Greater Greater Washington

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Southwest Ecodistrict would repair 1960s damage

One day, disjointed streets and lifeless blocks around L'Enfant Plaza could become a complete neighborhood with a connected street grid, park space, mixed-use buildings, a museum and more.


Images from NCPC.

That's the vision of the Southwest Ecodistrict plan from the National Capital Planning Commission and a companion plan focusing on Maryland Avenue, SW by the DC Office of Planning.

It is one of DC's greatest ironies that the name "L'Enfant Plaza" was given to an area where L'Enfant's original street grid is least intact. The railroad took over parts of Maryland and Virginia Avenues before 1888, and later projects to grade-separate the rails created a patchwork of roadways at different levels that don't connect to one another.

The federal government razed every building in the area as misguided urban renewal in the 1960s. The extension of 10th Street known as the L'Enfant Promenade was originally designed as a pedestrian mall for cultural buildings, but turned into a largely vehicular roadway between government office buildings. The "12th Street Expressway", a set of off-ramps from I-395, also divides the blocks on either side.

Now, NCPC wants to fix these mistakes from its forerunner, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and other federal agencies of the day. On Thursday, it released a draft of its plan for public comment.

Redevelop the Forrestal building

A centerpiece of the plan is a proposal to ultimately redevelop the Department of Energy's Forrestal complex, a mid-century concrete structure that spans 10th Street and cuts off views from the Smithsonian Castle. While historic preservation officials have been landmarking many federal buildings of this type, in this case they prefer to restore the view than keep the building.

That will create many opportunities to right numerous mistakes of that era. The buildings replacing Forrestal, which the plan dubs "Independence Quarter," could also restore the viewshed along Virginia Avenue to the Washington Monument. Despite opening up these views, there's plenty of room to build something with more space than the current complex. That means it could accommodate DOE and also add residences, making the area lively more of the day and bringing in money to fund the project.

The new buildings could narrow 10th Street back to a width more resembling its role in the L'Enfant Plan, which could accommodate vehicles, sidewalks, bicycles and sidewalk cafes without the enormous expanse of sun-baked concrete of the current "promenade." The entire street would gain many more trees along its length.


Promenade now (left) and potential future (right).

These new buildings, and many others in the district, would incorporate state-of-the-art stormwater handling, energy efficiency, waste management, green roofs and more to create an eco-friendly district. A heating and electricity plant, which currently only serves federal buildings, could be rehabilitated to a more modern and energy-efficient system and serve the private buildings as well as federal buildings in the area.

Make Banneker Park more appealing and give it a museum

At the end of the promenade is Banneker Park, a hillside with an attractive fountain and some grass but little else to draw people. Curving freeway ramps on and off of the adjacent Southwest Freeway cut up the park, linking a traffic oval around the fountain to the freeway and nearby 9th Street.

The plan proposes to straighten out those ramps, so that the off-ramp from I-395 skirts just the edge and reaches a new intersection with 9th Street, while an extension of G Street links 9th to the central oval and 10th Street.

The rest of the park would get a redesign to give it more of a sense of place and a more inviting atmosphere. On part of the site, NCPC proposes placing one of the many museums that groups want to build on the Mall. According to project manager Beth Miller, museums haven't wanted to go there yet because it "doesn't have a setting befitting a national museum." The plan aims to give it that setting.


Concept sketch of future Banneker Park.

The plan says that some have suggested building some underground parking for the tour buses that currently idle in surrounding streets, clog the roads and pollute the air for residents and workers. The plan notes that underground parking could be a good idea, but it might also conflict with a museum's security needs depending on the type of museum, and that the museum is a higher priority.

There is also space underneath the 10th Street promenade for parking now, and the plan suggests putting some tour bus parking there as well as stormwater cisterns.

New buildings would deck the freeway and fill in elsewhere

NCPC proposes decking over I-395 between the 12th Street off-ramp and 9th Street with new buildings. These could create more opportunities for mixed-use living and offices and connect the pedestrian realm along 9th and 10th, including the all-important walk to the new museum.


Model showing buildings decking freeway and solar panels.

Farther east, the freeway rises and there isn't room to place buildings over the freeway at street level, the plan says, but it suggests covering the trench with an array of solar panels.

Finally, the plan would rebuild the grid in this area. That ties into the District's Maryland Avenue Small Area, which we'll discuss in part 2.

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. 

Comments

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Looks great. The one positive thing that can be said for urban renewal is that we get the stimulus of repairing all their misguided work. Hopefully with out too much mid-century modernist revival architecture, let's not make that mistake again.

by Thayer-D on Jul 16, 2012 10:06 am • linkreport

so:

1) tear down the HQ of a major goverment agency
2) deck over 2 blocks of 395
3) move some on-ramps
4) change the heating and electric plant

I'd say somewhere around 5 billion?

by charlie on Jul 16, 2012 10:15 am • linkreport

One thing that I didn't see mentioned was the social path that leads down from Banneker Park to the SW Waterfront. Hopefully this process will create a little safer, more ornate connection between the two?
Also, a lot of bike traffic comes over the path from the Case Bridge that empties into Banneker Park, so this should be a consideration as well.

by Joe in SS on Jul 16, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

NCPC always comes up with wonderful proposals that DC ignores. I'm especially thinking of the proposal for a Monumental South Capitol Street connecting to a monumental bridge.

http://jdland.com/dc/files/SouthCapitolStreetGateway-and-ImprovementStudy.pdf

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 16, 2012 10:32 am • linkreport

Someone summoned the DW

by Michael Perkins on Jul 16, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

Yay! Maybe I'll get to see this completed when my cryogenically frozen body is reanimated in 2235, after I return from my vacation from Mars.

by Adam L on Jul 16, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

Obviously this is the site for the US National Fishing Museum, right across from the Fish Market.

by egk on Jul 16, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

Redevelopment of the superblock between Independence and Maryland Avenues and 9th and 12th Streets should be the highest priority.

And next, 9th Street - if not an actual street, at least a continuous pedestrian pathway between the Waterfront and Independence Avenue. And better access to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station from points south.

A while back, my brother and I spent the better part of an hour trying to walk from 9th and Maine to the Air & Space Museums. Lots of dead-end pathways and we were also trying to help some Swedish tourists find an entrance to the subway station - the shopping center entrance and others were closed on weekends.

by Frank IBC on Jul 16, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

A double implosion of the Forrestal Building and the Hoover Building could be a special treat for some future Fourth of July - with the Boston Pops playing the 1812 Overture in the background.

by Frank IBC on Jul 16, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

I love the plan, but fear that it wont happen in my lifetime or will be so dumbed down as to be little impprovement. As a SW resident, I hope this happens and hope they focus on bike/ped connections and safety. Getting from the Waterfront CaBi station along M st and Maine Ave is a minefield of speeding cars, bumpy roads and unconnected sidewalks. (not to mention drivers who have in multiple cases honked and swerved in front of me...)

by dano on Jul 16, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

A double implosion of the Forrestal Building and the Hoover Building...

Which Hoover building? Herbert or J. Edgar?

by David C on Jul 16, 2012 12:04 pm • linkreport

Somebody once suggested Spanish Steps from Banneker Circle down to the waterfront. I hope those make it into the final design.

by Steve S. on Jul 16, 2012 12:04 pm • linkreport

Oh, sorry, forgot about the "other" Hoover. I meant J. Edgar.

by Frank IBC on Jul 16, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

Hmm, move the aquarium to the Banneker park? More Hoover jokes.

by charlie on Jul 16, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

Tearing down the Forrestal building is god's work, it really is a terrible building.

by Nicoli on Jul 16, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

The connection to the waterfront development is seriously lacking, this coupled with the sterile architecture likely to be developed will make the area as bland as Crystal City and as dead to street life as the Golden Triangle at night.

by Erik Bootsma on Jul 16, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Isn't the new Eisenhower memorial supposed to go in front of the DOE?

by charlie on Jul 16, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

No if you mean "Department of Energy", yes if you mean "Department of Education" - at 400 Maryland Avenue.

Hoover Building... DoE... so easy to get confused.

by Frank IBC on Jul 16, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

@ Frank IBC ; thanks. Suddenly those designs make a lot more sense. I couldn't figure out how it was going to work at DoE.

by charlie on Jul 16, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

"A centerpiece of the plan is a proposal to ultimately redevelop the Department of Energy's Forrestal complex, a mid-century concrete structure that spans 10th Street and cuts off views from the Smithsonian Castle. While historic preservation officials have been landmarking many federal buildings of this type, in this case they prefer to restore the view than keep the building."

--------

Let me make sure I have this straight.

"Historic preservasion officials" (whoever they are) intend to spend millions to raze a perfectly functional building and relocate several thousand workers to "restore" a view that MOST people alive today have never seen and have no memory of.

I realize that "views" are sacrosanct in DC - the perpetual arguments over building height and scale are cases in point. But to tear down a building to CREATE a long-forgotten view is beyond ridiculous.

by ceefer66 on Jul 16, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

If they want to tear down federal buildings they can start with that Hoover monstrosity on Pennsylvania Ave.

by ceefer66 on Jul 16, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

Why not just start from South Capitol Street and go west and fix all of the dead end streets between South Capitol and Main Ave.

by kk on Jul 16, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

I'm happy to see that after one wing of the feds has spent months whining about DC Water's impermeable-surface stormwater fee, another wing of the feds is actually doing something about the problem. This is the good side of administrative-branch autonomy!

by Tom Veil on Jul 16, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

The Smithsonian Castle is to the Mall what Sleeping Beauty Castle is to Disneyland. It would be totally worth it to tear down the middle of the Forrestal building to improve the view from the southern axis. And then it would also be nice if they could light up the castle at night.

by Michael on Jul 16, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

Build Victorian "gingerbread" buildings along 10th Street and turn it into Main Street USA. :)

by Frank IBC on Jul 16, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport

Why would DC settle for the Boston Pops? We have better.

by selxic on Jul 16, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

This neighborhood certainly needs some change. I have no idea if or when any of these plans will be carried out. But I'd like to see early progress on getting residential buildings and retail/restaurant/museums in the area. That will help to get rid of the eerie no man's land that currently exists after 6 pm and on weekends.

As for Crystal City, some of the existing buildings are being redeveloped with new exteriors. 220 S. 20th St. is a good example. 1400 Crystal Drive is currently being renovated. 1900 Crystal Drive might be renovated soon. (That building currently has the address of 1851 S. Bell St.) The older CC buildings can be drab but those are gradually being replaced, in accordance with the long-term sector plan.

by Michael H. on Jul 16, 2012 7:14 pm • linkreport

In a city full of circles and squares honoring war generals (people who killed others), Banneker Circle needs to honor Benjamin Banneker, an astronomer, engineer, and abolitionist, with a statue. Banneker's astronomical genius is responsible for the layout of the city that L'enfant and McMillan used for their designs.

Don't diminish Banneker park!

by Chris on Jul 19, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

Love it, love it, love it. That place is an ungodly maze as is. Walking from L'Enfant Metro to the front entrance of Forrestal is an exercise in futility already.

by GWJ on Jul 23, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

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