets and good design, you can squeeze a lot of life into a modest space.

Of course, this is just what I could come up with from memory and asking a few people. There are tons of great public spaces of this size. Can you think of any that caught your eye?

Development


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.


Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.


Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.


Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.


Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

Parking


Roll Call recently made a great point about the Capitol's parking problem

In a recent post about cleaning up after Snowzilla, Roll Call, a blog newspaper that covers Congress, published a graphic showing that if you combined all the parking lots on the Capitol Grounds in need of plowing, they'd cover the National Mall. That's a crazy amount of parking.


Imagine if some of Washington's best locations for parks or buildings were parking lots! You don't have to! It's like that today. Image by Roll Call's Sean McMinn and Jia You.

Acres of surface parking lots surround the Capitol and its accessory buildings, and the question of whether they should even be there has long been a sore spot for those paying attention to land use in the District.

That amount of parking is particularly disheartening when you consider that all of these lots used to be blocks of apartments and offices that were very welcoming to people. The McMillan Commission imagined monumental office buildings surrounding the Capitol. In the 1920s, Congress expanded that vision dramatically, adding the open spaces to the north and buying up the lots to the south for future office buildings.

Now, they're parking lots, or parks on top of parking lots. Here's a map of all the surface parking on the Capitol Grounds:


The Capitol Grounds and the surface parking lots. Graphic by the author, with a map from DC GIS.

Congress gets a lot more parking than the rest of the government

The branch of the government that manages the land, the Architect of the Capitol is holding onto the land for now. It likes providing ample parking spaces for legislators, staff, and employees. The AOC won't say exactly how much parking, but a 2005 master plan allotted 5,800 spaces to the House of Representatives alone. Depending on how much the Senate, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and support staff get, the number is probably far higher.


There are federal rules about how much parking there can be for federal employees. Image from NCPC.

Because Congress writes the rules, they've never been subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which sets the parking regulations. The AOC's independence and access to funding has led to a bad reputation, from architecture critics to Congress itself.

To be fair, the AOC does plan to eventually spruce up their properties. Their 2011 Master Plan aims to eliminate all surface parking lots by 2026. But that master plan is short on details for how they'd do that, and it's not clear whether they'd bring the amount of parking in line with the rest of the Federal Government's limits on parking.

Given the sheer volume of parking at the Capitol complex, along with the possibilities for how we could otherwise use the land, the matter of how to scale it back deserves more thought.

Correction: This post originally referred to Roll Call as 'a blog that covers Congress.' While the article at hand was filed on Roll Call's blog, it's more accurate to call the publication a newspaper. Also, it has been clarified to note that the 5,800 figure for parking spaces is only for people who work at the House of Representatives.

Public Spaces


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.

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 fašade.


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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