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Public Spaces

Designs try to make E Street and the Ellipse inviting places

The five designs for the parks south of the White House are now available. All replace the ugly existing security with something more attractive, but they differ greatly on how well they will create inviting public spaces and accommodate passing through on foot or bike.

Image from Reed Hilderbrand.

The National Capital Planning Commission selected five landscape architecture firms, from California, Massachusetts, and New York (not DC) to design alternatives to the current rows of concrete barriers and metal fences between the White House and Constitution Avenue.

While each carefully considers how to incorporate security in an attractive way, manage stormwater and help trees grow, and create inviting-looking human-scaled spaces, they vary on how well they link up with the surrounding city. In particular, some strongly consider how to accommodate bicycling along E Street, while others seemed not to have even pondered the issue at all.

All attempt to make the Ellipse itself more inviting than it is today, as an oval-shaped employee parking lot for the White House complex with a giant desolate lawn in the center. But there's only so much you can do with a big empty oval surrounded by other government buildings and parks that serves little real function outside of White House public events like the national Christmas tree and menorah lightings.

Most create a low concrete wall that doubles as security and also seating for tourists. One, from Sasaki Associates, also suggests a cafe in the west grove just northwest of the Ellipse, but given current Park Service attitudes toward providing food options, it's likely the Ellipse itself will remain a place people primarily pass through in the vain search for anything good to eat within a half mile of the Mall.

The real opportunity to make a positive difference comes at E Street. It used to be a through route between Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. Closed, it has turned into a forbidding and ugly fortress that looks more in place in Baghdad than Washington. It could at least work more like its counterpart on the north side, Pennsylvania Avenue, as a wide and attractive public space where people can observe the White House, protest, and still use as a through route for walking or bicycling.

Some of the designs embrace opportunities to activate E Street, while others think little beyond the current heavy iron gate look of the place. The less imaginative, like the one from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, keeps the ends largely as they are, with big vehicle gates and guardhouses right by the intersection, small pedestrian gates on the sidewalk, and fences in between:

"Sally port" layout from the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates design.

Others, like Sasaki's and the one from Reed Hilderbrand move the screening away from the center of the roadway and thereby deemphasize them. Reed Hilderbrand's approach moves this to the northern edge of the roadway on either end, leaving the remainder as a bollard-ringed shared area that looks similar to Pennsylvania Avenue.

E Street perspective from the Reed Hilderbrand proposal.

Sasaki's proposal appears to move buildings for screening vehicles around to the perpendicular East and West Executive Avenues, letting official vehicles queue on more of E Street before reaching the checkpoints. This would have the benefit of reducing the amount of time the line spills over onto 15th and 17th Streets, blocking the road, sidewalk and/or bike lanes.

E Street portion of the Sasaki plan.

In the center, where people can view the White House, most designs try to better link the Ellipse visually to the South Lawn. Several create a large central plaza that forms a break in the lines of planted shrubs and where the distinctions between sidewalk and roadway disappear. Walkways from different angles all converge on this focal point which also includes the Zero Milestone marker.

Imaginary tourists on the central plaza in the Rogers Marvel Architects design.

To increase space for a plaza, some proposals reduce the vehicular orientation of the Ellipse. Two proposals, from Rogers Marvel Architects and Reed Hilderbrand, suggest removing parking from the northern half of the Ellipse and instead having a vehicular roadway entering from the northwest, looping around the south half of the Ellipse, and exiting in the northeast.

Flows of motor vehicles (left) and pedestrians (right) on the Reed Hilderbrand plan.

Taking an opposite tack, Michael Van Valkenburgh keeps all of the parking and designs a place to create a future underground parking garage.

As for bicycles, it's clear some designers were keeping bikes in mind while others were not at all.

Sasaki specifically labels bike lanes on E Street, and Hood Design Studio's submission shows flow for each mode of travel including through routes for bikes. Meanwhile, the proposal from Rogers Marvel Architects has an attractively laid out set of pedestrian pathways but absolutely no mention of bikes.

All proposals fill their renderings with stock images of people running, walking, standing and otherwise using the spaces. Three, the Sasaki, Reed Hilderbrand, and Hood designs, include people biking through, and sometimes rollerblading as well. The Rogers Marvel Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh proposals, ironically the two from New York, include no images of cyclists (except one on the RMA rendering shown above, with a man in a suit on something the size of a kid's bike a folding bike gazing at the White House).

NCPC will be exhibiting all five designs at the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW today until Monday, June 27. All groups will present designs live on Tuesday, June 28, and a task force from various agencies will choose a winner by June 30.

You can also view the submissions online and send your comments to NCPC.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Open E St. up for cars -- not trucks.

Or tunnel it.

Better bike paths through the area would be nice.

But overall, there is no security need for E st to be closed.

by charlie on Jun 21, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

The Hood Design project also mentions a parking garage in its stormwater management.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 21, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport


What, you expect us to base our security decisions based on needs now?

I have a feeling that if the various security folks had their way, they'd love to completely close off Lafayette Park to the public.

I'd settle for the Feds ponying up big bucks to mitigate their decisions. East-west travel in DC stinks, due in large part to these closures in the name of security. How about they pony up for the New Blue line under M street?

by Alex B. on Jun 21, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

This street has to be reopened in some form or another to cars.

by NikolasM on Jun 21, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

@AlexB; yes, I know. Silly me. Cost/Benefit analysis should never be part of these security decisions.

Asking several billion dollars to mitigate traffic (and build a blue line) is a stretch. Asking for $250M to build a tunnel.....

or, as I said, just ban trucks on that road.

by charlie on Jun 21, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

Can you bike through the ellipse now? I'm pretty sure they don't want people riding on the grass.

by TGEoA on Jun 21, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

And none of them incorporate softball fields. At least reflect their second most common use.

by Redline SOS on Jun 21, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

I have a feeling that if the various security folks had their way, they'd love to completely close off Lafayette Park to the public.

They are well on their way with the current mess of metal barriers all over the west side of the park.

by MLD on Jun 21, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

@MLD -- I was under the assumption that the metal barriers' seemingly permanent status these days is related to the fact that the House and Senate negotiators have been meeting (with the VP and sometimes POTUS) on a fairly regular basis at Blair House for the last month or two.

In the event that we ever get a debt limit ceiling increase passed, hopefully, they'll go back to more of a temporary status. Although the barriers in general do seem to be multiplying on PA Ave and in the park.

by Jacques on Jun 21, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

The Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates plan has the pedestrian gates near the dog pen. Anyone who has walked by a K-9 police car on the plaza at Union Station or on the Capitol grounds knows that the dogs bark loudly. While the dogs are safely away from the pedestrians, people jump. Can the dog pen be located away from the pedestrians on the north side of E street?

by tour guide on Jun 21, 2011 1:02 pm • linkreport

The man in a suit is on a folding bike. I think it's a great choice, it's a very utilitarian type of bike. Though someone on a CaBi might have earned points too.

by David C on Jun 21, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Charlie & Alex B.

Just give up and move the first family to Camp David permanently, a la Versailles.

by Steve S. on Jun 21, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

Good luck in getting Secret Service and NPS to go along with anything inviting. And I write that sadness.

by Geof Gee on Jun 21, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

The distance from the front of the White House to H Street is 841 feet. The distance from the back of the White House to E Street is 811 feet. Yet H Street remains open and E Street has been shuttered for a nearly a decade.

Is there that notable a distinction in the difference of 30 feet that requires E Street to be closed? I'm not an explosives expert to know, but it seems to me it's not going to make a material difference.

Source of measurements:

by MeigsNBM on Jun 21, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport


The Secret Service doesn't have to worry about Marine One landing on the north (H Street) side, so that's probably it

by whitesox53 on Jun 21, 2011 6:15 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of structures and space on the South Lawn that is used regularly by POTUS, including the pool, Marine One Landing area, Rose Garden, patio, etc. This is distinctly different than the North side of the White House, which compared to the South side is rarely used by anyone but staff and guests. I would love for E Street to open back up, but don't think that will happen. It is quite a shame. They already close the North/South sides too often to pedestrian traffic as it is.

by Anon on Jun 21, 2011 9:28 pm • linkreport

"One, from Sasaki Associates, also suggests a cafe in the west grove just northwest of the Ellipse, but given current Park Service attitudes toward providing food options"
Is there no way to change Park Service attitudes? Don't you get tired of these government departments which will not be responsive to the people they allegedly serve?

by danmac on Jun 22, 2011 9:44 am • linkreport

Reopen E Street!

by Petworther on Jun 22, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

Given the impass in the DC Government over allowing businesses to develop land for commercial use, the best use of the elipse would be a nice big-box Walmart with a large McDonalds counter solving many problems at once. If it were a Supercenter, residents could buy tires and food at the same time.

by jackndc on Jun 22, 2011 7:30 pm • linkreport

GREAT that they may finally do something about this mess. At Belles Architecture we are just sick about the appearance of Government buildings since 9/11. Yes, people need to be safe, but safety should not come at the price of ugly or extreme inconvenience. Unfortunately the "safety people" have no design sense, and simply don't seem to care about the users of the space. It is important that of all places, our Nation's Capitol look good, function good, and truly BE safe (as opposed to just looking safe).

by Belles Architecture on Jun 29, 2011 6:56 pm • linkreport

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