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Southwest Ecodistrict looks to fix '60s planning failure

The area along 10th Street in Southwest is now little more than a desolate heat island of bland federal buildings where few dare to tread after 5 pm. The Southwest Ecodistrict project seeks to change this by radically remaking this neighborhood into a vibrant place and a national showcase for sustainable development.

Forrestal Building blocking the view of the Smithsonian Castle along 10th Street. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and DC Office of Planning are leading the project. In 2 public meetings thus far, the agencies have thus far been tight-lipped about just how they'd go about retooling many of the drab brutalist buildings along 10th Street SW into beacons of sustainability.

Last night, they introduced three proposals on how to shape sustainable development in the coming years. The three proposals, dubbed Rehabilitation, Redevelopment, and Repurpose, take different approaches to creating a more sustainable corridor.

Regardless of the final path that future development will take in the neighborhood, all three proposals would deck the CSX rail line to extend Maryland Avenue SW, include some degree of infill development, and vastly improve the connection between Benjamin Banneker Park and the Southwest Waterfront.


Rehabilitation proposal. Click for full poster.

Under the Rehabilitation proposal, future development of the Ecodistrict would focus on retooling the vastly inefficient 60's and 70's era federal buildings that currently dominate the site. This would primarily involve a vast upgrade of the heating and cooling systems present in many of these buildings, enhancing stormwater management, and increasing on-site electricity production and conservation.

Some of the buildings may also start to incorporate residential and commercial uses in order to enhance the diversity of the neighborhood. While no buildings would be removed under this option, it would cut away the Department of Energy's overhang that currently cuts off views along 10th Street of the Smithsonian Castle to the north.

Furthermore, it would enhance the current network of streets by adding a number of new intersections and enhancing the neighborhood's connectivity.


Redevelopment proposal. Click for full poster.

The Redevelopment proposal includes many of the elements of Rehabilitation, such as the energy-efficiency and stormwater elements, but it goes a farther in some key respects. Instead of just cutting out the 10th Street overhang, this plan would completly demolish the Department of Energy's James Forrestal building, replacing it with a number of new structures.

The great appeal of this plan is that it will open up brand new views of the Washington Monument from Virginia Avenue SW. The plan also seeks to deck over a portion of I-395 between 10th Street and 9th Street, increasing the number of potential buildings along the corridor and partially removing the unsightly highway from view.

This Redevelopment proposal also goes the farthest to enhance the connectivity of the street grid by breaking up the Department of Energy superblock and adding the greatest number of new intersections to the neighborhood.


Repurpose proposal. Click for full poster.

NCPC's final proposal is the simplest. It focuses on repurposing several federal buildings to new uses. The buildings with the most potential include the nearby US Postal Services Library, the General Services Administration Building, and the FAA's Orrville Wright Building.

NCPC believes that simply repurposing these buildings and renovating others to more efficiently use their space could yield up to another million square feet of space in which to add neighborhood amenities.

Connectivity changes in each of the 3 plans. Click for full comparison poster.

No plan has been set in stone, and any future development will likely include bits and pieces from any or all of these proposals. All seek to enhance the neighborhood by adding new amenities, including restaurants, retail, and cultural destinations that will not only draw new residents to the area but also pull some of the millions of tourists away from the National Mall and towards the cultural amenities of our fair city.

Ryan Hall is a passionate smart growth advocate and an aspiring urban planner. He volunteers for the Coalition for Smarter Growth and is a student mentor in the National Building Museum's CityVision program. Ryan is currently pursuing his Masters in Community Planning and Historic Preservation at the University of Maryland, College Park. 


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This looks wonderful! There's so much work of this kind to do in every American city, although I wonder where the "Landscape" Urbanism proposal is? Hopefully, the architecture of the infill buildings will help offset the brutality and sterility some of those modernist beohemoths.
It also calls to mind the preasure to raise the height limit when we still have so many infill projects that will bring new lots on line.

by Thayer-D on Jul 27, 2011 10:15 am • linkreport

Nothing says eco freindly than tearing down a perfectly servicable building for a better view. Granted it is ugly, but I think taking out the overhang is the best option for Forrestal.

by RJ on Jul 27, 2011 10:19 am • linkreport

Any word on selling any of the GSA properties, or allowing some residential/commercial development?

by andrew on Jul 27, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

I don't suppose burying the freeway is included in any of these plans.

by monkeyrotica on Jul 27, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

Whatever leads to the destroying of superblocks, reopening L'Enfant plan streets, and going farthest to remove the tendrils of freeway that snake throughout the neighborhood has my vote. Quite exciting to think about the possibilities!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jul 27, 2011 11:23 am • linkreport

Right now NCPC is only considering a partial decking of the highway between 9th and 10th streets in its Redevelopment proposal.

There was some definite concern at the meeting about where funding for this kind of project will come from. Since, we can no longer rely on the federal government to fund transportation projects, any efforts to hide or otherwise bury the highway are likely to be limited for some time.

by Ryan Hall on Jul 27, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

The effort is welcome. SW is like an outdoor museum of 20th century planning. Its almost tempting to want to retain the Forrestal Building just to be able to point to it and wonder what were they thinking?

The Museum of the Good (intentions), the Bad (planning), and the Ugly (for the most part.)

I wonder if the "Modern" glass boxes that have been going up downtown the last few years will last 50 years before people realize they are also soulless and sterile and tear them down, too.

by Ron EIchner on Jul 27, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

The freeway is already lower relative to the street level of 9th & 10th so the decking would be the cheaper and quicker option to burying it (See Dig, Big). My guess is that would be part of some developer package of selling the air rights. Similar to behind union station.

by jj on Jul 27, 2011 11:44 am • linkreport

"I don't suppose burying the freeway is included in any of these plans. "

It looks like 3 new buildings are placed on top of the freeway in repurpose/redevelopment sections?

by Tom on Jul 27, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

The US Postal Service owns one of the buildings in that "heat island." Was anyone Postal at the planning meeting?

by Lisa on Jul 27, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

The problem wasn't created by the buildings themselves, it was created by the tired mindset that everything built in DC must all look alike and be the same height.

by ceefer66 on Jul 27, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

The plan should bury the freeway, and should include the realignment proposed in 2008 by NCPC for this SW Freeway to tunnel beneath the Washington Channel.

However, this plan forgets to leave space to do so by continuing the cir 1999 idiocy of the row of 28 Capital Square townhouses a mere 16.5 feet from the freeway's retaining wall (which would need to be set back and replaced with one designed to support a tunnel roof and at least an extra eastbound lane).

by Douglas WIllinger on Jul 27, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

"Since, we can no longer rely on the federal government to fund transportation projects, any efforts to hide or otherwise bury the highway are likely to be limited for some time."

A federal government with that sort of attitude about the Capital City's interstate highways is a federal government in serious need of changing.

by Douglas WIllinger on Jul 27, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

The Repurpose seems to be the least simple, not most simple, as it does the Redevelopment plan while also repurposing some buildings for other uses. The poster says otherwise, but that's baffling to me, as I can't see any difference other than adding some buildings onto a Redevelopment list.

by OctaviusIII on Jul 27, 2011 6:37 pm • linkreport

The pink granite(?) used on the buildings is a beautiful color, and my first office job was down there, but those are the only nice things I can say about this awful complex.

Particularly bad are the locations of the entrances to the metro station - you have to find your way through the disconnected maze of streets, and one or more of the entrances are inside buildings which are closed on weekends.

by Frank IBC on Jul 27, 2011 9:26 pm • linkreport

Note that the the architectural term "brutalist" did not come about because the buildings looked brutal ( which they do) but from the French term for raw concrete "beton brut" .

by interguru on Jul 27, 2011 10:55 pm • linkreport

Seeing as this district has plans to be a "showcase for sustainable development," any word on whether the new buildings are going to be made with energy efficient/clean energy products and technologies?

by Jennifer B. on Jul 28, 2011 4:47 pm • linkreport

A "showcase for sustainable development", or rather a showcase for a blissful and disastrous disregard of proper freeway planning:

Elizabeth Rowe could not conceive of alternative fuels, and later the NCPC would wax about amphibious autos making bridges obsolete, so we can certainly expect more of such disregard.

by Douglas Willinger on Jul 28, 2011 10:19 pm • linkreport

Opening up the street network is crucial. I started working there a few months ago and was stunned at how hard it is to get anywhere.

Does the fact that federal buildings dominate the area make it easier or harder to enact these plans? The Department of Energy won't like leaving their prized location on the Mall for several years.

Hopefully this can be coordinated with the plans to redevelop the Waterfront area - they are fairly separate neighborhoods, and even with more mixed use, the federal part of Southwest will remain office-oriented, but hopefully each effort could build off the other. As the article mentions, a redeveloped L'Enfant Promenade/10th St and Banneker Park would be a great way to further connect the two.

by South by Southwest on Jul 28, 2011 11:47 pm • linkreport

Highway's are obsolete, they just don't know it yet. We certainly will always need highways just as asphalt will always be an important construction material, but to plan for improved highway systems is to not understand the fundamental challanges to our patterns of development. Land value trends already point this out, but change is scarry, not as scarry as the bulldozers that destroyed whole neighborhoods in the 1950's and 60's, but still scarry.

by Thayer-D on Jul 29, 2011 6:20 am • linkreport

Grade separated highways are hardly "obsolete" and provide far greater economy.

But regarding within Washington, D.C. we will be subjected to the sort of absurdities similar to those encountered in college fraternity initiation interviews in deference to the elitist **** that alas run the show.

Such is what prompts such things as NCPC writing about floating automobiles replacing bridges because, of the elites that can not stand infrastructure for the many anywhere near them (aka Agricultural Reserve, CUA, Eastern Star at 6000 NE Ave, etc).

by Douglas Willinger on Aug 1, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

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