Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


A busy day for NCPC

This morning, the National Capital Planning Commission (the federal government's planning body for the DC area) released a great proposal for the future of the Federal area of the city. It calls for decking over not only the E Street Expressway but almost all of the "ramp spaghetti", creating space for new buildings east and northeast or the Kennedy Center and a park to the southeast connecting to the Lincoln Memorial.


The study area for the National Capital Framework Plan. Image from NCPC.

In the Federal Triangle area, the report also suggests a "Federal walk" guiding tourists to notable works of art among the federal office buildings, a more usable public space at the currently-barren, raised Freedom Plaza around 13th and Pennsylvania, and redevelopment of the FBI building to include street-level retail and restaurants, matching the livelier streets around it.

It also repeats and extends some past NCPC ideas for Southwest, including decking over part of the Southwest Freeway near the Banneker Overlook and creating a new 10th Street Overlook nearby, burying the VRE tracks to restore Maryland Avenue, a canal across East Potomac Park, and redeveloping some of the less historic concrete buildings, especially the Forrestal Building which blocks a view from the Smithsonian Castle down to the Potomac River.

Here's the complete report. I'll analyze its recommendations in more detail next week. Meanwhile, you can read today's Post article.

NCPC also discussed the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which proposes to develop some parcels on the edge of its property to raise an endowment allowing it to provide for its retired veterans in the future. The plan is substantially the same as the one I reviewed previously, with a few small improvements.

They have reduced the number of parking spaces at DDOT's request from the enormously high 6,500 to a slightly less enormous but still very high 5,155. If DC or WMATA improves bus service to the site, the number of spaces will decrease further. In the meantime, the plan calls for a shuttle bus to Columbia Heights and Brookland/CUA Metro stations, but those shuttles will only run 30 minutes outside rush hour, making them unlikely to seriously reduce car ownership or usage by residents or employees.

The plan also shifted some retail to Irving Street, on the exterior of the development, from the interior. The Office of Planning (and I) had criticized the way the plan "turns its back" to Irving Street; this change ameliorates that, though there will still be blank walls from parking garages on several of the blocks, albeit attractively concealed garages.

The biggest controversy at the NCPC meeting concerned open space. A small parcel on the west side, Zone C, was designated for possible future development of low-density (and suburban-esquely arranged) townhouses, but AFRH had always emphasized its desire to always leave this parcel forested. It abuts Petworth, and many residents and officials had advocated for creating a public park in Zone C and possibly Zone B, perhaps with some money from the National Park Service or the District of Columbia, perhaps partly as a condition for approval of the other zones.

The staff recommended NCPC approve the other zones with the condition that AFRH agree to negotiate for the next two years. AFRH argued against this idea because they don't want to decide what to do with C in the next two years; they use it currently, and hadn't planned to touch C for at least fifteen years. They want to keep it for the private use of their residents at least that long, ideally indefinitely as long as their finances remain sound.

Several board members objected to any conditions that would further delay financing which would help this needy institution. Ultimately, NCPC approved only Zone A, leaving Zones B and C as part of AFRH, requiring future debate and NCPC action before they can become buildings, a public park, or anything else.

After further discussing the proposed MLK Jr. National Memorial on the Tidal Basin and Georgetown Waterfront Park, NCPC dove into minutiae with a debate about 20 feet of height. Basically, the Height Act allows buildings on commercial streets to be 20 feet higher than the width of a nearby street, up to a maximum of 130 feet; a mixed-use building on M Street at Capper-Carrollsburg in Southeast fronts a 250-foot wide right-of-way bisected by a parking lot that will become Canal Park.

The street on the west is 2nd Street, 90 feet wide; on the east is 2nd Place, 70 feet wide. Once, 2nd Place was also called 2nd Street. Should we consider this a 250-foot wide single street with green space in its center, like E Street in Foggy Bottom, or two separate streets separated by a park? One would allow a 130-foot-high building, another only 110 feet.

The zoning administrator has ruled the former; the NCPC staff takes the opposite view. Harriet Tregoning made a good case for why nitpicking 20 feet is beneath NCPC and not especially vital to the federal interest, but by a narrow 5 to 4 vote, NCPC voted to oppose the extra 20 feet.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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That's a lot of good news. I love the idea of putting something attractive next to the Kennedy Center.

The Height Act is an antiquated statute. 130 feet is an embarrassingly low height maximum for commercial buildings. I understand the desire to maintain the Baroque layout and scenic easements of the LaFayette City, but whatabout Tenleytown, Anacostia, Georgetown? Would it be the worst thing in the world if they got a few sky scrapers, particularly around Metro stations?

by Dave Murphy on Jul 10, 2008 7:00 pm • linkreport

What, and turn those neighborhoods into Rosslyn redux? As much as I personally like looking at them when I go visit other cities, there are ways to do dense development without automatically looking to the skyscraper. It seems to me that all of downtown proves that point fairly plainly.

by Adam on Jul 10, 2008 10:37 pm • linkreport

One problem with skyscrapers that I noticed on business trips to Pittsburgh - they greatly enhance the number of smokers down on the street level milling around. One advantage of smaller buildings - less people and less smokers.

by Ethel-To-Tilly on Jul 10, 2008 11:34 pm • linkreport

I agree with Dave Murphy. We can keep them from being Rosslyn redux by demanding better tall buildings.

by VC on Jul 11, 2008 10:43 am • linkreport

Skyscrapers? Skyscrapers are just as bad as suburban development in just the same way. Even if they aren't in a park setting they still do not effectively contribute to urban life. I live in NoVa and am moving to Ballston, but in NO way do any of the skyscraper districts actually act as neighborhoods. Partially this is the planning they have used there, but also the towers themselves that contribute to the suburban mentality of enclaves.

The tower suburbanite (or maybe superurbanite) has as little in the way of neighbors, just as the suburbanite does. A real urban neighborhood is properly scaled to put neighborhood first and people first, height limits is a good start.

The rest of the plan though is good news, a decent amount of good planning, though a real lack of humane architecture. Modernist architecture is not humane and is a detriment to a neighborhood just as much as bad planning.

by Boots on Jul 11, 2008 1:48 pm • linkreport

I'm most interesting in seeing how they plan to tunnel 395 through that muck. And what purpose does that canal serve severing Hain's Point et al from the rest of it?

by NikolasM on Jul 11, 2008 3:44 pm • linkreport

The canal is supposed to let the water taxi access that part of town I think.

by VC on Jul 11, 2008 3:50 pm • linkreport

I like Rosslyn, so there.

by PJ on Jul 11, 2008 4:55 pm • linkreport

At least they got rid of that ridiculous idea to put the Supreme Court on an island in East Potomac Park.

I'm still suspicious about the grand promenade from the Kennedy Center to the Lincoln. That's an awful long way to go. For what, exactly? Who's dying to get to the Kennedy Center from the Lincoln Memorial? It seems like it would be totally empty most of the time. Just another huge barren open space that planners just can't seem to get away from.

by Reid on Jul 11, 2008 8:11 pm • linkreport

"I like Rosslyn, so there."

So does every tourist on the Mall who looks westward and proclaims, to the amusement of any local within earshot: "Look! Downtown Washington!"

by the shootist on Jul 11, 2008 8:36 pm • linkreport

Reid: Fortunately, that Supreme Court by Jefferson Memorial idea was not NCPC's and was never something they advocated.

As for the space between the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial: we need more space for the Mall. The Mall is overcrowded with memorials, and everyone wants their memorial on the Mall. With all that room currently occupied by freeway ramps, the Memorial for People Whose First Names Start With P Who Died In The 1980s can go there and keep the main axis clear(er). Also, there are many playing fields on the Mall; more land would allow for new fields or at reduce the pressure to replace the existing fields with memorials.

by David Alpert on Jul 11, 2008 9:43 pm • linkreport

"the Memorial for People Whose First Names Start With P Who Died In The 1980s can go there and keep the main axis clear(er). Also, there are many playing fields on the Mall; more land would allow for new fields or at reduce the pressure to replace the existing fields with memorials."

I see your point. But for what it's worth, the only drawings I've seen for that plan involve all the classic "grand plaza" mistakes that cursed most 1950's and 60's developments. I'm not sure there's even room for a memorial for the Scotch-Irish veterans of the Genada invasion in the plans I've seen.

But protecting the sports fields is definitely important.

by Reid on Jul 12, 2008 7:21 pm • linkreport

Covering the freeway ramps, rail track and 395 will definitely improve the pedestrian system, and help in making more humane neighborhoods.

By the way, NCPC's Memorials and Museums Master Plan in 2006 suggested no more new memorial and museum will be allowed on "the Reserve" zone, ie the Mall and tidal basin area.

by PL on Jul 13, 2008 12:33 am • linkreport

Anyone who doesn't think tall buildings can work in neighborhoods has never been to New York or Vancouver. Tall buildings can work, they just have to be done differently than we're accustomed to doing them.

There is nothing at all about tallness that is bad for urbanity. Tall buildings are frequently bad, but it's almost always because of their width, not their height. That is certainly the case in Ballston, where on each block there are only 2 or 3 wide buildings rather than the finely-grained urbanism of older neighborhoods.

Find a way to accommodate tall buildings without sacrificing the pedestrian scale of the street level, and tall buildings are perfectly fine. It can be done. It has been done.

As for the whole "people in tall buildings don't make neighbors" thing, that's just incorrect. I live in a tall building and I know as many of my neighbors as Girlfriend, who lives in a Columbia Heights rowhouse. We bump into each other in the hallway, elevator and on the balcony rather than in the alley and the front porch, but otherwise it's pretty much the same.

by BeyondDC on Jul 14, 2008 9:56 am • linkreport

"Find a way to accommodate tall buildings without sacrificing the pedestrian scale of the street level, and tall buildings are perfectly fine. It can be done. It has been done."

Agreed. Just look at K St. It doesn't take a tall building to kill street life. It just takes an architectural eye that views the first floor as nothing but a pedestal for the magnificant architect's sculpture-cum-office building.

"I live in a tall building and I know as many of my neighbors as [my] Girlfriend"

I think the amount of neighbor-acknowledgement is driven more by the demographic of the residents than the nature of the building. Get a lot of young, short-termers in a building, and you're not going to get much interaction. Get a building (or row of row houses) of homeowners and I think you'll find more interaction.

by Reid on Jul 14, 2008 12:32 pm • linkreport

It's also a function of common areas. A small lounge on each floor, shared amenities, that kind of thing.

I would like to say - what we are talking about isn't remotely tall. Offering exceptions that allow a doubling of maximum heights (to 240 feet along a large avenue) for mixed-use developments when a laundry list of planning preferences are implemented, isn't going to turn DC into Manhattan.

True skyscrapers in the modern era are 500+ feet tall, though traditional usage tends towards anything that influences the skyline.

by Squalish on Jul 15, 2008 3:09 am • linkreport

"isn't going to turn DC into Manhattan"

Well, it's worth noting that residential Manhattan is composed mostly of buildings around 240 feet tall. The 500+ feet tall buildings are mostly office buildings.

But that actually supports your position. In other words, we can get NY-style density (and all the benefits thereof, like corner groceries, etc.) without erecting high-rises.

by Reid on Jul 15, 2008 9:54 am • linkreport

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