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 writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

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.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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?

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Intelsat building gets a greener, but not more urban front

The former headquarters of Intelsat, a space-age building on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness Metro, will get a new entrance. The change will soften a harsh corner, but it won't fully repair this non-urban building's relationship to the street.


the new proposed entry. Bottom: the plaza today. Image from VOA via NCPC.


The existing plaza. Image from Capital City, yeah! on Flickr.

The current entrance on Connecticut Avenue is set back far from the street and up a huge flight of steps. It's not ADA compliant, and it's a pretty bleak, bricked-over expanse. The building's new owner will remove the plaza and replace it with a garden, fountains, and a more visible entrance.

How this building came to be

The building, rebranded "4000 Connecticut Avenue," is a product of DC's unique relationship with the federal government. The State Department owns the land as part of the International Center, a campus meant for embassies and governmental buildings. It leased it to Intelsat when that was still an international treaty organization.

After Intelsat went private, Congress changed the law in 2008 to legalize Intelsat's lease. That opened the door for the 601 Companies to acquire the lease and reposition the building as an office building.


The existing site plan with pedestrian improvements. The main entrance is at the right. Image from VOA via NCPC.

Opened in phases between 1984 and 1988, the building is one of the more notable modernist buildings in DC. Its architect, John Andrews, was an influential Australian architect who made his name designing dramatic brutalist buildings in Canada.

By the time Intelsat ran a competition to design its headquarters in 1979, the two energy crises had put the focus on efficiency. Architects worried that the new expectations would smother exciting design under layers of insulation. And so Andrews' building won heaps of praise for delivering the large, energy efficient buildings corporations wanted without losing any of the expressive geometry he was known for.


Sectional diagram showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.

One thing that earned Andrews particular praise is the way he repeated the same three or four elements, like the octagonal blocks, round towers, and courtyards, to create different effects. The main entrance on International Drive looks like a Battlestar Galactica set. The south entrance is a quiet corporate park. And the north entrance, at Van Ness and Connecticut, closest to the Metro and points downtown, echoes the monumental entries of neoclassical federal buildings and their brutalist successors.


Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

What didn't work, and what will get better

Unfortunately, like most grand entries of the period, the entry comes across as stark and intimidating. So it makes sense that 601 Companies wants to make it more welcoming and visible as it becomes the main entrance of the building.

The changes, designed by VOA Associates, will also improve pedestrian circulation around the building, especially the green area along Connecticut which is apparently called "Squirrel Park."


The new entryway will get rid of a large decrepit plaza. Image from VOA via NCPC.

More openness of the park areas is great. Like a suburban office park, the grassy areas around Intelsat are unwalkable or underused. These changes will make them more into an asset to the community. To me, new entry area is definitely an improvement, aesthetically, making it much more inviting. There are more places to sit, the high-end granite and marble will be nice additions, and the front door details are more humane than Andrews originally planned.

But it still feels like a more ambitious alteration would be appropriate. The accessible entrance is still separate from the main one, and the renovation does not fix the fundamental error of the building, one that goes back to when the site was the secluded campus of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

Now, the site supports an office building that is part of the city. Andrews's building has a lot of value architecturally, but its value to creating a distinctive place around a Metro station is equally important. The site deserves a bolder adaptive reuse, one that will fill in some of the unusable green space, correcting its outdated disconnection from the neighborhood, even as it preserves the existing building. A good adaptation would make the geometry of original building even more powerful.

But for now, this is okay.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Gehry trims Eisenhower Memorial tapestries

Architect Frank Gehry and the National Capital Planning Commission continue to tweak designs for the proposed Eisenhower Memorial. The latest change removes two of the three metal tapestries that had largely defined the original proposal.


The revised design, without side tapestries. All images from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

The new design is the product of negotiation between Gehry and NCPC, who last April declined to approve the plans, and sent them back to Gehry for revisions.

On the memorial's east and west sides, two lone columns now replace the twin columns and side tapestries. The remaining columns align perfectly with the adjacent buildings, forming the north corners of a rectangle.


How the columns changed.

NCPC staff seemed pleased with how the revision respects the building line on Independence Avenue, Maryland Avenue may be a different story.

Staff had been concerned that the memorial intruded into the right-of-way along Independence and Maryland Avenues. And while the revised design is clear along Independence and on the north side of Maryland Avenue, the remaining tapestry still crosses into the Maryland Avenue right-of-way.

During discussion, NCPC staff and Gehry staff alluded to other designs they had considered and then rejected, with smaller tapestries and even no tapestries at all.

Craig Webb of Gehry Partners said the architects and the Memorial Commission rejected the versions with a smaller south tapestry, because that it would look too much like a flat object and no longer tie the space together.


Comparison of April (above) and September (below) Maryland corridors

The various NCPC members reiterated their points from April. DC Mayoral appointee Rob Miller criticized the size of the columns, and at-large presidential appointee Elizabeth White criticized the size of the tapestries. Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and Peter May of the National Park Service both lamented the loss of artistic authority, but insisted the design is still good.

Congressman Darrell Issa reiterated his desire to complete the memorial. After the meeting, it's clear that he does not want the project to fail on his watch.

Issa, who sits on NCPC as Chairman of the House Oversight Commission but rarely attends meetings, dominated the discussion. He alternated between complimenting the design, criticizing the Memorial Commission, and lamenting the decrepit plaza in front of the Department of Education.

He laid out his view of the situation bluntly: while insisting he would be glad to build the memorial as presented, he noted that the design might never be built with tapestries for financial reasons.

But, he said, "The one thing we can't do… is go back to square one."

Overall, the commission reacted surprisingly in favor of the design compared to last April. The final approval will likely come at the next NCPC meeting, when the project is expected to return for a vote.

Issa offers a chance for Gehry to walk away

One reason the Memorial Commission has had trouble raising private funds is because of opposition to Gehry's design by Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan. However, she has said repeatedly that she is only opposed to the tapestries and would support everything else if the tapestries disappeared.

Issa, who lives in Southern California, recounted meeting with Gehry over the summer. Gehry told him the tapestries are crucial to his vision, but that he doesn't want to "get in the way" of completing a memorial in general.

Wary of being caught in a political failure, Gehry has apparently offered to drop the tapestries and drop his imprimatur. In that scenario, the design team would complete the project without its tapestries.

Issa provided a polite compromise suggesting NCPC approve a staged design, where the federal government would fund the reconstruction of the park elements, leaving funding for the columns and tapestries up in the air.


The memorial core, with D-Day and youth sculptures visible.

It would be an immense shame for a project like this to collapse into design by committee.

At its core, the memorial is a brilliant concept. It does what the best memorials do: speak to our fundamental values through the life of a specific person. Putting Eisenhower's personal life in the context of the crises he faced, it challenges our leaders rather than flattering them.

The design as a whole emphasized this. Now, as the process nears its conclusion, any further edits should clarify Gehry's vision and not dilute it.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


The South Building in and its context in 1941.

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

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

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

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

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Farming will replace parking on the Mall

What's now an ad hoc landscape of parking lots and scruffy lawns could transform into the latest attraction on the National Mall. The US Department of Agriculture is planning to convert its grounds into an outdoor museum of cultivation.


Rendering of the teaching garden and market shelter. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

One hundred years ago, the US Department of Agriculture maintained a world-class arboretum on the Mall. Before the McMillan plan, USDA split the grounds of the National Mall with the the Smithsonian and the Botanic Gardens. Well-loved by local residents, the arboretum was one of Washington's must-see tourist attractions in the 1890s.


The Arboretum in transition on the National Mall in 1906. The half-finished Whitten Building is at the right.

After a big fight, all that remains from the period is USDA's headquarters, the James Whitten Building. The 1908 building is the only office building on the Mall. It's a big monumental edifice that's closed to the public. It's surrounded by a motor court, parking lots, and unexciting plantings. It's a dull spot on "America's Front Yard."

That could change if USDA goes ahead with a plan to turn its grounds into a public place of of interpretation and outreach.


The Whitten Building site plan. The Mall is at the top (north). The bottom is Independence Ave. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

Along the Mall, new landscaping by OLBN will make the ceremonial entrance more attractive. On the west side, a garden of heirloom plants for pollinating insects will surround a future memorial to black patriots. On the east side of the building, a new landscaping will expand the demonstration garden added in 2009.

Near the Smithsonian Metro station, the design proposes a market shelter clad in wood and bronze, on axis with the Beaux-arts building. Already, a farmer's market takes over the eastern parking lot on weekends. With the renovation, the space will become a permanent garden plaza.

Other parking lots along Independence Avenue will be repaved with attractive materials that allow water to percolate into the ground. Over time, the department says it will use these more and more for events like farm equipment display.


Independence Ave. street section, with improvements to keep trees healthy. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

All of the sidewalks will see reconstruction to green public spaces. Stabilized ground, new permeable surfaces, and stormwater retention cells will make growing trees in the area possible again. Along C Street SW, the project will create a timeline of agricultural technologies. A similar exhibit runs around the the Department of Transportation's headquarters at the Navy Yard.


The security plan. Red is a vehicle barrier built into benches, hedges, and walls. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

The interpretive gardens are one aspect. Security is another reason for the renovation. Thankfully, the design tightly wraps attractive security barriers and fences close to the building. Rather than try to expand the security perimeter by absorbing the city around it, USDA secured a Level IV facility in a way that's not just friendly, it attracts the right kind of activity.

Washington's various design review boards have approved the design with minor improvements, specifically, eliminating parking spaces from the formal entrance on the Mall side and adding street trees.

The design is an excellent effort to create an inviting public realm while meeting the needs of federal agencies. Culturally, it brings the bureaucratic mission of the department into contact with the daily life of city folks. As the Southwest Ecodistrict develops and nearby properties change hands, the quality of these spaces will become more and more important to city life.

The USDA knows that biodiversity makes healthier crops than monocultures. This plan shows that USDA understands that the same rules apply to urban spaces. Hopefully, Washington will see more of this line of thought as agencies rebuild.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Metro plans a unique canopy for Dupont's north entrance

Metro plans on covering Dupont Circle's large, circular Q Street station entrance with a tweaked version of its iconic canopy.


Rendering of the proposed Q Street escalator canopy. Image from NCPC.

The elliptical shelter will be the first unique design since Metro began regularly adding canopies to protect escalators. While most outdoor Metro escalators go underground in tight rectangular shafts, at Q Street the escalators pass through a huge drum-shaped pit.

Because the pit is such an unusual shape, Metro needs a different canopy design.

The unique design passed reviews by the National Capital Planning Commission and Commission of Fine Arts this spring, with only minor alterations.

If all continues to go as planned, WMATA expects to complete construction in 2018.

History of the canopy program

The engineers of the original Metro system didn't think it would be cost-effective to cover all the system's many escalators. But by 1999 increasing escalator breakdowns and a change to DC's building code required WMATA to build canopies over its entrances.

After a bad reaction to early canopies at Petworth and Glenmont, Metro held a design competition. They ultimately chose a simple glass design by Lourie & Chenoweth Architects because it evokes stations' coffered ceilings and can be easily adapted to multiple sites.

After finalizing the designs, Metro installed the first of its standardized canopies in 2003 at Virginia Square, Brookland, L'Enfant Plaza, and Medical Center.

The standard canopy design

Imagine a doughnut that's standing upright, 600 feet in diameter, buried in the ground. The architects took a rectangular patch of that doughnut's surface as the overall shape for the new canopy.

This meant a double-curved surface could be made out of flat pieces of glass and simple pieces of stainless steel.

If this idea sounds familiar, it was used to build the Sydney Opera House and the glass wall at Arena Stage.

Other glass roofs curved in two directions require expensive triangular construction, fragile cold-bent glass, or glass that pops out slightly. The latter is how architects designed the ceiling at the Kogod Courtyard.


The glass roof of the Smithsonian's Kogod Courtyard. Image by Foster + Partners / Buro Happold.

Because of the doughnut-like "toric" shape, the Metro canopy's glass only needs to be cut into trapezoids, and the steel girders need curves in only one direction. Most of the units repeat, simplifying manufacturing. Depending on how wide or long the escalator shaft is, Metro can stretch the geometry to fit. The architects got a lot of visual play for Metro's dollar.


Schematic drawing of the standard Metro escalator canopy. Image from WMATA.

The Dupont canopy

For the Q Street canopy, Metro brought back Lourie & Chenoweth. Their design relies on a geometric trick that keeps the structure light and window system simple, while allowing for a large enough canopy to cover the escalator pit.

To adapt the system to the circular opening, Lourie & Chenoweth simply cut an elliptical section from the torus, instead of the regular rectangular one. This means the entire rim will require curved cuts. The steel girder will take the form of a bent circle, directly above the lip of the drum.

The design is meant to keep the plantings down below alive, in addition to all the usual requirements of canopies.

Growing up, I thought the Q Street entrance was an incredibly cool way to see the sky. But as an adult, my enthusiasm is tempered by all the umbrellas I've lost to the winds this pit creates. Hopefully, this design will retain some of what makes the entrance unique, while more effectively keeping riders and escalators out of the rain.

What do you think, is it a great twist on an existing idea, or should they have gone for something totally new?

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since

No one could have foreseen that DC's zoning could push middle-class residents out of the District and force people to drive even to get milk, right? Actually, planners in 1970 warned of exactly of these dangers.

44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.


Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

The first Walter Washington admini­stration hired planning firm Barton-Aschman to examine the zoning code after the MLK assassination riots, urban renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolts. Planners greatly rethought their approaches after these seismic events.

Not all of Barton-Aschman's comments were negative, but they criticized the technocratic, autocentric attitude that underlay the 1958 zoning code. They found fault with the 1958 code's absolute separation of commercial and residential uses, which underlies the ban on corner stores.

They noted that the then-planned Metro system justified higher densities downtown and less reliance on automobiles. Finally, they anticipated that zoning restrictions made it hard to build enough housing for a growing city.

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

Studies for the 1958 code by its main author, a consultant named Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed large families and urban renewal instead of historic districts. The 1970 report says:

It is possible that zoning makes it difficult to develop new family-type housing units in the district, while also inhibiting the development of high-rise apartments which may be more attractive to single persons and families without children. ... If zoning helps deter population growth, is it contributing to an imbalanced society in the District?
They noted that these restrictions would push out the middle class, "leaving predominantly the rich and the poor of both races." They wrote that this is not a local fluke, but one that is recognizable nationwide:
The Douglas Commission has pointed out that existing codes and ordinances of major cities across the country deter the development of low-cost housing by private industry. Land is too expensive, parcels are to small, height and floor area ratios are too low, and density patterns are too restrictive to encourage modern, attractive, and livable low cost residential projects.
Aggressive downzoning, ostensibly to preserve urban character, exacerbated these problems during the 1980s. The report raised this concern, warning, "Local residents might stretch the zoning process to become exclusionary." The specter of explicit segregation was fresh in the public's memory, so they worried that the code might be abused to the same end.

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

Barton-Aschman's 1970 report was blunt about how Metro would change the city:

Perhaps the metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
Lewis, meanwhile, saw his plan as an alternative to a mass transit system. At a public hearing on July 28th, 1956, he justified his plan:
Washington has, of course, a free choice as to which means of transportation it wishes to dominate the central city, ... no new transit system can possibly start operation for several years at the earliest, and it is therefore obvious that the [1958] zoning must be based on solid present trends and solid present fact.
Those trends? Declining transit ridership and the extensive network of highways that were soon to snake their way through Washington's neighborhoods.

In his published report, as well as the 20 public meetings held to discuss the plan, Lewis saw those highways as serving a second function, separating residential and commercial uses.

He saw the inner beltway as a great "dam" that would forever keep a shrunken downtown from bleeding into into residential neighborhoodsat least the ones that survived highway construction. Secondary arterials like Wisconsin Avenue in NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in SE would divide the city into residential cells, free of commerce.


Harold Lewis and NCPC imagined a Washington of nodes an neighborhoods.

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

Lewis also saw corner stores as a blight, and proposed relocating all commercial activity to well-parked shopping centers, like the one in Spring Valley today. Residents could then drive down one of the major thoroughfares to the store.

Although Lewis had to introduce a Special Purpose (SP) mixed-use zone after the first round of comments, he still tried to force noncompliant uses like corner stores to close. The Zoning Advisory Commission decided that the enabling legislation didn't permit that. They agreed that separating uses was theoretically sound, but not politically feasible. Therefore, this attitude persists in the code's minutiae.


Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

We don't know whether the authors at Barton-Aschmann would support the text of the proposed new zoning code as it was set down last September 9th. But we do know that they saw a lot wrong with the text we have now. We've known about those problems for decades; scouring the flawed assumptions and integrating the ad-hoc fixes is unavoidable to create a code for the 21st century.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.

Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review.


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.

As of earlier this year, there have been:

  • 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
  • 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
  • 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
  • 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
  • Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.
Miles away from the 1958 zoning code

Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.

The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.

The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three "experienced" individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.

The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.

Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.

Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.

Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis' proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.

The public addressed Lewis' plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn't break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.

The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.

The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.

Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.

If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.

Little changes shouldn't make it hard to solve big problems

It's not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it's always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it's not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.

More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.

Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.

In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can't afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us