Greater Greater Washington

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UDC will fix dead plaza with student center

The University of the District of Columbia wants to build a student center on what's now an empty plaza creating a hole in the Connecticut Avenue streetscape right at the Van Ness Metro station. An active building here would be a big improvement over dead space.

The plan calls for landscaping and some cafe seating along the Connecticut Avenue frontage. The building will also have a green roof as well as a rain garden between it and the existing buildings. The remaining plaza area will also get a small lawn as well as some other landscaping.

Here's the new building:

The design happens to look quite a bit like DC's new libraries, for better or worse:


Left: Benning library architectural sketch. Image from DC Public Libraries.
Right: Anacostia library. Photo from And Now, Anacostia.

These new libraries have gotten some architectural praise, and since both are institutions devoted to learning, it makes some sense for UDC to look somewhat library-like. Certainly this is far better than the concrete bunker architecture of the buildings behind it.

On the other hand, this still seems a bit boring. It would be nice for the building to have a more defined top. and the current urban design thinking discourages arcades along the ground floor like this building appears to have.

What do you think?

Update: several commenters pointed out that the ground floor doesn't have an arcade, just a "structural reveal" where the ground floor has visibility into the structure.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Ugly design. It will become very dated, very quickly.

Although just about anything is better than the concrete bunker-style of architecture used for most of the UDC buildings.

What's wrong with building a nice, solid looking structure, rather than going with the cookie cutter approach of "cutting edge" structures?

by Fritz on Mar 4, 2011 11:14 am • linkreport

You know what would fix that area? Shut down UDC.

And what is the status of the amazing Intelsat building?

by charlie on Mar 4, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

Hopefully a post-Gridlock Gabe DDOT will be able to fix the usual traffic mess on Connecticut Avenue by UDC. That area is always a nightmare of congestion because of turning cars.

by Fritz on Mar 4, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

@Charlie:

UDC is definitely an academically troubled school but there are a couple of decent programs. The law school is fair (one of my father's friends graduated from the old Antioch School of law -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antioch_School_of_Law --and is now a state court judge in Hawaii). I think UDC also has decent music and film programs. Additionally, UDC has started offering community college programs, which is promising.

A couple of weeks ago, the Northwest Current had an article about UDC trying to add student housing in Van Ness. This will help it become a more active neighborhood.

I absolutely agree that the Intelsat building is a huge mistake.

by Ben on Mar 4, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

The renderings inside the PDF link are better at conveying the site than those posted above. Most people won't like it, but I do, and I don't understand the aversion to arcades. In certain circumstances, they're a useful place for outdoor seating, or as secondary transit shelter.

by spookiness on Mar 4, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

What about more street retail on the Connecticut Ave frontage? I see the student cafe seating, but shouldn't it be in the interest of UDC to earn some rents and create better common space for the neighborhood? They should add a few more floors for student use and subsidize the cost of the building through ground floor retail.

by Lewis McCrary on Mar 4, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Agree with Fritz on this one. Definatley an improvement, but this could be the town square of VanNess, a neighborhood in need of a well defined center. Why is it so bleep'n hard to get a pedestiran friendly space designed in this town. You don't have to re-design the wheel, just use time honored solutions adapted to this specific context.

"What's wrong with building a nice, solid looking structure, rather than going with the cookie cutter approach of "cutting edge" structures?"

Answer: Architects are taught to be enfants teribles and in their practice can't resist designing buildings that reinforce their separation from the "mainstream". To do a solid looking structure that tries to be pleasing looking would be to throw the revolutionary strugle against "bourgeois" values out the window (if it where operable;)

by Thayer-D on Mar 4, 2011 12:17 pm • linkreport

@Ben 'I absolutely agree that the Intelsat building is a huge mistake.

Why? I agree with Charlie that it's an amazaing building. The only quibble I'd have with it is that its grounds are fenced off and not open for the public the sit and enjoy the park like atmosphere.

The UDC building of course doesn't rise to the level of the Intelsat Building, but the open plaza in front of it, which they're now proposing to destroy, is a plus for the university and for the community around it. In a city we often don't have enough open spaces. This open space partially makes up for what are really not nice looking cooky cutter buildings behind it.

Is this in a historic district? Probably not ... and given it's basically city owned, I can see them getting their wish. We'll all be the poorer for it.

by Lance on Mar 4, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Lance; given all the embassies and what not on Van Ness, the Intelsat building, which is just an amazing building, is not that bad in terms on "openness". No cop cars there. My question is how used the building is now -- I see a leasing sign, and I know Intelsat has cut back on operations a bit there.

And that "plaza" is pretty much a failure on a number of levels. It will be nice to see it go. Just wish it wasn't being wasted on UDC.

Does anyone know which building on Van Ness the Israeli spy Pollard used to photocopy documents?*

*amazing the treatment given to Pollard vs the one being given to that kid Manning. I have no problems with hanging them both, but no need to soften them up like this.

by charlie on Mar 4, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

Ugly design. It will become very dated, very quickly.

It's already dated-- I've seen plenty of buildings like that built 20-30 years ago.

I'd like to see the Van Ness area be more vibrant, rather than just a collection of urban strip malls. No idea if this will help, though.

by JustMe on Mar 4, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

I love the proposal to put some greenery into the plaza & dress it up, but I'm not a fan of the architecture of the building... it feels to 70's to me; it was dated even before the libraries or Silver Spring Civic Center came about. But then again, no architecture is ever universally well-liked... and everyone's a critic... so I'll just focus in on reiterating: I like the greening of the plaza.

by Bossi on Mar 4, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

@ spookiness; I also don't get the arcade hate. Shade in a place like DC is priceless in the summer.

by charlie on Mar 4, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

Lance - I live in the neighborhood and I like the idea of the plaza and the open space, but it is not usable as-is. The lack of seating, for one thing, doesn't encourage anyone to stick around for a while. The lack of green space means no place to even put down a blanket for a spell. And the lack of shade makes the area downright inhospitable from May-September.

At least they've been good about maintaining the bricks - lately. That area also used to be unwalkable, and there are a few sections that are breaking up again.

So, I guess I'm saying it looks nice, from the perspective of someone driving through on Connecticut Avenue, but it doesn't pass muster as a usable public space. So put me in the "almost anything is better" group.

by TJ on Mar 4, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

@charlie

If you want shade, there are far better ways to provide it than arcades.

A well designed and strategically located arcade can work. I can't think of a single one in DC that fits those criteria, however.

I also wouldn't call this design (from what I can tell here) an arcade at all.

by Alex B. on Mar 4, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

@charlie: Does anyone know which building on Van Ness the Israeli spy Pollard used to photocopy documents?

Van Ness East - 2939 Van Ness Street, NW. Wrote a paper on him in my master's program.

by Dizzy on Mar 4, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

FUGLY

by w on Mar 4, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

@Bossi "'I like the greening of the plaza"

Are they really greening the plaza ... or just building on it? When viewing artists renderings, take the greening part (and lots of other parts) with a grain of salt. I've rarely seen the elaborate greening shown in a rendering for a proposed building actually make it to the final construction anywhere near as nice as rendered. However, things such as very visible 'mechanicals' and exhaust shoots and the like will magically appear sometime between the artist's rendering done to get the required sign off from various offices and neighbors, and the time the building actually gets constructed.

by Lance on Mar 4, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

Again many disagree about arcades. I happen to think the MLK is tragically underutilized. It could be a great public space, but discussion about it usually turns into a rant about architecture.

Charlie, as a walking skin-cancer time bomb, I'm with you on shade. They can also be a good shelter in a rainstorm, which happens frequently enough.

by spookiness on Mar 4, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

@spookiness

But, you must agree that arcades in the abstract are insufficient to be good. You need well designed arcades.

The MLK library (again, more of an overhang than a true arcade) works ok from the design because it is open and airy - but there is no program for the use of that space.

The one other one that I thought of that works is Union Station. It works because you essentially can't walk along the building in Columbus Circle - the taxi stand forces pedestrians to use the arcade, thus it has actual people in it all the time, not just when it's raining. The stores/restaurants along that arcade could make much better use of their entrances to the arcade, not just to the interior of the station.

by Alex B. on Mar 4, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

@TJ 'I live in the neighborhood and I like the idea of the plaza and the open space, but it is not usable as-is. The lack of seating, for one thing, doesn't encourage anyone to stick around for a while. The lack of green space means no place to even put down a blanket for a spell. And the lack of shade makes the area downright inhospitable from May-September. '

I don't disagree with you that lots could be done to make the space better. But using it as a building lot isn't going to accomplish that. It's just going to close off one of the few open spaces we have in this city like the rebuilding of the Safeway in Georgetown did. Yes, we should ask that the city put in benches and planters and maybe a fountain or even some flower gardens ... like you'd find in a similar public space in Europe. But building over it with the excuse that we're giving the street more life by building right up to the sidewalk, isn't really an improvement in this case. It's a taking of the welcome relief of some open space on otherwise overbuilt arterials in the suburban parts of DC such as Connecticut Ave. is at that point.

by Lance on Mar 4, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

I like the design, but it looks way too close to the Tenley Library, which is just one mile a way. Change the color or something, please! While its an improvement, it ertainly won't fix their gloomy campus

by thedofc on Mar 4, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

I'm not aware of any urban design recommendation against arcades in general. However, pedestrian-friendly urban design does recommend again football-field lengths of flat, unadorned wall enlivened by only one or two entrances. Especially when it is immediately adjacent to a Metro station entrance -- the most concentrated spot of pedestrian activity in the whole neighborhood. As others have mentioned, you can visit MLK library to see how that pattern of urban design functions in actuality.

The cafe seating might help a little, but it will have competition from the other seating options that will be more removed from traffic, with more greenery, and therefore more pleasant.

The proposed building is probably better than the existing unloved, unused plaza. The existing plaza might potentially be revitalized, but that would require a lot more than new seating and landscaping. It would require fully lining the space with a diverse range of many new intensive commercial uses.

by Laurence Aurbach on Mar 4, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

@Lance, I understand where you're coming from, but I disagree that this part of DC is "overbuilt." Rock Creek Park is in our backyard, and we have several parks and playgrounds within walking distance.

Also, I'm confused about what you mean by "open space." I get the sense you're talking about a visually open area. My definition, from discussing land-use out West, was pertains to a large park or green area.

The Georgetown Safeway's "open space" was a parking lot and does not fit in with my understanding of the terminology.

by TJ on Mar 4, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

It almost WANTS to be brutalist like its neigbords--but in brick.

by Eric on Mar 4, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

@ Lewis:
I don't believe there's a market in Van Ness for more retail. Right across the street several storefronts had been vacant until very recently. The stores already there don't seem to be thriving anyway.

by John M on Mar 4, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

I posted before completing this thought:

I understand where you're coming from, but I disagree that this part of DC is "overbuilt." Rock Creek Park is in our backyard, and we have several parks and playgrounds within walking distance.

...Also, the wide streets keep the high-rise apartments from overwhelming the streetscape, imho. This area can handle more density in housing and commerce than we have now.

by TJ on Mar 4, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Who's the architect?

Whatever the flaws in UDC's current plans, the buildings are designed and arranged with a powerful understanding of space and movement around the campus. I'm not sure I see that here.

Is this really an arcade, or is it just a structural reveal?

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 4, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

@ John M:

Retail, not sure, but there is a market for restaurant/dining (not fast food) that the community would really like. The issue with the vacant storefronts has more to do with the landlords than anything else. I've been looking to rent space for a while now in Van Ness, and the landlords are among the most difficult to deal with as any i've ever encountered.

by John on Mar 4, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

Whoops, my 5-second passing glimpse at the plans & article totally missed that it's a new building on the plaza; here I thought they were replacing one of the existing buildings there. Yeah, kind of a major obvious thing to miss, I know.

Now I'm a bit more opposed to the plan in general... I do rather like the large plaza's size today; it's just pretty poorly used. It seems like this plan does away with most of it altogether and activate what little remains... while the remaining parts look nice; the loss of half the space is somewhat disconcerting. The less-than-appealing (in my opinion) faux-70s architecture just solidifies my thoughts.

by Bossi on Mar 4, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy; wow, thanks! I knew someone had that in them!

by charlie on Mar 4, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

I walk from Van Ness metro to my school along here almost every day and I support anything in this vast waste of space in one of the most desirable locations. Frankly the whole area needs to have a total makeover as a neighborhood kid and student for the last 7 years a block away I would support almost anything that improved on the current buildings. The UDC building behind this proposed building are particularly bland and soul deadening, and more options in terms of restaurants and other businesses would also be well received (although the local ANC has been downright ridiculous about some building/traffic issues.)

by astonvillan on Mar 4, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

I mean that the existing buildings have nice spatial features; the new building kind of has a suburban office entrance.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 4, 2011 2:39 pm • linkreport

This is what happens when people who don't know how to read drawings comment on architecture. There is no "arcade." If you look at the plans in the PDF, the pilotis are basically flush with the glass wall of the dining hall behind it. It is as Neil suggested a "structural reveal." This should have been obvious, considering the landscaping is going to completely block the ground story from the street, with the exception of the cafe seating.

Further, I don't really understand why the people who profess "new urbanist" values are so excited about this. The problem isn't the fact of open public space here; it is that the open space is arid and unfriendly and has absolutely nothing in it to invite the public to hang out there or into the UDC campus. In filling the space in, with a building, things will be denser, I suppose. And the new, smaller plaza does finally provide the sort of simple gestures to the public, like places to sit, that will invite people to linger. But the building itself makes no gesture to the street along its long Connecticut facade. In that sense, I don't understand why a building that doesn't offer anything to the pedestrians passing it is any better than an empty lot that offers nothing to the pedestrians who pass by it. The idea that density is always better than openness is a kind of crude caricature of new urbanism that will ruin it.

by dcarchblog on Mar 4, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

After looking more closely at the design, I am torn.

Right now, there is a disconnect between the various entrances and the front plaza. Once you cross a threshold, you immediately have to climb a set of stairs or ride the escalator (if it is working) situated between buildings 38 and 39. The addition looks like it would bring some continuity and ease of access to the entrance, making the fact that the ground floor doesn't actually line up with the outside grounds less obvious. But by enclosing the current entrance, a number of windows will be lost; the building is already depressing enough with the cement walls, to lose natural light is not going to help.

There are cherry trees where the building will go - the plans note that they would be replanted, but I hate to see them go.

I do like the open space of the plaza but it definitely needs some type of attention. There is no lighting at night - all of the light fixtures built into the tree boxes haven't worked in years. Heat just rolls off the bricks in the summer time, too; the trees aren't big enough to provide shade to sit outside.

by Peter on Mar 4, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

dcarchblog: Welcome to GGW. Here on this site, we ask people to be respectful toward others, and to explain items that others might have missed in a way that's informative rather than insulting.

Think of it like you are teaching a seminar; if other people don't know something or get something incorrect, rather than putting them down for not knowing everything you know.

I look forward to you participating more actively in our discussions, provided you are able to do so in a respectful way. Thanks!

Given the point about the structural reveal, I have amended the post. I added the fact that while most buildings have a bottom, a middle, and a top, like many modernist buildings, this one eschews the top and bottom, leading to what to me seems a more incomplete and dissatisfying appearance.

In historic districts, in particular, there has been pressure not to do this "floating building" thing that seems to be so trendy among architects.

by David Alpert on Mar 4, 2011 4:58 pm • linkreport

UDC's law school is great! My buddy went there and is now a top prosecutor in Miami.

by John on Mar 4, 2011 8:59 pm • linkreport

The building looks ok it does resemble the libraries at little, however the school is connected to DC Govt and they might have shared design plans. One thing I dont like however is the steps, the look horrible to walk up especially for people whom may have anywhere between 3 and 10 books you will have masses going for the elevator instead of walking up the stairs.

Seeing as how the land is not flat at this site perhaps it would be better in the long run to design the areas that would feature steps as ramps instead starting from Veazy Terrace and also the WMATA elevator since those will be the places most are coming from to enter UDC and it would save in the price of installing more elevators.

by kk on Mar 4, 2011 9:40 pm • linkreport

I don't understand, David, how does this not have an articulated bottom?

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 4, 2011 10:02 pm • linkreport

Correction: However, pedestrian-friendly urban design does recommend against football-field lengths of flat, unadorned wall enlivened by only one or two entrances.

by Laurence Aurbach on Mar 5, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

I happen to think the MLK is tragically underutilized.

Most people would argue the opposite, since MLK is a de-facto homeless shelter inside when it's open, and under the overhang when it's closed.

by andrew on Mar 5, 2011 5:50 pm • linkreport

@Andrew, You make an excellent point. I really don't understand why we continue to open and rebuild libraries. The purpose for a library ... a place where books are catagorized, catalogued, stored, and made available for borrowing or viewing ... is as extinct as the dinosaurs. Now do we use our libraries? Of course ... but for everything except for what they were intended. We use them homeless shelters. We use them as meeting space. We use them as places where people who can't afford a computer can still access the Internet. We use them for art exhibits. We use them for speakers. We use them for a whole bunch of things. But we don't really use them to go research a paper or borrow a book to read anymore. (Unless you're still stuck in the 20th century that is.) Wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense to take the money we're spending on libraries and instead spend it on real homeless shelters, on real meeting space, on providing real Internet connectivity by providing cheap laptops and ISP service to the poorest among us, to build real art galleries, and to build real speaker halls. I.e., It probably looks good for politicians to say they funded a library. But in reality, they'd do a lot more good if they used the money for the various things that are really being done under the guise of a library ... but not being done well. For example, wouldn't the homeless rather have a place to keep warm where they didn't have to pretend to be reading?

But it's not going to happen because no politician wants to be the one to say 'there isn't a library use for libraries anymoe' ... Instead we've needlessly spent millions in this city perpetuating the myth that real libraries still exist. They don't.

by Lance on Mar 5, 2011 6:07 pm • linkreport

@Neil Flanagan: Looking at the drawings linked in the article, the architecture firm is Cannon Design in partnership with Marshall|Moya Design (I'd imagine Cannon is the design firm with Marshall|Moya serving as architect of record).

I have to say that it's interesting that David would admonish dcarchblog to be respectful and not insult others when 1) others aren't always held to this standard, and 2) people seem to have no problem with insulting architects in general and the designers of this project in particular, especially when they aren't here to defend themselves, or even answer any questions as to the reason behind their design choices.

by Bryant Turnage on Mar 6, 2011 4:14 am • linkreport

+1 on the ground floor retail idea. Some cutting edge locally owned small businesses could really make that area a lot more dynamic. And it's right next to a Metro, two schools and a neighborhood with high disposable income, to boot.

by Alan Page on Mar 6, 2011 4:37 am • linkreport

Bryant,

I try to hold as many people to the standard as possible. It's not easy to police every comment. If anyone wants to point out a violation I'll definitely take a look.

Criticizing buildings is different than criticizing people. Our policy is that it's fine to vigorously debate ideas, but it's important to be respectful to individuals.

by David Alpert on Mar 6, 2011 9:15 am • linkreport

@Lance

Lots of us who like to read books but don't like keeping them use the library to check out books.

Got any actual facts to back up your assertion that people don't use libraries for books any more?

by MLD on Mar 6, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

The "images" y'all are reacting to above are just massing diagrams. Final design will obviously be much more evolved. If you look at the full package there are hand-drawn rendered concept sketches that suggest a far more interesting building. Also, it is pretty clear from the package that the designers are still at a concept level of design - I would expect to see a more interesting building when the next set of plans are released.

by Dave on Mar 6, 2011 11:12 pm • linkreport

. But we don't really use them to go research a paper or borrow a book to read anymore. (Unless you're still stuck in the 20th century that is.)

Did the year 2000 suddenly herald a new era in which we all have an infinite amount of money and space to spend on and store books? Or an era in which texts required for research are within reach of the average buyer?

Your entire comment is almost completely unsourced.

by Tyro on Mar 7, 2011 12:04 am • linkreport

I'm neutral on the architecture, but I love UDC's thinking. UDC is supposed to be a gathering place for all DC residents to learn together, and something like this can help make the campus seem more welcoming to outsiders.

by tom veil on Mar 7, 2011 10:29 am • linkreport

I think the renovation would be a great idea and bring life back into the building.

by Trade Show Booth DC on Mar 7, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

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