The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about DC

Architecture


Does DC want boring architecture? Sort of.

DC has a lot of boring architecture, and that's no mistake; a cheap federal government and a bevy of paper pushers keep the District that way. At least that's what a few experts on architecture and development in DC had to say at a panel last week.


Is DC architecture inherently boring? Photo by Bossi on Flickr.

Turncoats, an urbanist debate group, hosted its first DC debate last week on the question of whether or not the District wants boring architecture. The organization works to encourage provocative discussion, fueling everyone—including audience members—with a shot of liquor before things get started and only assigning the panelists sides after they've taken the stage.

Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute (and a member of Greater Greater Washington's editorial board), Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, Nooni Reatig of Suzane Reatig Architecture, and Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission (who was careful to stress that all of her statements were hers alone and not those of her employer) participated in the panel.

Initially, Payton and Nooni were assigned the position that DC does indeed want boring architecture, while Brian and Mina had to argue that isn't the case.

Despite their supposed sides, the panelists coalesced in agreement that DC architecture is boring... they just differed on the reasons why. For example, Payton argued that it is the embodiment of DC's culture of middle-management paper pushers while Mina said it was simply the result of a cheap federal government keen to maximize usable space in its office buildings.

We (Edward and Joanne) attended the panel and discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Edward Russell (ER): It was clear to me that the panelists, whether they took the pro or con position, feel that DC's architecture is boring. I do wish those who argued that DC does in fact want boring architecture had said more about why boring architecture can still be interesting.

Joanne Pierce (JP): I expected the panelists to discuss DC's architecture as it is now, why it appears to be boring, and whether they agree (since boring is relative). "City architecture is boring" is a popular opinion. You can google any city and "boring architecture" and get dozens of articles decrying NYC, Boston, LA, etc., for being filled with boxy, glass buildings.

ER: Exactly. I felt that some were a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially on the con side—though the two blended together a bit—with Nooni arguing that multiple streets lined with "Soul Cycle, Chipotle and Starbucks" made her feel comfortable, which was clearly a dig at the homogeneity of it all.

JP: There were lots of zingers, which were fun and spirited. I think everyone truly enjoys living in DC, and they can still poke fun at its stodgy reputation. That was an interesting comment on the sameness of our streets, which Mina echoed with her comment about Federal Triangle being lovely, but "you don't want to live in a city of Federal Triangles." I appreciated that comment because Federal Triangle happens to be that prime example of DC federal building run amok. It's just federal building after federal building. But it can be lovely!


Federal Triangle. Photo by Irakil on Flickr.

ER: It can be lovely. There is certainly a grandeur of the federal DC, with the ordered avenues and the neo-classical buildings.

JP: I'm a little biased because I work in the Ronald Reagan Building.

ER: One thing that surprised me was how the height limit only came up once, and it was an audience member saying they didn't think that is the issue holding back DC architecture. I expected it to be discussed more.

JP: I did, too. I think that's owing to the structure, where the panelists didn't bring it up, except to say that we don't need skyscrapers. The discussion seemed to be more about the overall uniformity that exists in DC. I was also surprised that the discussion focused mostly on public or semi-public buildings, and not much at all on residences.

ER: Yes, I think that was the result of, as Payton put it, the fact that DC is a city of "middle class, paper-pushing bureaucrats." A lot of the speakers built off that. I agree that the federal government has had an outsize impact on DC architecture for decades—centuries even—but the panelists took it a step further and argued that we're a city of bureaucrats who ultimately want an unadorned box (or row house) rather than some limit-pushing designed residence, whether in a tower or a house.

JP: There's some historical connection with that comment. Lots of our boxy tan buildings are brutalist, and a lot of those came about because of the federal government. For instance, the Weaver building, which is where Housing and Urban Development is now, was built according to President Kennedy's architectural initatives. So if we think the Weaver's big, boxy (it's actually kind of curved) look is unattractive, it is because Kennedy wanted it to represent the strength of America.


The Weaver Building. Photo by Kjetil Ree on Flickr.

ER: Like Brian said: "DC has lots of cutting edge architecture, it's just from 100 years ago." Or 50 years ago in the case of President Kennedy.

JP: Concrete is wonderful! You'll see! Going back to your comment about wanting unadorned, big boxes—I'm no architect, but it seems like when your primary need is space to house many people (for housing or for work) your most logical shape is a square or rectangle, not a curve or a triangle. It seems like there should be a way to combine the two, but then you sometimes get the 20 Fenchurch building, which was Brian's example of ugly design.


20 Fenchurch Street in London. Photo by Matt Buck on Flickr.

ER: Yes, that is something DC architecture does well—maximizing the amount of space available for workers or for residents, within the limits that exist for buildings (height limit, plot size, whatever). As Mina put it, "I think the Feds are at fault. Why? They're cheap."

JP: The cheapness of government makes a lot of sense but I think it's more of a cultural cheapness. Maybe for a long time, we just didn't want to stand out. Or at least, the people in power who made the decisions didn't think the city needed to stand out. Except with The National Mall.

ER: Did you agree with the general conclusion that so much generally mediocre architecture will make the unique, interesting buildings in DC stand out? I agree with the premise but wonder how we get to the point where we have unique buildings to stand out from the crowd. Like Atlantic Plumbing (2112 8th Street NW), I do like it, it's more industrial then we generally have here, but at the same time it is still a steel and glass rectangular box.


Atlantic Plumbing. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: I think that the question of what is boring should be reframed. Are we boring, or are we just not a place where we have singular, instantly recognizable buildings. Things that show up in magazines, like Brian pointed out, and things that wow people as they drive by. Is that what we consider to be the most important?

ER: We have a few remarkable buildings, but I'd say they're iconic more due to their historical significance than their architecture (the White House, the Capitol).

JP: Certainly, we have the White House and the Capitol and the monuments. But beyond that, when we talk about iconic buildings that aren't Federal... I think the premise of whether our uniformity allows the interesting buildings to stand out is totally right. The African American history museum stands out because it's brown and not in the same architectural style as many others.

ER: It certainly does, whether you like the design or not.

JP: Sometimes, you just need one bold idea to start things off.

Government


DC has almost no white residents without college degrees. (It's a different story for black residents.)

One of FiveThirtyEight's great interactive features looks at voters in different groups (college educated whites, Hispanics, etc.) and their effect on the Electoral College. One part graphs each group and its prevalence in various states. This graph really stuck out for how unusual DC is:


Image from FiveThirtyEight.

The X axis here is how much people vote Democratic versus Republican. It's no shocker that people in DC, regardless of race or education level, overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. That's not especially relevant to this discussion. But the Y axis is how prevalent each group is in the electorate; this graph is saying that non-college-educated whites make up only 2% of DC's electorate.

Now, when you graph DC against the 50 states, it often looks like an outlier since it's far more urban than any state. Even so, that percentage of non-college-educated white voters is remarkably small. 2%???

Is that typical of other center cities? In a word, not at all. Here's the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents over 251 who lack a college degree for select center cities (since New York City is big, I included both all of New York and just Manhattan2):


Graphs by the author with data from the Census' 2012 5-year American Community Survey.

For DC, that's 11%. That's super low. Low is good—but it's not low for all groups.

There's a huge chasm between white and black when it comes to education

DC's high level of education among its white residents does not translate to African-Americans. Here is the proportions of whites and blacks without a college education in the same center cities:

These numbers are heart-breakingly high in all the cities. African-Americans, especially in center cities, lack educational opportunities at a tragic rate, perpetuating cycles of generational poverty that America has trapped them in for the nation's entire history (cf. slavery, Jim Crow, racial covenants, redlining, etc.)

To be sure, as in other center cities, DC has a significant black middle and professional class who have access to good jobs. But while most cities have some blacks with opportunity and (more) blacks without, and whites with and (fewer) without, in DC, that fourth category is basically absent.

No major center city does much better on black education levels. San Jose is a little lower, but not much, and its population is only 3.07% black. Does the racial makeup of a city seem to correlate with education levels? Not really:

What about in our region?

This effect isn't the same outside center cities. Here are the same graphs for major jurisdictions in our region2:

Again, DC has the widest gap between black and white, but Arlington isn't far behind (while being far whiter). Howard and Loudoun have the lowest percentage of black residents without bachelor's degrees; Loudoun is only 7% black, but Howard is a somewhat more respectable 17%.

Still, as the scatter plot here shows (and which won't be much surprise to many of you), there are really only three counties in the region with large black populations, and they're geographically adjacent.

The two besides DC—Prince George's and Charles—have little difference in the educational attainment level between blacks and whites (and same for the least diverse county in this list, Frederick). In DC, there's a great gulf.

If you want to play with the data, you can download the Census tables for white, black, and total population for the selected cities; and white, black, and total population for regional jurisdictions.

What do you notice?

1 The Census uses the population over 25 for this, presumably because many people under 25 don't yet have college degrees only due to their age.
2 Aka New York County, NY.
3 Sorry, small independent cities of Northern Virginia; in this analysis, you're not different enough from your adjacent counties to warrant inclusion.

Development


How five local businesspeople would tackle gentrification on 14th Street

As recently as ten years ago, DC's bustling 14th Street corridor was riddled with crime and blight. Its rapid transformation is one version of the same story you can find all over the District. How can change of this magnitude serve existing communities rather than displace them?


14th Street NW in 2014. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

On August 6th at The Studio Theater, a panel of speakers hosted by The Washington Post gathered to discuss this challenge, providing personal insights into how rapid transformation can be better managed and implemented so that it benefits everyone.

The panelists included Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, Mindful Restaurant Group owner Ari Gejdenson; Erik Bergman, a director of operations with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group; JBG Companies vice president Evan Regan-Levine; and Meridith Burkus, the managing director of Studio Theatre. Local Washington Post columnist John Kelly moderated the discussion.


The panel. Photo by Tina Revazi.

The panelists discussed two separate (but interrelated) forms of gentrification. One is economic gentrification. In the context of the discussion, economic gentrification is the result of unsustainable costs of living due to the regulatory climate imposed by local government (for example, the expensive and unsubsidized cost of purchasing land).

Evan Regan-Levine summed up this challenge "How can we pair smart legislation with the desire to have the private sector invest in and redevelop neighborhoods without destroying that fabric?"

Then, there is cultural gentrification. In the context of the discussion, cultural gentrification is the result of residents feeling marginalized and unwelcome in their own neighborhoods, with their interests being superseded by surrounding business interests. To that end, businesses moving into newly developed neighborhoods hold a level of responsibility for ensuring that members of the community are welcomed and included.

Better public policy can shape the outcomes of economic gentrification

"A city is not a bank, it's not a business. It really needs to think in terms of 'What is our responsibility?'" said Andy Shallal. "First and foremost, it is for the citizens. And it's not just the new people moving in. It's the people who have lived here. Gentrification isn't gravity...it happens because it's intentional. It's intentional by the city, it's intentional by government."

Part of the responsibility falls on government to make diverse and affordable development feasible for developers.

It starts with the price of housing, which is driven by the cost of land. And cost of land is, to a degree, controllable by government.

Communities are marginalized when they are displaced from their homes, so if housing could be made more affordable, the level of displacement would decrease. In an attempt to level the playing field, government needs to be held accountable for ensuring that all residents can afford to live in DC, while balancing the power of developers and special interest groups.


14th and U Streets NW in 1950. Photo by Addison Scurlock.

One way to create more affordable housing is through public-private partnerships between developers and the city government.

"We have been really willy-nilly about giving away public property, and I think that's been one of the problems. You have to hold the city accountable, and say, 'You cannot give away land unless you do some really serious concessions.'" said Shallal.

An example of such a concession is subsidizing the cost of affordable housing, so that the burden of charging reduced rates for affordable housing doesn't rest squarely on the shoulders of private developers.

"The Housing Trust Fund has $100 million, but it needs to at least be doubled," said Shallal. "And there is money, this is the time. The city has almost $2 billion in surplus. This is the moment to say, 'Let's invest and let's plan for the future', otherwise we're going to sit and have this same conversation next year, and the year after, and the year after."

While the Housing Trust Fund was infused with nearly $100 million during last year's budget process, there's still lots of remaining work to be done to ensure the fund ultimately helps those who need it most.

Businesses share responsibility for welcoming members of existing communities

"The government can play a role, but I think we have to play a role as well", said Meredith Burkis, regarding the need for local businesses to be conscious of their impact on existing communities.

"One of the things we've been doing over course of the last year is asking how [The Studio Theater] can play a role in that challenge. We all have to have a commitment to understanding that there are people who have been here, it's their community. What role can we play in that community? There's not one answer. Government, yes, has to play a role. But we have to make it a priority too."

There are many examples of how this can be put into action. It starts, as Shallal pointed out, with raising awareness of cultural divisions and proactively working to avoid them.

Shallal stated, "It's not just about a business opening and saying 'I'm successful, I'm doing well'. It's about a business saying that success doesn't stop at the bottom line of a dollar, but it stops at 'Am I really representing and feeling good about being here, can I walk outside my door and have my head raised up high, and feel like I'm not contributing to the destruction of somebody else's life or culture?' That's the question that us as business owners have to ask ourselves every single day."

The construction of the menu itself at Busboys and Poets is an example of maintaining this awareness. Initially, Shallal hired a chef who put together an upscale menu that would likely leave many members of the local community feeling disregarded.

"I looked at the menu, and half of the things on there I couldn't understand let alone would want to have on the menu. In order for us to be accessible to the neighborhood, we had to have food that [customers] feel comfortable ordering without having to feel stupid about looking at the menu."

"In order to be friendly to the neighborhood that you're coming into, you can't just parachute into it. You need to build from the bottom," Shallal concluded.

This is a powerful truth to be acknowledged when it comes to new businesses planting roots in revitalized neighborhoods, if they hope to embrace the past while welcoming the future.

Transit


I don't care what some people say: DC has great transportation options.

SafeTrack is pretty much Exhibit A when it comes to how frustrating the transportation options in the Washington region can sometimes be. But as my recent move to Orlando reminded me, problems like SafeTrack are somewhat of a luxury—you have to have a rail network to even have them. My message to the DC region: it's really not so bad!


X2 Bus. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

In the Orlando region, there's a fixed route bus system and new commuter rail line that provides reliable service for millions in Central Florida. And I just happen to live and work in a more transit-accessible area than I did in DC. But that is uncommon. Wait times between buses and trains are often an hour, and real-time traveler information isn't available throughout the entire system.

I recently spoke to some Greater Greater Washington contributors about my newfound appreciation for what DC does so well, asking if there's anything here that they're particularly thankful for. I really liked what Alex Baca had to say:

Metrobus arrives on time, consistently, and the frequency on the notable crosstown lines (90, X2, S buses, 50s) blows many, many other systems out of the water. I left DC for San Francisco and am now in Cleveland (car-free!). In both cities, it is a struggle to find a bus that arrives when it's scheduled. I know that the switch from NextBus has caused some consternation as far as real-time arrivals, but at least DC's buses arrive when their paper schedules say they will.

I was in New York recently and a friend warned me that "the buses aren't like DC here," so I would have to give myself a 15-minute window for my bus from Prospect Heights to Williamsburg, in case it was early or late. In Cleveland, the bus that stops outside of my apartment (a "high-frequency" line on a major route to downtown) is routinely four (four!) minutes early and only runs every 15 minutes—when I first moved here, I missed the bus several times and waited a whole headway for another, which, of course, was often late.

I left DC in 2014 but am back as often as I can be. I always, always take Metro from National or MARC from BWI, then Metro and Metrobus as needed. Often, I'm lucky to have a bike, but sometimes I don't. I don't want to undercut WMATA's problems with Metro, but even as a hot mess it's a better system than most other cities in America have to offer, and I will say that I was utterly miserable biking for both transportation and recreation in San Francisco, a city that is ostensibly one of the country's most bike-friendly. BART's role as a commuter system is even starker than Metro's. I rarely used it to get around the city in the way that I used Metro, just to get to the airport and the East Bay.

DC's transportation is comparatively incredible across the board. This is a great thing. It's also a depressing indicator of the state of transportation in the US.

In a word, Alex is right.

The Washington region has tons of options, from bikeshare to trails. Wait times between buses aren't bad when you compare them to other cities, and we've got apps that give us real time information. We've also got good wayfinding.


Capital Bikeshare in action. Photo by fromcaliw/love.

Capital Bikeshare adds to its 370 stations monthly, it seems. In just a few years, the system could have nearly 500 stations.


The Metropolitan Branch Trail. Photo by TrailVoice.

Bike commuting is easier with the region's extensive trail network, linking downtown to the suburbs. When Metro closed for a day in March, the MBT experienced a 65% increase in cyclists. That's a testament to how easy it is to bike in the area.


Wayfinding. Photo by Dylan Passmore.

Across the District, blue signs point you towards neighborhoods, Metro stations, and other points of interest. A person new or unfamiliar to an area can find their way to the Smithsonian museums or the zoo pretty easily.

Tell us your thoughts: what have you seen or experienced while traveling or living elsewhere that made you particularly thankful for the region's transportation network?

Public Spaces


This DC park is pretty much the definition of desolate. How can the National Park Service change that?

Though it's only a few blocks south and west from the epicenter of new restaurants and high rise apartments in neighboring Navy Yard, Buzzard Point has largely gone undeveloped. That's going to change soon, including at Buzzard Point Park, where the National Park Service (NPS) is asking the public for its ideas on how to best use the space.


Buzzard Point today. This is the Pepco station, but there isn't much more going on at the park. Photo by David Meni.

Buzzard Point is the area south of Q Street SW, east of Fort McNair, and west of South Capitol Street. Though it had a few residents in DC's early history, it was almost always a dumping ground for things that needed to be out of the way—like disposing of dead horses in the 19th century. A Pepco power plant went up there in 1933 (and was in use until 2012), and in 1940, the area had a population of only 34 people.

Buzzard Point right now is still staggeringly empty. There's the shutdown plant, the Coast Guard's abandoned headquarters, and a Pepco substation. While demolition is underway to make room for the new 20,000 seat DC United Stadium, it's currently just empty lots and piles of dirt.


Image from Google Maps.

Coming soon: A new Buzzard Point

Along with the DC United Stadium, there's a master plan for Buzzard Point Park that includes tons of mixed use development, a new Frederick Douglass Bridge, and a new plaza at the end of a redesigned South Capitol Street.

One key to all these plans is a makeover for for Buzzard Point Park, where just south of the powerplant, the green space nestled against the edge of the Anacostia doesn't have much to offer the community. There was a marina there for 50 years, but it closed last December (on some of Google Maps' images, it's still there because they're from 2009). The docks are gone, with only a parking lot, a small office building, and showers remaining.

Through October, the National Park Service is conducting a visual preference survey to find out how the public wants to use the space. NPS hopes to emphasize the space's unique presence in the city, redeveloping the bankside park into a community resource that respects the ecology of the area.

The survey consists of nearly 50 images that show ways to build a park, and participants are asked to rank each. There's also space for saying what you like or don't like about particular designs.

These are some of the options on the survey:


All images of park possibilities are from the National Park Service.

Rotating food trucks, a DC staple, could be an option.


Bleacher-style seating, like that near the Memorial Bridge, would emphasize views of the Anacostia, which look across to the Bolling Air Force Base training center.


River recreation at the site is another option. As it stands, the Anacostia isn't safe for swimming. But this could certainly draw in visitors when that changes.


At some point, the Anacostia Branch Trail is due to cut through the park. A pedestrian/bike overpass could be an effective way of using vertical space to make a more inclusive park.

A playground seems an obvious choice for any new park—there aren't any in Buzzard Point yet.

The old marina served about 60 boats, and perhaps the new park could serve boats as well.


A skating rink, like a handful of others in the list, are reminiscent of amenities that have popped up in Navy Yard over the past few years. Nearby neighborhoods are almost sure to be inspirations.

A ferry that took people across the river, to Anacostia Park, could be an option.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC