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Public Spaces

Cooling the starburst: Engineering underway for new plaza at Benning and Bladensburg

The intersection of H Street, Benning Road, Bladensburg Road, Maryland Avenue, Florida Avenue, and 15th Streets, NE will become more hospitable to pedestrians with new crosswalks and the addition of a plaza at the northeast corner. The Rosedale Citizens' Alliance obtained the latest sketches of the intersection, which implement the recommendations from the H Street-Benning Road Great Streets study. The change will reroute Maryland Avenue northeast of the plaza to intersect Bladensburg Road, rather than continuing directly into the main intersection. This opens up space for a new plaza, with trees, benches, and a mural or fountain.

Top: Current engineering sketches for the Starburst intersection. Bottom: Plaza concept sketch from the H Street-Benning Road Great Streets project. Click to enlarge.

Frozen Tropics covered the neighborhood debates over the plaza during the design four years ago (part 1, part 2). These debates closely resemble the discussions over 17th Street in Dupont Circle, where some criticized the placemaking suggestions of the project team and pushed for a basic design devoid of ornament to keep maintenance costs down and devoid of street furniture to dissuade homeless people.

Despite the much smaller scope of the Dupont project, DDOT ended up removing features and reducing the project to low-maintanence bare concrete, while they retained this plaza in the Great Streets project. If anything, H Street is more prone to many of the problems that Dupont residents feared, but H Street will get its public space while 17th Street will retain its empty expanses of sidewalk. After the H Street plaza opens, we'll know for sure if it improves the area as most think it will, but by then it will be too late for other areas like 17th.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The big question is how do we keep homeless people or groups of kids from just sitting there all day, making the space inhospitable and unusable for the rest of us? There really does need a cop presence there 24-7, which shouldn't be hard to do since there are a lot of cops wandering or driving around this area anyway. This is one place where I'd encourage vendors to set up shop to keep people passing through there. It would be a great place for someone to sell coffee and bagels.

by Tom A. on Jul 21, 2009 11:11 am • linkreport

Will it be any less confusing for drivers. I was just there Sunday and it's a mess.

by Rich on Jul 21, 2009 11:21 am • linkreport

Why is it such a bad thing for kids to hang out somewhere? I mean, what are kids supposed to do? Not everybody is in to organized sports. Would it be better if they sat in mom's basement and played video games all day? Got high? Got pregnant?

by BeyondDC on Jul 21, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

I wouldn't consider Florida ave part of the intersection since it does not intersect in. The intersection is of Benning Road, H street, Bladensburg Rd & Maryland Ave.

Its a good idea in some reasons but in others I kinda dislike the idea; more than likely WMATA will place there northeastern bound B2 and X8 bus stops there which will make a longer distance to Hechinger Mall for anyone on that bus going there.

They should do the same to the Florida Ave, 14th Street, H Street part and make 14th street two ways for that block.

by Kk on Jul 21, 2009 11:58 am • linkreport

This project is going to look great regardless of who "hangs out" there. It will beautify what is now a completely inhospitable car sewer intersection. Kudos to the project team and neighborhood. It will have a great (and substantial) public fountain with a mural, too. Let's give credit where credit is due, folks!

Now, let's also apply extreme pressure to DDOT and the city to figure out the following in order to implement streetcars in a timely manner:
1) Where is the terminus and how can we create that spur quickly? (Union Station?)
2) How do we power them?
3) Where can the maintenance facility on H Street be? (vacant R.L. Christian Library site?)

DDOT needs the political will to answer these questions NOW before we have streetcars and tracks but no way to run them.

by SG on Jul 21, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

What will determine the success of this public space is not so much the design of it but what kind of activity surrounds it. Places to sit are crucial, and the fountain and mural could be nice, but the lack of immediately adjacent retail could lead to its demise. In order for this space to be safe and appealing, both the CVS and Hechinger Mall sites need to be redeveloped. The Hechinger Mall site has many things wrong with it urbanistically, but for one, it is situated high above the street at that point so there is no visibility or immediate pedestrian access. The CVS to the north is also suburban in character and does not address the street or help frame the new public space. The site to the west is underutilized as well. This area will continue to be very auto-centric until these sites are redeveloped and the streetcar is established.

According to DDOT, they are currently testing cars in Europe and will test the first line in Anacostia in the near future. The problem with the H Street line has to do with the issue of overhead wires, which go against preservation guidelines. (Someone needs to show the preservationists a picture of San Francisco!). Sourcing power below ground is possible, but difficult and expensive.

Establishing this badly needed public space is a good first step in revitalizing the intersection. But without a stronger urban design/retail context and improved public transit, this space probably won't work.

by lgolenor on Jul 21, 2009 1:59 pm • linkreport

I have read quite a bit about this recently, though I have never been to the intersection, so I lack that requisite perspective. Having said that, has anybody considered making this intersection into a traffic circle? Based on the sheer amount of traffic coming and going from the intersection, wouldn't it best be served by having all traffic go around a circle, rather than odd angles of crossing and sequencing of traffic lights?

Traffic Circles can also greatly help pedestrian safety by having plenty of refuges and maintaining right of way to them, rather than them having to wait for an odd light sequencing.

Just my thoughts. Again, I do lack the perspective of having been there.

by DK on Jul 21, 2009 2:07 pm • linkreport

Coincidentally, I am a graduate architecture student and my thesis project includes a traffic circle for this intersection, with a streetcar station located underneath it (similar to Dupont Circle). The rest of the project transforms the CVS/Hechinger sites into a Community College and mixed-use neighborhood.
One issue with traffic circles (again, referring to Dupont) is how to get pedestrians and cyclists safely through and around it. Working on that right now...:-)

by lgolenor on Jul 21, 2009 2:26 pm • linkreport

Rachel MacCleery, then a Ward 6 Transportation Planner for DDOT and I were trying to figure out why the capital investment in improving 8th Street SE/streetscape had such a marked effect in improving the retail climate. So we were discussing this and I had an important realization-inference.

Typical methodologies that rate neighborhood health use scales of 4 to 7 rungs on a ladder. DC uses 4 categories, which I call distressed, emerging, transitioning, and healthy. (They use different words.)

What Rachel and I realized is that you have to evaluate a commercial district separately but simultaneously with the residential part of a neighborhood.

Neighborhoods where the commercial district lags, but the residential sector is extremely healthy, will generally obtain "extranormal" revitalization benefits from the streetscape benefits. It helps the commercial district catch up.

The other thing you can do is use this kind of criteria block by block for evaluative purposes and to develop policies and actions that are very specific and focused.

Anyway, the other realization based on our conversation is that policy proscriptions need to be variable according to how the neighborhood is categorized. In short, you don't put benches and the like in commercial districts that are emerging or distressed, and only in later stages when a commercial district is transitioning. (this by the way is one reason to use a 6 stage typology as it allows for finer gradations.)

People need to realize that this is a process. You should never "build down" the basic physical infrastructure, because basic streetscape construction is a once in a generation investment (30 years or so) and the chance for a redo is slim. However, you can phase in the actual installation of street furniture and other amenities, depending on the progress of the commercial district in terms of deal with vagrancy and related issues.

A couple points on the post and/or comments. 1. Technically, this project predates the Great Streets program. It was done in 2003/4. The Great Streets program was launched in 2006.

2. I communicated these findings to Dan T., Karina Ricks, et al., making the point that the money set aside for "Great Streets" wouldn't be enough, because the designated GS areas, unlike on 8th Street SE or Georgetown's M Street, for the most part had commercial districts and residential areas which were simultaneously distressed or emerging, you didn't have a more healthy residential district which could drive improvement. (Already underway activities on H Street were rolled into the Great Streets program.)

The GS program is designed to be an urban renewal program, but run by DDOT not DHCD. But if you don't really understand the underlying processes, it won't work, no matter who runs it.

Igolenor == the reason a traffic circle didn't make it into the final plans was strictly because of cost reasons. I don't remember the exact figure (the meetings were a long time ago), but it was something like $51 million to do what you suggest. That's what we wanted to do of course, but it was sacrificed because of cost.

And the designs pictured in this entry don't seem any different in these drawings substantively, from the plans of years ago.

Ironically, back then I convinced Rachel to get Project for Public Spaces on the project, to do public engagement and design, and they did come in on it, but their involvement was significantly constrained by the scope of work, and not much came out of it. I had suggested PPS because I pointed out to Rachel that despite people's participation in a variety of successive planning efforts, generally the knowledge level of the typical participant doesn't improve and this is an indicator that new approaches are needed.

(Rachel hasn't worked at DDOT for awhile.)

by Richard Layman on Jul 21, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

SG -- the RL Christian site is dinky and could never accommodate a maintenance facility. I once suggested using a side track off 10th St. ( but the best thing would be the old H Street right of way under what is now the H Street bridge, but it isn't really practical either.

The biggest problem is dealing with the overhead wire issue. It appears (based on a conversation I had with Delegate Norton) that the sentiment in Congress very much favors the continued ban on overhead wires in the L'Enfant City.

by Richard Layman on Jul 21, 2009 4:49 pm • linkreport

Richard- the entire site (which will likely be RFP'd soon) is actually rather deep and widens toward Wylie St. and while it couldn't be a permanent home for all streetcars, it might be able to accommodate those on this particular route (no more than 3 cars). Again, this is a solution that could shave a couple years off the implementation. If the South Capitol street facility is the only one they're looking to use to house the cars, then we are more like 5-7 years off instead of 3-5.

by SG on Jul 21, 2009 4:59 pm • linkreport

I wish I saw more kids hanging out in parks

by цarьchitect on Jul 21, 2009 5:34 pm • linkreport

Putting that kind of use on the face of a commercial street is not recommended from the standpoint of maintaining street vitality. It's also not an allowable use under the C2 zoning. Put them in the parking lot at Hechinger or RFK first. Don't make really really bad decisions for expediency. (At least, I try when I make recommendations, to consider a variety of concerns, rather than just one.)

And that lot isn't as deep as you think. It's a couple hundred feet deep at the most. I know it well.

by Richard Layman on Jul 21, 2009 9:34 pm • linkreport

@rl and yet congress won't be providing the extra money DC will need to build a streetcar system without wires? That's crap. If they're going to make a rule like that, they ought to fund it.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 21, 2009 9:38 pm • linkreport

I have argued for a long time that Congress should fund the streetcar fund because Congress mandated the dissolution of the streetcar system to begin with, in the early 1950s, by refusing to renew the streetcar franchise.

by Richard Layman on Jul 22, 2009 10:12 am • linkreport

Does anybody know the US Code section or the bill that banned overhead wires in the L'Enfant City? I've done some Westlaw searches, but come up empty. I'm curious as to the actual language used - everybody says the wires are banned, but nobody ever cites the law itself. Any help will be appreciated.

by The AMT on Jul 23, 2009 3:13 pm • linkreport


The law is from the late 1800s. If that helps.
One thing to consider are the overhead wires over the tracks in and out of Union Station. Maybe there is already some exemption or loophole related to trains that a good lawyer could take advantage of...

by skinny on Jul 23, 2009 6:37 pm • linkreport

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