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When it redesigns its campus, Gallaudet hopes to pioneer architecture for the Deaf

The southwestern edge of Gallaudet University borders a growing urban center, but fences close the campus off. Now, the school is rethinking its design and redevelop some of its land to bolster finances. To do this, it's reimagining 6th Street NE as a corridor that zips together deaf and hearing communities.


Gallaudet's 6th Street gate is not exactly community-friendly. Photo by the author.

Gallaudet is using two projects to create the first urban environment designed for the deaf. First, it's redesigning its public spaces, including the 6th Street streetscape, the campus grounds, and a few small buildings. Second, it's developing four large parcels of land that front 6th Street NE.

As the world's only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet has a set of design guidelines the school calls DeafSpace; the redesigns will fit with both that and the 10-year master plan that zoning requires.


Base image from Google Maps.

Gallaudet wants new buildings and new ideas for tailoring its design to the Deaf

Gallaudet's main entrance on Florida Avenue NE is nearly half a mile from where Union Market, the neighborhood's new attraction, sits on 6th Street. Redeveloping the parking garages and auxiliary buildings there will tie the campus to its surroundings without harming its historic campus by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who also designed Central Park.


JBG's conceptual plan for the 6th Street development project. Image from JBG/Gallaudet.

A large part of the development plan has already started. In 2014, the school selected the developer JBG and architect Morris Adjmi; the team behind the Atlantic Plumbing project at 8th & V NW, to build 1.3 million square feet of building on the parcels.

Gallaudet has already used internal workshops and two design processes to pioneer a way of designing spaces for the Deaf. The school wants to stay innovative in this field as moves forward, so it's holding a two-part design competition to shape its public spaces.

For now, it's gathering input from neighboring communities and asking for designers to form teams with specializations like interaction design in addition to architecture and urban planning.

A panel will narrow those teams down to just a handful in October, and the teams will then submit rough designs for feedback from the student and neighborhood communities. After a round of revisions, a jury of experts will pick a winning approach in February.

Using a competition allows Gallaudet to draw on a range of expertise that goes beyond the immediate community, which is important given that this is the school's largest planning endeavor to date.


The Gallaudet master plan emphasizes connections towards the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro. Image from Gallaudet.

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

Gallaudet is promising vibrant streets and high standards of sustainability, both of which are now common in DC projects. But making spaces for deaf people will require designers to think a little harder than usual.

Gallaudet developed its DeafSpace guidelines when it realized its campus didn't suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets. The guidelines go way beyond the "universal design" requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of focusing just on patches for audiological deafness, uncapitalized, DeafSpace is custom tailored to culture shared by people participating in Deaf (capitalized) communities.

It's not an overstatement to say there's a distinct Deaf Culture. Many of our social norms, from how we say goodbye to what kind of art we enjoy, rely on hearing. The Deaf have different norms, and the way they talk is also different from English speakers. Although most deaf students can read and write English, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language, with different grammar, vocabulary, and dialects.

In sign language, a single hand sign changes meaning depending on where the signer makes it, its orientation, movement, and what their facial expression is. To communicate in ASL, you need to see the whole upper body. A bar with low, intimate lighting will kill an ASL conversation the same way loud background music does for the hearing.


DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

Since Deaf Culture prefers clear vision and generous personal space, those are the conceptual building blocks. Sign language requires people to stand further apart and use more space, so, hallways have to be wider. Signers have to keep their hands free, so in DeafSpace, there are as few manually opening doors as possible.

If a deaf person can't see through a door, they can't tell if someone's in a room, so windows are helpful. But at the same time, an ASL user can spy on a conversation through that glass. In this case, translucency balances the competing needs. In general, reflective surfaces on cabinets or walls a deaf person might often face help with spatial awareness. Even paint helps: blue walls help hands and faces pop no matter the skin tone.

DeafSpace is a distillation of these needs and solutions into what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander calls "patterns:" generic rules and forms that a designer can combine to create a multifunctional, comfortable space. The leader of the DeafSpace project, Hansel Bauman, sees it as a way of designing spaces around Deaf interactions and experiences.

But DeafSpace has few patterns that apply to open areas and urban space. Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater? There are a lot of new issues open spaces present. I think bringing more brainpower to these issues is why Gallaudet is holding the design competition.

Plus, Bauman wants to take the concept further, to design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities. That might seem basic, but between a tendency to stick to financially proven conventions or get lost in an artistic vision, it's easy to forget the human interaction behind the built environment. The competition could bring this idea some much needed attention.

Tailoring an urban space for Deaf experience may force competing teams to get back to basics about how spaces facilitate interaction between people. Maybe the competition will let designers to reexamine the patterns of design for a sidewalk cafe or a multi-story building's front door.



The Flipboard Cafe in Melbourne, Australia has complex connection to the street. Brolly Design

Gallaudet's decision to open up its campus to a pedestrian-friendly, dense 6th Street is an extremely promising step. One step further would be taking the focus on buildings as amplifiers of social interaction and applying that design across the city.

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Pedestrians


Flowerpots create a safer pedestrian crossing from Gallaudet to Union Market

Large flowerpots recently appeared on 6th Street NE along a crosswalk connecting Gallaudet University to Union Market. These aren't the work of a rogue gardener; they're a way for the city to narrow the crossing and enhance pedestrian safety.


Images by @GnarlyDorkette on Twitter reposted with permission.

Twitter user @GnarlyDorkette, a Trinidad resident and Gallaudet Deaf interpreter, posted these photos of the new flowerpot.

6th Street is only striped as a two-lane road, but it's a very wide two-lane road, with lanes formerly 22 feet wide. Drivers often used it as a four-lane road, said Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The road is part of the area that has long been a wholesale food market. There was a lot of truck traffic, but very little pedestrian traffic, and so it wasn't a top priority to change. But now this is a popular destination. Union Market opened two years ago and has become a bustling food destination with 34 carefully-curated vendors. Its success has drawn other businesses as well, like the Dolcezza gelato factory across the street. And a lot more Gallaudet students are walking over.

The university recently modified its gate on 6th Street to allow people with university IDs to pass through 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Zimbabwe said. All of this led DDOT to install the flowerpots to keep drivers on the two official lanes and encourage them to pass slowly.

What about Florida Avenue?

There's another wide road adjacent to Gallaudet that neighbors say could use some narrowing: Florida Avenue. The roadway there is three lanes each way but narrower elsewhere, and the traffic volume doesn't warrant six lanes. There's a study underway to look at widening the extremely narrow (and non-ADA compliant) sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

Zimbabwe said that study is about to wrap up, after which DDOT will submit proposed changes to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its Constrained Long-Range Plan. Departments of Transportation submit their projects for that plan each December, and Zimbabwe wants to get the Florida changes in this year.

The extra step is necessary, Zimbabwe said, because Florida Avenue is part of the "expanded national highway system" under the recent MAP-21 federal transportation bill, and is a major artery in the regional traffic models. DDOT expects to be able to modify the road, but has to jump through some administrative hoops first.

Between NoMa, Union Market, H Street, and more, the number of shops, restaurants, and other destinations around Gallaudet University has exploded in recent years. This makes it even more important to ensure the streets are safe to cross on foot for everyone of all ages, walking speeds, and hearing abilities.

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Pedestrians


"Dave Thomas Circle" could get fixes or disappear entirely

A new study of pedestrian and bicycle safety along Florida Avenue NE is suggesting changes to the "virtual" traffic circle at New York and Florida Avenues. In the long run, that "circle" and the nearby Wendy's could become a simpler intersection and green space.


The current "circle" and short-term fixes. Images from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) created the "virtual circle" arrangement as an "interim solution" in 2010 to deal with this difficult intersection. It was very difficult to navigate on foot or bike, and which had seen some very serious crashes.

The circle pattern routes traffic heading eastbound on Florida counter-clockwise along First and O Streets. It got the nickname "Dave Thomas Circle" because that triangle circumnavigates a Wendy's, and to play off the name for Thomas Circle. Wendy's also has many driveways connecting to the surrounding roads, and Eckington Place NE joins the tangle of roads here as well.

Since DDOT set up the "circle," the severity and number of crashes has gone down, said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's planning head who is overseeing the study. However, many people find it confusing and it takes up a lot of space.

Once, some suggested an interchange

At the time this pattern was conceived, DDOT studies recommended building a new overpass or tunnel so New York Avenue traffic could bypass the intersection. Some plans suggested extending the I-395 tunnel from its current terminus near 4th Street NW past Florida Avenue.


Image from the 2006 DDOT study.

But a 2006 NCPC study raised concerns about new tunnels or bridges. NCPC worried about how new large-scale auto infrastructure would create an even larger pedestrian barrier in the nascent NoMa neighborhood and between other adjacent areas. Since then, DDOT has largely dropped the idea of tunneling as a solution.

What could replace the circle?

The Florida study proposes some options to simplify the intersection. They would eliminate some turns, delete the block of O Street that's now part of the "circle," and either eliminate the block of First Street or reroute it to connect to Eckington Place NE.


2 options to replace the "circle."

Florida and New York Avenues would get a bit wider to make room for turning lanes instead of the "jughandles" of the old design. Adding this right-of-way would almost certainly mean the city would have to take the Wendy's by eminent domain. But that could make the intersection significantly better for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.

It would also open up some land for green space or other uses. The National Capital Planning Commission has long envisioned this intersection as a potential future memorial site. In 2001 they named it as one of their top 20 "Prime Sites" in the region in the Memorials and Museums Master Plan.

In addition to the longer-term proposals, later this year DDOT will make minor modifications to tweak how this intersection works. That includes changing which lanes get used for which types of turns, striping bike lanes, and adding new signs.

One change will widen the turn radius at some key spots so that the 90s buses can traverse the circle. When DDOT set up the circle arrangement, Metro discovered its buses couldn't fit, and had to reroute them onto North Capitol Street, adding minutes of extra time for every rider.

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Pedestrians


Florida Avenue NE and nearby streets could get wider sidewalks and bike lanes

Florida Avenue, NE and other roads in the area could become safer and more comfortable to walk and bike along in the future. The public will get to see several options this week that would widen sidewalks and add bike lanes to key roads.


Photo by Yancey Burns reproduced with permission.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT), along with consultants Kittelson & Associates and Rhodeside & Harwell, has been working with the community for the past 6 months to identify safety issues in this area. Florida Avenue suffers from extremely narrow sidewalks, with less than 2 feet of space directly in front of many homes and across from Gallaudet University. That width doesn't meet ADA guidelines.

Officials have said there is room for wider sidewalks and bike lanes, since the current traffic volume on Florida does not warrant more than 2 motor vehicle lanes in each direction.

Currently, the number of lanes on Florida varies from 2 to 6 within the span of a few blocks. Some of the lanes on Florida are also quite wide, up to 17 feet. DDOT will present projections for traffic up to 2040 and considering upcoming land use changes, to demonstrate that more lanes aren't necessary in the future either.

DDOT will propose four alternatives. All widen sidewalks to varying extents. Plus,

  • Alternatives 1a and 1b widen the sidewalk while keeping 6 lanes for motor vehicles.
  • Alternative 2 adds narrower painted bike lanes along the curb on each side, and creates a center turn lane along with 4 travel lanes.
  • Alternative 3 skips the center turn lane and adds a buffer alongside the bike lanes, to give cyclists some extra distance from fast-moving cars.


Cross-sections for Florida Avenue: Current 1a 1b 2 3
Images from DDOT.

On 6th Street north of Florida Avenue, which separates Gallaudet University from the Florida Avenue Market, the lanes are 22 feet wide, or more than double typical widths. For this segment, there are three options:

  • Wider sidewalks and and painted bike lanes, plus "curb extensions" (also known as "bulb-outs") to shorten the distance pedestrians have to cross (Alternative 1)
  • Wider sidewalks and a cycle track in each direction, plus curb extensions (Alternative 2)
  • A "curbless flex space" along the market side of the road and a two-way cycle track on the Gallaudet side (Alternative 3)


Cross-sections for 6th Street: Current 1a 2 3
Images from DDOT.

The agency also plans to reconstruct 6th Street between K Street and Florida Avenue, NE; West Virginia Avenue NE; and "Dave Thomas Circle," at the intersection of Florida and New York Avenue (which currently has a Wendy's in the center, hence the nickname). DDOT's report will also likely include some safety improvements within the Florida Avenue Market.

Officials will present the proposals at a public meeting Wednesday, April 2, at the Two Rivers PCS Middle School building on 1234 4th Street, NE, at 7 pm. Feedback from this week's meeting will shape the final report, expected later this spring.

The agency has not announced construction dates for any of the projects. Before it can build anything, changes will also have to go into the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan, which according to DDOT planning head Sam Zimbabwe is the reason the agency can't make any temporary changes to try out new configurations and make the road safer in the meantime.

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Pedestrians


Florida Avenue shouldn't have to wait for real sidewalks

Florida Avenue, NE is one of the most dangerous roads in DC for all modes of transportation, and a 71-year-old pedestrian was just recently killed trying to cross. Past studies have recommended widening the sidewalks here, but residents likely have to wait even longer for fixes as DDOT embarks on yet another study.


Photograph by John Nelson reproduced with permission.

Gallaudet University, a Metro station, an elementary school, homes and businesses line the 6-lane road. It has very narrow sidewalks which don't meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and no parked cars or street trees to serve as buffers.

This road has seen many deaths over the past few years. Most recently, 71-year-old Ruby Whitfield was killed while walking across Florida Avenue NE in a marked crosswalk. The driver, a 32-year-old Annapolis man, was reportedly drunk and speeding, and fled the scene. MPD quickly apprehended him.

While the section of Florida Avenue from 2nd Street NE to West Virginia Avenue NE is 6 lanes wide, the block where Ms. Whitfield was killed has fewer driving lanes, with relatively wider sidewalks and street trees. The driver had just crossed West Virginia Avenue into this adjacent block.

At a vigil on Florida Avenue a few days after Ms. Whitfield died, Mayor Gray committed to quickly installing a new traffic signal at the intersection with 11th Street NE, and allowing parking at all times on this block to reduce the road to one lane per direction. This might have saved Ms. Whitfield's life, and is a positive first step, but it is not nearly enough.


Photograph by John Nelson reproduced with permission.

The road is not adequate for growing pedestrian usage

Pedestrian traffic has increased significantly in this area as the NoMa area grows and new attractions such as Union Market open. Florida Avenue is also home to Two Rivers Public Charter School and Gallaudet University. The NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station, which opened in 2004 one block from Florida Avenue, has the fastest growth rate of any in the system.

The sidewalks in many areas, especially on the south side of the street, are often only 2 feet wide. Numerous obstructions such as light poles and sign posts reduce the effective width even further. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) repainted some of the crosswalks in 2011, but this is not as helpful as creating actual ADA-compliant sidewalks with proper widths and ramps.


Photos by Yancey Burns.

For the thousands of students, staff, and visitors to Gallaudet University, the narrow sidewalks are particularly hazardous because it's not possible to communicate in sign language while walking single-file down a narrow sidewalk.

Hansel Bauman, the University's Director of Campus Planning & Design (and a resident of the Trinidad neighborhood) has led an initiative called "DeafSpace" to create architectural design guidelines that quantify ways to enhance communication and livability. It is ironic and sad that the main street to campus does not provide for the needs of their community.

The volume of cars traveling on Florida Avenue NE does not justify the current road configuration, particularly because this street is already narrower for most of its length. DDOT & the Office of Planning have written numerous studies and reports over the past few years that recommend reducing the number of travel lanes and installing wider sidewalks on Florida Avenue.

Most recently, the NoMa Neighborhood Access Study & Transportation Management Plan included this project on its "Immediate Action List" for completion within 24 months. That study was published in early 2010, and to date DDOT has not put forth any preliminary plans or come close to starting construction.

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT Associate Director for Policy, Planning, and Sustainability, said in an email that DDOT is "starting a planning study from New York to West Virginia with the goal of improving safety and operations, and that will explore the ability to reduce the number of travel lanes."

The planning study won't wrap up until the middle of 2014. Then, if funding is available, DDOT could potentially begin design and construction. However, all of this would take several years. Ms. Whitfield's neighbors and friends, and everyone else who uses this street, should not continue to wait.

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Transit


Gallaudet doesn't want its name in Metro station subtitle

Gallaudet University students are mobilizing to oppose the idea of moving their university's name into a subtitle on the nearby Metro station. They're creating a petition in favor of "NoMa-Gallaudet U."


Photo by the author.

At lunchtime on Monday, students gathered on campus for a brief talk by student body government leaders and Fred Weiner, the Executive Director of Program Development for the university. Most students attending raised their hands when asked if they use the Metro station.

Speakers gave a brief history of Gallaudet's involvement with the station. Gallaudet has been in the neighborhood since before much of the neighborhood existed. Recently, the school has been working hard to reassert its connections to the surrounding community. One way to strengthen those connections is visibility. To that end, the leaders want to keep the university's name on the local Metro station as a primary element.

Weiner noted that the WMATA Board would be discussing station name changes on Thursday. The public will not be able to speak, but a public hearing will follow on October 27th.

In the meantime, the school will be setting up a petition online advocating for the name "NoMa/Gallaudet U." Weiner noted that "members of the DC Council," which likely means at least Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas, Jr., favor this name over DDOT's proposal, "New York Ave-NoMa" with a subtitle of "Gallaudet U."

The Gallaudet University community believes that theirs should not be the only university in the region to have its name used as merely a subtitle for a station, rather than a part of the primary heading. Actually, 2 other stations with universities on their names, West Falls Church-VT/UVA and Vienna/Fairfax-GMU, also are slated to receive subtitles. However, 8 other stations with universities will not.

David suggested using subtitles for all stations with points of interest, including universities. Interestingly, Weiner mentioned that the university was promised from the beginning that their name would always be part of the station name. While making it part of a subtitle would technically keep that promise, I believe it would not be in the spirit of such an agreement to relegate the school's name to a secondary role.

What do you think?

Update: The Program Development office at Gallaudet University sent this comment:

When the station was in the planning stages, I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet at the time, was on the advisory board that supported establishing the station. He participated in the groundbreaking and was in attendance at the opening. Some of the WMATA meetings regarding the station were held at Gallaudet. At one such meeting, the chair of the board, Gladys Mack, committed that Gallaudet would be in the name of the station. Furthermore, advertisers have used the station to target the deaf community, knowing that it is heavily trafficked by Gallaudet students, staff and faculty.

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