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.  

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

What kind of activities could happen there?

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

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

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

What will the actual building look like?

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

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

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

How sustainable should it be?

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

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

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

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

How the site connects to the rest of the city

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


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

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

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

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

Public Spaces


Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

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


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

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

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

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

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

1. Paley Park, New York City


Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

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

2. Bethesda Row Fountain


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

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

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza


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

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

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

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles


Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

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

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park


Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

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

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York


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

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

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia


Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

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

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


Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

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

9. This private park at Brown University


Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

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

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)


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

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

Small can still be great

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

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

Development


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

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


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

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

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

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

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

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


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

Office of Planning blocks the project

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

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

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

Some housing and the park are gone

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

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

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

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

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

Parking


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Public Spaces


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

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


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

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

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

Here's how design competitions work

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

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

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


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

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

Well-run design competitions can have big upsides

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

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

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


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

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

History shows design competitions aren't a simple solution

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Preservation


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

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

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


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

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


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

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

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

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

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

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

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

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

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


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

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

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


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

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

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

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture


Seven designers are bidding for Obama's presidential library. Here's what they've done in DC.

Seven teams are bidding to design Barack Obama's presidential library. They're all well-regarded modern architects, and a few have projects in the DC area.


Like all US presidents, a library will be dedicated to Barack Obama. Photo by IIP Photo Archive on Flickr.

Only one of the teams, John Ronan Architects, comes from Chicago, where the library and museum of the 44th president will eventually rise. Most work out of New York, but teams have roots in London, Genoa, Paris, and Oslo as well. Like a lot of high-profile architecture nowadays, all have projects flung across the globe.

Their work is different from the previous generation of designers, who tended to create object-like buildings that feel aloof from street life. The potential architects of the Obama library all have projects that sit carefully in their context and play nice with existing streets, even if they don't disappear into the neighborhood stylistically.

That's a big deal because both of the proposed sites in Chicago are landmark parks in socially diverse neighborhoods. And that means a monumental building floating in a parking lot, like the elder Bush and Clinton's libraries, isn't going to happen.

Will it be good? The real test is seeing these architects' buildings in person. Luckily, you might be able to do that at lunch.

Three of the candidates them have projects in DC

Out on New York Avenue NW, John Ronan Architects created the Yale Steam Laundry Condominiums by converting a landmarked commercial laundry facility. The architects highlighted the irregularities of the original building with minimalist alterations in industrial materials like wood and steel.

A different architect designed the larger new building to the east, but Ronan designed both building's rugged amenity spaces in the wing set back from the street.


A Yale Steam Laundry apartment. Photo by Nathan Kirkman, courtesy of John Ronan Architects.

Tucked into the base of a glass office building on 10th Street NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ could easily be mistaken for another storefront, just set in black, textured brick and a raw bronze column. Really though, what you're seeing is the church's foyer, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien. Through the lobby's massive doors is a softly lit sanctuary that blocks out the noise of downtown.


The aisle of the sanctuary looks onto G Street. Image from TWBTA.

Design writers often pick London-based architect David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates
as the likely choice to do the Obama library. His influence is unusually strong in DC: Only London has as more buildings by his office. So far, the most notable Adjaye building in DC is the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument.


The NMAAHC. Photo by the author.

Farther afield are two libraries Adjaye designed a few years ago east of the Anacostia River. Both use transparency and reflections to create atmosphere. His firm divided up the Bellevue Library into a series of rooms that overlook Atlantic Street in Southwest while still offering seclusion though panes of colored glass.


Bellvue Library. Photo by Edmund Summer, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The Gregory Library is a more extroverted design, with a façade that alternates transparent or mirrored panels. The effect is that a pedestrian on the street sees the neighborhood overlaid on the interior. At oblique angles, the library disappears into the woods of Fort Davis. The wood-lined interior is more conventional, except for a staircase the plunges into the airy popular collection room.


Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Edmund Summer courtesy of Adjaye Associates

If plans to go through, Adjaye will also design a high-end residential building at Georgetown's West Heating Plant. With the plant needing to go through at least five design review stages, though, the Obama Library might get built first.


One option for the West Heating Plant, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

Two candidates almost have a presence in DC

In addition to that heating plant project, two of the other firms have designed unbuilt projects for DC.

New York-based designers SHoP are designing the new Fannie Mae headquarters on L Street. The U-shaped glass office building at the former Washington Post headquarters will have a slightly unusual facade, with the angle of the glass changing gradually from end to end and top to bottom. This is similar to a lot of their work: boxy forms fitted out in shifting steel and glass facades.


Rendering of 1150 15th Street NW, courtesy of SHoP Architects.

In DC, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are best known for their "bubble:" an inflatable temporary structure that was going to sit inside the Hirshhorn courtyard. That scheme deflated for cost and feasibility reasons under the last director. They also submitted a design for the NMAAHC.


Rendering of the Hirshhorn bubble, courtesy of DS+R.

A couple don't have anything to show

The Norwegian firm Snøhetta has no buildings in DC. They did, however, renovate Times Square, so it's not hard to find their work. Rather than try to tame the iconic space, they covered the ground in rugged concrete pavers embedded with steel disks that echo the billboards that crossroads is famous for.

The last firm, run by Renzo Piano, is the most established choice. His company's recent designs using glass and natural materials have been expertly detailed, austere, and conservative. That sounds like Washington's reputation, so it's sort of odd that he's never had anything even considered in Washington.

As DC's downtown shows, it's tough to make a monumental building that also fits into an urban site nicely. Too often notable architects produce unfriendly places that photograph well. But perhaps this time, the Obama Library Foundation will pick a design that's not a monument, and connects with the public space around it.

Take a look at these buildings. Do you think that could happen?

Zoning


Look how real estate professionals in 1948 perpetuated segregation in DC

It wasn't that long ago that DC's Real Estate Board told agents not to sell homes in white areas to black people. A 1948 report called Segregation in Washington put the discrimination into plain language.


The problem in a picture. All images from the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital.

Segregation in DC looked a lot different in the early part of the century. There was plenty of racism, but legally DC retained a lot of strong Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The result was that one block could be white and the next black. Or, in wealthier neighborhoods, the front of a block was white, while alley dwellings were black.

But, the 1948 report claims, someone surreptitiously cut these laws from from the District Code at the turn of the century. This opened the door for realtors to use racial covenants, legal agreements that forbid selling a house to blacks forever. By the 1920s, these contracts were widespread. Southern-style segregation policies cropped up in other areas as well, especially after the Wilson administration segregated federal agencies.


The report covered racism in all aspects of life.

The realtor's code of ethics even included a rule saying "no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people."

What often happened was that the supply of housing available to blacks got smaller. Both the white and black populations were growing, but most of the new housing was for whites.

Zoning, implemented in the 20s, favored detached single family homes. The city banned unsafe alley dwellings, but didn't create new housing for blacks. When apartment buildings went up in black neighborhoods, they often were whites-only.

Covenants, the report argues, appealed to the racism of white residents, who would pay extra to live in an "exclusive" neighborhood where the type of residents would be stable, familiar, and "high-class."

Realtors and developers were happy to meet the market for these contracts. They discouraged smaller apartment buildings that were harder to regulate, and advertised the better value of a house with a covenant on it.

The result was simple: new houses for blacks cost 30% more, so fewer could afford them. Rents were higher. Blacks had a hard time getting loans for repairs. And so, African Americans took smaller apartments in older neighborhoods.


The booklet sees hypocrisy.

More about the report

The report focused on housing segregation, but also covered similar practices in education, health, employment, and social life. Over twelve sections, the report charted how blacks and whites received unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of life, and how that took a toll on human lives. But, they argued, shrinking the supply of quality housing available to blacks was the root of the most corrosive social ills.

Its punchy text, written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who is often confused with his uncle, a Major League Baseball commissioner who had the same name), contained tables of facts, lurid stories, and humiliating anecdotes of foreigners disgusted by what they found blocks from the monuments. Infographics made dismal statistics like higher arrest rates and more expensive rents impossible to ignore.

The report was hugely successful, introducing a topic to a wide audience. It made space for activists who had been fighting segregation for years. Old arguments got traction in the political scene. It challenged the clout of civic associations and developers. In neighborhoods, it was much harder to openly defend racial covenants, so tactics to preserve neighborhood character changed.

It certainly didn't end housing discrimination. The effects of covenants, which were legal until 1968, meant that black families had less wealth, even as they became the majority group in DC. Much of the issues behind gentrification and concentrated poverty are not hangovers from slavery, but were proactively made worse in the 20th century to preserve some residents' sense of neighborhood character.


A typical chapter.


The book predicted relocation of blacks east of the Anacostia.


The report argues that segregation made unsanitary conditions worse.


The report lays blame on the real estate industry and citizens' associations.

Correction: The original version of this article said former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote Segregation in Washington. His nephew, who had the same name, actually wrote it.

Other


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.

Development


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.

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