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GSA considering ground-floor retail

The U.S. General Services Administration wants to upgrade and expand their current headquarters, on the block between 18th and 19th and E and F Streets, NW.

Image from GSA (PDF).

They are considering two options: one fortress-like, and the other adding ground-floor retail to engage the street. Lydia DePillis noticed the NCPC staff report for the project, which NCPC will review tomorrow.

The project will remove lead paint and asbestos, repair doors and windows, add ADA compliance, and add 120,000 square feet by filling part of the two large wells of the building. But the more interesting issue for everyone who doesn't work at GSA is the way the building will interact with the street.

There are two options under consideration. The first surrounds most of the building with bollards, mainly not blocking the sidewalk except at the three entrances, along E and 18th Streets, where they would partially interfere with pedestrian circulation. The main E Street entrance would be at the top of some grand stairs, and the building's face would be closed off except for the entrances, like most federal buildings in DC.

The second, on the other hand, lines the E Street facade with retail bays. The second floor cafeteria could also become accessible to the public through a separate stair and elevator from one of the storefronts. The entrance would be on the ground floor, and the only bollards would block the two driveways into the building.

GSA is proposing both options because they are still deciding whether they will "implement permanent perimeter security" at the building. Hopefully they can decide it's not necessary. The proliferation of bollards in recent years has seriously degraded the walkability of Washington, for uncertain benefit. It's terrific that GSA is open to a less fortress-like plan.

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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It's really nice to see the retail option even being considered. Perhaps it could set a precedent with other government buildings.

by Chris Loos on Jun 30, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

What is that material that's facing E Street in the in-fills? Is that glass? Why can't they use a material similar to the rest of the building?

by Tim on Jun 30, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

@Tim - what material do you propose for "retail bays" in place of glass? Why can't they use a material similar to the rest of the building? It looks like a good portion of the rest of the building IS glass.

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 4:06 pm • linkreport

I think what Tim means is that the part they're adding into the wells in the center, which you can see in between the three protrusions going all the way up to the top, will use modern materials instead of the stone or whatever that the rest of the building uses.

Generally, these days preservationists want additions not to mimic materials of the past but to use modern materials to better highlight the old stuff. Feel free to debate whether that's the right approach or not.

by David Alpert on Jun 30, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

Wow, I hope they choose the retail option.

by NikolasM on Jun 30, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

thanks for clarification!

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

@Tim: another reason is that these bays were included in older buildings before efficient electric lights to allow natural light in to most areas of the building. Glass allows for that to continue better than stone. Plus there is always an issue to find matching materials and craftsmanship decades on, so using a contracting material makes for and interesting look and avoids a half assed attempt to recreate the past. Personally, I like the look - it breaks up the heavy stone with light looking glass.

Also, I cast my vote for retail! That part of town is a wasteland of giant federal buildings and some retail would be a nice addition.

by dano on Jun 30, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

As for preservationists trying to avoid "mimicry", it's an interesting idea, and with this building, it seems to be successful. I'm somewhat skeptical of the idea in the abstract though, I wonder if it's a way of rationalizing a "make-work" clause for contemporary architects. After all, if you insisted on idiomatically correct classical architecture for an addition to a classical building, how many architects today would be qualified to design it? Look at the Reagan Building in the Federal Triangle it's only "classical" if you squint.

by Steve S on Jun 30, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

bollards, mainly not blocking the sidewalk except at the three entrances, along E and 18th Streets, where they would partially interfere with pedestrian circulation...

You can no longer walk a straight line -- on the sidewalk -- past the Thurgood Marshall building on F Street NE. You have to dodge bollards left and right. When two parties meet going opposite directions, they take turns single-file or someone goes out into the street.

To call it "partial interference with pedestrian circulation" is unusually mild for this forum.

by Turnip on Jun 30, 2010 9:06 pm • linkreport

Boy, would this be lovely. This area really needs some life on the streets.

Turnip, interesting you mention the Thurgood Marshall building... I walk around the Mass Ave side of that building, but the bollards and whatnot never bother me - because it is soooo much better than the jersey barriers and horrid use of space next door in and around Union Station.

by DavidDuck on Jul 1, 2010 12:09 am • linkreport

This is a fantastic idea! That park is one of the best and least understood urban parks in DC. I don't think the mimicry issue is at play here, as glass bays for retail establishments made sence ever since large plate glass was able to be manufactured (mid-1800's?)

Steve S is dead on with his criticism of the profession's inability to do "correct" classicism. the Reagan building's "ironic" take on classicism looks like a smart alecky kid rather than sophistication. Take the preservationist's mimicry policy and flip the tables. Imagine a purely classical addition to the Museum of American History because one couldn't mimic the banality of its 1960's modernist lines. Please, the whole idea is a joke.

Imagine the multi-generational Capitol Building built under this dogma. It would look like a bastardization of the Nth degree. When did harmonizing become such an issue with uptight architects? We strive for harmony in music, writting, the culinary arts, why not the building arts? Oh right!...modernism.

by Thayer-D on Jul 1, 2010 7:40 am • linkreport

I work in a Federal building that allows the public to access the cafeteria without ever going through security. (We don't advertise this feature, but we do still get lots of visiting diners.) To my knowledge, we've never had an incident, because the building's other security features are quite ample.

by tom veil on Jul 1, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport

I really hope they go with the retail option. I'd rather see government buildings trying to interact with the city at large rather than hiding behind security measures.

by aaron on Jul 2, 2010 12:49 pm • linkreport

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