Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront

The Wharf development has the potential to create an exciting pedestrian-oriented, human-scale space along DC's Southwest Waterfront. But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring.


Is all this human activity too "carnivalesque" for CFA board members? They might prefer a dead yet monumental space. Images from PN Hoffman/Madison Marquette.

On March 27, the US Commission on Fine Arts issued preliminary comments on the proposed development that were as predictable as they were disappointing. While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has "improved substantially," commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

The commission's letter to the DC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development argues that:

[T]he design continues to present unnecessary emphasis on specific moments or events within this linear urban spaceusing too many materials, too many elements, and too many unrelated formswhich may result in a carnivalesque character, and they suggested editing the vocabulary of design elements to create a calmer, more dignified effect. ...

The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuousnot interrupted by new paving patterns from incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streetsto reinforce this central organizing element within the project.

These suggestions, like others in the past from CFA, undermine opportunities to build pleasing, lively gathering places in favor of an austere architectural monument. Such input is one explanation for Washington's many underwhelming and little-used public spaces.

This fascination with "continuous" features is precisely what has created dead zones throughout the city, from the expanse of M Street SE leading to Nationals Stadium, to Massachusetts Ave. from Union Station to the Convention Centerdubbed the "mediocre mile"as well as the existing design of the Southwest Waterfront that this project aims to replace.


Diagram showing how different materials emphasize varying spaces.

Stretches of new development that are indifferent to pedestrians and provide little or no animation produce unappealing public spaces. At best, they are devoid of activity until a special event is superimposed; at worst they become havens for crime for lack of "eyes on the street." The best new development needs the very design features that the commission's members dismiss.

As the councilmember for Ward 6, home to the Southwest Waterfront, I challenged Monte Hoffman, president of the site's major development company, to:

  • Design buildings with variation and architectural interest at the ground levelthe opposite of suburban buildings that are appreciated from the window of a car;
  • Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms;
  • And most importantly, reject the failed architecture around Nationals Stadium that has created cavernous, blank, uniform design for blocks on end.


Top: Oslo, Norway. Bottom: Pike Place, Seattle, Washington.

Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable "neighborhoods" by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area.

This delineation and animation recognizes the failure of the soulless, uniform development across the countrythe "Applebee's effect." Yet commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures "both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project."

It's time to end the drumbeat of new developments in the nation's capital, from the convention center to TechWorld, that provide the type of architectural simplicity the commission favors but establish mammoth dead zones which inhibit activity and entertainment and ultimately compromise safety.

We must resist federal reviewers' impulse to stamp out street-level interest and animation, especially when projects like the Southwest Waterfront development offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

Update: The original version of this post said that many CFA members do not live in DC, but it is even more descriptive to point out that they don't live in the Washington region at all. We have changed this to better reflect Wells' original intent. Intro paragraphs are often significantly reworked in the editing process for clarity, length, and to get main points up top, including in this case, so any blame for this phrase should go to the editors and not Wells.

Tommy Wells is represents Ward 6 on the DC Council. He is a former social worker, attorney, and member of DC's school board. He was a candidate for mayor in the 2014 Democratic primary. 

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http://youtu.be/dCud8H7z7vU?t=43s

by JayTee on Apr 18, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

Never though I'd agree so much with Mr. Wells. Great points.

The only thing I'd add is making sure bike access into the area is high quality as well. Not necessarily in the area -- that might be too crowded.

by charlie on Apr 18, 2014 10:12 am • linkreport

Fantastic points, all of them. And when I saw the title, the first thing that sprang to mind was "do these people even live in DC?" You answered my question almost immediately.

This is the perfect and appropriate use of a waterfront area. The only question is how do we ensure that the CFA is ignored? Or that it changes its mind after input from actual DC residents?

by LowHeadways on Apr 18, 2014 10:17 am • linkreport

Agree that CFA oftentimes provides incredibly subjective input that's driven by its members' personal views.

But what exactly is Mr. Wells proposing be done about it?

How does one "resist federal reviewers' impulses" when those federal reviewers are statutorily required? The District will not issue building permits if CFA opposes a project. So what's the solution?

by Lurker on Apr 18, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

Nothing the CFA says is binding, right? Am I right in assuming that all they can do is recommend changes, but don't have any power to actually force Hoffman to take their suggestions?

by JES on Apr 18, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

@Lurker: DC needs to put on the big boy pants and issue the permit anyway. The review is required, but DC isn't required to defer to it.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

I've really had enough of the meme that people who do not live in DC have no right to contribute. It's divisive and not terrible helpful. Does some kind of magical spirit come to those the instant they sign a lease or buy a house in DC? Of course not. Transplants from elsewhere to DC bring fresh perspectives to old problems, while long-time inhabitants--some of whom may have moved outside the city, or to other cities--bring a different and necessary continuity.

The message I've seen repeated in GGW all too often lately is that those who don't live in DC have no stake here, have no voice here. That is flatly absurd and offensive.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

Yes, something magical does happen when you sign a lease or buy in DC - you start paying DC taxes. This magical event gives you a voice that trumps that of any commuter.

by Sunny Florida Avenue on Apr 18, 2014 10:31 am • linkreport

crickey

I do not live in DC, and have commented on DC issues here, and none of the regular participants seem to have an issue with that.

But I do not claim a right to veto DC decisions. Everyone should have a voice, but what I think is objectionable, is the veto. By a commision that does not merely include some non-DC voices, but apparently a majority of them.

I have no problem with folks from DC expressing their viewpoint on Fairfax issues - but I would find it very odd indeed if the FFX BoS deferred to a veto by a Commmision composed of mostly non-residents.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:32 am • linkreport

@Crickey7: and in some cases you have a point, especially in the monumental core where federal money is being spent. But the idea that out of towners should get to decide what the sidewalks in a particular private redevelopment project should be paved with? That's just looney.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:32 am • linkreport

@Crickey7

I don't have a problem letting anyone have their say. I do have a problem when they flat-out TELL us what we can and can't do. Apparently this isn't one of those instances, but it's a big distinction, and it probably goes back to the whole "we can't spend our own local funds without federal approval" crap that we have to deal with. So please excuse us for being a bit jaded and casting a wary eye towards outsider opinions from time to time.

by JES on Apr 18, 2014 10:34 am • linkreport

in fact these are not greater DC suburbanites either. They live in NYC, Miami, Boston and NC. The only one from Va lives in Charlottesville apparently, and there are none from Md. Only the chair lives in DC.

They are architects and artists - their proper role is to make aesthetic recommendations. To the extent that their aesthetic views are based on incorrect assumptions about the role of the development in placemaking in DC (as CM Wells argues) than DC should ignore their recommendation.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

crickey: I'm sorry if you get the impression that anyone has discounted your view because you don't live in DC. We have a strong policy here that anyone is welcome to voice their opinions on any project, regardless of where they live.

However, GGW is a place for open discussion and debate about projects where we want many viewpoints. If anyone outside DC wants to write a blog post, send an email, or comment here about their opinions about the SW Waterfront, that is welcome. But, as many have pointed out, the issue with CFA is that they can veto the project, yet their interests and experience are largely not aligned with being a part of the community.

I'd note that most of the CFA board don't even live in the Washington area, let alone DC. It's not about whether a Bethesda or Arlington or Bowie resident has something to say, but whether federal appointees from New York, Chicago, etc. should be flying in periodically, looking at some renderings, and essentially saying "get rid of the street level activity so this looks more like our conception of Washington."

by David Alpert on Apr 18, 2014 10:39 am • linkreport

This space is as close to a tabula rasa as you will get. Whatever history and tradition that area had was bulldozed 50 years ago, then buried under fried fish and hushpuppies served to busloads of tourists. I would venture to say that what you actually need is people with experience of successful urban waterfronts, and political infighting, over a commission of weak Tregoning clones.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

@Crickey7: at this point it's like you're not even trying to say anything while tossing insults.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

The church debate was a really ugly example of the theme that non-residents don't count. Some GGW posters played right into the worst stereotypes of callous hipters. Sure, lots of those people had moved into PG County. But they prized those roots in DC and they believed they did have a stake. And, as it turned out, they did have a lot of pull with the Council.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

Crickey

The fish market AFAICT draws mostly DC natives - including in particular African Americans with long family traditions of going to "the wharf".

And of course CM Wells has discussed successful urban waterfronts. I dont think anyone is calling for a new commision, but that in this instance DC should ignore the recommendations.

BTW, do you think suburban jurisdictions (or other cities) should have commisions of national experts to review their projects, and that they should always defer to them?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

I'm still unclear on whether DC can ignore the recommendations or not. Does the CFA have to sign off on final design? Or are they really just recommendations?

by JES on Apr 18, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

Maybe Tommy Wells would have more credibility here if he hadn't been blowing the anti-outsider dogwhistle shortly after his demeaning kowtowing to the churches on the parking issue.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

"The church debate was a really ugly example of the theme that non-residents don't count. "

I doubt Fairfax County would defer to non resident's desire to park illegally. ArlCo did not defer to FFX and PWCs desires wrt to I95 hot lanes. Every jurisdiction focuses on the needs of its own residents.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

Crickey other than you I don't see anyone who finds he lacks credibility - and I don't see what the interests of PG residents has to do with this. You might note that there are no PG residents on the Commision. The Commmision is NOT a board to represent the interests of suburbanites. Go check the bios.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

This isn't about 'outsiders,' this is about the Federal City vs the local city.

by Alex B. on Apr 18, 2014 10:55 am • linkreport

Crickey7:
Wow, where do you live? I'd like to start writing your congressperson (yes unfortunately we don't have those) and complain about the woeful development projects in your area. Better yet, can a sit on your civic board and dictate design elements to any and all of those pending projects? What a great job that would be...I can be a stakeholder with no stake and no risk....perfect.

by Ben on Apr 18, 2014 10:55 am • linkreport

Great article. DC needs as much lively architecture as possible, if only to counter the puritanical impilses of so many architects. Our whole core is dignified, our edges and places for recreation ought to be festive.

by Thayer-D on Apr 18, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

The CFA's role should be limited to the monumental core. It is infuriating that an unelected board of non-residents has so much say in local decisions about neighborhood projects. (Especially a group that seems to think Constitution Avenue NW -- six lanes of high-speed traffic lined with imposing government buildings that relate poorly to the sidewalk -- represents the apogee of urban design and planning.)

I also get tired of arguments that the national capital must be all somber and monumental. Why? What is wrong with "carnivalesque"? That street scene in Oslo looks pretty "carnivalesque" (whatever that means). It also looks like a great street! It certainly beats most of the street scenes brought to us by CFA (think desolate and windswept Freedom Plaza, death of the human spirit John Marshall Plaza or that stupid stretch of 8th Street in Techworld Plaza). Does anyone looking at that street scene in Oslo decide that a non-somber, non-monumental street somehow robs the Norwegian government of legitimacy? I'm pretty certain that the Norwegian Parliament building is plenty monumental and sober. But the Norwegians have wisely decided that their whole damn capital city does not need to be sober and monumental. I would argue that the most interesting and vibrant places in DC are those where CFA has had minimal input. I bet the CFA shudders at how non-sober, non-monumental, "carnivalesque" and interesting U Street and 18th are. People!Commerce! The horror!

I hope DC stands up to CFA, ignores their recommendations and allows the project to go forward as planned.

Also, I am surprised that Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk signed off on the CFA's comments. She is one of the pioneers of the new urbanism and has generally spent her career fighting against the dull, monumental, car-centric (sub)urbanism that the CFA has historically favored. Is she saying that vibrant, interesting, mixed-use communities are fine for her clients but not for the residents of DC? Perhaps she would be willing to invite a panel of DC residents to review and make changes to her firm's next project?

by rg on Apr 18, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

I couldn't agree more with this article. I was already disappointed that the original plans had been dumbed down due to the whims of this unaccountable board. It would be tragic if the place was made any more "austere" or boring. If the CFA had their way it would look like a suburban office park. If Hoffman is reading this: please ignore these "suggestions".

by dno on Apr 18, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

Yes, if you read the Shipstead-Luce Act, it provides the CFA with very limited powers. They are primarily advisory but they do hold political power. That being said, why anyone would makes changes solely based on their recommendations is beyond me.

The DC government has a history of caving to the CFA on projects over and over even when it is well beyond the scope of the "powers" of the CFA. Just look at the Penn Ave bikes lanes.

I wrote and article about the CFA recently which can be viewed here: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/19901/cfa-doesnt-have-a-say-over-pennsylvania-avenue-bike-lanes/

by Ryan Sigworth on Apr 18, 2014 11:13 am • linkreport

Mayor Gray and candidates Bowser and Catania should note that this would be a great place to vocally (and legally) exercise DC's autonomy over Federal whims.

by dno on Apr 18, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

I agree with Tommy. Great article. Let's move forward not backward!

by reg e. on Apr 18, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

I just emailed the CFA. If you have an opinion on this you should too.

cfastaff@cfa.gov

by reg e. on Apr 18, 2014 11:31 am • linkreport

Thank you, Tommy. Fantastic points. I'd also like to second reg e.'s call to email the CFA (and would recommend including the link to this story in your email, because it's argument is presented very well).

by Adam M Taylor on Apr 18, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

Well stated, Tommy!

From the report:

"The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuous—not interrupted by new paving patterns incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streets"

Does "incidental" mean something different in the architecture world? Because I'd call the piers one of the defining features of the Wharf plan. And I think streets are pretty important too.

by Steven Yates on Apr 18, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

After consulting with Wells, I have modified the intro to clarify that the members do not live in the Washington region at all (rather than just DC). We made a lot of collaborative changes to that paragraph in editing, as we often do with intros to help them be clearer and for length, so any blame for the specific wording there should go to me and not Wells.

by David Alpert on Apr 18, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

I really just find this fascinating.
Outside influence didn't seem to matter when GGW readers from Philly or Colorado or New York were sending then chairman Gray emails and petitions demanding reinstatement of streetcar funds.

Many frequent posters make a point of "weighing in" on DC issues when they themselves don't live here. How often has D.Alpert gone to an ANC or other forums to petition for some neighborhood specific issue, not in his own neighborhood or Ward?

This kind of "interference" is celebrated on GGW when it suits specific goals. It can't be both ways.

by Eotr on Apr 18, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

There is no basis at all for alleging that Philly or Colorado residents were participating in the streetcar funding campaign in any significant numbers, if at all.

by David Alpert on Apr 18, 2014 12:00 pm • linkreport

Centralized street design is always horse by committee. The only way to cut off the hydra head is to remove the central planning authority. Street level interest is generated by a degree of chaos only truly feasible by decentralized impulses. At best, central planning yields Disney versions, plasticized Old Europe, NY and New Orleans. If a neighborhood wants life, the individual storefronts and residences (of modest proportions, in general) need to be competing for attention and distinction. There will be real dogs - and even those will keep it lively. Further, some of them may become unexpected classics.

by BenK on Apr 18, 2014 12:04 pm • linkreport

No basis?

The petition you created listed the names and locations the people were putting in. I suggest you go back and look it and the comment section as there were a considerable number of people sending petitions to Gray through GGW who did not live in VA, MD, or DC.

by Eotr on Apr 18, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

I so agree with this article that I feel that I should apologize for not voting for Tommy Wells in the recent primary.

by 17th Street on Apr 18, 2014 12:07 pm • linkreport

And here I thought the current renderings were dull enough, with the usual even-height, boxy DC commercial bldgs...but agree w/ Wells that the material contrasts add to its character.

CFA is once again chiming in way too late...criticising a project that's, after several years of planning, approved and finally moving forward. Absolute nonsense.

by Burd on Apr 18, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

Eotr:
I don't see your point. Posters "weighing in" on issues and signing petitions is significantly different than an official commission being a considered stakeholder and having applicable political weight. The former is classic democratic input (easily ignored and often it is) while the latter is an appointed, un-elected oversight body with no real accountability.

by Ben on Apr 18, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

Ben,

Are you serious. Gray cancels streetcar. Gets ~ 1000 petitions to keep it, the next day, the streetcar is un-canceled.

Non district residents lobbied lawmakers they can't even vote for, and got them to commit 50 million tax dollars in a jurisdiction in which they don't even live.

Same.exact.thing

by Eotr on Apr 18, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has "improved substantially," commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

I didn't really get that vibe from reading the comments. It actually seemed like the Commission strongly supported almost all the key elements at the heart of the plan but objected to minor elements of the plan such as paving, the use of certain materials for decking and benches, and the use of so many metal pylons and arches. Although these elements are arguably important to creating a sense of place, I'm not certain that they are "key elements at the heart of the plan".

And ironically, the Oslo waterfront (which Mr Wells points to as a successful public space) incorporates precisely the same congruent elements that the CFA recommends.

Further, the CFA actually criticized the proposed design of Theater Alley as "unacceptably generic" (a rebuttal to the argument that the CFA wants to keep the plan as boring as possible) and noted the importance of street-facing retail, bike lanes, pedestrian views and outdoor seating for restaurants on Maine Ave. All good things in my opinion.

As for the throwaway comment about "a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in DC". I think that was a rather silly dig -- an attempt to foster an atmosphere of xenophobia around the project.

Although the CFA is a somewhat conservative body, it is a very accomplished group of individuals responsible for many of the iconic monuments and public spaces in DC. Unfortunately, it has also had a hand in designing a number of failed monuments and public spaces.

I'm not personally sure whether the proposed design would end up looking like a carnival. But you have to watch out for design likely to result in "Disney-fication" of the public space. Sometimes in the attempt to mimic the world's great public spaces -- which were built in an era where public spaces served a different function from today and have had decades or even hundreds of years to "mature" -- it ends up looking artificial.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

Here, here. I'm another DC resident who don't get the fascination with "continuous" either. What's the difference between that and "monotonous"? You know what else is continuous? 395.

by Fatal Exception on Apr 18, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

Beg to differ. That was Gray's call to listen to complaints, petitions etc as an elected official. Why did he remove the line item at 2am in the first place? Seems odd. Either way, like or not, he was voted out of office. Maybe this kind decision making was what got him the boot in the first place.

The CFA is playing some sort of murky, official role here as a Federally-appointed committee. Is this their role? Who is telling them to way in? Zero transparency!

People sign a petition with names and addresses included. An elected official can give it weight or not. An average citizen can look at the petition and see who signed it. Transparency.

The CFA reports on a project and, boom, it changes and no one really understands how, what, and why. Sure I can vote out the politician but how do I know this won't happen again if its part of the official process? Zero transparency.

by Eotr on Apr 18, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

but I would find it very odd indeed if the FFX BoS deferred to a veto by a Commmision composed of mostly non-residents.

The CFA technically does not have veto power, nor any legal authority over whether a design gets approved or denied -- it merely makes recommendations. However, from a realistic standpoint, those recommendations are taken very seriously by designers and planners, many of whom actually do live in DC.

The CFA is playing some sort of murky, official role here as a Federally-appointed committee. Is this their role? Who is telling them to way in? Zero transparency!

Yes, it is their role. No, it does not operate with zero transparency. All the information about what the CFA's roles and responsibilities are is publicly accessible, as the CFA is an entity established by an act of Congress. Let's not confuse one's desire not to understand the facts with the facts being intentionally withheld from view.

I personally don't care who designs the public spaces, so long as the space is designed well. This fascination with only letting locals plan and design public spaces comes off as rather narrow-minded and provincial. Especially in the context of the region and era in which we live.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 1:08 pm • linkreport

@Lurker:
"But what exactly is Mr. Wells proposing be done about it?"

A good first step would be to narrow the jurisdiction of the Commission on Fine Arts to exclude it form considering the Southwest Waterfront. I can understand a federal interest for properties bordering the National Mall but I fail to see any federal interest for an area that is maybe one mile away from the Mall and that few tourists are even aware of.

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

Getting back to the topic of this neighborhood rather than who has standing to weigh in:

The riverfront is a great jewel. Any project should have plenty of green space and comfortable benches, with backs, allowing space and place for contemplation.

Neither huge structures nor those focused mostly on high-energy group activities should dominate the whole area. Make room for individuals.

by Willow on Apr 18, 2014 1:17 pm • linkreport

Scoot

yes, i understand its not a veto, thats why i used the word "defer". I am guessing that CM Wells feels that DC elected officials gave the developer the go ahead and "•Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms" Ergo, an attempt to avoid mimicing the worlds great public spaces, out of a fear of disnification, runs directly against what local officals (including notably the CM for the ward that the Wharf is in) have already said they wanted. Its not about outsiders doing design work (I dont think he insisted on the developer only using local architects) but about DC not being bound by CFA.

I might add that avoiding mimicry is an odd request, in a city built to a Baroque city plan, with a superfluity of (often very poorly done) neo-classical architecture.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 1:18 pm • linkreport

@AWalker,

yet, you still used the word veto.

Its not about outsiders doing design work (I dont think he insisted on the developer only using local architects) but about DC not being bound by CFA.

I think it could be about both -- the design of non-federalized public spaces is partially controlled by appointees of the federal government and, worse, those appointees are not from DC. Either way, I doubt Wells wants to see the CFA disbanded. What's more, my guess is that if the CFA made comments that Wells agreed with, or better yet, offered him a spot on the Commission itself, he would be lavishing praise on the organization.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Places are only places because of the people there. Why don't these boardmembers understand it? It seems so simple to me.

by BTA on Apr 18, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

For those who don't know or don't remember, the original renderings were beautiful, if ambitious, and included some interesting characteristics to make the area stand out from all the other development going on in the area. The first round of CFA recommendations stripped out much of that character, but apparently not enough to sate their appetite for blandness.

by dno on Apr 18, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

A "suggestion" that is always followed, is a de facto veto. I think the point Wells is making is to remember that it is NOT a de jure veto, and that DC can (and in this case should) ignore this particular suggestion. And that ONE reason the CFA should not get deference, is that its composed almost entirely of people from outside the region.

As for your last point - he was (and still is) a member of the Council, and I do not recall him lavishing praise on the Council.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 1:30 pm • linkreport

Here is what GGW readers should do--- instead of debating a particular commenter, please email this link to Rep. Norton's office and let her know that you think the responsibilities of the Commission on Fine Arts should be narrowed.

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

Frankly, I don't see the CFA's comments as a radical departure. They call for an editing, not a rejection, of the plans. I believe they see certain elements as attempting definition of new activity spaces, but instead creating a disunified visual palette. Nor is continuity synonymous with sterility. Editing the design will not necessarily turn it into Applebee's, and I think this particular panel has sufficient credibility in urban design that their perspective, non-local origins aside, ought to be taken into consideration.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

@Scoot
What's more, my guess is that if the CFA made comments that Wells agreed with, or better yet, offered him a spot on the Commission itself, he would be lavishing praise on the organization.

Hypothetical hypocrisy, the best kind of hypocrisy!

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

Has there been any attempt to quantify the cost of Commission on Fine Arts meddling and its affect on housing prices, whether when CFA plays architect and recommends/demands a floor or two lopped off of a Logan Circle condo building or in this case with design reviews that prolong the development process and require that the developer spends more to hire architects and attorneys to attend these public meetings?

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

I understand the desire to avoid something that is contrived like National Harbor but isn't 'carnivalesque' exactly what we should be creating? 'Carnivalesque' suggests public spaces that are lively and attract people. There are plenty of austere, reflective, places in Washington if that is what CFA members want.

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

@Willow: have you looked at the project plans? A mix of different types of spaces for different activities is a fundamental idea of the project. (Something that is not consistent with the idea of making everything continuous...) One end has the high-energy entertainment functions centered around the arena & performance pier, the other end (near the existing residential area) is quieter and smaller-scaled.

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

Southwest doesn't need another "continuous esplanade". We already have L'Enfant Promenade, and everyone knows what a huge draw that is.

by cminus on Apr 18, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

this post was improved. :)

by asffa on Apr 18, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Crickey7: a "unified visual palette" pretty much by definition is going to result in something unnatural and contrived. Real places evolve over time and have different elements. If you try to put in one continuous theme in a place which has no real need for one continuous theme it will look sterile for the first 20 years or so, before piecemeal updates destroy the continuous theme anyway. If you're designing a grand mall to centerpiece your national capital, you want continuity. If you're designing a human scale waterfront, why would you even want visual continuity?

Can you point to examples from the past 30 years where this panel (as a whole, not as contributing members) has produced urban designs that demonstrate their credibility?

by Mike on Apr 18, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

Willow, you're so right. Benches, with backs, facing the waters so you can sit relaxed, eating, etc. while looking at it.
Also, I like carnivals.

by asffa on Apr 18, 2014 2:01 pm • linkreport

According to the Commission on Fine Arts' website, it also has jurisdiction over Fort McNair, so I wouldn't be surpised to see the Commission meddling in the Buzzard Point DC United stadium in the next few years as well.

http://www.cfa.gov/shipstead/

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

CFA is transparent. www.cfa.gov

But open to interaction from the average DC citizen, not so much. The current director was in charge of design review in Alexandria and so has a pretty good background.

That doesn't mean that all their recommendations are good as they tend to represent whatever is current in architecture. E.g. J. Carter Brown helped ensure the construction of Station Place as a pretty ordinary set of office buildings.

They don't have anything to do with "lopping off" floors of apartment buildings. They weigh in on issues concerning the "federal interest area" primarily, although by law they have other functions (like review of DC library designs).

wrt AWITC's earlier point about "design review boards" look up CHAP in Baltimore.

A couple years ago I wrote a piece suggesting more media coverage of the CFA (among other federal bodies).

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/01/2012-new-year.html

by Richard Layman on Apr 18, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

I think the look of the Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore makes for a dignified appearance.
Do something pretty.

by asffa on Apr 18, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

Correct me if I'm mistaken, Mike, but the design without the comments is as artificially created as the one with. It won't be organically derived, either. Its designers have largely the same educational background as the CFA constituent members, so I'm not quite sure why one inspires voluminous praise, and the other, derision.

I admit to some skepticism that these relatively modest comments will have the devastating effect described, and I cannot but help think that the criticism has more of politics than aesthetics at its heart.

by Crickey7 on Apr 18, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

@202_Cyclist

Fort McNair is a Historic District (http://planning.dc.gov/DC/Planning/Historic+Preservation/Maps+and+Information/Landmarks+and+Districts/Historic+District+Maps/Fort+McNair+Historic+District+Map), and a federally-owned one at that, so I have no problem with CFA weighing in on that particular site. But obviously we've gone a bit too far if CFA has gotten to the point where they can dictate changes anywhere and everywhere in the District that they please.

by Dizzy on Apr 18, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

As for your last point - he was (and still is) a member of the Council, and I do not recall him lavishing praise on the Council.

yet he still ran for a seat on it, not once but twice.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

Also looking close to home for inspiration, I feel like the area's two arguably successful waterfront areas Georgetown and Alexandria have somewhat discontinuous varied and interesting environments. I would certainly agree there is a place for unifying elements throughout (like the distinctive pedra portuguesa in Brazil or wooden boardwalk elements around here) but giving different areas distinctive feels can also make them feel more interesting and fun to explore. I think trying to make the waterfront dignified is completely off base. Traditionally, they are usually places for working class people and vacationers.

by BTA on Apr 18, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

yes,scoot, to change things it can be necessary to take political office. I am sure on CFA, he would try to change the direction of CFA.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

RL

CHAP is appointed by the mayor. The only name on it I recognized was Robert Embry, a prominent Baltimorean IIRC. I am guessing there are few non residents of baltimore on CHAP.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

@ 202_Cyclist: The likelihood of Congress amending CFA's jurisdiction to exclude it from the SW Waterfront/Wharf project is simply nonexistent.

CFA's jurisdiction is limited to Shipstead-Luce Act areas, but also include DCPS schools (little known fact).

Although their recommendations are technically non-binding, it is very rare for developers and the DC Government to not abide by them.

Mr. Wells implies - but, like a politician, does not say so explicitly - that the DC Government and the developers simply ignore the CFA's recommendations. If that's his suggestion, then he should say so.

Instead, he complains that the CFA's subjective views on some marginal aspects of this project trump his own subjective views and, apparently, should simply be ignored.

If Mr. Wells has some suggestions on how to "solve" this CFA issue, then he didn't present any of them in this piece.

by Lurker on Apr 18, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

And that ONE reason the CFA should not get deference, is that its composed almost entirely of people from outside the region.

So if the CFA were composed of people from Brightwood -- a residential neighborhood 8 miles away from the pier -- then its comments should be taken more seriously? What about people from Columbia Heights, or Spring Valley or Truxton Circle or Fairlawn?

Perhaps the flaw with the CFA is not where its members are from, but rather their design and planning sense, which is ultimately conservative -- as many government planning tends to be.

I personally don't see the sense in stoking stoking xenophobia, especially in an article that also touts public spaces halfway across the globe -- designed and planned by people who clearly aren't DC locals -- as examples of what should be done in DC.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 2:31 pm • linkreport

@Scoot: You're raising an ineffectual strawman. Just because I like what TfL has done in making it incredibly easy to use transit doesn't mean I want WMATA run by people in London.

Likewise, we can appreciate what Oslo has done and try to emulate it - the key being we here can do so - and yet we wouldn't want the project designed and administrated by Norway.

by LowHeadways on Apr 18, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

Although at least WRT my first example, I take that back. I would give anything to have TfL run our transit system here instead of WMATA.

by LowHeadways on Apr 18, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

@Lurker:

I wouldn't say the likelihood of getting Congress to amend the Commission is nonexistant. Rep. Issa has been willing to review the Height Act restrictions.

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has held hearings on the Southwest Ecodistrict initiative. To the extent that the Commission of Fine Arts has design review over the Southwest waterfront, this complicates the General Service Administsration and National Capitol Planning Commission's effort to redevelop Soutwest to make it more vibrant and sustainable.

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 18, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

Just FYI - the actual minutes from the meeting are now available.

I haven't had time to read them, but I generally like simple paving and varied buildings. That way it's clear what's a continuous public space, and what is the joyful anarchy of the city.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 18, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

"So if the CFA were composed of people from Brightwood -- a residential neighborhood 8 miles away from the pier -- then its comments should be taken more seriously? What about people from Columbia Heights, or Spring Valley or Truxton Circle or Fairlawn?"

They would presumably have both more awareness of local DC concerns and goals, and also a greater stake, as taxpayers.

"personally don't see the sense in stoking stoking xenophobia"

Please, xenophobia is fear of foreigners - you are referring to parochialism, not xenophobia. Rather different things with different consequences.

And again, the examples are EXAMPLES. I doubt Tommy Wells would have written this response if one of these architects had simply written an oped in the Post expressing their personal opinion. Its because of the weight they are given.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

Scoot

CHAP, in Baltimore, is appointed by the Mayor of Baltimore, and the commisioners seem to be mostly (all?) citizens of Baltimore. Do you think Baltimore should get a federal commision instead?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

They would presumably have both more awareness of local DC concerns and goals, and also a greater stake, as taxpayers.

Why is that presumed? Check out an ANC meeting and get back to me about whether people have a proper awareness of their own neighborhood's concerns and goals, much less the concerns and goals of neighborhoods far away from theirs. Much of this blog is written about people making poor design and planning decisions about what goes on in the cities and towns where they themselves live -- and much of the commentary about those people is from other people who don't live there.

Xenophobia, parochialism, provincialism -- call it what you will. The English language has many words for concepts that mean essentially the same thing.

CHAP, in Baltimore, is appointed by the Mayor of Baltimore, and the commisioners seem to be mostly (all?) citizens of Baltimore. Do you think Baltimore should get a federal commision instead?

CHAP is not really the same thing as the CFA. CHAP = DCHPO.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

"Continuous" would be perfect. Link it up with nearby L'Enfant Plaza. Monument to the Neutron Bomb.

by massysett on Apr 18, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

"Much of this blog is written about people making poor design and planning decisions about what goes on in the cities and towns where they themselves live -- and much of the commentary about those people is from other people who don't live there."

and any final decision making body, whether its the DC council, an org like CHAP, the FFX BoS, would be well advised to listen to ideas, data, analysis from people who do not live there. Because they may have really good ideas. But to balance that with local input, from people who generally DO know local conditions and concerns better (and no I wont go to an ANC meeting, it wouldnt be my place - and from what I have read here they often do have great grasp of local conditions)

Granting CFA as de facto veto is a different thing.

I would add, much of this blog is about famous architects, planners, developers, etc making poor design and planning decisions.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

I agree 100% with Tommy Wells. Especially the part that "Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable 'neighborhoods' by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area." I used to live on the Foggy Bottom-Georgetown border and I loved the transition from the more typical sidewalk to the trademark Georgetown cobblestone. I've been following the SW news for a while and would love to buy a place there in a few years if the plans go as promised. I'll be sorely disappointed if they keep it dull and free of character.

by Matt V on Apr 18, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

@AWalker,

Some do have a grasp of local conditions. Others believe they have a grasp of local conditions but don't. Still others just have a grasp of their own interests and little else. NIMBYism if you will. There's nothing stopping you from going to one, if not to make a valuable comment (which I hope would be taken seriously even if you do not live in the neighborhood) then to just sit and observe.

Also, re: the CFA. Its recommendations are balanced by plenty of local stakeholders -- remember that the entire plan is being designed and built by the DC Office of Planning, PN Hoffman (a local DC developer), Perkins Eastman (which has an office in DC), and numerous local landscape architects. I think the CFA's role should be diminished, but that's more an effect of the planning politics of the region, rather than a mandate from the CFA itself.

Likewise, we can appreciate what Oslo has done and try to emulate it - the key being we here can do so - and yet we wouldn't want the project designed and administrated by Norway.

Well, the CFA is not the designer of the project, nor involved in administration of completed projects, but if planners in Norway wanted to make comments that could be taken seriously by planners and designers here in DC, I would be thrilled. I know I don't speak for everyone. Some people only want DC residents to have input.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

" I think the CFA's role should be diminished"

Then I am not sure we are in disagreement, or that you are in disgreement with Wells.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

I'm not in disagreement with Wells about that essential idea, but I am in disagreement with him about other things. I certainly don't see the sense in encouraging this anti-outsider, anti-federal attitude. Of course how can you blame him? He's a politician, looking for influence wherever he can get it and looking to rally people around his cause.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 3:31 pm • linkreport

I think you are misreading "But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring. "

Thats simply a way to encourage people to not defer to CFA on this project. I don't think he is anti outsider (is he not from Alabama, and has that not been pointed out by many DC residents, and have not many of his supporters been attacked as "transplants") and no more anti-federal than most folks in DC.

I guess I just don't see it as anti-federal or anti-outsider to oppose the CFA. I mean Arlington gets ideas from Portland, and even from Prague, but it does not need a board of czech or oregonian experts in order to do so. AFAIK no other american city or county has such a board, composed almost completely of non-residents, and appointed by an outside entity, to which projects must be submitted for review.

If those places can do without it, why does DC need it? If DC needs it, why don't all those other places need it?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 3:38 pm • linkreport

@AWalker

Whether he is or is not anti-outsider himself, that's the tone of the article, and his opposition to CFA is not what I take issue with but rather the attitude he is attempting to foster in order to drum up the opposition in others. The update at the bottom underscores the care he took in reminding people the CFA is not 'from here.'

Interestingly, he didn't seem to mind who makes up the CFA when it strongly supported the project overall, yet seemed to take issue with it as a federal outsider whenever it filed a comment he didn't like.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

"Whether he is or is not anti-outsider himself, that's the tone of the article,"

its one line.

"and his opposition to CFA is not what I take issue with but rather the attitude he is attempting to foster in order to drum up the opposition in others."

an attitude that a federal commision of non-residents should not have de facto veto. I think the idea that he is trying to foster parochialism is a straw man.

let me ask again. does any other city or county have a comparable review board composed of nonresidents appointed by the federal govt? if they can get along without one, why does DC need one (apart from issues with a clear federal interest)

"The update at the bottom underscores the care he took in reminding people the CFA is not 'from here.'" that was added by DA because someone was quibbling that the initial comment was somehow a knock on Va and Md commuters.

"Interestingly, he didn't seem to mind who makes up the CFA when it strongly supported the project overall,"

Since they were taking the same position as the elected DC council was, why would he take issue with it. An outside defacto veto only matters when it actually tries veto something.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 4:14 pm • linkreport

Scoot -- but CHAP weighs in on design matters for parcels of a certain size, regardless of whether or not the property is in a historic district, and on municipal buildings. So it has a broader purview than HPO/HPRB somewhat more comparable to CFA, which we should add, was a response by the federal government to the McMillan Plan.

I do think they are big on monumental architecture though and while we love the City Beautiful movement, Jane Jacobs was right in her criticisms. So there is a tension between big buildings that look great from the air vs. spaces that are supposed to be vibrant and used.

e.g., years ago at an NCPC hearing, I specifically contradicted NCPC speakers describing PA Ave. as "America's Main Street," while technically it is, for the most part it's a lousy space for people and isn't very vibrant and many of the spaces along it (Freedom Plaza, Pershing Park) are really bad.

by Richard Layman on Apr 18, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

the waterfront issue is a perfect example of the tension. DC has plenty of green spaces that Willow likes along the river, and the spaces aren't that well used. This particular stretch of waterfront specifically once served as DC's port, so presumably it was very active and "exciting" the seafood market being one type of function that likely existed "back then."

There were steamships traveling to Norfolk and then up the Atlantic Coast to NYC, etc.

And the waterfront revitalization activities that I have been writing about in the context of Europe (Liverpool, Bilbao, Helsinki, Hamburg, Thessaloniki, Marseille) are all about activation as best as possible, given the historical antecedents and the resulting changes in the organization of the maritime industry, which meant city docks were no longer vital places for the transportation of goods and people and for industry.

I'd go for more active than less active. But as far as the specific comments of CFA are concerned (which I am not going to read), I'd recommend a point by point rebuttal, which then justifies taking another course.

Given the relative deadness of DC's waterfronts, with the exception of Georgetown, having an active waterfront to the extant possible, should be one of the city's biggest priorities.

The trick is to do it in a way that is sustainable and organic, even though it is all new construction. E.g., Inner Harbor is touristified, and requires regular refresh because it doesn't have many original elements. E.g., right now the IH Marketplace is in bad shape business-wise.

Liverpool is a really interesting example, in terms of how they've brought cruise ships back, etc.

by Richard Layman on Apr 18, 2014 4:29 pm • linkreport

let me ask again. does any other city or county have a comparable review board composed of nonresidents appointed by the federal govt?

I think my comments have made clear what I think about the CFA and Tommy Wells' position on the CFA; if you need an answer to that specific question then I suggest you find out for yourself.

You can interpret the tone of the article as you wish, but to me it just seems needlessly anti-federal and anti-outsider. I doubt you'd like it if every time you made a comment on a post about DC, someone came in to remind everyone you're not from here.

That's the kind of attitude that pervades much of DC politics, and I don't think we need another high-profile politician encouraging more of it. Just my 2 cents.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 4:31 pm • linkreport

This journal article is a very good sum up of the state of present practice on waterfront revitalization.

http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/11/4578

by Richard Layman on Apr 18, 2014 4:33 pm • linkreport

Scoot -- but CHAP weighs in on design matters for parcels of a certain size, regardless of whether or not the property is in a historic district, and on municipal buildings. So it has a broader purview than HPO/HPRB somewhat more comparable to CFA, which we should add, was a response by the federal government to the McMillan Plan.

That one purview makes it similar to the CFA, but nonetheless, CHAP's chief responsibilities are designating historic districts, legally approving developments within historic districts, maintaining the city's monuments, administering elements of the city's housing and tax codes and providing recommendations on the city's preservation ordinances. Correct me if I'm wrong but CFA does none of that.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

"I doubt you'd like it if every time you made a comment on a post about DC, someone came in to remind everyone you're not from here."

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/22551/federal-board-wants-dignified-dull-southwest-waterfront/#comment-229562

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

"let me ask again. does any other city or county have a comparable review board composed of nonresidents appointed by the federal govt? "

"I think my comments have made clear what I think about the CFA and Tommy Wells' position on the CFA; if you need an answer to that specific question then I suggest you find out for yourself."

I would say you should answer it, as you are the one reading what is clearly an attack by Wells on an anomalous institution, imposed on DC and DC alone, as a being an encouragement to parochialism.

But I will answer - as far as I know there is NO city or county in the US subject to something like that. Zero. Zilch. Because in fact its NOT needed (areas with real federal interests apart, and even there it oversteps) as there are many ways for a city to get outside ideas and advice. Ergo, an attack on it, in the terms Wells used, is not an encouragement to parochialism, and one need not be concerned about his words having that effect (as if the folks who tend to be most parochial in DC listen to Wells.) QED.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 4:49 pm • linkreport

I would say you should answer it, as you are the one reading what is clearly an attack by Wells on an anomalous institution, imposed on DC and DC alone, as a being an encouragement to parochialism.

If I thought the CFA should be abolished, or severely diminished, it would be because I think the Office of Planning could do the same job -- not because I'm afraid of federal interests or outsiders coming in and deciding what's best for DC. That's the tone that I feel the article set -- the CFA is a big bad wolf because it is a federally appointed group of outsiders telling *us* what to do. Tone is obviously up for interpretation, and clearly you disagree with it.

To me, there are many reasons to diminish or abolish the CFA that have nothing to do with where its members live. Still, though, I think Wells' analysis of the CFA's comments is flawed.

by Scoot on Apr 18, 2014 5:28 pm • linkreport

The reality, AWITC, is that DC is in fact special, given the federal interest, and the history of planning vis-a-vis the federal interest in the city.

Of course, you would not expect a federal CFA in every other jurisdiction, they don't need standing. (Note though that this is an issue on the Hudson River viewshed with regard to some Korean chaebol hq projects.) And the federal interest area was defined by a legal case to not include Rosslyn, when the NPS tried to limit building heights there as an impingement on DC's federal interest, viewsheds, etc.

(cf. Gillette _Between Justice and Beauty_).

Unlike Scoot I am reasonably fine with the existence of CFA although I don't always agree with their recommendations.

I do think that a blog entry in GGW doesn't suffice as a detailed, actionable critique.

And it reminds me -- in a bad way -- how the DC Ec. Dev. folks tried to sway the Old Georgetown Board on the Apple Store.

That doesn't mean that I don't think a rebuttal isn't warranted. And frankly I have no doubt that the stellar team of architects, landscape architects, and other consultants on the project are likely to consider the critiques and prepare such a response.

by Richard Layman on Apr 18, 2014 5:44 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by selxic on Apr 18, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

Maybe Tommy Wells would have more credibility here if he hadn't been blowing the anti-outsider dogwhistle shortly after his demeaning kowtowing to the churches on the parking issue.

He did not kowtow to the churches on the parking issue. One writer at the city paper reported it that way. But I don't think any reasonable reading of what Wells actually said can support this. Crikey7, usually we are in agreement on the issues, but in this case we most certainly are not.

by David C on Apr 18, 2014 11:03 pm • linkreport

"commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures "both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project."

It's arguable that some of the most 'extraneous' elements of DC's older neighborhoods are what give them so much character. Tectonically extraneous elements are typically referred to as "ornaments" by 'architectural experts', and developers are more than happy to value engineer them out, especially if their architects can do no better than design another K Steet box. A special site like this one that's all about its public space ought to abound in pedestrian scaled ornaments.

It's especially puzzling that Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk wouldn't know better since with her partner, DPZ was one of the first firms to employ pedestrian detailed architecture and urbanism in their excellent planning work. Then again Ms. Zyberk was more the code end of the duo while Andres seems to have a more of the intuitive sense of what make places unique. And places like National harbor show it doesn't have to be another classical vs. modernism argument. Hopefully Monte Hoffman, who's done great work before, will heed Mr. Well's advice and shoot for something more than just another mass of glass boxes.

by Thayer-D on Apr 18, 2014 11:20 pm • linkreport

the CFA is a big bad wolf because it is a federally appointed group of outsiders telling *us* what to do.

That is certainly part of it. But the main problem is that we keep doing what they tell us to do. I think this article is saying that we should listen to them, but only as advisory board. I serve on an advisory board, and people ignore us all the time. And we're actual DC citizens.

by David C on Apr 18, 2014 11:22 pm • linkreport

The Commission of Fine Arts, is charged with giving expert advice on matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the Federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation's capital. The Commission consists of seven "well qualified judges of the fine arts" who are appointed by the President

I'd say the Commission did its job. It provided expert artistic advice on how to preserve the aesthetic dignity of the nation's capital. Now it's time for the DC Council to do its job which should be designing spaces that serve the best interests of its stakeholders.

by Falls Church on Apr 19, 2014 12:44 am • linkreport

@Mike,

The "DC way" that controversial building permits get issued is not when someone in the DC government puts on the big boy pants, it is when an interested party stuffs a sizable gratuity in the big pocket of the big boy pants.

by Jack on Apr 19, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jack on Apr 19, 2014 9:51 am • linkreport

wrt Thayer-D's point about E. Plater-Zyberk, she is also listed as one of the authors of _The New Civic Art_, which focuses on urban design and quality public places.

by Richard Layman on Apr 19, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

What weight does the US commission of fine arts even have? Are they just suggestive comments or do they actually have any authority/influence?

Jane Jacobs stated that urban design is not a work of art. It is not about creating something interesting for art's sake. It is about designing spaces with the interactions of human in mind.

by Chris Allen, PE on Apr 19, 2014 10:09 am • linkreport

I'm not sure we want to go down the road of saying that the work of a well-known woman architect was all her husband's. Her actual comments seem reasonable.

Simplifying pavement:

Ms. Plater–Zyberk commented that the project is a wonderful opportunity, and she agreed in recommending simplification. She observed that the few steps along the wharf accommodating the level change might pose a hazard; with so much activity along the wharf, she said that the proposed ground surface is generally too busy, and its paving needs to be treated entirely as background. She recommended running the granite and other features uninterrupted from one end of the wharf to the other, and she stressed the need for consistency as well as simplification: the wood of the pier should start at the pier rather than extend into the wharf, and the patterns around fountains should start at building lines.

That sounds more in line with the DeafSpace guidelines Wells is invoking than the current design calls for. And then she moved on the schmaltzy market pier sign:

Ms. Plater–Zyberk acknowledged the need for the sign at the Market Pier but said that its arched shape and wood construction are unrelated to the language of the wharf; the vertical elements throughout are metal, and the sign should perhaps be related to these—made of metal, and not an arch. ... She advised against adding more vertical supports if infrastructure could simply be hung between the closely spaced buildings, as is done in cities with narrow streets such as Rome.

I just don't see evidence for what Wells is claiming the CFA wants. Definitely not glass boxes.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 19, 2014 10:10 am • linkreport

Sandy beach - put a sandy beach on the waterfront or Hanes Point. Why do we have to drive to Ocean City to enjoy a beach, when we could have a beautiful beach here in our home town? Yes, I am aware of the Potomac River water quality issues (I work with the river in professional career)... If we are going to be aspirational, lets have a beautiful sandy beach a couple of blocks from the Metro, like in Chicago... thoughts? comments?

by Gabriel on Apr 19, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

Gabriel - Thoughts - EWW. hehee

by asffa on Apr 19, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

Gabriel you do have an interesting idea there - people would probably enjoy a walk-through fountain like the one in Silver Spring or another water feature. And/or mist sprayers - It's so HOT here all summer. Not sure people should be wading in that river, though :)

by asffa on Apr 19, 2014 12:37 pm • linkreport

There used to be a beach in DC

http://www.shorpy.com/node/3631

by David C on Apr 19, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

The river will become a lot safer to swim in after DC Water finishes their sewer expansion so they're not dumping raw sewage into the river during heavy rains. I think we're a ways away from the completion of that project, though. Some beach volleyball courts or other beach-y elements could be nice in the near term.

by Falls Church on Apr 19, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

We can certainly have a waterfront area where we can eat, stroll, sit, attend events, shop, etc. without turning it into a circus like Chinatown! I like quiet, boring and dignified just fine. Please don't turn it into another Georgetown either ... give it some European understatement.

by SJC on Apr 19, 2014 5:46 pm • linkreport

SJC I visited Florence and Rome last year - public art, fountains, well-used, (carnival-like, maybe?) gathering spaces all around. "Understatement" wasn't about. Was just plain gorgeous. Also, walkable.

by asffa on Apr 19, 2014 8:08 pm • linkreport

Neil,
I agree on the importance of reducing tripping hazzards and I'll take her word on the sign, my reaction was to whichever commision members where referred to decorative features as "both formally and tectonically extraneous" Do you know?

As for glass boxes, they do seem evident in the first rendering shown, allthough obliquely. Maybe that's why people are reacting to the call for simplificaiton, they worry this will be as sterile as Tysons. Here's a typical rendering showing the buildings in more detail. They do seem a little on the K street side.

http://www.perkinseastman.com/project_3405931_the_wharf_southwest_waterfront

And no offense meant to both Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater Zyberk. Having had the great opportunity to work for them, I can attest to their immense contribution to our current urban rennaisance. But she was always the more concise of the two, while her partner was always a bit more loquacious.

by Thayer-D on Apr 19, 2014 9:27 pm • linkreport

Years ago I attended an informal lecture by SF author Octavia Butler. She recommended to aspiring writers that when your work comes back edited, make the changes that you agree with and let the publisher know you have made these suggested changes. Don't let them know which edits were ignored because you disagree. It's what she did to get her first novel published.

I would treat this advisory panel the same way. It does sound like some of their recommendations are good. Use those and publicize it heavily. Ignore the rest and don't tell anyone.

Caveat: I live in St. Louis.

by SteveK on Apr 20, 2014 3:50 am • linkreport

wrt beaches, for years off and on I have mentioned in-river swimming barges.

- http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2012/06/28/the_original_floating_pools_of_new_yorks_rivers.php

- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/12/floating-pool-project-is-fully-funded_n_3587814.html

There need to be more ways to engage people in the city's river frontage and the rivers.

But from a "transect perspective," beach at the Wharf is incongruent. It has been port-marina roughly since the city was founded.

by Richard Layman on Apr 20, 2014 9:52 am • linkreport

Re: Richard

Yes, beach front would be quite an interesting idea to study for some place in along the Potomac River in DC / Arlington. I know that beach front was repeatedly mentioned during the Realize Rosslyn exercise. Further, beach front would be a manner for our communities to engage with the waterfront in an interactive manner, promote a sense of ownership, and support stewardship.

If we consider a couple of urban beaches as examples such as Lake Calhoun (and the other lakes) in Minneapolis, and Jones Beach in NYC, we see that beach fronts can also be draws supporting local development.

I would hope that we might develop a beach front in DC soon.

FYI: The Kennedy's used to use a secluded beach front on Teddy Roosevelt Island during their presidency - or so the urban legend goes...

Could GGW analyze beach front in DC as a topic? - Thanks, G

by Gabriel on Apr 20, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

Well, I'll take your word for it when it comes to DPZ.

It looks like they're talking about this little arch that you can see in one of the renderings you linked to. Objecting to certain kinds of ornament isn't exactly an embrace of hard functionalism.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 20, 2014 9:21 pm • linkreport

Neil, the little arch seems pretty inoccuous to me, but beyond the merits of specific features, I agree with Mr. Wells that the CFA's worries about "dignity" seem a little overblown. As for "hard functionalism", I'm not sure what you mean?

by Thayer-D on Apr 21, 2014 5:42 am • linkreport

I think that the CFA's comments were fine, and left the central elements of the plan alone. One can quibble about the term "carnivalesque." I think most folks would like to see something better than a clone copy of National Harbor.

by Jack on Apr 21, 2014 8:55 am • linkreport

"If I thought the CFA should be abolished, or severely diminished, it would be because I think the Office of Planning could do the same job -- not because I'm afraid of federal interests or outsiders coming in and deciding what's best for DC."

I strongly disagree. A diversity of review for major projects can only be a good thing. OP became known,particularly once Harriet Tregoning took over, for an internal culture that suppressed any dissent/disagreement with the boss' ideological views.

Moreover, I recall Phil Mendelson's point during discussion of changing the Height Act. Mendelson is no shrinking violet when it comes to DC autonomy. (He's suing the mayor and DC CFO to force them to follow the budget autonomy referendum, which they think is problematic.) Yet the council chairman opposed a proposal to delegate changes to height limitations to DC, noting the history of corruption in the city and the amount of money (and potential for corrupt deals) at stake in major real estate projects. For that reason, I'm comfortable with a process that lets various transparent bodies review significant projects.

by Alf on Apr 21, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

CFA's comments reflect a lack of understanding about how people actually experience and use the places they inhabit. Or rather, a lack of care about those issues in favor of sterilizing everything in the "federal city."

by MLD on Apr 21, 2014 9:05 am • linkreport

Bring on the carnival! This city (of which I'm a resident) can use more carnivalesque. Let's celebrate pulsing, chaotic, uncontrolled life on the river. That would be an homage to the lively neighborhood that got bulldozed a half century ago in that failed experiment called urban renewal.

by likedrypavement on Apr 21, 2014 9:43 am • linkreport

"Let's celebrate pulsing, chaotic, uncontrolled life"

...that's what I'd call "soft" functionalism!

by Thayer-D on Apr 21, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

Gabriel I think a river beach is a brilliant idea, in conjunction with a carnivalesque waterfront. What's strange is that, with two rivers, we don't have any beaches. Kiev is another river city with a lively beach scene:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidropark

by likedrypavement on Apr 21, 2014 10:12 am • linkreport

Oh, yes -- I'd just love to live in Ukraine! Such a model for Washington.

by Jasper2 on Apr 21, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

@Jasper2
I'm pretty sure that beach park is a major contributing factor to the country's upheaval.

Although I wouldn't put it past the naysayers here in DC to bring that up if it were proposed.

by MLD on Apr 21, 2014 10:52 am • linkreport

I think what people are forgetting about when they want everything "dignified" is that there are people under the age of 30 in the city too? What about making some more places for kids to enjoy? I remember few things so fondly from childhood as going down to the boardwork/beach in the summer time - even when I didnt go in the water it was a fun day. As I get older I really appreciate that environment in the quieter off season too so there is no reason it couldn't have a bit of a seasonal variation to it. Columbia Heights plaza is bursting with families with young kids playing in the fountain when it's hot out.

by BTA on Apr 21, 2014 11:14 am • linkreport

Let's celebrate pulsing, chaotic, uncontrolled life on the river. That would be an homage to the lively neighborhood that got bulldozed a half century ago in that failed experiment called urban renewal.

Even though the neighborhood may have been considered "lively" to some, it was mostly filled with alley slums lacking indoor plumbing and huge piles of trash that children used to build forts and battlefields as they played in the streets, set against the backdrop of lumber and coal yards, freight docks and fuel supply warehouses. It's the kind of place that, if it existed today, would be the object of numerous GGW editorials about how the city has failed the residents who live there.

by Scoot on Apr 21, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

likedrypavement - They really haven't figured out the market. Tourists paying for boat rides are taking their children and grandchildren, and casual, carnival like stands selling fast food and ice cream, benches and places kids like to play are wanted.
"Dignified" seems often to mean a boring business park, with attractive, easy maintenance, but physically forbidding landscaping. I mean someone can't sit comfortably right next to a small evergreen shrub hedge, or on top of sticky mulch.

by asffa on Apr 21, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

Doesn't the CFA have only an *advisory* role in these things - i.e. they don't have full veto power, it's just that the District government tends to roll over on these things (see: zebra bollards on the Pennsylvania Ave cycle track)? Wasn't this discovered to be the case last year?

If that's the case, then the folks developing the waterfront should simply say "thank you for your opinion" and carry on as they have. DC lacks a lot in terms of vibrant areas, especially along its waterfronts. And the CFA, being made up primarily of people who, as David says, don't live in the District, should not be held in such high esteem in the aesthetics of anything outside of, say, the Capitol grounds.

Just my $0.02.

by randomduck on Apr 21, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

Ahh, whoever mentioned the L'Enfant esplanade struck fear into my heart. Please god don't let us end up with that monstrosity .

Who can we contact about this? I support Wells' comments and want to make my voice heard.

by Christine on Apr 21, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

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