Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Neil Flanagan

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

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

The organizers behind the 11th Street Bridge Park have picked a design that could be the city's most brilliant piece of architecture in decades. Now comes the hard part: making this vision work in a spot surrounded by water rather than homes and businesses.


The winning proposal concentrates activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. All images from the design team.

From a field of four competitors, the jury picked a design team led by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), best known in the United States for the Seattle Public Library, and landscape architect OLIN Studios, which designed Canal Park near the Nationals ballpark and will renovate Franklin Park downtown. Together, they created a design that can do what the bridge park's organizers wanted: reconnect neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia to the river and each other.


A diagram of the different activities on the bridge.

In the best case scenario, someone walking along the Anacostia up from Poplar Point in summer 2018 would see the riverbanks rise gently for hundreds of feet, crossing to form an X shape. At first glance, it's simple: almost like two logs falling across a stream, some kind of primitive bridge. But up close, the renderings and plans show a string of spaces that would appeal to people across the city.


A section showing how the park is laid out.

The design creates iconic spaces and helps reconnect Anacostia to the river

From a functional perspective, it's best to look at the design like it's an extension of the ground on either bank. A long bar from Capitol Hill interlocks with a loop from Anacostia, making the bridge feel like an outgrowth of the banks and not a discrete transitional space. Multiple programs fill in the in between space. Some are shady and enclosed, like the amphitheater, while others are open and dramatic, like the overlook.


An outdoor theatre would have multiple levels.

The designers also chose to place the anchor elements, like the environmental education center, the cafe, and the playground, closer to the Historic Anacostia side. One reason is to encourage more people to visit the east bank, which I-295 cuts off from the river.

Anacostia also needs those activities more, especially the play space. They will serve a basic need while also generating the traffic that makes parks feel safe. What's better is that the environmental education center has eyes on both the main deck and the secluded space below it.


A detailed section drawing. Click to enlarge.

As the section above shows, the cafe also sits between levels, so someone sitting on the upper lawn can see through the restaurant and onto the environmental center's boat launch below.


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

The other elements, like the dramatic overlook, the main plaza, and the amphitheater sit closer to the Navy Yard. These are iconic attractions, for tourists, local bikers passing by, and I suspect even weddings, like at New York's equally dramatic Fort Tryon Park.

Finally, the ecological design is appropriately balanced. Along the main paths are spaces that people can play on. They're visible, but not in the way are the hands-off landscapes, like wetlands, oyster banks, and swales to filter rainwater. OLIN found a way to integrate ecological urbanism into the project without compromising the people habitat. They even proposed a wooded berm to block out traffic noise from I-295.


Section drawing showing the design's ecological features.

The project reflects the sophistication of the designers, who have shown that they can stand up to criticism and push their designs as the demands of money, politics and gravity weigh down their vision.

Public input can help this bridge soar

How will the organizers and their team face down the remaining challenges? Some are design issues, as competition entries are never quite figured out, and designers often fill renderings with aspirational eye candy. I think the public can help in this case by identifying those problems constructively and allowing the design team the room to solve them.

Scott Kratz, the man behind the bridge, has done that. He deserves commendation for the long-running and effective public outreach that formed the foundation of the competition designs. Respecting residents as experts in their own lives and the designers as experts in their fields, he has arrived at something that could work well. More of that is ideal.


Trees could buffer the park from I-295.

The bigger challenge is getting people there. This bridge is in the middle of the river, with the Navy Yard at one end and a highway interchange at the other before reaching nearby neighborhoods. That means there's little of the incidental activity that helps public spaces like this to be busy and safe.

New infill development could help, like the planned Maritime Plaza along the river on the north side. So would the redevelopment of Poplar Point, if it ever happens. Even without those, adding more destination activities to the nearby riverbanks, as in the WRT/NEXT design for the bridge, might have the same effect.

If the city builds the streetcar across the river, including a stop at the bridge park, it would open easy access to the park up beyond the immediate neighbors.

But a growing appeal around the park could cause a rise in rents and influx of expensive retail, displacing the groups the bridge was meant to serve. The four or so years before the park opens could be spent developing strategies to add housing diversity without disrupting lives and preventing the poor from enjoying the benefits of good urbanism and great architecture. The bridge has been an excellent catalyst for design, perhaps it can also be a great catalyst for social policy.

In Washington, some people criticize proposed buildings or developments to kill them and preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, designers criticize something with the hope of refining it. What can we refine with the 11th Street Bridge Park? Now is the time to start talking.

Intelsat building gets a greener, but not more urban front

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


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


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

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

How this building came to be

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

What didn't work, and what will get better

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

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


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

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

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

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

But for now, this is okay.

Gehry trims Eisenhower Memorial tapestries

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


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

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

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


How the columns changed.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issa offers a chance for Gehry to walk away

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


The South Building in and its context in 1941.

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

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

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

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

Farming will replace parking on the Mall

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Metro plans a unique canopy for Dupont's north entrance

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


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

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

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

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

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

History of the canopy program

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

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

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

The standard canopy design

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

The Dupont canopy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

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

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

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

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

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

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

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

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

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

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

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


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

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

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

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


Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

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

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

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


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

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

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

As of earlier this year, there have been:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.


A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.


Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.


Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.


John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

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