Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Neil Flanagan

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

Apartments on Pennsylvania Avenue? The FBI building's replacement may be more than offices

When the FBI decamps from its Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters and moves to a new building in Maryland or Virginia, its existing building will probably be torn down and replaced. Last week, officials took the first baby step to make that happen, opening the door to a mixed-use development on the site.

Photo by Travel Aficionado on Flickr.

Pennsylvania Avenue has some of America's strictest rules governing what can and cannot be built there. When the FBI leaves, it won't simply be a matter of selling their old building to a developer and seeing what happens. Federal agencies will settle just about everything beforehand.

Quietly at last Thursday's National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) meeting, federal planners laid out what has to happen to replace the wildly unpopular building.

First, a scrum of federal agencies have to untie a knot of rules that govern the site. Step one is changing Pennsylvania Avenue's congressionally chartered 1974 master plan.

Right now that plan says the FBI site must be a single federal office building. But Pennsylvania Avenue would be a livelier part of the city if it had a more diverse mix of building types. The other streets around it, E, 9th, and 10th, could do without the current building's blank walls and literal moat.

So NCPC is proposing to change the plan and allow a developer to split the FBI site into a mix of buildings with both offices and apartments. But there's a hitch.

The agency that created the plan, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, hasn't existed since 1996. Its responsibilities have been devolved to the federal General Services Administration, the National Park Service, and NCPC. To change it, those three agencies have to agree on every step.

Once the three agencies can agree on the master plan revisions, they'll have to develop design guidelines for the property: rules outlining the shape and size of any new buildings.

Almost every property on Pennsylvania Avenue has design guidelines, except the FBI building. It was built before the 1974 plan came into effect, so it never needed them.

Change the plan now to help make a deal

Why start updating the plan now, if the FBI hasn't even left yet? Because having the design guidelines in place will help the FBI move.

Most news about the FBI has focused on where the new headquarters will go. It's not well known that the moving deal involves a land swap. In exchange for building a new headquarters somewhere near the Beltway, that developer will get the desirable land the current headquarters occupies on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since any exchange requires a clear understanding of who gets what, officials have to sort out a general idea of what will go on Pennsylvania Avenue before the FBI can move.

Once the new plan is in place, and after the land swap deal goes through, whatever the new owner proposes will still have to go through the usual gauntlet of design review boards. It will still be a tough process. But setting the framework now, with participation of those agencies, makes the deal less risky.

A long-awaited change

People have wanted to introduce a wider variety of uses to the street in a friendlier building since the 70s. Although the officials who built it had the best intentions to save Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI building is widely seen as a mistake. It's suffered critical and popular disdain since before it was built.

It won't be saved. Both the federal and DC historic preservation offices have agreed that the current building is not worth preserving. Worse, its concrete is falling apart.

Replacing the FBI Building is a great opportunity to improve one of the city's most prominent sites and bring a little more life closer to the Mall. It may take some time, but it will be worth it.

Plans are gelling for a park over the Anacostia. Here are ways to ensure it helps, not displaces, existing residents.

The group behind the plan to build a park on the old 11th Street Bridge is seriously committed to making sure the project is a net gain for the communities around it. It wants to work with both the District government and nonprofits to grow the local workforce, boost small businesses, and increase the area's affordable housing stock.

The 11th Street Bridge Park will concentrate activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

The plan includes 19 concrete recommendations for how to bring economic opportunities to the neighborhoods adjacent to the park without also bringing the negatives that neighborhoods often experience when they get wealthier.

Of course, the 11th Street Bridge Park team, based out of Ward 8's Building Bridges across the River at THEARC, exists mostly to build a park on the foundations of an old highway bridge over the Anacostia River. And it's getting there. The team has raised around 11 of the 45 million dollars required to build and endow the park.

The typical gentrification narrative doesn't work for Anacostia residents

But by its very nature—it would connect Capitol Hill to Historic Anacostia—the coming park will be another chapter in the larger narrative of change in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The Census tracts the Bridge Park team wants to focus its social efforts on. Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

For years, activists have lamented the District's tendency to place social services and subsidized housing in Historic Anacostia. Residents want to see an the increase in home prices, new restaurants, and a refreshed neighborhood image that investment would foster. They say, it's OK if some of that comes from wealthier residents, moving in, as long as they can be around to enjoy it.

Media coverage of gentrification often frames it a zero-sum class conflict with strong racial and cultural overtones. Academic coverage tends to see it as an inevitable outcome of real estate developers seeking big profits on cheap investments. But studies of whether these theories actually predict demographic changes show a mixed record.

The Bridge Park's Equitable Development Task Force is recommending a different approach. It has avoided the inflammatory language of gentrification, instead honing in on investments now that can prevent the involuntary displacement of current residents in the future.

Features of the Bridge Park will celebrate the area's legacy. Image from OMA/OLIN.

The bridge park can take an innovative approach to change

Scott Kratz, the Bridge Park team's leader, sees the project as a chance for the District government and grassroots activists to cooperate on efforts to help grow a neighborhood that has suffered badly from disinvestment.

The Bridge Park team plans to implement a few of the task force's ideas itself. For example, they want to incubate small retail businesses on the bridge, and making the routes to the park more walkable, so people venture into Anacostia's retail strip.

And while the Bridge Park can't do all that much by way of building new housing or pushing for a legislative overhaul of the District's hiring laws, it can reach out and focus the attention of institutions that are already working on those issues on this specific moment and time.

Anacostia's 13th and W Street SE. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Working with the city, Kratz's team wants to establish a community land trust, connect residents to existing public programs, and put local businesses in any buildings built by the District.

Working with seasoned nonprofit organizations, the team wants to push for more housing in the area, both market-rate and affordable, encourage nonprofit developers, and connect teenagers to mentorships.

Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

It's a long list, and some goals are bigger than others. But it shows a vision of constructive approaches to the economic changes that have been happening in DC. It may also be a test case for other economic development projects. If the city is serious about using the Wizards practice facility to improve Congress Heights, maybe it could look to the task force's action plan for ways to go beyond just putting the building in a low-income neighborhood.

You can read the full list here. The task force is accepting comments throughout September. It will present its first round of revisions in October 3rd, and a final, more detailed set of strategies on November 5th.

When it redesigns its campus, Gallaudet hopes to pioneer architecture for the Deaf

The southwestern edge of Gallaudet University borders a growing urban center, but fences close the campus off. Now, the school is rethinking its design and redevelop some of its land to bolster finances. To do this, it's reimagining 6th Street NE as a corridor that zips together deaf and hearing communities.

Gallaudet's 6th Street gate is not exactly community-friendly. Photo by the author.

Gallaudet is using two projects to create the first urban environment designed for the deaf. First, it's redesigning its public spaces, including the 6th Street streetscape, the campus grounds, and a few small buildings. Second, it's developing four large parcels of land that front 6th Street NE.

As the world's only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet has a set of design guidelines the school calls DeafSpace; the redesigns will fit with both that and the 10-year master plan that zoning requires.

Base image from Google Maps.

Gallaudet wants new buildings and new ideas for tailoring its design to the Deaf

Gallaudet's main entrance on Florida Avenue NE is nearly half a mile from where Union Market, the neighborhood's new attraction, sits on 6th Street. Redeveloping the parking garages and auxiliary buildings there will tie the campus to its surroundings without harming its historic campus by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who also designed Central Park.

JBG's conceptual plan for the 6th Street development project. Image from JBG/Gallaudet.

A large part of the development plan has already started. In 2014, the school selected the developer JBG and architect Morris Adjmi; the team behind the Atlantic Plumbing project at 8th & V NW, to build 1.3 million square feet of building on the parcels.

Gallaudet has already used internal workshops and two design processes to pioneer a way of designing spaces for the Deaf. The school wants to stay innovative in this field as moves forward, so it's holding a two-part design competition to shape its public spaces.

For now, it's gathering input from neighboring communities and asking for designers to form teams with specializations like interaction design in addition to architecture and urban planning.

A panel will narrow those teams down to just a handful in October, and the teams will then submit rough designs for feedback from the student and neighborhood communities. After a round of revisions, a jury of experts will pick a winning approach in February.

Using a competition allows Gallaudet to draw on a range of expertise that goes beyond the immediate community, which is important given that this is the school's largest planning endeavor to date.

The Gallaudet master plan emphasizes connections towards the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro. Image from Gallaudet.

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

Gallaudet is promising vibrant streets and high standards of sustainability, both of which are now common in DC projects. But making spaces for deaf people will require designers to think a little harder than usual.

Gallaudet developed its DeafSpace guidelines when it realized its campus didn't suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets. The guidelines go way beyond the "universal design" requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of focusing just on patches for audiological deafness, uncapitalized, DeafSpace is custom tailored to culture shared by people participating in Deaf (capitalized) communities.

It's not an overstatement to say there's a distinct Deaf Culture. Many of our social norms, from how we say goodbye to what kind of art we enjoy, rely on hearing. The Deaf have different norms, and the way they talk is also different from English speakers. Although most deaf students can read and write English, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language, with different grammar, vocabulary, and dialects.

In sign language, a single hand sign changes meaning depending on where the signer makes it, its orientation, movement, and what their facial expression is. To communicate in ASL, you need to see the whole upper body. A bar with low, intimate lighting will kill an ASL conversation the same way loud background music does for the hearing.

DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

Since Deaf Culture prefers clear vision and generous personal space, those are the conceptual building blocks. Sign language requires people to stand further apart and use more space, so, hallways have to be wider. Signers have to keep their hands free, so in DeafSpace, there are as few manually opening doors as possible.

If a deaf person can't see through a door, they can't tell if someone's in a room, so windows are helpful. But at the same time, an ASL user can spy on a conversation through that glass. In this case, translucency balances the competing needs. In general, reflective surfaces on cabinets or walls a deaf person might often face help with spatial awareness. Even paint helps: blue walls help hands and faces pop no matter the skin tone.

DeafSpace is a distillation of these needs and solutions into what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander calls "patterns:" generic rules and forms that a designer can combine to create a multifunctional, comfortable space. The leader of the DeafSpace project, Hansel Bauman, sees it as a way of designing spaces around Deaf interactions and experiences.

But DeafSpace has few patterns that apply to open areas and urban space. Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater? There are a lot of new issues open spaces present. I think bringing more brainpower to these issues is why Gallaudet is holding the design competition.

Plus, Bauman wants to take the concept further, to design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities. That might seem basic, but between a tendency to stick to financially proven conventions or get lost in an artistic vision, it's easy to forget the human interaction behind the built environment. The competition could bring this idea some much needed attention.

Tailoring an urban space for Deaf experience may force competing teams to get back to basics about how spaces facilitate interaction between people. Maybe the competition will let designers to reexamine the patterns of design for a sidewalk cafe or a multi-story building's front door.

The Flipboard Cafe in Melbourne, Australia has complex connection to the street. Brolly Design

Gallaudet's decision to open up its campus to a pedestrian-friendly, dense 6th Street is an extremely promising step. One step further would be taking the focus on buildings as amplifiers of social interaction and applying that design across the city.

Plans for renovating the MLK Library have changed to meet preservation standards

Late last month, plans to renovate DC's downtown library got a key approval from the District's Historic Preservation Review Board. The overall design approach is the same, but the details have changed.

Current design for the MLK Library. Image from DCPL.

The HPRB designates buildings as landmarks and reviews potential alterations to those buildings up. While divisive, the MLK Library, a modernist building completed in 1972, is registered as a national landmark.

The approved plans have changed a lot from the scheme that the design team, Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson, won the project with. A mixed-use building was too hard to finance and the designers tweaked the plans based on community feedback. But fixing the building's flaws within historic preservation rules has been the toughest challenge for designers, and those concerns have been the driver behind the biggest design changes.

Last Thursday's approval is a key step for the project in terms of moving forward. The design the HPRB approved is the result of several rounds of review by HPRB, Washington's other project review boards, DC's professional Historic Preservation Office and the Federal Cultural Resources, or Section 106, process. But because MLK renovation poses big historic preservation questions while having little impact on the environment or federal operations, the other agencies are looking at to HPRB's decision. That means this design is close to being final.

The design uses similar ideas as before but has a more conservative look

The 2014 competition design proposed a few open-ended alterations to the building: removing interior walls, retrofitting the façade for energy efficiency, opening up the ground floor, swapping opaque stair enclosures for transparent ones, and adding some kind of top that strongly contrasted with the historic structure.

Sketch diagram of key changes: new stairs, cafe, and an addition on top. Image from DCPL/NCPC.

Now, the new flor takes the shapeof a black trapezoid so it's less visible from the street. Glass skylights bring light to the basement instead of light wells. What was an oval auditorium between the fourth and fifth floors in last year, has moved to a rectangular space the center, to better riff off the geometry of the 1972 building's original designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Curvilinear roof addition from last fall. Image from NCPC.

Because of this process, there were only two contentious issues for the board to rule on. They are glassy expanses that would replace tan brick walls. One is a set of doors in the center of the great hall. They lead to the first floor multipurpose space, which replaces a loading dock.

The Great Hall with glass partitions to a new assembly space. Image from DCPL.

The other is a pair of glass walls separating the entry vestibule and the two stair "cores" that frame it. Moving the cores has never been controversial. When they built the library, Mies and his office designed a circulation pattern better suited to a high-rise. The designers' goal was to move them so, as architect Tom Johnson quipped, "you don't have to ask at the desk" how to go upstairs.

The most recent design for the lobby entryway. Image from DCPL.

The renovation design team originally wanted to demolish the core walls on all floors and replace them with semi-transparent glass ones, so the stairs would be easy to find.

The semi-transparent cores envisioned last fall. Image from DCPL.

HPO and designers couldn't agree on how much brick to remove

The District's Historic Preservation Office found that this approach was too extreme. They recommended instead that the renovation only remove a small recessed area in the vestibule and a few nearby metal panels. In January, HPRB steered the designers toward keeping more of the tank brick walls, especially in areas like the ground floor, that HPRB had designated as having special significance in a set of renovation guidelines.

Existing vestibule, with recessed notch. Photo by the author.

Since the stair core walls can't be transparent on all five floors, the architects have worked hard to make the stairs exciting. Still, they found they just couldn't avoid opening up the cores at the entryway. So while they were able to reach an agreement with the preservation office on other issues, they got stuck here.

The new design for the stairwell has a central opening. Image from DCPL.

The proposed stairways now are curved spaces. Image from DCPL.

So why was HPO so opposed to removing the bricks? Public comments on the renovation frequently criticized them. In its first round of comments, HPO took what might sound like a startling stance on the entire renovation, writing "[HPO] believes that all alternatives besides A (No Action) would have an adverse affect on the building, due to loss of historic fabric."

Preservation looks at buildings as evidence of history

"Historic fabric" means the physical substance of the building. As historic preservation law grew stronger, advocates worried that restorations often meant editing them to fit biased perspectives, effectively re-writing history. Preservationists had seen plenty of artifacts go into the dumpster.

In Old Town Alexandria, preservation mavens replaced working-class Victorian details like lamps with tonier recreations of Colonial Revival fixtures. In the UK, early agencies cut up ruins to make them fit a fanciful understanding of the Middle Ages. Architects "corrected" centuries-old monuments, demolishing irreplaceable archaeological features in the process.

To make restoration "objective," preservationists changed their methods. They wouldn't try to reconstruct a building's ideal state. Instead, they'd treating sites more like records of historical changes. Preservation laws started to preserve everything within a "period of significance," irrespective of whether it's "good design" or flattering to history.

Demolition of the surviving parts of a historic building was discouraged. Alterations would instead have to be clearly distinguishable additions.

You can see this attitude where developers move entire buildings around to preserve them, keeping wooden windows in Columbia Heights, or storing a small piece of marble removed from the Kennedy Center.

The federal government collected these rules into a document called the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. This document informs the Historic Preservation Office follows when it makes recommendations.

More importantly, the Principles of Rehabilitation are the basis of of the design guidelines created for the library. They designated those first-floor brick walls the designers want to swap for glass as particularly important.

An inviting entrance wins out

I think this all makes a lot of sense. A building can't offer a meaningful connection to the past if its evidence tells a made-up story. And for every brilliant renovation there are a hundred bad ones proposed as well. So, the approach is conservative, with HPRB existing to allow more discretion. That's what happened here.

What HPRB technically did was "approve and delegate," which means that the big, conceptual issues were resolved. Their comments instruct the professional staff at HPO how to bring everyone into agreement.

Several HPRB members endorsed the design team's proposal to make the entry more inviting by removing as much of the brick walls as the renovation team wanted. Nancy Metzger said, "I've always hated walking into this building… I think it should be more open." Other members echoed her and even called for removing more brick.

But to preserve the existing building's s spatial effects, they suggested making the glass less transparent. That way, patrons would see the activity inside, but wouldn't assume the glass side walls are doors, and they would feel compelled to enter.

To achieve this, board members suggested adjustments to the glass through ceramic glazing called frits, shades, or metal mesh built into the glass. Board member Graham Davidson pushed the idea further, asking to replace the proposed window frames, which Mecanoo designed to match the first floor's walls, with a flat, monolithic surface that recalled the monolithic surface of the existing brick.

The metal embedded in the Des Moines Public Library's walls works like a two-way mirror. From the darker interior,, you can easily look out. Photo by toddmundt on Flickr.

I think this is a very sophisticated compromise. The metal mesh option, in particular, might call back to the chain curtains used by Mies and Philip Johnson at the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, while clearly being a technology from a different time and place. Similarly, Mies and his office used the shape of frames to tweak the sense of transparency, including at the library. This approach could permit even more removal of the first floor cores and a more inviting space in front of the building.

Most recent plan of the top floor. Image from DCPL.

The glassy design also follows the recommendations of the Commission of Fine Arts, which has pushed for a more radical, intellectual renovation, including a more engaging entrance. So, with the big issue resolved, the design will likely progress smoothly through the rest of Washington's interconnected design review environment.

The prohibition against the loss of historic fabric was instituted to preserve alterations that gave insight into subsequent users' time and place, not just the origianl. For buildings built after landmark laws came into effect might never get the chance to incorporate that kind of historical record.

A cafe would replace the garage entry on 9th street. Image from DCPL.

If the rest of the design process goes well, that may be what happens here. This alteration may be deemed significant as well, as a desire to balance preservation and vibrancy in rejuvenated downtowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School and city meet at 42nd Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public space is most important part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This project has an experienced architect

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

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

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

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

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

The community can be a partner in shaping how Tenleytown grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

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

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

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The relocated river pavilion encloses the park area more.

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

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

Opposition arose during the federal process

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

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

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

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

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

View up the access ramp and toward Georgetown.

There's still a long road ahead of the project

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

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

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

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

Imagine a Kennedy Center that's part of downtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nolli map of the entire project.

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

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

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

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

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

The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

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

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

Up top, more floors didn't add up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below, a long process for what is approved

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Air and Space Museum needs a new skin

In the four decades after it opened, the National Air and Space Museum has become one of Washington's most well-loved attractions. Its building hasn't aged so well.

The window walls are outdated, skylights leak, the mechanical systems are dying, and the terraces are leaking into the basement car storage. But much worse than that, the stones that clad the building are bowing and cracking, which threaten to make it uninhabitable.

Photo by Terry (α) on Flickr.

Usually, there's nothing wrong with getting wrinkly at 40, but here, the 12,000 stone panels are pretty much the only thing keeping water out of the building. When they deform, they expose the building to more and bigger leaks. They could also break and fall onto someone.

We think of stone as unfailingly solid. But, like in most buildings built after 1900, the stones at the Air and Space Museum form a veneer that carries no weight. This approach has worked quite well in most cases, but if the stones are too thin, or installed the wrong way, they can deteriorate.

When thin stones fail

The museum's stones are 5 feet long, 2½ feet high, but only 1¼ inches thick. Beginning in the 1950s, engineers and architects tried to apply stone as thinly as possible to make buildings more cost-efficient.

Things went well for denser stones like granite and on buildings in warmer climates. But beginning in the 1970s, spectacular failures started to occur when soft marble covered a building in a cold climate, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki or the Standard Oil Building in Chicago.

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

Imagine a slab of stone sitting in the sun. One side gets warm from the sunshine, while the other does not. The sunny side expands and contracts differently from the other. If the stone is too thin, the flexing can damage the crystalline structure.

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

Stone comes to the National Mall

The Air and Space Museum is clad in a stone called "Tennessee pink marble," although it's technically not marble, but a particularly crystallized form of limestone.

John Russell Pope introduced the stone to the National Mall with his 1941 National Gallery of Art. The warm color and faintly glittering texture was a welcome alternative to icy marble, dull limestone, and harsh granite. Because the National Air and Space Museum was across from the National Gallery, the Commission of Fine Arts pushed its architect, Gyo Obata, to match it.

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

But Pope used stones four to eight inches thick and installed them in a heavy and redundant way. IM Pei's stonework on the 1978 East Wing also had serious problems, but those stones were 3 inches thick and the problems primarily came from the way the stones hung on the building, which the Gallery was able to fix.

That will not be possible at the Air and Space Museum.

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

Too thin is just the beginning

The panels are pinned together end to end through holes drilled through the stone. As the panels warp at different rates, stainless steel rods apply enormous pressure to an extremely thin layer of stone. The brittle stone is liable to crack and even shed pieces.

The stones also sit on metal rails connected directly to the steel frame, so unlike with the National Gallery buildings, they're subject to the frame's motion. Already by the 1980s the Smithsonian had to widen the joints between the stones to reduce damage.

As the stone cracks, an inner cavity opens to the elements. Normal buildings have a membrane or second wall to prevent moisture from moving through the outer walls. Here, the only protection is foam insulation sprayed onto the inner face of the stone.

Finally, between the stones and walls of the exhibition halls is a large open space that carries used air back to the ventilation system. This means that the thin stones are the only thing between inside and outside. Ironically, reconstruction architect Larry Barr remarked that the constant airflow was probably the only reason there wasn't severe water damage or a mold problem. Moisture could simply never accumulate with the continuous flow of dryer air.

Some solutions are obvious, others require tough choices

The building needs a new facade, new windows, new equipment, and repairs to the terraces. You shouldn't have to renovate a building, let alone a monumental one so soon, but the renovation offers the opportunity to correct 40-year-old mistakes and build for at least another hundred.

In the 1970s, inflation encouraged cost-cutting and buildings were adding elaborate mechanical systems long before their performance was understood. Sustainability was not yet a concern for architects. The museum, which had stalled for two decades, was then rushed to be ready for the 1976 United States Bicentennial and opened days before the 4th of July.

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

But building technology has improved a lot, so there is a silver lining. Fixing a relatively typical problem like the terrace waterproofing affords the opportunity to replace it with more proven systems, brush up the planting, and improve circulation around the site.

Much better glass technology including durable films to block unwanted radiation, newer seals, and better insulation would make for a better experience on cold days and muggy afternoons. The design team is even considering installing solar panels onto the roof, reducing carbon footprint and partially shading some of the skylights.

Other projects, such as redesigning the entrance for security purposes, offers the opportunity to make the building's entrance more engaging. A similar level of attention could be paid to the Independence Avenue side of the museum, which stands out as particularly pedestrian-unfriendly.

The big decision is how to replace the stone and its supporting system. The museum asked Quinn Evans Architects to prepare for a reconstruction of the exterior, in four options: thicker Tennessee stone, sturdier pink granite, a ceramic system, or titanium. The latter two would bring new materials to the Mall and disrupt the match between this and the National Gallery, but would be more resilient and arguably interpret the building's content better than stone.

Four possible options for replacing the stone.

The four options are deceptive, because of the wide range of textures possible with each material. Titanium can come in flat, smooth panels, or it can be scalier, like the titanium used on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Ceramic systems, too, can take a wide range of textures and forms. The options go beyond just copying the 2.5' by 5' stones as the rendering above suggests.

In any event, it makes little sense to fret over preserving the architecture. It is not a universally loved building. In a chat about America's landmarks, Stanley Tigerman characterized it as "not even architecturally interesting," pointing out that the building's content occupies a more prominent role in the memory of Americans than the architecture itself

Perhaps a little bit more ambition and thought can mean we needn't repeat this renovation in 2055.

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