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

Posts by Neil Flanagan

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

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.

Development


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.

Architecture


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

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


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

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

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


Base image from Google Maps.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

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

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

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

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


DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Architecture


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

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


Current design for the MLK Library. Image from DCPL.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Curvilinear roof addition from last fall. Image from NCPC.

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

Preservation looks at buildings as evidence of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An inviting entrance wins out

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Public Spaces


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

School and city meet at 42nd Street

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

The public space is most important part

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

This project has an experienced architect

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

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

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

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

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

The community can be a partner in shaping how Tenleytown grows

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

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

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

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

Public Spaces


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

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


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

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

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


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

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

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

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

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

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

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

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

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

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


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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