An even better Brookland
Take the Metro to U Street, Clarendon, or Bethesda, and you find yourself in the middle of a lively neighborhood. Public plazas, shops and housing fill the surrounding blocks. There's a feeling of place.
Emerge from the Brookland/CUA station, on the other hand, and you'll see none of this. There's only a concrete-filled traffic oval for cars to pick up and drop off. To the east lies a parking lot and a few empty lots. Walk north, and you have to cross another concrete expanse for shuttle buses before crossing a weed-filled plain underneath Michigan Avenue. At the end of the path is another parking lot surrounding the one-story Comcast warehouse. Continue north, and you'll pass a gas station, some industrial buildings, a strip mall, and a park.
Brookland is a beautiful neighborhood with attractive houses, historic buildings, and a charming neighborhood main street. The Metro station, meanwhile, lies in a bleak, industrial pocket with none of Brookland's charm.
Outside the Brookland Metro. Image from Google Street View.
Twenty years from now, this could become a lively neighborhood center, if the DC Council approves the Brookland Small Area Plan after their February 10 hearing. The plan aims to add housing and retail opportunities near the Metro and alongside the train tracks. It replaces unusable empty space with productive community parkland. It reconnects the street grid in several places and creates continuous chains of buildings from the commercial 12th Street east of the tracks to Catholic University on the west, and makes a vast and empty chasm into a pleasant, walkable link. At the same time, it respects the low density of the existing housing near the Metro by stepping down building heights close to existing houses.
Left: Brookland Metro station area today. Image from Google Maps. Right: Metro station sub-area plan.
The plan reconnects 9th and Newton streets through the site, making bus drop-off and kiss-and-ride part of the street grid instead of pedestrian-unfriendly suburban formats and building a plaza around the Metro escalator on each side. It adds new housing on both sides of the train tracks, but with stepped-down heights near single-family homes. For example, see the townhouses in the upper right of the image above, between the apartment buildings and the detached houses east of 10th Street.
As Monroe street crosses the train tracks, the plan calls for low retail buildings over the tracks to fill the gap in the street wall and make Monroe Street a gateway between the two sides of the tracks. To create usable open space, it recommends building a civic gathering place on the grounds of the Brooks Mansion (the solitary building toward the lower right of each image) and replacing Brooks' surface parking with underground parking below some of the new buildings. There will also be a new civic plaza west of the train tracks at a realigned intersection of Monroe and Michigan Avenue.
As with most changes, residents disagree about what's best for the neighborhood. A vocal group of Brooklanders are fighting the plan, arguing that the empty spaces around the Metro station are the neighborhood's precious green space. Others, meanwhile, call that space a "trash-strewn chain-link blight" and prefer usable parkland over somewhat larger but inactive spaces. Opponents charge that four-story buildings will tower over their small bungalows, while supporters point out that a two-story bungalow with an attic and a front door six feet above the street, as many houses have, is nearly four stories tall itself. A six-story building with an attractive facade and setbacks from the street is much less imposing than a three-story concrete box.
We grow accustomed to bad design over time. My irritation at the voids in public space on 17th Street have softened as I shopped there more often. I've gotten used to the desolate sidewalks downtown (except at Gallery Place) on weekends and middays. That doesn't mean 17th uses public space well or that we shouldn't work to make downtown more lively. Just because we become used to a status quo doesn't mean there's not a better option.
Likewise, many people have grown familiar with crossing a parking lot and multiple car dropoff lanes to walk to the Metro each day. They see Brookland as a suburban pocket and understandably worry about change. But a lively plaza with retail will enhance safety around the station. It will bring in residents to patronize Brookland's shops and strengthen the 12th Street business corridor. It will help the environment by accommodating more residents who don't have to drive, the city by growing our tax base, and our population by adding opportunities for housing that regular people can afford. It will even enhance the value of the existing residents' homes by making Brookland a more pleasant neighborhood for all.
In an email to the Brookland email list this morning, one opponent referred to the community's success at blocking a parking garage Metro wanted to construct next to the station in the 1970s. Good for them. If Metro had built that garage, we'd all look back on that as a mistake. But if the DC Council approves the Small Area Plan, residents in twenty years will thank planners, the Council, and supportive residents for laying the groundwork to make Brookland a better, safer, happier place to live.
If you live, work, shop or learn in or around Brookland, please weigh in to support this Small Area Plan by signing Ryan Avent's petition or testifying at the hearing at 3 pm on Tuesday, February 10th.
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