Greater Greater Washington

Should Mount Vernon Square become circle-like?

Cars and streetcars could flow counterclockwise around a Mount Vernon Square enlivened with retail, seating and events in the park and along the Convention Center's façade, under draft recommendations the DC Office of Planning unveiled last night.


Photo by Kim Smith on Flickr.

Mount Vernon Square resembles Dupont Circle in many ways. It carries just as much car traffic and sits at the crossroads of several major thoroughfares and transit lines. Yet as an urban space, few would rank Mount Vernon Square as successful. The Office of Planning (OP) hopes to change that.

The proposal recommends mid-block crosswalks to connect the square to the Convention Center on the north and to 8th Street on the south. This will help fuse all three sections together. In the square itself, OP recommends reprogramming the walkways and for a more intuitive pedestrian flow through the square and adding two small retail or food pavilions and outdoor seating.


Concept sketch showing streetcar path and retail pavilions.

On the north side, OP wants to rethink the south entrance to the Convention Center. The building is massive and has the potential to host more permanent attractions like a "mini-Smithsonian" or something similar. To enliven the south façade more, planners envision the construction of small cafes or retail spaces at the southwest and southeast corners of the building.

Much as the old Convention Center site now hosts temporary events, 8th Street from the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art to the square could likewise become programmed into an active public space. The study team said that the owner of the adjacent Techworld Plaza is amenable to accommodating more events.

The section between the square and I Street is already closed to car traffic and forms a suitable space for outdoor seating and kiosks, though it just ends up as a large, vacant space most of the time.

DDOT will ultimately decide the traffic flow configuration, but the planners recommend a counterclockwise loop, much like the configurations at Stanton Park and Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill. The loop configuration will allow expanding the interior sidewalks of the square and would eliminate the terribly congested two-way stretch of 7th Street on the east side of the square.

The loop configuration will also accommodate extending the H Street streetcar line onto K Street from NoMA to Washington Circle. Streetcar stops along the edge of the inner square will enliven and activate the space throughout the day. If the streetcar uses "grass tracks" around the square as proposed by this video, the streetcar lane would also visually expand the park.

Under the recommended option, 7th Street south of the square would become one-way northbound, to match 9th Street which is one-way southbound. However, one-way streets have drawbacks. They tend to serve more as through highways than serving the local area, and downtown, especially on 7th Street, there is plenty of local activity. One-way streets force drivers to circle more to reach a destination, and reduce connectivity.

This study doesn't look at 7th and 9th farther south, but if such a plan were coupled with widening the sidewalks on crowded 7th Street, adding cycle tracks to 7th and 9th, and perhaps building bus lanes that aren't susceptible to the rampant violation the current ones experience, that could be beneficial; if it simply makes 7th into 3 or 4 lanes in the same direction and it becomes a high-speed northbound artery, it wouldn't be.

The other options the planners examined include making both 7th and 9th two-way, including through the square, while only turning the east-west roads into one-way roads, or making all roads two-way.


3 options for traffic flow. Click to enlarge.

Finally, no lively public spaces project can work without permanent management. OP recommends something on the order of a business improvement district (BID) or a smaller management entity to clean and plant the square and adjacent triangle parks. This entity would also facilitate events on the square and manage leasing the Carnegie Library to a potential co-tenant of the Historical Society, which currently occupies the entire building.

To simplify jurisdictional issues, they suggest transferring the park and adjacent small spaces, like the "bow-tie" parks, to the District. Current NPS rules make it more difficult to enliven spaces, like their concession procedures which would greatly slow if not prohibit the proposed food pavilions.

OP will release its full draft recommendations next week, but you can view the 10 priority projects (PDF) now. What would you like to see at Mount Vernon Square?

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Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

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Interesting. They need to do SOMETHING with the place. What I don't get, however, is the "traffic calming" feature of the proposed traffic patterns. I have never seen traffic move there above a snails pace as it is.

by beatbox on Nov 11, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

The concept sketch reminds me of Union Square Park in San Francisco, which could be a great model for Mt. Vernon Sq.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Square,_San_Francisco

by Jason on Nov 11, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

I was a little discouraged by this meeting. I've attended all the public forums since this Mount Vernon Square District project started including last night. What they presented in late 2009 was already quite excellent. Public sent in feedback in January and then 10 months later those excellent 2009 proposals are barely changed. My qualms are not with the proposals remaining fairly static but given that they are why does this take 10 months? They also have said DDOT needs six more months to evaluate the 3 traffic circulation proposals. This is going to take forever.

by Paul on Nov 11, 2010 11:52 am • linkreport

One way streets are bad. 9th should be two way, not 7th one way to match 9th.

And please make the 900 block of K two way.

by Alex on Nov 11, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

I disagree on the blanket argument against one way streets. When the choice is one-way for cars or two-way for cars with no other considerations then two-way is clearly the superior option. However if one way allows the space for cars to be restricted, *dedicated* transit/bike lanes to be added plus sidewalk widening I don't think the case against one-way is as slam dunk.

by Paul on Nov 11, 2010 12:12 pm • linkreport

I think that this change could benefit both drivers and pedestrians. As it's currently configured, the square's two-way configuration creates gridlock, and makes it extremely difficult to change lanes or merge during busy hours.

Through traffic on K St via the square is virtually impossible because it's virtually impossible to turn right onto 7th, and merge across to make the left on Mt Vernon Pl (which would logically be renamed as K St under Concept 1).

I'd totally support making the square into a complete 1-way loop. It would partially suck for southbound traffic on 7th and northbound traffic on 9th, although I suspect that drivers would alter their habits in a short amount of time to accomodate the change. Traffic flow on K St, Mass Ave, and NY Ave would all be greatly improved.

Meanwhile, even though traffic would still flow, it'd be considerably less chaotic, and would require fewer lanes, making things much safer for pedestrians.

Suffice it to say, I wholeheartedly support the first option (as well as anything else that would allow me to get to Trader Joes from my house in NE more easily).

by andrew on Nov 11, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

3 options enlarged graphic is a 404. I just hate it when you tease me with cool thumbnails like that. ;-)

by Sean Robertson on Nov 11, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

As far as redoing the park space surrounding the Carnegie LIbrary/DC Historical Society building, this bums me out. I work a block from here and often have my lunch in the existing park. It really is the only open green space in the neighborhood. So of course they want to pave it over and put a bunch of ridiculous crap on top of it. (In the drawing above, there's some weird oblong structure shown in the grass space where I usually sit.) I have been disappointed to hear that the plans for the old convention center/giant parking lot will have little green space either. Don't city planners get that a city is more than just concrete?

by muckraker on Nov 11, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

Thank you for posting the .pdf document. The document itself is nicely composed. Does anyone know if it was created by OP in-house vs. a consultant? Who is the consultant?
Thanks!

by pinkshirt on Nov 11, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport

Interesting post. Thank you.

I had a hard time digesting it all, but as a frequent user of Mt. Vernon Square on foot, bike, and car, I would strongly favor a circulating pattern with 7th and 9th Sts. being one way north and south, respectively.

I love the idea of enlivening the area. The whole 3 to 5 block radius around the square is ripe for change. It just needs a critical mass of activities and people.

I'm not a huge fan of traffic calming only because Mass Ave is such a critical artery that it would be a shame to bottleneck traffic on it. My fantasy solution would be a mini-tunnel or large pedestrian bridge solution that would allow motor vehicles to keep moving along NY and Mass ave's in the square but give pedestrians an easy link between the Convention Center, the square's new interior amenities, Chinatown to the south, and hotels to the west.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 11, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

Indeed, the graphic design of the document is impressive. I believe it was produced by the consultant, EE&K.

by Eric Fidler on Nov 11, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

Sean Robertson: I've fixed the link. Thanks for pointing it out.

by David Alpert on Nov 11, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

I was at the meeting too. Paul I agree this stuff goes at a snails pace and it can be so frustrating. Especially when DC loves to study everything to death! I'm encouraged that there seems to be a bit more coordination between agencies that in the past but there is still room for improvement. We are still stuck with the same useless ANC Commissioner for the SMD, Doris Brooks, but at least ANC 2C as a whole might start to function with the results of the last election. As neighborhood groups and blogs we should get proactive and keep the fires lit under the powers that be. the more we yack about it the more attention it gets.

My 2 cents regarding transportation: I'm not majorly concerned with the cars, I prefer to keep them slow but flowing on NY Ave and have these roads be more like boulevards and less like highways. The addition of a landscaped median on NY Ave to the east in particular is very welcome. My inclination is to support one way traffic around the square but with the variables including streetcar, parking, etc i'll defer to whats possible in the study. I do have to emphatically veto dedicated bus lanes. I bike down 9th st and it is like an insane person marked it. the bike markings shift back n forth in and out of the bus lane willy nilly and the cars just drive in the bus lanes. it is not enforceable. also having bikes share lanes with buses is kind of scary - there is a bit of a size difference & visibility problem. So I am all for dedicated bike lanes and having the bus mix with the cars. Joann N. raised the issue of parking, perhaps there could be 5 min loading zones in the sq itself?

by Si Kailian on Nov 11, 2010 2:23 pm • linkreport

This plan has a lot of potential! Could really transform the area. An updated circle/square with the new hotel and more street life could really make that area a destination.

by Nick J. on Nov 11, 2010 2:28 pm • linkreport

@Si - I was under the assumption the Bus Lanes would be separated by a curb from the auto lanes. If it's just paint with no physical separate then the bus lanes are futile.

by Paul on Nov 11, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

Agree with Paul that bus lanes are not respected by motorists and agree with Si Kailian that bus + bike lane = tragedy waiting to happen.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 11, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

If we have bus lanes they should be 100% separated by fences, speed bumps etc that would make it horrible for someone to desire to travel there.

Another question is there are no lanes could the 70's make the awkward turns it would be required to make and I dont think the articulated buses could do it.

I dont think moving the 70 southbound to 9th street would fly with most riders. I ride the 79 daily and there is a drop in the riders once it hits Shaw Station going southbound but the northbound 7th street route never has a drop nor does the southbound 70 route which stays on 7th street probably because everyone is going somewhere on 7th Street or east of 7th Street would loathe adding 2 blocks to their walk.

by kk on Nov 11, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

How can you study the square and not the adjacent blocks?

8th street should be opened to traffic through tech world. It is a dungeon like barrier preventing meaningful connection to the portrait gallery. Opening it to traffic will make 8th street leasable.

Set through Cy Paumier's talk at the National Building Museum recently. He argued strongly against streetcars running down the middle of streets, as is shown in the drawings for K Street. He showed many successful examples where the streetcars were next to the curb. In these the life of the building edges and sidewalks was enhanced. In locales where the streetcars were in the middle, there was a deadening effect on street life. He's made a vigorous claim, but did not offer reasons for the assessment. It is something that should be explored further.

by Stan on Nov 11, 2010 4:01 pm • linkreport

@Stan, the streetcar tracks on H Street NE are/will be in the through lanes closest to the sidewalks. This is next to the curb only at bulb-outs where the stations will be (and maybe some other locations, I can't tell at the current stage of construction); other stretches of H will have a lane between the sidewalk and the tracks.

Since the businesses along the street require loading zones and probably desire some street parking, this strikes me as a reasonable approximation of Paumier's ideal.

However, farther east, on Benning Road, the tracks are in the middle lanes.

by davidj on Nov 11, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

Hi Davidj, I was addressing the proposed street cars on K St as shown in the Mt Vernon plan. H St has left the station. We must admit that since they are not operational, the impact of their design is still an unknown. There is still time though to do a thorough evaluation of the details of various planning design configurations on other streets through the city. I'm an empiricist on planning ideas. I believe it is critical to look at other cities for their success and failures, and try to isolate the reasons for each, before falling in love with a design. The devil is in the details. If Cy Paumier is correct about the deleterious impact of streetcar lines in the middle of the street, let's find out sooner.

by Stan on Nov 11, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

The deserted 8th Street pedestrian plaza between I Street and the square is actually privately owned. The city unwisely sold the street right-of-way to the developer in the 1980s. The NCPC has an interesting summary (page 9) of the legal debate that ensued as to whether the District had the legal authority to sell off streets and alleys.

Since Techworld also includes building space below the plaza, the consultant doubted that the structure beneath the plaza could handle the weight of car traffic above.

One could write an entire thesis on the failings of Techworld's layout and architecture.

by Eric Fidler on Nov 11, 2010 6:25 pm • linkreport

@Stan - K Street is planned for a dedicated center lane transitway. This segment is in the Central Business District where the area is already 99% built out. It will be the confluence of several streetcar lines. Plus by nature it's already fairly dead at night due to the lack of residential buildings. I don't think what Cy Paumier is describing applies to K Street but the lessons maybe worthwhile for streets like 14th, H Street, etc...

And to your point about 8th Street they won't open it to traffic but OP is targeting activation of the street as a priority. Fidler's post didn't get into it because he chose to focus on the traffic circulation discussion.

by Paul on Nov 11, 2010 6:26 pm • linkreport

Seems Eric and I were drafting comments at the same time. I hadn't seen his 6:25 comment while I was writing my 6:26 comment. =)

by Paul on Nov 11, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

Although the center-lane K St streetcar is all well and good, I have to wonder if the neighbors will be receptive to the idea. You'd need to remove K St's well-established tree canopy, and massively reconstruct the existing (and quite nice) street -- it's by far the "greenest" street downtown.

by andrew on Nov 12, 2010 1:07 am • linkreport

The dead facades of NPR, Techworld, the Convention Center, the empty buildings up 9th and New York, and the parking lot of K all serve to drag this place down at the moment. Nothing will work if it remains a square surrounded by noninteractive spaces like those I mentioned.

I want to see TechWorld's north side used, the Convention Center's signage rules relaxed, Douglas to build its buildings on those parking lots, and NPR's ground level to get some attention. I want CityCenter to have something interesting on its northeast corner, and some residential within half a block of the square. A lot of wants, but the traffic a BID will be a start.

by OctaviusIII on Nov 12, 2010 1:45 am • linkreport

NPR will be demolished and something new will get built. NPR is moving to NOMA where they are building a new headquarters. the current property has been sold to boston properties. Jemal is taking his sweet time, of course, with sq 450 & 451 - he has big conceptual plans. part of the MVS plan did suggest activating the 7th & 9th st corners of the convention center by building out retail. I think this is a fantastic idea. we could end up with each of those intersections having 3-4 corners of retail, how wonderful would that be? Also the planners said that they were going to pursue the uses of 8th St Techworld sooner rather than later, as that is something that can be addressed in the short term before the traffic studies.

by Si Kailian on Nov 12, 2010 10:24 am • linkreport

I think this is one of the most nonsensical traffic patterns that currently exists in DC. The thing that makes no sense is that Mass Ave - perhaps the major crosstown thoroughfare which links Dupont to Union essentially gets completely cut off. West bound traffic on Mass is not given priority to make a left of Seventh - often creating unnecessary traffic. When heading east bound, Mass is similarly forced to wait.

I live on the Hill and this intersection (whether in a cab or in a car) is one of constant consternation. The East-West connectivity in the city is really poor and fixing this intersection, by prioritizing Mass in the traffic pattern is a must.

by dc spur on Nov 12, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

I would normally oppose one-way traffic, but I think for a traffic circle (or square) it makes more sense. But, what about for southbound traffic on 7th St from Shaw? For them to continue south into Chinatown, would they have to go right at NY Ave, then left on 9th, then left at Mass, then right on 7th? Are you sure the benefits of a one-way circle outweight the annoyance of this particular route? This would make more sense if 7th & 9th acted as a single avenue, each taking half of the traffic, 7th northbound and 9th southbound. But they're too far apart to really act that way, aren't they?

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 12, 2010 5:10 pm • linkreport

...I wonder if having one-way traffic around a circle would make more sense for Dupont Circle. Oh wait - I just realized Dupont traffic already IS one-way! Counterclockwise, like the Mt Vernon Sq proposal. In fact, it seems that all of our "true" circles are in fact one-way - correct? But the problem for MVS is that 7th & 9th are two separate roads - they don't go through the park, they go past it, and it seems unwieldy to interrupt them with a one-way circle.

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 12, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

The traffic there really is a mess, and fixing it will be difficult. That, to me, is the greatest single hurdle facing the square's activation. It won't ever be Dupont, but hopefully it will become one of the magnets - along with 5th & K, CityCenter, and 7th & H - to the area.

by OctaviusIII on Nov 12, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

@M.V. Jantzen..

You will not need to turn on Mass Ave. south of MVS if you were going to Chinatown! Nor would you be able to, as 7th would be one-way northbound. You would wait to turn on the lettered street south of your destination on 7th. That's not any funkier than what folks already deal with on 9th south of NY Ave, or any other one-way pairing (i.e. L and M; Q and R; Bert and Ernie).

by Steven on Nov 12, 2010 6:03 pm • linkreport

@MVJantzen/kk

"(paraphrasing) bus riders getting dropped off on 9th street when there destinations are on 7th Street would loathe adding 2 blocks to their walk"

"This would make more sense if 7th & 9th acted as a single avenue, each taking half of the traffic, 7th northbound and 9th southbound. But they're too far apart to really act that way, aren't they?"

The spacing of streets in the grid is not uniform. 7th and 9th Streets NW are actually quite close to each other despite being two numbers apart. These two streets are closer to each other than 4th and 5th Streets NW are to each other.

by Paul on Nov 12, 2010 6:17 pm • linkreport

One advantage of converting the square into one-way circulation all the way around is that it would eliminate some of the more problematic left turns--for example, traffic going west on Massachusetts wishing to head south on 9th currently goes across the south side of the square (I believe it's designated K Street) and then has to turn left at a light with no turn lanes nor left-turn arrows. It leads to a lot of red-light running, people gunning it around the corner, lane-changing by people not wanting to wait behind the left-turners, etc. I suppose part of the need for this maneuver may be lessened when the "City Center" project begins next year, eliminating the huge (and quite popular) car park now located where the old convention center is. (I've noted that some people heading there instead use I Street, go left on 9th, and then illegally turn right into the exit lane from the car park.) I almost never go the other way through there, so I'm not sure whether the same problem exists going left from K onto 7th (e.g., thru traffic on eastbound New York). Establishing one-way circulation makes the left turns easier. Depending on the pedestrian light cycles, it might be an ideal place for DC to legalize left on red, which is allowed in most jurisdictions nationwide when you go from a one-way street to another one-way street. (I recognize that turns on red are becoming a major problem in general because people think they are ENTITLED to turn on red instead of having to yield to everyone else. But I don't think that's enough reason by itself simply to reject the idea of allowing lefts on red at a square, depending on the nature of the vehicular and pedestrian traffic there. BTW, I consider bikes "vehicular" traffic.)

In other words, making the square one-way all the way round might well improve efficiency.

The stretch of K Street between 9th and 10th ought to be made two-way, as it may well reduce traffic there. The entrance to the underground car park at the office building there (the one where Acadiana is--I think it's 901 New York) is on K Street. People parking there have to loop around via Massachusetts Avenue to access the one-way street or else take their chances violating the one-way law. My wife used to work at that building and, while she took the subway, she noted how much of a nuisance the one-way traffic pattern was there because it was coupled with the one-way 9th Street at Mount Vernon Square. This meant that regardless of where you're coming from, if you park at that building you have to loop around via Massachusetts to 9th to K. Of course, the one-way streets there were laid out prior to the construction of that building, and I also agree that putting the garage entrance on New York Avenue would have been undesirable due to aesthetic and traffic reasons. But putting it halfway down a one-way block of what is otherwise a two-way street doesn't really make a lot of sense either. K Street is two-way west of 10th--it's one-way only on that one block. It may make sense to change that--or, alternatively, to allow two-way traffic as far as that garage entrance. I suppose it might be a problem to allow two-way traffic if it means people entering Mount Vernon Square from K and intending to continue east across the square would have to cut across multiple lanes of traffic.

While I'm talking about streets in that area, I think 8th Street south of H ought to be converted to one-way southbound traffic. It's simply too narrow as it's now designed. The sidewalks are nice and wide on there (I always go that way to and from Caps games because there's far more room to walk than there is on 7th Street), but because there's parking on both sides of the street, coupled with two-way traffic, coupled with narrow pavement, it's always horribly snarled whenever there's an event at the Verizon Center. There simply isn't enough room for two-way traffic there, especially if a bus goes down the street. Banning parking wouldn't be a great idea because people would drive too fast for the road.

One last thing--someone mentioned how drivers don't respect bus lanes. Part of the problem you have with the bus lane on 9th Street is that DC doesn't enforce the rules against double-parking. The area in front of Zaytinya is a particular problem. The valet parker has people stop in the left lane of traffic. It ties things up, so drivers understandably--and quite justifiably, in my view--use the bus lane as a thru lane to make up for the blockage caused by illegally-stopped vehicles. (No doubt the fact that what is now the bus lane was a general-purpose lane for 30+ years contributes as well. Regardless of one's opinion on the wisdom, or lack thereof, of bus lanes, surely everyone can agree that people are going to resist having a lane taken away after using it for 30+ years. It's simply human nature.)

by Rich on Nov 17, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

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