Greater Greater Washington

Live chat on activating federal places next Thursday

Federal buildings don't have to be forbidding fortresses whose only engagement with the city is to create traffic in and out each day. Yet many of our federal buildings fail to interact with the city around them, adding nothing except sometimes-attractive architecture to the streetscape.


Image from NCPC.

The National Capital Planning Commission has been pushing for federal buildings to better connect with the city where they sit, and the General Services Administration, which controls most federal buildings, has established a Good Neighbor Program to use federal property to benefit the community.

The Reagan Building has hosted many events in its plaza, and the new USDOT headquarters has a "transportation walk" showcasing transportation-related art (though security guards have sometimes hassled photographers trying to enjoy and take pictures of the art).

GSA is also now pushing agencies to incorporate more ground-floor retail into their buildings. Security considerations, whether real or imagined, have led to many recent buildings that look more like military compounds than office buildings. More recently, planners have been pushing for designs that contain a secure area "wrapped" by an outer area which could include shops open to the public. And GSA is exploring such a design for its own headquarters in Foggy Bottom.

NCPC planners Shane Dettman and David Zaidain will be joining us next Thursday at 1 pm for our next live chat to talk about this issue. You can also peruse NCPC's video and report on these initiatives.

What questions do you have for our guests?

Greater Greater relies on support from readers like you to keep the site running. Support us now keep the community going.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time

Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

Add a comment »

Have they given any consideration to some of the newer design ideas like the Federal Courthouse in Minneapolis which made security barriers out of raised grass islands with little sculptures and benches in them? This might be a positive direction for federal buildings which all too often function as fortresses

by Will on Sep 9, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

This is a great idea and I hope the feds really push it forward. It's hard to see, though, them being able to overcome the security fetishization that's taken hold since 9/11. Until the GSA defeats the securitycrats who consider every member of the public to be a potential Al Qaeda general, most of the federal buildings will continue to be devoid of livelihood after 5 pm.

by Fritz on Sep 9, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

Why do they think that the securitization of buildings has become so bezerk? Why is the government so afraid of the general public? I'd like a real answer to that question, because I truly don't know.

This country is supposed to have a government for the people and by the people. It would be weird that the "by-people" are afraid of the "for-people", because they are the same people.

by Jasper on Sep 9, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

I remember reading somewhere that the FBI building was originally designed to have retail on its ground floor but that the plan was scrapped in the interest of security. Granted, that building is so hideous I don't think a row of sidewalk cafes would save it, but it would be interesting if it was converted to have retail on its ground floor, as it has prime retail space on Pennsylvania Avenue.

by Teyo on Sep 9, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

The most egregiously bad example of public usage is the Old Post Office building. There's basically a small mall inside, plus the tower attraction, but the place is sealed up tighter than an Israeli airport. Of all the places that should just relax, breathe deep, and fire all of the security contractors, I think the Old Post Office would be my #1 pick to take the plunge from paranoia into sanity.

Let the public enter through the front. Let the public enter through the sides. Let the public enter from the rear. Get rid of the magometers, get rid of the scanners. Instead of a dozen people sitting around the entrances bored out of their minds and slowing down everyone, put just two people to wander around inside, if you must.

Reactivate the streetfront spaces; the spaces to the left and right of the main entrance on Penn Ave should have cafes. Reactivate the "Let's Make a Daquiari" kiosk in the courtyard.

Oh, and tell the NPS to adjust those bird-barrier wires on the tower windows. 99.999% of the visitors want to take photos of the panoramas, and no one wants those stupid wires in front of their lenses, so why not accommodate the lenses?

Also, think big and work with WMATA to build an entrance to the Federal Triangle station that connects directly inside the Old Post Office food court. The station has got to be just a few feet from there, I'm sure.

And perhaps you might even want to revive the old "giant postage stamp" drop you used to do on new year's eve. Does anyone else remember that? I think there was gunfire one year (during the crack epidemic) so they stopped holding the event; but it would be fun to revive it (sans gunfire).

by M.V. Jantzen on Sep 9, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

Constitution Avenue must be our greatest wasted space. It should be lined with cafés, shops, restaurants, and even theatres, but instead, the only commercial activity carried on there is the sale of t-shirts and hot dogs from trashy carts. Will the NCPC be looking at enlivening Washington's grandest boulevard?

by Herschel on Sep 9, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

How about the ATF building? It's got a lot of ground-floor retail along the back (most of which is occupied in contrast to the rest of NoMa!), but on the front appears to have more fortifications than an actual military installation.

This is doubly a shame, because there are some beautiful gardens in the courtyard.

Why can I walk into Congress with nothing more than a metal detector sweep, or into Walter Reed or the Navy Yard with nothing more than an ID check, while some of the more minor and innocuous federal agencies are locked up tighter than Fort Knox? The security priorities seem extremely jumbled.

by andrew on Sep 9, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

It might also be helpful for large expanses of Federal properties to consider integration of residential components. Even military housing would enliven some of the Federal office districts at night.

by Eric Fidler on Sep 9, 2010 4:59 pm • linkreport

In positive news I just started to work for the DOJ and they have moved into the far part of NoMA called Constitution Square. The ATF is across the street and the buildings are very aesthetically pleasing and they are tied into a larger mixed used development (grocery, restaurants, residents).

And while it's a secure facility, it's not obtrusive. Compare this to the FBI which after 9/11 turned the building from ugly to an ugly fortress.

by LTParis on Sep 9, 2010 7:31 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: Maybe if the crazies were marginally less crazy the response would be less of a bunker mentality. When people fly airplanes into your buildings (including the IRS not too long ago), or blowing up U-hauls in front of said innocuous buildings, there's an aversion to making yourself an easier target.

That said I do worry that this withdrawal from interaction is more harmful than helpful over the long term. BRAC will only accelerate this impact as do the current and varying setback requirements. The Old Post Office Pavilion lock down is silly, though if the Teabaggers keep gaining strength it may be necessary, given that it is also home to the National Endowment for the Arts. They were just a hair from storming Congress this year.

Why can I walk into Congress with nothing more than a metal detector sweep
@andrew: Because Congress is Congress, it's a tourist mecca.

by copperred on Sep 9, 2010 7:53 pm • linkreport

@ copperred: When people fly airplanes into your buildings (including the IRS not too long ago), or blowing up U-hauls in front of said innocuous buildings, there's an aversion to making yourself an easier target.

Ok, so we had planes flying into three buildings. Let's compare them.

#1: The Pentagon: A heavily secured building.
#2: The IRS building: A limited access building.
#3: The WTC: an open center of commerce and tourism.

Did the Pentagon security save it from 9/11? Don't think so. In fact, there is fewer footage of the plane flying into the Pentagon, than of the planes flying into the more open WTC and IRS buildings.

I also wonder if Timmy McV would have done anything differently if there had been a Starbucks or Subway in that Federal building in Oklahoma.

Case and point: If you try to protect yourself from the crazies, you end up in a paranoia police state, which is exactly what the US does not want to be.

by Jasper on Sep 9, 2010 8:11 pm • linkreport

@Jasper
+1

by Matt Johnson on Sep 9, 2010 8:13 pm • linkreport

Did the Pentagon security save it from 9/11?

No, but it did stop the most recent Pentagon shooter a few months back.

by MPC on Sep 9, 2010 8:22 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: I don't play roulette with lives other than my own. Timothy McVeigh pulled up right next to the federal building in Oklahoma City, because he could. Open government doesn't mean open for crazies to pull up and slaughter people inside who are just doing their jobs, or their children, who were well, just being children. Some traffic calming structures or even as cetain as using a solid security gate with a cantilevering, solid gate would have helped.

I don't know if you've ever lived outside the US, but I have, and I know plenty of societies more open than the US pre-93 with more reliable ways to protect people who aren't doing anything but what they were asked or called to do. In almost every other country you can point to the lack of broad public weapon ownership as directly correlated with how open government buildings are.

I agree that some government buildings could be more open, but I don't see how your solution of total disarmament is a solution. Federal judges are being targeted in ever increasing numbers, not just by the occasional malcontent but by vicious people who have no problem with killing anyone who gets between them and their target.

by copperred on Sep 9, 2010 10:02 pm • linkreport

Is there anything that can be done to reverse the destructiveness of the BRAC process. These decisions were made with zero consideration of transportation, energy consumption, or livability. Except for the idea that having things near an expressway exit is good. Nobody uses transit anyway, right? The worst example of this kind of thinking is the moving of DOD functions out of Crystal City to Fort Belvoir or that monstrosity/trainwreck DOD is constructing at the Mark Center off of I-395.

These are giant mistakes for which the region will be paying for a long time.

by Steve on Sep 9, 2010 10:57 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: Just one question: Have you ever lived in a police state or theocracy with a powerful secret police?

I also don't know what you know about the Pentagon as conceived versus its current design. Originally buses pulled right into the building via a tunnel, a feature was nixed in 1977, replaced by a surface level station, closed in 1983. Trucks used to be able to pull right up to the building before the Remote Delivery Facility was built, which was finally put into the process after the 98 bombings of 2 US embassies in East Africa. The plan to move the bus terminal that was right next to the building for renovations and move away (a closure that became permanent until the new one was built) as well as terminating the option to take an escalator straight into the building from the Metro were both fought by local politicians. Given security concerns identified from Oklahoma the plans were already in the works for the change. The worry was the much more typical truck or bomber with a load of semtex in a bag. The setback requirements were increased by moving roads further away, though the necessity of some of those moves could be considered dubious. For you it might not matter, maybe you didn't live here then, maybe you don't know anyone in the bulls-eye, maybe it doesn't matter one bit, but your attitude appears to betray a lack of concern for the people in the building have the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as anyone outside it. We know we take a risk working for the government, in some cases an elevated one compared to many, and mostly we do it without complaint, but your "police state" analogy I feel to be insulting.

Part of the equation is making buildings more survivable if the worst should happen. That costs money.

I've lived with terrorists and their bombings most of my life, I've lived with the suicide variety, the hijacking variety, the "politicals with a righteous cause", the religious and the incompetent. I believe an open government serves the people best, but a completely open door is not the best solution either. Neither people nor government should have cause to fear one another, and I'd believe that among rational people this is the case; the problem lies with the irrational ones.

by copperred on Sep 9, 2010 11:26 pm • linkreport

Is there anything that can be done to reverse the destructiveness of the BRAC process.

@Steve: Feh... I wish! In my agency there is considerable discussion of how many people will just retire or go elsewhere rather than spend 2-4 hours to commute to and from work from what used to be an hour each way at absolute most. The Mark Center is better than Belvoir say, since you'll still have people spending money in the local economy, but it will be horrendous. There is no transit solution at all. The DoD transit system is OK in the general area of the Pentagon but further makes Metrobus seem like a gilded carriage, as people who have tried and failed to rely upon it have noted. It will be a cluster... Maybe Moran will get his way, which would actually stop a lot of agencies from moving for a while.

The BRAC outcome has a fair bit of grounding in what has become the teabagger extravaganza. I would not want those people showing up at a commercially owned space, especially since it would endanger a lot of people who didn't sign up for the heightened risk that a lot of feds (unfortunately now) consider par for the course.

Of course it's not like you can't lob a mortar through the sky, onto a base, with any particular difficulty, even with a rudimentary knowledge of physics. I figure Afghanistan and the US have about the same level of expertise with basic trajectory calculations so we probably don't need to worry.

by copperred on Sep 9, 2010 11:37 pm • linkreport

"Did the Pentagon security save it from 9/11?"
Actually, it did. AA77 hit the newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon, that had just reopened for business. Among the improvements to this wedge was a re-enforced structure designed to sustain an explosion. This was necessary to meet the Category V requirements for federal buildings instituted after the Oklahoma City Bombing. Had they had hit any other part of the building, the damage would have been much more severe and the death toll would have been much greater.

by Smoke_Jaguar4 on Sep 10, 2010 12:36 am • linkreport

@ MPC: No, but it did stop the most recent Pentagon shooter a few months back.

And the system worked. The idiot was stopped. Yet.... They are wanting more security. Why? I don't understand.

@ copperred: Timothy McVeigh pulled up right next to the federal building in Oklahoma City, because he could.

So the solution is to close all roads? Or to have no Federal Buildings next to roads?

Open government doesn't mean open for crazies to pull up and slaughter people inside who are just doing their jobs, or their children, who were well, just being children.

Open government also does not mean that only the government gets to protect itself in bunkers while the rest of society (say in for instance the largest office building in the country) is left to fend for itself. The government does not need more safety than other citizens. The government is manned by those same citizens. In fact, it's the government's job to protect all citizens. Whether they work for the government or not.

I don't know if you've ever lived outside the US

Yes, I have. The first 28 years of my life.

In almost every other country you can point to the lack of broad public weapon ownership as directly correlated with how open government buildings are.

I agree. Look at the south east wall of the Jeff Mem. He says there: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." I think that applies to a very particular couple of lines in your constitution.

but I don't see how your solution of total disarmament is a solution.

I am not saying that total disarmament is a solution. Sure, we need protection. Just the same protection for everybody everywhere.

Have you ever lived in a police state or theocracy with a powerful secret police?

Nup. Luckily not. Certainly not a theocracy. I was born 400 km from a police state though. My dad spent a good part of his life preparing to protect us from the idiots.

On the other hand, I am from the country that has the most wire taps in the world. I am also from the country where a member of parliament is on trial for inciting hate. Accidentally, he will spread that hate tomorrow on/near Ground Zero, where he's been invited to speak. And from the country where a cartoonist has been arrested and put in jail for making an insulting cartoon. Recently, a journalist was called for a police interview for reblogging a death threat tweet to a politician. The actual tweeter has not been interviewed yet. Is that a police state? The justification for the odd judicial behavior is the murders of a politician by an environmentalist and a film-maker/columnist by an insane muslim.

For you it might not matter, maybe you didn't live here then,

I was stuck in traffic on on Key Bridge. The plane flew over my head before it smashed into the Pentagon. It was my 8th day in the US.

Since then, I have been surprised to see how easily Americans are persuaded to hand over their freedoms. What you got back is somewhat unclear to me. But then again, I am but an immigrant, that may not understand the finesse of America yet.

@ Smoke_Jaguar4: Actually, it did. AA77 hit the newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon, that had just reopened for business. Among the improvements to this wedge was a re-enforced structure designed to sustain an explosion.

I have no issue with reinforced buildings. But even reinforced buildings can have a Starbucks that's open tot he public. I do have issues with extra protection for certain parts of society, especially if it's the ruling part. This country is no Animal Farm.

by Jasper on Sep 10, 2010 7:49 am • linkreport

http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/102749

These ideas aren't usually applied in DC.

Another thing that GSA should do is a "Open Doors" like WalkingTown, for federal buildings.

I suggested this to CulturalTourismDC a few years ago.

by Richard Layman on Sep 10, 2010 1:02 pm • linkreport

First floor retail! Just look at Southwest near the Mall and compare it to say, Foggy Bottom or K Street, where most of the office space is commercial/private. The presence of government buildings is correlated with an absence of decent places for the tens of thousands of workers to eat lunch. (This comment occurred to me as I was reading GGW over my terrible lunch over here near L'Enfant Plaza).

Why can't government buildings (like Transportation, HHS, CBO, Energy, Housing, Education) secure the upper floors for government offices and first floor for retail to serve this deluge of workers that comes into the area every day?

by Ward 1 Guy on Sep 10, 2010 1:42 pm • linkreport

@Jasper:
So the solution is to close all roads? Or to have no Federal Buildings next to roads?
Take the extreme argument to support your own? Did you read nothing involving setback requirements, nor of history?

There is absolutely no accident in rallying hatred tomorrow in NYC, it is intended to inflame and poison relations between people and countries. Many people will die because an idiot is too self-important to consider anyone but himself. Neo-nazis and their ilk are not people who "accidentally" inflame hatred, it is intentional in every case.

by copperred on Sep 10, 2010 11:01 pm • linkreport

To the topic at hand, GSA could sponsor a selection of the cafeterias of various agencies. In some cases they are closed to the public because in the cases of the Supremes, no one likely wants to be hounded by fans or protesters while trying to eat. It can't be only the VA has a culinary specialty to crow about: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A26913-2004Apr20 though the overall impression from the Posties is that besides Longworth, it would be healthier to eat whipped lard. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/07/13/ST2010071304206.html It could even be a win-win: feds get food that won't make the First Lady cringe, and the people can sit down at the same table.

@Jasper: AA77 never passed over or near the Key Bridge. It's approach was from the southwest, over land, not following the Potomac. NTSB report: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB196/doc02.pdf Did you perhaps mean you were on 395 a ways before or after the 14th Street Bridge?

by copperred on Sep 11, 2010 2:57 am • linkreport

@ coppperred: AA77 never passed over or near the Key Bridge.

Hmmm. Didn't know that. I stand corrected. I was at Key bridge that day and time and somehow have always thoguht the plane must have come over my head. Not sure why. Perhaps incoming planes that day came from upriver, or perhaps based on some apparently faulty reconstruction I saw somewhere.

In the bus we were listening to the radio. They were talking to a reporter in the Pentagon about the situation in NY, and at some point asked whether he had heard anything about smoke in the Pentagon. Oddly, the reporter had not noticed anything yet, while from the bus, over the river, we could see the rising plume of smoke. It was only a few minutes later that the interview was interrupted because the Pentagon was evacuated (or at least the part where the reporter was - he pretty much had to leave midsentence).

So, I was there. As an eyewitness.

by Jasper on Sep 11, 2010 11:43 am • 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)

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.

or