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Development


The FBI building's new owner will be allowed to build tall, and D Street is coming back

Reconstructing D Street NW and allowing buildings taller than DC's usual height limit are likely at downtown's J. Edgar Hoover Building, once the FBI moves out. The National Capital Planning Commission's staff backed these proposals, and today the official commissioners will likely accept them. The staff left a third question, how wide the sidewalks should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, up for debate.


Photo of the J. Edgar Hoover Building site before its construction, with lot boundaries outlined in yellow. Photo from NCPC.

The single brutalist building sits on two parcels, called "squares," which D Street bisected before the 1960s. The FBI plans to trade the land with a developer (where it would move is TBD), and the NCPC's decision will make clear exactly what could be built on the land once the FBI moves out.

The first recommendation from the NCPC staff is to return the 70-foot wide swathe of land where D Street once ran to a public right-of-way. That doesn't mean this space will be a typical street. Since the rules are just shaping the building's mass, NCPC's staff left open the door open for other possibilities, like pedestrian-only and pedestrian-priority woonerf spaces between the two restored blocks.


The FBI site in the Pennsylvania Avenue special planning area. Image from NCPC.

The North block will be tall and dense.

The second rule NCPC is poised to adopt is that buildings on the large northern block, called Square 378, will rise to 160 feet. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act specifically allows buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to climb that high, measured from Pennsylvania Avenue. The 1974 plan that created these square guidelines has sculpted the surrounding cityscape, so although some buildings reach 160 feet by the White House, those buildings' bulk steps back in tiers several times away from Pennsylvania. The Newseum is a great example: it's only 90' at the Pennsylvania Avenue property line, but rises to 140' at the apartment building at the rear.


Maps showing heights around the FBI Building. Buildings to the west (left) tend to be taller. Map from NCPC.

Buildings on the north block also have to fill out much of the block on the first floor. Because of its size, the block will almost certainly end up as a few different buildings above grade. The 2016 D-7 zone caps offices and hotel density, but allows unlimited apartment density, and planners will likely insist on some mix of uses. Plus, with buildings aligned to the property lines, the likelihood of an internal semi-public central space, similar to CityCenter, is higher.

The southern block is wedged between priorities

The future of the southern, triangular block is more complicated because of the way Pennsylvania Avenue was reimagined in the 20th Century. In order to shape the scenic view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue symmetrically with Federal Triangle, planners want the new buildings to have horizontal setbacks, like New York skyscrapers. More importantly, the size depends on how wide planners choose to make the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.


The current building is set back 75 feet from the curb, which is enough for three rows of trees. Image from NCPC

The current FBI Building sits nearly 75 feet away from Pennsylvania Avenue's curb and 40 feet from the property line laid out in the L'Enfant Plan:

That's the result of a 1964 plan that envisioned the avenue as a grand federal space and nothing else. Providing space for parade grandstands was more important than street activity. Later planners went for a more modest setback, but recently, facades have risen close to the property line, as at the Newseum.


The Newseum is much closer to the street than the FBI building.

With a re-opened D Street and a 50-foot sidewalk, the south site will be small. Leaving a larger footprint seems like the best way to get an active ground level. Setbacks a few floors up would protect the views and leave a large enough footprint for uses other than high-end residential, at least at the lower levels.

The NCPC report leaves this issue up for debate, apparently because of a conflict between two roles it has to uphold. One is to preserve the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan that created these guidelines in the first place. The other is preserving the L'Enfant Plan, which says buildings should rise at the property line. In fact, the District's Historic Preservation Office feels that not building to the property line would have a negative effect on the L'Enfant Plan. Their objection might be a formality, but it's enough to leave it up for a longer debate.

It comes down to the roadway

NCPC's staff mildly recommends mirroring the setback on the south side of the street, at Federal Triangle, to create a more symmetrical streetscape and leave generous sidewalks to handle the crowds. Where buildings rise from the historic streets, like between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the 20-foot sidewalks can get crowded.

This rationale leaves out an important detail: the reason those sidewalks seem crowded is the width of the roadway.


L'Enfant's design for Pennsylvania Avenue had an 80-foot roadway, 30-foot sidewalks, and 10-foot buffers. Image from NCPC.

There's nothing sacred about that width. In the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a much narrower roadbed there. Then, at the cusp of the automobile age, the McMillan Commission and others decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue to make it more striking. As with the other roads widened in the wake of this plan, the reality of streets congested with fast moving vehicles was obscured behind glamorous renderings of grand boulevards.


The McMillan Commission and its successors widened the roadway to 107.5 feet. Image from NCPC.

The truth is that Pennsylvania Avenue will never be symmetrical. On the north side, multiple landmarked buildings rise taller than Federal Triangle. One side will have some street bustle, the other will be formal. It may be better to accept this asymmetry and design around it.

While part of NCPC considers what will replace the FBI building, other staff are studying how to make Pennsylvania Avenue more lively in the long term. If that's the goal, right-sizing the street is the best way to get the sidewalks to handle crowds. It wouldn't be the first time space allocated to cars in the early 1900s was returned: the two gravel paths on the Mall were turned over to cars for decades before pedestrianization in the 70s. The aesthetic impact remains the same.

NCPC planners will move on to finer grained detail with today's decisions out of the way. A reopened D Street and a dense north block are steps in the right direction. Planning the south block for a future where pedestrian space and monumental views aren't beholden to car traffic follows as well.

Architecture


What will become of D Street once the FBI moves?

With the FBI planning to move out of the J. Edgar Hoover building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the possibility of restoring D Street so it runs all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue has come up. But it's unclear whether or not that'd be a good idea, or even if it'd actually be doable.


D Street currently ends when it reaches the FBI building at 9th Street. Image from Google Maps.

In DC, each city block is called a square, and each has a number. Square 1, the block between 26th, 27th, Virginia and K Street NW, is the westernmost square in the L'Enfant City, and the numbers continue to to the east. D Street used to extend all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, creating the two squares where the FBI building now sits—378 and 379—as well as a small triangle north of the Avenue where the Ben Franklin statue originally stood.

In the 20th century, D Street was closed, square 348 was enlarged, and squares 378 and 379 merged.


Plat map of the FBI HQ site in 1932

Undoing this would reconnect the street grid, extending a road that goes all the way to Oklahoma Avenue NE in Rosedale. That would make getting around easier for everyone, add redundancy to the road network, and add new space for storefronts that could bring added life to the area. But it would also come at the cost of greater density.

A connected grid is nice, but at what cost?

Restoring D Street would obviously mean less space for buildings. More specifically, it'd be the equivalent of removing a building 60 feet wide, 530 feet long and 160 feet high—and it would do so in the core of the city.

Another way to view the possibility: a loss of nearly $7 million per story, as Loopnet reports the average price of office space in DC at $217 per square foot at the time of print.

It's not clear how much having D Street run through would help cut down travel times. For those traveling between 10th and D, or between Pennsylvania Ave and D, it would create a slightly shorter route, trimming a couple hundred feet from a trip. But we don't know that the change would noticeably reduce congestion. Perhaps a traffic analysis could shed light on the actual impact.

The District won't be the one to decide what happens

In the end, whether or not D Street opens back up isn't even DC's decision.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will, with GSA and NPS, be developing the new square guidelines that will then have to be approved by Congress accepted by GSA. NCPC is considering reducing the current 75 foot setback from Pennsylvania. If it were to stay at 75 feet, it would be difficult to open D street without limiting square 379 to a plaza. If the set back were reduced to something closer to the property line, which is 25 feet from Pennsylvania Avenue, the block would be large enough to open up D and still build a commercially viable building on square 379.

The NCPC usually leans toward reopening streets from the L'Enfant Plan, which is viewed as a national landmark. But it's in the federal government's interest to restore the setback and keep D Street closed, because a closed D Street and smaller sidewalk would result in the highest sales price.

If the federal government does sell the property, will the buyer want assurance that D Street will remain closed? It is entirely within the federal government's power to simply make it illegal for DC to reopen D Street.

Perhaps a more palatable alternative would be for D street to pass underneath whatever replaces the FBI headquarters, similar to the way M Street goes underneath the Convention Center. This would undoubtedly reduce the value of retail along D, but would retain much of the building space while providing the transportation benefits of a restored D. The current courtyard could even be retained as a gap above D Street.

It would be hard to make an argument that Pennsylvania Avenue needs another plaza, but easy to assert that downtown needs more residential and commercial space. A restored D street, with air rights given in exchange for an affordable housing set aside might be able to address all the competing needs.

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Roads


A lot more people will ride Metro (and not drive) if the FBI makes a smart choice on where to move

Our region has been discussing where the FBI will move for years. A new analysis shows the choice is between a good option (Greenbelt), a mostly-good option (Springfield), and a pretty terrible option (Landover). Let's hope the federal government makes the right call.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

The FBI wants to leave its aging headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, and many in the District would not be sad to see it go. The FBI, like other security-related agencies, wants a high-security fortress with impenetrable walls and what amounts to a moat. That's not ideal in downtown DC, where shops, restaurants, condominiums, and top-tier office space are all in high demand. The block-size dead zone that is the Hoover Building in its current state is bad enough.

The current FBI site does have it's upsides: it's near every single Metro line and countless buses, and since it's in the center of the region it's not very far from anyone. A new site near the Beltway, like the three finalists, all will force longer commutes on at least some people, and push more people to drive, increasing traffic.

How much traffic, however, depends very much on how close the site is to Metro. Build a new headquarters next to a Metro station and near bus lines, and many people will use it; force people to take a shuttle bus, and many fewer will bother.

The more people ride Metro, the better for all of us

Even residents who have no ties to the FBI should care deeply about this important decision. Metro is struggling from low ridership that is squeezing its budget, thanks to maintenance woes, cuts in federal transit benefits, management failures, safety fears, and much more. Our region needs a healthy Metro system to move the hordes of commuters that traverse the region every day.

One of the best ways to strengthen Metro is to use "reverse commute" capacity. Trains are the same size and number going both in and out of downtown, of course; if they're full going in but empty going out, that's a lot of wasted capacity. Large employment centers at outer stations, like at Medical Center, Suitland, and now with the Silver Line, Tysons Corner, drive that reverse traffic. Plus, research has shown that people feel much more willing to use the train if the office is very close to a transit station; a short to medium drive, walk, or bike ride is more palatable from home to the train than on the other end.

No shuttle at Greenbelt; a long shuttle at Landover

According to the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement, an FBI headquarters at Greenbelt could mean up to 47% of workers, or 5,170 people a day, could ride Metro, and they would mostly be using the extra space on reverse peak direction Green Line trains. There would only be 3,600 parking spaces, meaning at most only 3,600 more cars on the Beltway and other roads.

A site in Springfield, Virginia, is almost as good; the station is 0.3 miles from the potential site, and the General Services Administration estimates there would need to be a shuttle, though many people would not need it; this is similar to the distances at Suitland, where there is a bus but many people walk. The EIS predicts 4,070 riders, or 37% of workers, take Metro, and also 3,600 spaces.

Landover, meanwhile, is far, far worse. That site is 1.9 miles from Metro, much too far for walking and forcing everyone to ride a shuttle (which would also take longer, naturally). The EIS estimates only 19% of people ride Metro and a need for 7,300 parking spaces, or about double the added traffic.

These Metro mode share estimates do seem too high—all of them, but definitely Landover. According to public ridership data from WMATA, the Suitland and New Carrollton office parks are getting about 10% of workers riding Metro. It strains credulity that 19% of FBI workers would ride a shuttle to a site 2 miles from the station when 10% don't do the same for a much shorter half mile trip.


Suitland. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Will everyone who can't park take Metro?

Why the discrepancy? The methodology assumes strict limits on parking based on the National Capital Planning Commission's policies. NCPC limits parking to one space per three employees at federal facilities outside DC but within 2,000 feet of a Metro station, and one space per 1.5 employees farther from Metro. That's a very progressive policy that pushes federal agencies to help their employees get to work in ways other than solo driving.

The EIS assumes anyone who can't park will ride Metro, except for a carpool/vanpool rate based on similar federal installations of 10-11%. But will the FBI obey? The National Institutes of Health, right at a Metro station, has been resisting NCPC's policy; the FBI surely has even greater clout if it wanted to build massive amounts of parking. And even if it didn't, it seems doubtful that the lack of parking, while a strong motivating force, would push 19% of employees onto Metro and then a long shuttle ride.

Regardless, it's clear that a choice for Greenbelt or Springfield would help the FBI have a positive impact on Metro's health and minimize the traffic effects, while Landover would do the opposite. Because there are more jobs on the west side of the region than the east, the Beltway and other roads similarly have extra capacity going east, which is one of several reasons why adding jobs to Prince George's County also will strengthen our region.

The federal government may ignore all of the impacts on other commuters and our region's transportation systems when making the decision about a site, but drivers, Metro riders, and just all taxpayers whose dollars help fund the roads and rails should hope the choice is a wise one.

Development


Apartments on Pennsylvania Avenue? The FBI building's replacement may be more than offices

When the FBI decamps from its Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters and moves to a new building in Maryland or Virginia, its existing building will probably be torn down and replaced. Last week, officials took the first baby step to make that happen, opening the door to a mixed-use development on the site.


Photo by Travel Aficionado on Flickr.

Pennsylvania Avenue has some of America's strictest rules governing what can and cannot be built there. When the FBI leaves, it won't simply be a matter of selling their old building to a developer and seeing what happens. Federal agencies will settle just about everything beforehand.

Quietly at last Thursday's National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) meeting, federal planners laid out what has to happen to replace the wildly unpopular building.

First, a scrum of federal agencies have to untie a knot of rules that govern the site. Step one is changing Pennsylvania Avenue's congressionally chartered 1974 master plan.

Right now that plan says the FBI site must be a single federal office building. But Pennsylvania Avenue would be a livelier part of the city if it had a more diverse mix of building types. The other streets around it, E, 9th, and 10th, could do without the current building's blank walls and literal moat.

So NCPC is proposing to change the plan and allow a developer to split the FBI site into a mix of buildings with both offices and apartments. But there's a hitch.

The agency that created the plan, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, hasn't existed since 1996. Its responsibilities have been devolved to the federal General Services Administration, the National Park Service, and NCPC. To change it, those three agencies have to agree on every step.

Once the three agencies can agree on the master plan revisions, they'll have to develop design guidelines for the property: rules outlining the shape and size of any new buildings.

Almost every property on Pennsylvania Avenue has design guidelines, except the FBI building. It was built before the 1974 plan came into effect, so it never needed them.

Change the plan now to help make a deal

Why start updating the plan now, if the FBI hasn't even left yet? Because having the design guidelines in place will help the FBI move.

Most news about the FBI has focused on where the new headquarters will go. It's not well known that the moving deal involves a land swap. In exchange for building a new headquarters somewhere near the Beltway, that developer will get the desirable land the current headquarters occupies on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since any exchange requires a clear understanding of who gets what, officials have to sort out a general idea of what will go on Pennsylvania Avenue before the FBI can move.

Once the new plan is in place, and after the land swap deal goes through, whatever the new owner proposes will still have to go through the usual gauntlet of design review boards. It will still be a tough process. But setting the framework now, with participation of those agencies, makes the deal less risky.

A long-awaited change

People have wanted to introduce a wider variety of uses to the street in a friendlier building since the 70s. Although the officials who built it had the best intentions to save Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI building is widely seen as a mistake. It's suffered critical and popular disdain since before it was built.

It won't be saved. Both the federal and DC historic preservation offices have agreed that the current building is not worth preserving. Worse, its concrete is falling apart.

Replacing the FBI Building is a great opportunity to improve one of the city's most prominent sites and bring a little more life closer to the Mall. It may take some time, but it will be worth it.

Transit


Landover is not the place for the FBI

The owners of the Prince George's County land where Landover Mall used to sit are lobbying to locate the FBI headquarters there rather than near the Greenbelt or Franconia-Springfield Metro stations. But a site not easily accessible by Metro isn't the best location for the FBI.


Photo by Jonathan on Flickr.

While building the project in Landover might be cheaper to start, the long-term costs to local governments and regional workers, including added traffic and longer commutes, would be far, far higher.

Prince George's Metro stations are the least used in the system (averaging 4,716 daily boardings per station in 2012, compared with 8,478 systemwide). While other counties promoted walkable development around their stations to maximize their investment in Metro, most Prince George's stations remain isolated parking lots with little or nothing to attract activity and train rides.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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