Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Kennedy Center


Kennedy Center addition tries to connect with the audience

The Kennedy Center yesterday unveiled an expansion plan to build 3 new pavilions, including one in the Potomac River, along with pedestrian bridges across Rock Creek Parkway and to the east. The project would partly alleviate some of the Kennedy Center's 1960s urban design errors.

Rendering from Roosevelt Island

It connects the 1.5 million-square-foot arts center to the river, as its designers originally imagined, and as many have proposed since. The addition will principally house the center's extensive music education classes, although it includes rehearsal space and some smaller performing spaces.

Designed by the office of New York architect Steven Holl, the $100 million plan consists of 3 pavilions. Two rest on top of a 3-story plinth, and the other one sits on a floating platform in the Potomac. Bridges will span Rock Creek Parkway to connect the landside and riverside sections, finally connecting the massive balcony of the Kennedy Center to the ground.

Overhead view showing the three pavilions on a low plinth. Image from Steven Holl Architects.

The plinth is the key to the project, allowing the architects to connect the addition to the new building without degrading Edward Durell Stone's marble box. Holl used a similar scheme to add a large addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Blending this plinth into the onramps of the Roosevelt Bridge creates the appearance that it is part of the landscape, with small objects on top of it. The plinth is stepped down on the land side, to let light in to the rehearsal spaces and create privacy amid the highway mess.

Down the ramps, the riverside pavilion will house a stage for small performances. Located right on the Rock Creek multi-use trail, it would break up a loud, boring stretch of the trail. Passers-by might find a show to linger at. Parents could bring kids to music classes by bike, then enjoy time to themselves without getting back into cars. Importantly, it connects the project to the Georgetown waterfront, meaning that a night at the opera might be more pedestrian.

It does not, by any means, eliminate the Kennedy Center's isolation, which comes from the I-66 spur that cuts a deadening trench into Foggy Bottom. However, lightly noted in one of Holl's watercolors is a pedestrian bridge to an unspecified destination. This might be the missing piece that would make the expense worth it.

Such a bridge would make the Kennedy Center accessible by foot from both sides. But it would have to be executed as well as the river-side connectors. If the bridge is not kept busy with activity somehow, like the floating pavilion does, it will not be well-used.

Rafael Viñoly's plan to create a public square was cancelled in 2005. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects.

The plan is considerably more modest than the previous expansion plan by Rafael Viñoly, which would have cost $650 million but patched together the urban fabric on E Street. Although this plan does not preclude that more ambitious project in the future, it fulfills some of aims of that design.

Therefore, this plan also opens the site up to more audacious rethinking of the Center's location in the city. For example, replacing the highway to nowhere with a high-capacity boulevard and filling in blocks recovered from the project would reduce the need for a multi-million dollar deck and expensive structural systems.

This new building looks to positively alter the riverbank, aesthetically and functionally. It is a positive step forward that avoids the pitfalls of a grandiose scheme. However Holl's design evolves, by the intended completion in 2018, could be the first phase of rethinking Foggy Bottom as a more human-scale environment and reconnecting DC's arts center to the rest of the city.

Public Spaces

Relive a pretty afternoon on the ballpark ferry

Washington's growing fleet of water taxis are useful as transportation, but they're also a fun and unique way to see the city. I used an American River Taxi to travel to a Nationals game a few weeks ago, and photographed the trip for posterity.

ART ferries sailing to the ballpark pick up passengers at Washington Harbor, in Georgetown. Boats pull directly up to the boardwalk, and passengers simply walk straight on.

All photos by the author.

Inside, the boats have a double row of seats and a crew of 2 or 3. There are no bathrooms, and no vending.

Shortly after casting off from Washington Harbor there are great views of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Washington Harbor.

Georgetown Waterfront Park.


Kennedy Center.

Thanks to calm water and shoreline trails, the river and its banks are multi-modal.

Boats, bikes, cars, and joggers.

The Roosevelt Bridge is the first of many that the ferry passes under.

Roosevelt Bridge, with Arlington Memorial Bridge behind.

Roosevelt Bridge.

Between Roosevelt and Memorial bridges, the monuments of the National Mall are visible.

Washington Monument.

Washington and Lincoln.

Washington and Lincoln, perfectly aligned.

Memorial Bridge is the most ornate of Washington's Potomac bridges.

Memorial Bridge.

Memorial Bridge.

Memorial Bridge.

Monuments continue to be visible as the ferry passes West Potomac Park.

Washington Monument.

Jefferson Monument.

The 14th Street Bridge looks very plain.

14th Street Bridge.

14th Street Bridge.

14th Street Bridge.

Metrorail's Yellow Line bridge is even plainer.

Metrorail Bridge.

Last and oldest of the 14th Street Bridge cluster, the Long Bridge looks ancient compared to any other on the river.

Long Bridge (right), with Metrorail Bridge (left).

Long Bridge.

After crossing below Long Bridge, East Potomac Park becomes visible on the east bank, while Crystal City and National Airport dominate the west bank.

US Capitol visible behind East Potomac Park.

National Airport, with Alexandria's Masonic Washington Monument in the background.

Crystal City.

Looking back upstream, Rosslyn, the National Cathedral, and the Washington Monument are prominent.

Rosslyn, the National Cathedral, and the Washington Monument.


At Hains Point the ferry turns to go up the Anacostia River.

Hains Point.

Looking up the Anacostia, the Frederick Douglass Bridge rises, and the baseball stadium comes into view.

Douglass Bridge.

Nats park and US Capitol.

Yards Park becomes visible beneath Douglass Bridge.

Douglass Bridge, with Yards Park.

The stadium looms large above the river.

Nats Park.

Nats Park.

Finally, the ferry docks at Diamond Teague Park, just downstream from Navy Yard.

Diamond Teague Park docks.

For even more photos of the ride, view the complete Flickr set.


Kennedy Center guard bullies patron for parking a bike

Last week, a guard at the Kennedy Center threatened to steal my bike if I dared to park it on the sidewalk.

The guard. Photo by the author.

I had arrived by bike to see a show, and found that the rack on F St was already crowded, and didn't look especially sturdy. I walked nearby to a sign post and began to lock it up.

A guard (pictured right) approached me, yelling at me that I could not park my bike there. I insisted that I could since it is a public sidewalk. I was ready to clasp my lock around the post when he shoved his hand against mine to prevent me from continuing. He insisted that the sidewalk was Kennedy Center property and no bikes could be locked there.

This is a common misconception. Street sidewalks in DC almost always fall within the public space that includes the roadway; in fact, many front yards of buildings also fall in public spaces instead of private property. The DC Atlas confirms that the sidewalks on F Street adjacent to the Kennedy Center are in public space outside the property lot lines.

Image from DC Atlas. The Kennedy Center is labeled 0806. F Street is to the north.

The guard said that if I left my bike attached to the street sign pole he would cut the lock and remove the bike as he said he had already done 3 or 4 times that day. I reluctantly relented and moved to a different rack up the hill and across from the main entrance.

The sidewalk along F St is public property and it would be a bad precedent to let anyone dictate how a public sidewalk may be used simply because their property fronts it. As anyone who has been to a sidewalk cafe knows, the District and other jurisdictions permit some private appropriation of public space with permits but there is no permit to allow private property owners to steal bikes attached to public sign posts.

Claiming that a public street sign between a public sidewalk and a public roadway is in fact private property is bullying. Furthermore, to physically menace someone by pushing them away is battery. If the Kennedy Center is in fact routinely destroying locks and confiscating bikes, they should first consult their legal counsel as they are probably destroying and stealing private property.

It was just a month ago that a similar event occurred. This time it was on the sidewalk of Lafayette Park, and I suspect the man in a black uniform was an actual law enforcement officer rather than a rent-a-cop.

I like to think that the legal authority that comes with a badge and a gun limits the officer to carefully enforcing actual laws, not their own made-up, capricious rules that have no basis in law.

Public Spaces

Students fix Foggy Bottom's waterfront problems

Lydia DePillis's constant attendance at community meetings turned up a fascinating plan from the Catholic University Urban Design Studio to improve some of Foggy Bottom's biggest flaws: the mess of freeways between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

A professor and team of students came up with the vision, which has no funding but which DePillis reports they hope the Office of Planning will incorporate into the DC Comprehensive Plan.

Left: Area around 27th and K now. Image from Google Maps.
Right: The same area in the plan. Images via Housing Complex.

The "ramp spaghetti" in front of the Kennedy Center, the freeway under Juarez Circle, the ramps to the Whitehurst, and Rock Creek create a big barrier between Foggy Bottom and the waterfront, and many small park segments many of which are inaccessible or underutilized.

The plan includes new pedestrian connections across Rock Creek and the Potomac, and suggests decking some of the freeway ramps to the Whitehurst to build better parks. It also resurrects the Kennedy Center's ideas to cover the ramps between it and E Street to connect it to the neighborhood.

Of course, covering freeways is expensive, or we'd do it all the time. That freeway is also wider than it needs to be, since it was originally built to continue up along Florida Avenue or K Street. Some of the ramps could probably come down instead of being decked over.

Besides improving the waterfront access, DePillis reports that the plan includes a new entrance to Foggy Bottom Metro, benches at Juarez Circle, a Native American cultural center, and another performing arts center near the Kennedy Center. DePillis couldn't post the entire plan, but we look forward to seeing more!


1959 alternate Kennedy Center design

Nathaniel Kelso sent over these 50-year-old renderings of an alternate design for the Kennedy Center. It looks a bit like a UFO landed on the banks of the Potomac.

What do you think? Better or worse than what we got?

Click for larger version.

Public Spaces

A busy day for NCPC

This morning, the National Capital Planning Commission (the federal government's planning body for the DC area) released a great proposal for the future of the Federal area of the city. It calls for decking over not only the E Street Expressway but almost all of the "ramp spaghetti", creating space for new buildings east and northeast or the Kennedy Center and a park to the southeast connecting to the Lincoln Memorial.

The study area for the National Capital Framework Plan. Image from NCPC.

In the Federal Triangle area, the report also suggests a "Federal walk" guiding tourists to notable works of art among the federal office buildings, a more usable public space at the currently-barren, raised Freedom Plaza around 13th and Pennsylvania, and redevelopment of the FBI building to include street-level retail and restaurants, matching the livelier streets around it.

It also repeats and extends some past NCPC ideas for Southwest, including decking over part of the Southwest Freeway near the Banneker Overlook and creating a new 10th Street Overlook nearby, burying the VRE tracks to restore Maryland Avenue, a canal across East Potomac Park, and redeveloping some of the less historic concrete buildings, especially the Forrestal Building which blocks a view from the Smithsonian Castle down to the Potomac River.

Here's the complete report. I'll analyze its recommendations in more detail next week. Meanwhile, you can read today's Post article.

NCPC also discussed the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which proposes to develop some parcels on the edge of its property to raise an endowment allowing it to provide for its retired veterans in the future. The plan is substantially the same as the one I reviewed previously, with a few small improvements.

They have reduced the number of parking spaces at DDOT's request from the enormously high 6,500 to a slightly less enormous but still very high 5,155. If DC or WMATA improves bus service to the site, the number of spaces will decrease further. In the meantime, the plan calls for a shuttle bus to Columbia Heights and Brookland/CUA Metro stations, but those shuttles will only run 30 minutes outside rush hour, making them unlikely to seriously reduce car ownership or usage by residents or employees.

The plan also shifted some retail to Irving Street, on the exterior of the development, from the interior. The Office of Planning (and I) had criticized the way the plan "turns its back" to Irving Street; this change ameliorates that, though there will still be blank walls from parking garages on several of the blocks, albeit attractively concealed garages.

The biggest controversy at the NCPC meeting concerned open space. A small parcel on the west side, Zone C, was designated for possible future development of low-density (and suburban-esquely arranged) townhouses, but AFRH had always emphasized its desire to always leave this parcel forested. It abuts Petworth, and many residents and officials had advocated for creating a public park in Zone C and possibly Zone B, perhaps with some money from the National Park Service or the District of Columbia, perhaps partly as a condition for approval of the other zones.

The staff recommended NCPC approve the other zones with the condition that AFRH agree to negotiate for the next two years. AFRH argued against this idea because they don't want to decide what to do with C in the next two years; they use it currently, and hadn't planned to touch C for at least fifteen years. They want to keep it for the private use of their residents at least that long, ideally indefinitely as long as their finances remain sound.

Several board members objected to any conditions that would further delay financing which would help this needy institution. Ultimately, NCPC approved only Zone A, leaving Zones B and C as part of AFRH, requiring future debate and NCPC action before they can become buildings, a public park, or anything else.

After further discussing the proposed MLK Jr. National Memorial on the Tidal Basin and Georgetown Waterfront Park, NCPC dove into minutiae with a debate about 20 feet of height. Basically, the Height Act allows buildings on commercial streets to be 20 feet higher than the width of a nearby street, up to a maximum of 130 feet; a mixed-use building on M Street at Capper-Carrollsburg in Southeast fronts a 250-foot wide right-of-way bisected by a parking lot that will become Canal Park.

The street on the west is 2nd Street, 90 feet wide; on the east is 2nd Place, 70 feet wide. Once, 2nd Place was also called 2nd Street. Should we consider this a 250-foot wide single street with green space in its center, like E Street in Foggy Bottom, or two separate streets separated by a park? One would allow a 130-foot-high building, another only 110 feet.

The zoning administrator has ruled the former; the NCPC staff takes the opposite view. Harriet Tregoning made a good case for why nitpicking 20 feet is beneath NCPC and not especially vital to the federal interest, but by a narrow 5 to 4 vote, NCPC voted to oppose the extra 20 feet.

Public Spaces

Kennedy Center plaza back on the table?

DC Metrocentric reports that the Kennedy Center is again exploring the idea of building a public plaza and buildings over the "ramp spaghetti" that separate it from Foggy Bottom. Congress reallocated the plaza's funding to Alaskan highways in 2005, but the climate may be right for another try.

Update: Looking at that model, the fountain looks cool, but it would probably create another failed public space that's stately but empty. How about some grass and benches, and some cafes in those new buildings along the sides, so that residents of the area or office workers at the State Department can sit and eat lunch?

Public Spaces

From spaghetti maze to grande allée

The area around the Kennedy Center is surely one of DC's greatest failures of urban planning. Earlier this decade the Kennedy Center attempted to fix the situation with found a concept study by architects Ehrenkrantz Eckstut and Kuhn, which takes the idea even further by decking over the entire "spaghetti maze" from the Lincoln Memorial to the Kennedy Center, creating usable space and a grande allée between the two.

The Mall is becoming planning for the future of the Mall, trying to balance recreation, public assembly, and the demands for more memorials from veterans' groups, ethnic groups, and others. Meanwhile, there's prime real estate that's also an eyesore right now, just begging to be decked over. It'll just take a couple billion dollars.

Public Spaces

Bad urbanism on the Potomac waterfront

In December, I got into an interesting debate on the Dupont Forum neighborhood list about my feelings concerning the Third Church landmarking. Lance, who considers the building a "masterpiece," asked if my desire to get rid of most 1970s-era buildings in downtown DC extended to more widely praised structures like the Watergate and Kennedy Center.

I replied:

The Watergate and Kennedy Center are, as mid-20th century buildings go, pretty nice, and I'm not in favor of razing them. However, they still do not represent good urbanism either, especially when considered in context with the Potomac River Freeway which was built around the same time (the West Leg of the 1971 Inner Loop plan, whose cancelled North Leg would have ruined Dupont). Both buildings are clearly designed for cars and with a more suburban sensibility, such as the way the Watergate has an interior park but presents a mostly blank wall to the streetscape. Most land around the Kennedy Center is used for getting cars in, out and around, than for human beings.
I added that I hadn't really had a chance to explore those sites in detail, which prompted me to take a walk down there for some photos.
The area does indeed feel quite unfriendly to pedestrians, not surprising given the era in which it was built. The Watergate complex is attractive for its time, and even has retail along the street, though the main entrance still resembles a suburban hotel's front door rather than an apartment complex in the heart of the city.

The Kennedy Center, on the other hand, was even worse than I remembered, its front area evoking an airport terminal with its wide, curving driveway, large empty plaza, and multiple places for shuttle buses and cars to pull up and discharge passengers. The building faces an enormous chasm of the Potomac River Freeway's and its many ramps to E Street and the Roosevelt Bridge. Even people in the 1960s, not being entirely stupid, recognized the problems with the site; Washington Post architecture critic attacked the plan in 1962 calling it a "spaghetti maze". Unfortunately, these voices did not prevail.

The Kennedy Center sought to fix these flaws in 2002-2004 with a plan to construct a plaza and buildings over the freeway (PDF) that would connect to E Street, creating an attractive pedestrian front entrance.

Unfortunately, the plaza's funding was cut in 2005 by Congressional Republicans in favor of highway pork in Alaska and Illinois. Congress should revive this idea and take a huge step toward rectifying mistakes of the 1960s and restoring Washington's grandeur around its great performing arts center.

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