The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but

Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgrace—fix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconic—but grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvania—most notably the FBI Building—are openly hostile to pedestrians.

The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.

Ben Harris lives in Rockville, where he writes the North Bethesda-focused blog NorthFlintVille. Prior to moving to Montgomery County in 2011, he lived for 5 years in DC's Logan Circle neighborhood, where he served on the ANC 2F Community Development Committee and Arts Overlay Review Committee. From 2007 to 2011, he and his wife maintained the Logan Circle and Shaw-focused blog 14th&You. 


Add a comment »

"Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?"

Maybe becasue they tore down so many of the building that actually make up a typical main street with store fronts and the like and replaced them with monolithic and blank box like buildings. With some notable exceptions, we have almost no retail or restaurant life on the street. Also, the trees down the median as shown in earlier prints would go a long way to turn it into a strolling boulevard that L'Enfant had in mind.

by Thayer-D on Jul 17, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

Also in contrast to Broadway in NYC, you can walk a few feet without bumping into someone, and there are not giant flashing commercial billboards. Also in contrast to Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Pennyslvania Avenue is a monument to government, not commerce.

It's a good thing that the meddlesome national planners will be involved, lest Pennsylvania Avenue turn into a carnival of "attractions" and "streetlife". It's OK for the national capital to have a character of its own without falling victim to some NYC-Chicago-Paris inferiority complex that demands bustle. Better plazas--yes, great idea. More street level retail--really? Like what? Restaurants--there's already Chinatown. Souvenir shops? Expensive boutiques? Why not better plazas where someone can sit in peace? And what's wrong with John Marshall Plaza--not enough "attractions"?

by massysett on Jul 17, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. By "fixing it", just like every other large project in the 60s, didn't they just tear down the landscape and buildings that were built at a human scale and replace them with vertical and horizontal expanses of concrete?
Regardless of the types of businesses that inhabited the buildings (which can organically change over time), destroying entire blocks and replacing each of them with one giant government building did not "fix" anything.

by engrish_major on Jul 17, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

I mean... I think this was all a feature, not a bug. You know what are the "kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets"? I'll tell you: "X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores"!

Clearly, the preference here is for stoic, Platonic monumentalism over the quotidian activities of commerce.

Obviously, there's an acceptable middle ground to be structure somewhere between "barren government canyon" and "18th Street Adams Morgan." In the absence of knowing how to strike that balance, the powers that be have decided that sticking to the former is far safer than the alternative.

by Dizzy on Jul 17, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

Err, isn't the issue that every private tenant on the street has fled or is about to? Vacancy rate is going to be what?

Or, in other words, the street was all developed at the same time, and is going down in the same time.

by charlie on Jul 17, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

To be clear, I don't think PA Ave should mimic Broadway, Michigan Ave or any other famous street--it should have a feel and ambiance all its own. But the street largely shuts down after business hours, save for a couple of spots. Simply improving the landscaping, making the public spaces more inviting and working with the existing businesses to become more integrated with the street would go a long way. It doesn't have to be one long stretch of commerce to become a more inviting place. It'd be great, for instance, to be able to replicate what the Navy Memorial offers along the entire stretch.

by Ben on Jul 17, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

Perhaps replicate the central tree-shaded median of the Champs Elysee, with benches at frequent intervals. This would facilitate pedestrian crossing...and even walking down the middle of Penn Avenue and prevent U-turns by drivers. There would still be plenty of room for parades, with the added benefit that spectators could stand in the wide median as well as on the sidewalks. Lots more fountains and more landscaping. After the FBI building is demolished, target as many other buildings as possible for similar rebuilding with ground level dining etc. Allow and encourage little seasonal cafes (I am assuming no one wants to sit outside on Pa Avenue and have drinks in February).

by Roe B. on Jul 17, 2014 11:23 am • linkreport

Pretty sure the Commission on Fine Arts and other government and quasi-government agencies (including, no doubt, the Secret Service and DHS) would be up in arms over the concept of a median along Pennsylvania Ave. Just look at the fight it's been just to get some sort of physical separation between the bike lanes and vehicle lanes. Multiply that by at least a thousand when considering an actual median with trees.

by Froggie on Jul 17, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

If Pennsylvania Ave could at least replicate the feeling of Connecticut Avenue, that would be a good start.

by Scoot on Jul 17, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

Build tree-free medians like park ave. in ny. This would allow pictures for tourists. Simultaneously sacrifice some sidewalk to build a separated bike lane on each side of the street. But overall, this is for naught unless you get in more evening population density (hotel and residential), and more street level retail.

by Administrator on Jul 17, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

This post is spot on and I always wondered why America's Main street lacked people. Maybe someday...

by ZD on Jul 17, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

Trump fixing up Old Post office as a hotel will be a good start

by Brett Young on Jul 17, 2014 12:01 pm • linkreport

"Simultaneously sacrifice some sidewalk to build a separated bike lane on each side of the street"

Curb to curb the jurisdiction has been transferred to the District for road purpose; the sidewalks are under the jurisdiction of the NPS as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. Good luck getting the NPS to give up control of anything

by Gromaticus on Jul 17, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

I was visiting the Mall with family this week and when 6pm rolled around they asked where we could walk for dinner. I had to tell them that the only things within walking distance (we were limited by older relatives) were the NPS concession stands, sidewalk vendors, and the Smithsonian cafeterias.

I think it's important to include a few more restaurants (and more affordable ones, although Fogo is tasty), along Pennsylvania. Ideally the feds would start transitioning from employee-only cafeterias to public restaurants and cafes as they renovate Federal Triangle, but since I'm not holding my breath on that one the privately-held buildings on Pennsylvania are our best best.

Going back to my original story, we wound up heading north to Chinatown. That plan worked well (no shortage of restaurants there) but unfortunately it prevented us from getting back to the Mall that evening to see what would've been a lovely sunset. It'd be really nice not to have to hike a half mile to get some attractive dining options.

by Peter K on Jul 17, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

@Peter K

I was visiting the Mall with family this week and when 6pm rolled around they asked where we could walk for dinner. I had to tell them that the only things within walking distance (we were limited by older relatives) were the NPS concession stands, sidewalk vendors, and the Smithsonian cafeterias.

I know it's slim pickings, but depending on where you are on the Mall, you could walk to the Mandarin and dine at Muze, go to Aria Pizzeria & Bar at the Ronald Reagan Building, Elephant & Castle across Pennsylvania from RRBITC, or the places in/by the Newseum and Navy Memorial. So there aren't zero other walkable options.

by Dizzy on Jul 17, 2014 12:25 pm • linkreport

I ride PA Ave daily at peak commuting hours, and I don't see the justification for the phrase "enormous amount of vehicular traffic."

Actually PA Ave traffic isn't that bad compared to may other jammed streets in rush hour in my opinion.

I realize the lane diet didn't stick when then originally put in the median bike lane, because of driver outcry, but I think DC should try again.

What a truly grand avenue really needs is a chance to breathe, with sufficient space in the middle for pedestrian gawking, bikes, crossing havens, without all the stress and conflict of cars so close and bikes squeezing by.

In my opinion, PA ave needs a lane diet and median pedestrian havens and landscaping, including trees, or at least something live and green. I'd leave the outside curbside lanes wide for buses, taxi dropoffs etc. Bike lanes belong in the middle, as they are now, not interspersed will all the taxis and buses along the sides in my opinion.

The challenge is to make all that new landscaping and pedestrian/bike protection in the median beautiful (mostly by creative use of pavers I think) and portable, so they can have the parade every four years.

Perhaps a bit more farfetched, but I'd also suggest that PA Ave could become a pedestrian playground on Sundays or Saturdays, with traffic blocked between 4th street NW and 12th St, maybe between dawn and 5pm. Open it back up for restaurant/event hours. Allow the vendors and food trucks to go for it.

Once the pedestrians come, and street scene gets more vibrant, the demand for street level retail and services will improve. The key is enhancing and greening the median I think.

by Greenbelt on Jul 17, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

The issue is not just Pennsylvania Ave but its the entire mall and everything around it. There are only a few reason to go; one is to visit a memorial and the second is to visit a museum.

Both of which in general do not draw many people when looking at the amount of visitors that come to DC or within 10 miles of DC in every direction. Now compare it with Tysons Corner, Downtown DC away from the mall, etc

When you look at many other countries all of the museums are not all clustered together and are spread about the city. You can find museums next to parks (a real park not the mall which is an open field), malls (shopping), housing, hotels, train stations.

Take places such as London, Paris, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Madrid, Beijing, Tokyo etc all the museums in these sites aren't all clustered together. You create a dead zone for anyone that doesn't like museums or art galleries.

We need to add shops and stores to Pennsylvania Ave & the mall;

Take for examples the Giza Necropolis (Great Pyramids), Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), Vatican City.

There is a KFC & Pizza Hut across the street from the Giza Necropolis in Egypt. The areas around the Colosseum & the Vatican area built up as soon as you live the immediate area, you could sure find all amenities that one would want.

But good luck finding food, shopping or anything along Pennsylvania Ave or the mall if you don't like museums or memorials just be prepared to be bored for a few hours.

by kk on Jul 17, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

I thought it was written in stone that there could be no permanent things/structures/curbs/etc. in the middle of Penn Ave because of the inauguration parade. Hope I spelled that right.

I think once Trump finishes and the FBI is replaced it will really transform the street.

by RDHD on Jul 17, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

By focusing on Pennsylvania Avenue in isolation - when discussing the efforts of the past or the potential for the future - one risks repeating the mistakes that so many plans for the Avenue have made. Any planning for the Avenue must come to grips with its unique location at the intersection of local and Federal DC - physically, symbolically, jurisdictionally, and functionally. There will be no easy fixes.

Although less than perfect, the PADC revitalization of the area to the north of Pennsylvania Avenue proper, went pretty well - think Penn Quarter in the east and F Street on the west. The problem with vitality on the Avenue itself is that it is located at the edge of the retail/office portion of downtown, not in the heart of it where all the people are. The real culprit was not the 1970s and 80's rescue of the Avenue from its then-severely deteriorated condition, but the misguided 1930s and 40s construction of the Federal Triangle for a single use - Federal government offices - without any of the mix of Federal and local, public and private uses such as markets ("Market Square" - get it?) anticipated in the much more sophisticated 1901 Macmillan Plan that the Federal Triangle plan was loosely based upon. The 1960s FBI Building continued this attitude, adding an unfortunately scale-less and hostile architectural style to the mix. Virtually all the buildings built under the PADC plan have plenty of street facing retail space, but the market is weak because the people are elsewhere - either in the heart of downtown to the north or on the Mall to the south of the dead zone that the Federal Triangle creates.

I hope NCPC will realize that the key to bringing more people to the Avenue's sidewalks and parks is not tweaking the park designs (although some of that would be welcome) but looking at how to open up the Federal Triangle and better connect downtown to the Mall. Make the Mall more attractive to downtown workers and residents and make it easier for tourists to find downtown. Bring people to Pennsylvania Avenue and the rest will be easy.

by Ron Eichner on Jul 17, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

@ kk:We need to add shops and stores to Pennsylvania Ave & the mall;

Take for examples the Giza Necropolis (Great Pyramids), Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), Vatican City.

Shops and stores in Vatican City? You mean that overcrowded tourist store? Wouldn't say that the area around the Colosseum is that great for visitors either. It kinda just sits there in a lot of open space. They do have wired tram lines there. Somehow the Romans do not think that those power cables destroy the view of the Colosseum.

by Jasper on Jul 17, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

@Ron Eichner -- yeah, I think that while the McMillan Plan had its own drawbacks, the big problem is that everything ran into the disastrous mid-20th Century obsession with single-use zoning (something the Park Service still can't seem to get away from). Nowadays it's bizarre to think that that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue used to be the heart of the business district way back when, since nowadays it feels more like the far frontier at the very end of commerce. I suspect the avenue itself is probably more of a symptom of what's around it, or isn't around it, than the cause.

by iaom on Jul 17, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

Once in a while, I would get an urge to make the three mile walk from work to home. The first time I walked down Pennsylvania Ave, I was terribly disappointed that I as a pedestrian, who could safely enjoy the views of the Capitol, couldn't see it from America's Main Street. Yet drivers, who really should keep their eyes on the road, have that magnificent vista.

Now I occasionally use the cycle track. Unfortunately, I can't enjoy the view because I have to keep my eyes out of jaywalking government workers and crazy cab drivers making u-ies.

by louc on Jul 17, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

I believe the current configuration of Pennsylvania Avenue is designed to best facilitate great views for occupants of the top level of double-decker tour buses.

by engrish_major on Jul 17, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

Take places such as London, Paris, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Madrid, Beijing, Tokyo etc all the museums in these sites aren't all clustered together. You create a dead zone for anyone that doesn't like museums or art galleries.

I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that so many museums are clustered together -- and actually, most of the city's museums are not on the Mall. The Smithsonian museums are, but it's appropriate because the Smithsonian is administered by the government and is linked historically to the Mall area.

In few cities are you able to see so many different artifacts and artworks within a short walk of one another. For the people who do like museums and art galleries (which are many indeed... far more than people who don't like them), that's a big plus.

by Scoot on Jul 17, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

I think Pennsylvania Ave's closest cousin is the Champs-Elysees in Paris... conceived by Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant with sight lines to major monuments on either end of the boulevard (plus occasional metro stations along the way). Like the Champs-Elysees, Penna. Ave could have more retail and street life and sill be a grand, monumental street with plenty of room for people to sit, relax and move around. There is so much potential here.

Market Street in SF, Broadway in NYC, and N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago are less apt (but still useful) comparisons.


PS> What is Trump doing with the street-level space at the Old Post Office building? Between that project and the FBI block, there is potential to make some headway in the near future.

by nativedc on Jul 17, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport


It actually has some of the city's best eating establishments--Capital Grille, Occidental Grill, Fogo de Chao, Central, Paul, etc. Plus, the Reagan building has a food court.

National Theatre "brings people to the street" as do the myriad events and fine hotels, Willard, the W and JW Marriott.

Sure, there could be more, but until (if ever) people actually live on Penn Ave, then it's ridiculous to expect it to be like Broadway or Michigan Ave or the Champs-Élysées.

And that's the problem with DC anyway: planners want every thoroughfare to be DC's "Magnificent Mile"...Connecticut Ave, M Street, Wisconsin Ave, F Street and now Penn Ave...there are too many wannabe Mag Miles!

by Brett on Jul 17, 2014 2:23 pm • linkreport

@ louc

PS. In Paris the solution to the sight line problem is to shape and prune the street trees (which is a super French thing to do). The result is the street trees look like massive square hedges and the sight lines of the monuments are largely preserved for pedestrians as well.

I wish i knew how to insert a photo.

I can't imagine us doing something so artful (and unnatural) here since it's not in the American landscape tradition and it costs money (OMG!), but it could work and could make the Pennsylvania Avenue pedestrial experience very awesome.

by nativedc on Jul 17, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

@nativedc: we don't need Pennsylvania Avenue corrupted by those French aesthetics!

by Mike on Jul 17, 2014 2:39 pm • linkreport

I think this article misses the point completely.

Sure, PA Ave was in bad shape in the early 1960s. So were large swaths of American cities. Peep shows, x-rated movies, etc. are the same complaints people made of Times Square, as recent as the 1990s. Imagine if they had taken the DC solution to Times Square - tear it down and replace it with monumental buildings that have blank concrete walls facing the street. They would have killed it, just like they killed PA Ave.

PA Ave won't change significantly w/o razing many of the monumental buildings that are there, and only if the zoning accommodates street life after the razing. Until then, the best we can hope for is a complete street with room for all forms of transportation, not just cars.

The most idiotic part of this discussion, like usual, involves the Fine Arts [Deleted for violating the comment policy.] . They seem to think that the historic streetscape of PA Ave is only preserved with 8 lanes of car traffic, neglecting what the street actually used to look like -- mixed use, street car tracks in the middle, lively street life, and plenty of bicycles for sure.

Incidentally, they killed PA Ave by isolating it as well. There used to be buildings that went straight up to the Capitol Building, on the area where there is now blank grass next to the stupid back in parking (PA Ave between 1st and 2nd NW). Altogether, if you want to kill a street, it's hard to think of a better way than what we did with PA Ave: isolate it on both ends, tear down all retail and mixed use buildings, replace them with blank walls, put 8 lanes of car traffic in the middle, and then claim that this is the only historical state worth preserving.

by JR on Jul 17, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg is another useful analogy. The east end of it similarly separates monumental govt buildings (which the czars were no slouches at) from a more commercial section of the city.

by Ben Ross on Jul 17, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

Although it's not a direct example, this is a demonstration of why Jane Jacobs was critical of the City Beautiful movement and the creation of government building complexes as pretty dead, but majestic from afar and from the air, spaces.

by Richard Layman on Jul 17, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

Put a playground on Freedom Plaza and enclose it with a fence. So many families around an no place for kids to run around safely.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 17, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

> Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg is another useful analogy...

I was quite a pedestrian on Nevsky Prospekt (at that time it was in the USSR) and through the mists of time I don't remember it being as dull or vacant as Pennsylvania Avenue.

The electric trolley-buses were beyond superb, from my diesel frame of reference -- smooth ride and fast, un-jolting, acceleration.

One difference from Pennsylvania Avenue is that the grand, formal, tsartorial buildings in Leningrad were a treat to look at. The standard concrete edifices on Pennsylvania Avenue are not.

by Turnip on Jul 17, 2014 8:06 pm • linkreport

Pennsylvania Avenue was the low end part of downtown even in the heyday of the F Street/7th/14th as a real retail downtown. Kann's the bargain basement department store which had an ugly mid century facade to cover its Victorian jumble of buildings) anchored the street. From all descriptions and pictures, it was comparable to the less respectable streets that shadowed major downtown avenues or anchored seedy edges of downtown.

The drawback to its current form is that it's a boulevard with grand views, but limited street life. It also has some monumentally ugly buildings like the Ronald Reagan Center and Canadian Embassy, but DC is full of plain or awful mid/late 20th century architecture, so it could have happened under other circumstances. There was some limited 24 hour retail in the early 90s (a book store/cafe) but it didn't last long. The current Pennsylvania Avenue reflects the urban planning of its origin and there's no guarantee that a grand technocratic fix now won't seem flawed in 50 years either. DC is no longer the retail hub for the region and places like Kanns were put out of business by places like KMart, which are now threatened by WalMart. Few, and probably no one in power would want a WalMart fronting the avenue and WalMart's business model doesn't attract high end retail or allow local low end retail to survive.

by Rich on Jul 17, 2014 11:34 pm • linkreport

If I were working on this problem I would probably try to think along the lines of Bryant Park rather than Broadway. Though I have read people play chess in Dupont, I would think DC having the most per capita education in the country (as I recall), would incline people to open air libraries and chess. I've never seen ping pong in the park anywhere in DC either.

The other main item needed for lively park use really is probably food. Now this being said, DC's density isn't like NYC so parks aren't the place to go to get out of your tiny apartment though given the price of studios in the city maybe it is becoming that way. Still with much lower density such urban uses might not be as easy to reproduce. Still I think my main point of appealing to the types of people that work in DC in plaza design is a good idea.

by Brian on Jul 18, 2014 1:36 am • linkreport

Also in contrast to Broadway in NYC, you can walk a few feet without bumping into someone, and there are not giant flashing commercial billboards. Also in contrast to Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Pennyslvania Avenue is a monument to government, not commerce.

This is such a perfect DC answer-- a distain for the pedestrian activity of commerce, as though it sullies the environment, combined with a declaration that we should not want to turn the street into New York. Only missing was an aside about how we wouldn't want PA Ave to turn into another Adams Morgan.

by Tyro on Jul 18, 2014 8:07 am • linkreport

What I object to it closing Pa. Ave. for every obscure group that wants to stage a festival or event.

by Alf on Jul 18, 2014 8:33 am • linkreport

Freedom Plaza needs to be rethought. Right now, it' s a large expanse of hardscape with interesting inscriptions that's been taken over by skateboard vandals who have damaged the marble and granite significantly. It's pedestrian unfriendly, and the lack of shade makes it particularly uninviting in the summer. Original plans called for stone models of the White House and Capitol, which would have made the plaza somewhat more interesting. With some more creativity, it could become a great urban square (think Union in SF or Mellon in Pittsburgh).

by Bob on Jul 18, 2014 8:46 am • linkreport

"With some more creativity, it could become a great urban square (think Union in SF or Mellon in Pittsburgh)."

Those parks have population centers surrounding them.

by JR on Jul 18, 2014 9:04 am • linkreport

@Tyro: the reality is that DC doesn't have the population to support a large number of distinct commercial centers, especially since such a huge portion of the business of DC is government. If you spend the resources to turn PA Ave into one of them, which of the other existing or planned commercial centers do you want to kill? Instead of being angry that DC is the political capital of the country and not the commercial capital, it makes more sense to find ways to improve things within the confines of that reality.

by Mike on Jul 18, 2014 9:19 am • linkreport

It's always going to be the monumental processional avenue. That dictates the open, wide center. I don't mind most of the architecture. I find it of a scale, both in massing and in detail, fitting to the scale of the street itself (the FBI building aside) As for vibrant street life, as others pointed out it's a bit peripheral to the activity nodes. I think it's always going to be a challenge for commercial enterprises.

by Crickey7 on Jul 18, 2014 9:22 am • linkreport

#1. @Mike - So... how, exactly, would "those French aesthetics" of landscaping corrupt a boulevard designed upon French architectural principles by a French architect? Moving right along...

#2. @Ron Eichner hit the nail on the head (his comment encapsulated perfectly by @iaom): "....the big problem is that everything ran into the disastrous mid-20th Century obsession with single-use zoning (something the Park Service still can't seem to get away from)."

Currently, there's very little 'Public Space' in DC - it was all designated as 'Federal space,' and that's not the same thing.

I know I'm going to get 'broiled' for this comment, but... While I Love DC, what I ADORE about Chicago is that the waterfront and downtown spaces ARE 'activated' with art (vintage & contemporary) AND retail.

As you walk the length of Michigan Ave, for example, you're continually met with a broad array of shops and cultural amenities to hold your interest and make for a wholly-entertaining day. And before you jump on me with the criticism that retail is some evil 1990's invention, ummm... look at photos of Pennsylvania Ave in the 'pre-peepshow' era (the 1890's, 1920's, 1930's and '40's...). Pennsylvania Avenue was fairly throbbing with commerce. Commerce doesn't have to mean cheap tourist junk or peep shows. It also doesn't mean all 'national chains'.

Mind you, I AM a museum goer. Furthermore, I am a career arts professional of 25+ years. But I also like to shop, dine (hi-and-lo-brow cuisine), and participate in OTHER cultural activities such as outdoor concerts and Festivals more regularly than on Independence Day or the (wonderful) annual Folklife Festival. Like the 'human-scale' architecture wiped away in the 1970's, DC has also wiped out much of the true ethnic diversity of its downtown, which provides that little thing called 'character.' DC's downtown also once had vibrant Italian, Asian, Jewish, African-American and Greek communities. We have the last vestiges of a small Waterfront (that was once earthy and fun), but it too is being slowly squeezed out, a victim of Federal DC's inclination to 'standardize' the life out of Everything.

Conversely, the vast, open spaces of The Mall (and surrounding NPS-controlled areas in other jurisdictions) are so rigidly controlled for their 'single-use,' it's virtually impossible to bring true dynamism to those areas. While working with a nearby local municipality in the 2000's, we briefly tried producing a large-scale music event on NPS property. While it was successful (with internationally-renowned acts), working with NPS was a nightmare: with its labyrinthine rules and regulations with no apparent reason other than to squash the very idea of utilizing public space to create a sense of 'community'(!). By contrast, Chicago's 'Millennium Park' and it's attendant Jazz, Gospel & World music offerings are international tourist attractions in and of themselves, and a fine restaurant 'built-in' (and dozens, not a handful, dozens of other eateries nearby).

Ironically, here in the very cradle of the system that protects and promotes the idea of 'capitalism,' it's very poorly represented on today's Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. It would seem to me that such a boulevard should instead be a showcase for at least some forms of (well-managed/curated) capitalism. By virtually erasing any sign of it, you get what we've got: a tourist-trap that becomes a very pretty but barren streetscape once they've all gone home. There's precious little there for residents like myself to do.

by Dupont Parker on Jul 18, 2014 9:25 am • linkreport

Mike: Boston is about the same size as DC in population and somehow manages to sustain multiple vibrant retail centers. That is true for many other cities of about 500,000 people. Furthermore, PA Ave is a central commercial and tourist area bringing many thousands more additional people into the area. Finally, DC has extremely high commercial rents, indicating that demand far outstrips supply.

What it comes down to is (a) southern suspicion of commercial and retail activity and (b) aesthetic preference for wide open boulevards not being used for any practical purpose.

This is an unfortunate consequence of designing a Capital from scratch instead of picking a population and activity center and building around it. In older cities that weren't victimized by revitalization, central plazas are hubs of activity and gathering, where people shop and eat.

by Tyro on Jul 18, 2014 1:23 pm • linkreport

Tyro: DC has multiple commercial districts, there is more than one right now. The question is how many it can support--the number certainly isn't infinite. It is not clear that throwing resources at PA Ave is the best answer, especially if there are other parts of the city which are under-resourced and which (since they don't have the real, practical issues caused by proximity to the government features which are the real business of the city) have a more realistic chance of success.

by Mike on Jul 18, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

PA Ave does serve some things well-- major festivals can be held along it, like Capital Pride, with more than enough room that can't be found elsewhere. I wonder whether having it one way during the work week and changing its character during weekends and holidays might do the trick. Allow the 8 lanes for commuting time, but truncate lanes and bring in vendors and shopping kiosks on the weekends. PA Av could become DC's pedestrian promenade, something we're sorely missing, and a quality that other streets (M St, 7th St, the Mall) have too many other uses to provide.

by Gregory on Jul 18, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport

They should finish Freedom Plaza. In the original design miniature buildings were supposed to sit on their footprints set out in the plaza. It would be cool if kids could walk through a little White House, etc.

by Tony on Jul 18, 2014 5:02 pm • linkreport


Your point is not correct. There are far more residents living in downtown Washington than in downtown Pittsburgh. Mellon Square thrives because of its design.

by Bob on Jul 18, 2014 7:56 pm • linkreport

I hate Capital Pride and all of the other silly events that close Pa. Ave. It's not a fairgrounds for rent (of course, most groups pay nothing, so they receive a big subsidy from the taxpayers for their outdoor follies.

by Sarah on Jul 18, 2014 7:58 pm • linkreport

I hate Capital Pride and all of the other silly events that close Pa. Ave. It's not a fairgrounds for rent

Well, it's not like anyone else is doing anything with it on weekends..

by Tyro on Jul 18, 2014 9:10 pm • linkreport

See here:

The problem is that neither our city administration -- nor our federal government -- have the ambition, resources, or competence to provide the US with a world-class city, let alone a world-class capital city.

The average small city in Northern Italy, Southern France, Spain or Germany has better transportation infrastructure (two small cities in Northern Italy have driverless Metro systems, not to mention the gorgeous, large system in Copenhagen), cleaner streets and more vibrant urban life than the capital of our nation.

This isn't about a bad street -- it's about America getting exactly what it deserves.

I wish I had some optimism that things will change, but, well, that's just not going to happen.

I'd love to see street furniture, vibrant retail, trams down the middle and bike lanes moved to protected spaces on the side of the tram tracks, but, well: 9/11! Terrorism! Traffic flow! War on cars!

In short, Pennsylvania Avenue is absolutely America's Main Street. Why is anyone surprised? This is what we deserve. And, until, we dramatically transform our understanding of how not only good cities, but good societies and civilizations, should operate, we won't deserve anything better.

by James on Jul 18, 2014 10:16 pm • linkreport

Don't change Freedom Plaza! It's one of the best (and most popular) urban skate spots in the city!

by Ryan on Jul 19, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

I'd love to see the National Park Police arrest all the skateboarders on Freedom Plaza and keep them locked up all weekend until they finally ee a magistrate on Monday! They're urban scum.

by Sarah on Jul 19, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

"Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg is another useful analogy...."

It's a bit of odd timing to be citing Russia as a model for anything, isn't it, Comrade?

by Bob on Jul 19, 2014 4:27 pm • linkreport


by Dave G on Jul 19, 2014 4:30 pm • linkreport

Seriously, though, there's nothing wrong with considering what other countries have done with major streets in their (past or present) capital cities. Although we will likely have different ideologies behind our decisions than some of these other countries do, regardless of current events. Keep in mind that St. Petersburg was founded in 1704, long before Soviet Communism or post-Soviet Putinism. Personally, I think Putin is an opportunistic, nationalistic Russian bully more than anything else but certainly not a Communist. And Nevski Prospekt, according to Google Maps Street View, seems to be a regular Paris-style wide street with mixed use buildings right up to the sidewalk.

by Dave G on Jul 20, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

I realize the FBI won't be there much longer, but it seems they could rent out the sidewalk frontage for various shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes, etc. after properly vetting the owners & employees. Or maybe that's too risky but probably not much more so than any threat from Pennsylvania Ave. But if it's that risky, then yes the FBI belongs on a set back campus in an outlying area somewhere else.

by Dave G on Jul 20, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

I was on Pennsylvania Ave. on Saturday - I walked from the Archives Metro station to the Newseum and back with guests from out of town.

The condition of the stidewalks and the plaza which is maintained by the National Park Service - complete with litter, overflowing trash cans and weeds growing out of the sidewalk and around the statues - is frankly embarrassing.

by august4 on Jul 21, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

"stidewalks" should be "sidewalks".

by august4 on Jul 21, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

The maintenance of our national parks -- which are local parks in DC -- by the NPS is an absolute disgrace. Even the Italians and Spaniards -- in the midst of gross economic crises -- can maintain gorgeous, litter-free parks. I guess we're too exceptional as a nation to do the same? I agree 100%! In particular, the park across from the White House is appalling.

by James on Jul 21, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

I will mention that my guests, while impressed with Metro, the museums and the restaurants, were appalled at the condition of our local streets and highways, to the point of saying they were beneath what one would expect of the National Capital area. One even said she's never such badly-littered higways anywhere else.

I would have to agree.

by august4 on Jul 21, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

Our streets -- right outside the World Bank and the night life of U ST -- look like something from Bogota. It's pretty shameful. Our parks look worse.

by James on Jul 21, 2014 1:19 pm • linkreport

Is one reason Penn Ave is so wide because it used to connect to the E Street Expressway? Now it's a giant avenue that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

by Michael Cunningham on Jul 21, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

Pennsylvania has always been wide - from the beginning before anyone ever thought of cars or expressways.

You can't blame "built to accomodate cars" for the street's wideness. Atually, the Avenue's wideness isn't the problem. The problem is the sterility, blandness, litter and the poor maintainance and upkeep of the adjecent parks and plazas.

Anyone every been to Ottowa?

by august4 on Jul 21, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

There are beautiful wide streets in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Madrid. The difference is that those streets are well-paved (sometimes with cobbles), have elegant street furniture and lighting, have well-planned nature (i.e. trees) and civilized commerce.

The wideness isn't the problem -- the fact that nobody at the NPS seems to give a hoot that our capital city looks like an absolute shabby dump is the problem.

by James on Jul 21, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman
Although it's not a direct example, this is a demonstration of why Jane Jacobs was critical of the City Beautiful movement and the creation of government building complexes as pretty dead, but majestic from afar and from the air, spaces.

Absolutely this. City Beautiful is so outdated now and we know so much more about how to plan spaces for people. It's a design philosophy rooted in the idea that we still have dirty slums to clear or that commerce is mostly seedy and unclean. Other cities have realized that this is no longer true - it is too bad the capital is rooted to this 100-year-old planning framework in the McMillan Plan.

I mean, look at what the Mall looked like at one point:

TREES! SHADE! Things people need in a park in a city where it's 90 degrees with 90% humidity for two plus months out of the year.

The wideness isn't the problem -- the fact that nobody at the NPS seems to give a hoot that our capital city looks like an absolute shabby dump is the problem.

There's basically no way to keep it from looking like a dump when you have a park that is designed to host events on its grass every weekend of the summer. Natural grass can only be 'used' for 20-25 hours a week before it gets seriously damaged.

by MLD on Jul 22, 2014 9:33 am • linkreport

I work on Pennsylvania Avenue and regularly use the bike lanes there. The wide sidewalks are perfect for lots of outdoor cafes. Office workers, residents and tourists would all use this space at different times. /tourists are always walking north from the Mall looking for places to eat. Penn Ave offers very few suitable option Yet. The traffic on the Avenue is not really all that heavy since it is blocked at both ends by the White House and Capital. It has great possibilities for people watching but the office building owners and DC rules have a lot of responsibility for vacancies sand dead spaces. The Navy memorial is well used, and a new Paul coffee shop is always full. But half the retail spaces are empty even though several new restaurants and bars have opened just a block away on D and 8th Streets and the restaurants on the 600 block of New Jersey Ave are thriving. Similarly, the building between 10 and 11 streets has one well known cafe, a bank and a restaurant space vacant for several years but they don't use the sidewalk even though the sidewalk is wide enough for several outdoor cafes as is the space on the NE corner of 12 and Penn, but this corner is devoted to an absolutely empty ARTS space because of some city requirement. It is bad enough the FBI building is a disaster, there is more possible life on parts of Penn Ave if only the building owners focused on it and the city removed the arts restriction.

by Bikerman on Jul 23, 2014 9:49 pm • linkreport

I agree Penn Ave could be a more inviting space. But, I think we have to acknowledge that DC isn't in anyway comparable to Paris.

DC is a mid-sized city of 600-650k in 61 sq miles. Paris is a city of 2.25 million in 41 sq miles (with millions more living in suburbs far dense than DC proper).

Paris/London = NYC, not DC.

DC has nowhere near the core population density of major European capitals. Brussels has almost 2x the population in an area the size of DC proper. We are working on a much smaller canvas here.

It doesn't rival Madrid of Berlin, but DC already has several vibrant urban nodes (Georgetown, Dupont, Gallery Place, 14th street, etc). Maybe it would be a little more impressive if all this activity was concentrated in a central core like in Boston or Philadelphia or similar sized European cities like Dublin or Amsterdam. But, we have to be realistic here.

The city is currently trying to spread retail/activateCity Center, revitalize H Street, 9th and 7th in Shaw, the Waterfront, Navy Yard, NOMA, and strengthen the existing retail on Conn Ave and F Street, all the while maintaining the existing neighborhood clusters, etc.

Without dramatically increasing our population base, there are limits to how much we can realistically activate.

by Chris on Jul 28, 2014 5:55 pm • linkreport

It's so easy to criticize and far harder to execute a thriving, renovated + redeveloped area along a Main Street that is and always has been the widest street in the city, with since the 1930's federal government buildings on one side and the commercial city on the other side.

There are laws that have to be followed. For example, a Plan can't dictate that a commercial shop (disregarding the type and quality) locate in buildings along The Avenue. The Plan, General Guidelines, and Square Guidelines went to great length to encourage but could not require retail and restaurants with outdoor cafe areas along The Avenue. Banks and similar uses 'should be' located elsewhere. It could not require this only encourage it. And as long as PADC existed, the fact that it had review authority and exercised it weighed heavily when developers made decisions. I am guessing that many who wrote here have no idea what PADC started with.

When The Willard was completed there were many shops along the walkway between Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street. National Place had three levels of shops fronting on F Street. Guess what happened. Some shops closed during a recession, local and national chains went bankrupt during another recession, and department stores right across the street succumbed to too much debt during the leverage buyout days. This affected the buildings on The Avenue as well as those on F and other streets in downtown DC. Suddenly there were vacant spaces in several buildings on The Avenue and in many buildings in the city. Some of you may remember this. today i can exit Farragut West at 18th Street and see a Pret a Manger where there once was a local dress shop that also had a store in Georgetown and National Place. It's no longer in business. Many buildings I saw being built have gone through three and four tenancies on the ground floor. Perhaps business cycles occurred more frequently in the second half of the 20th century and in this century than in earlier times. I saw it here and in other US cities. I think we called it the 'malling of America.' So is that what we want on Pennsylvania Avenue -- what else does one get these days. Look at 14th Street a decade ago with quite a number of independent shops and look at the shops there today -- how many are independent and how many are chains? Change happens quickly in some sectors of the economy. And please tell me where there is a thriving, successful one-sided commercial/retail street.

Small buildings like the Hotel Washington, The Willard, the Munsey Building, The National Theater Building, the National Press Building, The Harrington Hotel, The Evening Star building, The Presidential Building and so on are not exactly small scale buildings. The Willard is actually 162 feet in height, exceeding the height limit allowed only on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol by two feet. Only a few blocks on the north side had smaller scale buildings. Sure there were one or two surrounded by two-story open garages and a gas station, but I think those who thought that the Avenue consisted of four-story buildings are looking at images of a far more distant era. Further, PADC had no jurisdiction over the south side of The Avenue until near the time it was terminated by Congress on April 1, 1996 -- before its work was completed.

The Ronald Reagan Building when built was more accessible. Then there was Oklahoma followed by 9;/11. It's a different world today, and so is access to Federal buildings.

Last, there are restrictions other than laws. No trees down The Avenue or on Freedom Plaza because of the Inaugural Parade. We can remove traffic signals but not trees. That is but one example of a multitude of restrictions that existed and framed both public spaces and development limitations.

PADC did create an award winning mixed-use neighborhood. And this is more than retail on the ground floor of an apartment or office building. The Plan required residences in an area that had been commercial for over 100 years. It also required arts uses, some of which folded during one of the recessions, others like the Shakespeare Theatre Company grew. PADc required ground floor retail and restaurants -- not always properly monitored after Congress closed PADC. The Plan required historic preservation of major landmark buildings. And The Plan includes potential future bicycle lanes along the curbs -- much safer than in the middle of the street if properly designed.

I find it sad to see what happened to the area I once worked on -- once Congress closed PADC, the public spaces were no longer being maintained and it seems that no one cares, certainly not Congress, which has been unwilling to fund maintenance increases of even the National Mall.

by Jo-Ann on Nov 4, 2015 6:33 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us