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Sustainability


A sunken gas station sculpture sends the wrong message about the Anacostia River

Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.

Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.


Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.

Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public's perception of the river.

We "have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region," says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the "forgotten river," in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.

Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, "We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature."

But others disagree.

Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, "My concern is about the location in the Anacostia Rivernot the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River."

"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages," said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. "People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn'tit's filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.

"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven't made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia--and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help."


Photo of the Anacostia River used with permission from Krista Schlyer.

How about the Potomac?

While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.

More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.

The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.

Could the project harm the environment?

Sherman says the project will have "no impact on the environment," but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.

The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: "Any disturbance could skew the sampling results."

DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.

In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. "As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns," the statement reads. "As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River's ecosystem."

"I've got nothing against the artist or her message," said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. "A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it's too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn't. Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations."

I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.

Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.

Public Spaces


Captain America obliterates Rosslyn and Roosevelt Island

If you're like me, then you're probably pretty excited for the next Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, coming out in April. Set in a reimagined DC, the film has a very different vision of Arlington's waterfront:


Helicarriers in the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken on i09.

One of the things that piqued my interest was that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarriers, or flying aircraft carriers, are supposedly manufactured and stored underneath the Potomac right where the Orange and Blue Line tunnels are. That would certainly explain some of the delays on my daily commute!

Science fiction blog io9 screencapped an entire trailer of the film, giving us a better look at what that facility looks like. Above is an overhead shot of the Helicarrier facility.

In the film, the Georgetown side of the Potomac looks much the same, but the Arlington side looks very different. It looks like the Helicarrier facility has replaced part or all of Roosevelt Island, whose worth as a park and nature preserve is apparently less valuable than our need to have flying ships that can be blown up by demi-gods, possessed archers, and Hulks.

The Rosslyn skyline is missing, as well as I-66 and the George Washington Parkway which have been replaced with shorter office buildings. But maybe those were just moved underground. It's clear that at least one high-rise remains in Arlington, as we see Robert Redford's character looking out of his office window towards the National Mall.


Looking out across the Potomac. Screencap by Rob Bricken.

At least fans of DC's height limit can look forward to this film, unlike the disappointment they probably felt at the end of Terminator 2.

Public Spaces


Besides Metro and a gondola, plan lays out many ways to burnish Georgetown

Georgetown used to be DC's premier shopping district, but development downtown and in other neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of a Metro station, have made it lose some of its luster. A new "Georgetown 2028" plan lays out strategies to spruce up the neighborhood's commercial areas.


All images from Georgetown 2028 plan unless otherwise noted.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) worked with community groups, residents, the university, and the city to reach consensus on proposals. That gives the plan a lot more chance of becoming reality, but it does also mean that in several key areas it just calls for more studies where there wasn't consensus.

The neighborhood stands solidly behind getting a Metro station, if it can. The plan also suggests studies for an aerial gondola to Rosslyn, an idea that initially seems kind of far-fetched, but is also intriguing. Supporters like BID Executive Director Joe Sternlieb are confident it is a more cost-effective way to move a lot of people; it'll be interesting to see a more detailed analysis when one is ready.

There's also a suggestion to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from the waterfront to Roosevelt Island, and then on to Virginia.

Most of the proposals in the plan are smaller aesthetic improvements that can polish up what's already there. If and when a streetcar comes to K Street, that street will need a lot of facelift elements to make it feel more like a gateway to the neighborhood as opposed to a back alley.

To better connect K to the main strip on M, the plan suggests studying a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the C&O Canal west of 33rd Street, and redesigning the one at 33rd, as well as improving other connections. The idea is to integrate K and M and the blocks in between as an integrated district, says Topher Mathews, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and board member of the Citizens' Association of Georgetown who participated in developing the plan.

More buildings south of M could have ground-floor retail, especially once there will be much more foot traffic along those streets between M and the streetcar on K. Where retail isn't possible, maybe there can be public art and seating:

Improve connections west, east, and south

The plan talks about ways to better connect Georgetown University to the neighborhood. One is a simpler pedestrian connection to M Street, perhaps passing through buildings like the Car Barn or new buildings like one that could replace the gas station at the foot of the Key Bridge.

In the longer term, it calls for a study about how to connect the streetcar to the university. But if the streetcar is down on K/Water Street, that probably means some kind of tunnel under the mountain. If there's a way to get the money for it, that could then bring the streetcar even across the university and up to neighborhoods to the north, but tunnels are not cheap.

On the eastern side of the neighborhood, Rock Creek Parkway and the ramps to and from the Whitehurst create a formidable barrier for anyone not in a car (and sometimes even in one) between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Suggestions in the plan include a clear and comfortable pedestrian route to and from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a better bicycle connection between the Capital Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Parkway trail. For drivers, there's a suggestion to let the off-ramp from southbound Rock Creek become a reversible ramp for northbound traffic in the afternoon peak, when Rock Creek Parkway is one-way.

And lots more

The C&O Canal is a real jewel, but limited NPS resources and restrictive rules mean people don't have many chances to enjoy it. One section of the plan talks about enlivening the canal, but at this point there aren't many details. Rather, it calls for a "multi-stakeholder" process to figure out how to better use the canal.

And how about real-time information? The Georgetown BID is working with TransitScreen, the company Matt Caywood founded to commercialize the open source screens Eric Fidler built on a fellowship for Arlington's Mobility Lab. (Disclosure: I was involved in managing the Mobility Lab project as well.)

The plan suggests piloting and then expanding screens in shop windows, as well as real-time signs or screens to give information about parking availability. (That's assuming, of course, the BID can work out something acceptable to the historic review boards.)


Concept for Georgetown transit screen from TransitScreen.

What's not in the plan: better parking management and wider sidewalks

However, also notable is the absence of some of the more significant ways to improve Georgetown, but which are also controversial. As is often the case, it mostly comes down in some way to parking.

The sidewalks on M Street are far too narrow for the volume of pedestrians along there. Yet a lane on each side serves as parking, even though only a very small number of cars can park along M and bring only a very tiny minority of shoppers.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

Working groups for the plan explored widening sidewalks, but there wasn't enough consensus among people in the neighborhood to reallocate the tight space among pedestrians, rush hour driving, parking, and more. Some argued that the narrow sidewalks were even a historic feature of the neighborhood that had to be preserved as is.

The plan alludes to this dissent, with statements like, "Proposals for permanent sidewalk widening on principal corridors have raised concerns over the potential impact on Georgetown's already heavy traffic congestion. Any sidewalk widening efforts should focus on creating space where, and when, it is most needed."

Instead of recommending any widenings, the plan more vaguely suggests trying some pilot projects on weekends to temporarily widen sidewalks when traffic is low, and to put "parklets" on some side streets. Perhaps if those succeed and residents see the sky doesn't fall, they can become permanent on weekends, or even permanent at all times.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

One reason some fear losing the parking on M is that shoppers headed for M often circle nearby streets to look for free 2-hour (or, on Sundays, all-day) parking. The private lots are fairly expensive, while the streets are free. However, a few spaces on M won't really change this dynamic: the simple fact is that all of those meter spaces are almost always full, and free parking is really appealing compared to pay garages.

I personally have spent 15 minutes or more driving around the blocks near M to find a free space when none of the meters was available and my wife and I needed to do some quick shopping. The problem is that most of the garages, like many around the city, are something like $9 for the first hour and $15 for 2 hours or all day; it's one thing if you're going to stay a long time, but for a 1½ hour shopping trip it seems exorbitant.

Plus, there's always the chance of getting a free space just around the corner. When you first arrive, you might as well drive around to see if there's a space. Once you've been at it a while, it psychologically seems even more silly to give up on spending all that time and go pay the same amount you'd have paid from the start in a garage. Any minute you might find something (and, eventually, you do!)

A simple solution to this is to require drivers who aren't Georgetown residents to pay for curbside parking on residential blocks using the pay-by-phone system. The rate can be lower than the garages for short term parking but high enough to push longer-term parkers to the garages. At the very least it would generate money that could help pay for some of the elements of this plan.

DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao convened some meetings last year to talk about this possibility, which had support from advocates and some ANC commissioners, but they encountered significant opposition from a number of residents. Rao is now no longer at the agency, and many neighborhood leaders have now abandoned efforts to allow paying for parking on residential streets, according to contributor Ken Archer, who participated in the working groups. Mathews notes, however, that other parking ideas might still gain consensus.

A Metro station would be great, but it's a long way off and may never happen. In the meantime, there are ways Georgetown can better use its street space that balance the needs of all road users, but that will mean making some changes that aren't popular with everybody.

Public Spaces


Green jobs should be part of Clean Rivers

DC residents and business owners are footing the bill to fix the city's outdated stormwater infrastructure. Let's get green jobs in the bargain.

Stormwater runoff is a byproduct of our developing city. We've turned much of our land into paved streets, parking lots, sidewalks and rooftops; when it rains, millions of gallons of water rush into our antiquated storm-sewer system, which causes flooding and sends untreated sewage and other pollutants into area rivers.

The city entered into a legal agreement with the EPA in 2005 to end sewer overflows into the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek waterways by 2025. To meet this goal DC Water developed the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project, which will fix and replace the DC's outdated storm sewer system.

The project is being financed almost exclusively by DC residents, which means that by 2019 the average resident's monthly DC water bill will exceed $100. However, few DC residents are getting jobs as a result of this massive spending.

According to DC Water's most recent employment report, 85 employees on DC Water projects live in North Carolina, more than the 63 employees who live in Wards 7 and 8. It's time to seriously consider how we get the most bang for our collective buck: clean rivers and green jobs.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating sewage overflows into our rivers is the primary focus of the Clean Rivers Project, but it doesn't have to be the only return we see on this massive investment of ratepayer money. With political will and imagination, we could use these billions of dollars to create thousands of living wage green jobs and spur green neighborhood revitalization across the city as well.

Late last year, DC Water entered into a preliminary partnership agreement with the EPA to explore green infrastructure as an alternative to the current big-tunnel approach. Solutions could include rain gardens, green roofs, and pervious pavers, which unlike traditional pavement allows water to filter through to the ground below.

This could create thousands of living wage, career-track jobs digging rain gardens, planting trees and maintaining green roofs. Our initial research suggests that investing $40 million a year in green infrastructure could create more than 300 living wage jobs.

DC Water could divert hundreds of millions of dollars into green infrastructure over the next 12 years. These green jobs would go a long way to dealing with stubborn unemployment numbers in wards 5, 7, and 8 and create new tax revenue for the city.

However, these green jobs won't reach unemployed DC residents unless the leaders at DC Water make it a priority. We need an organized base of ratepayers, job-seekers, businesses and environmentalists holding city leaders accountable for training and preparing unemployed DC workers for these green jobs and holding contractors and DC Water and its contractors accountable for hiring them.

Focusing on green job creation in the Clean Rivers Project will also broaden public support for green infrastructurepublic support that can make sure green infrastructure projects get done. DC Water will inevitably face hurdles navigating DC's maze of local, federal and private land to install hundreds of acres of green infrastructure. They will need long-term city-wide resident buy-in to hold local and federal government and agencies accountable for working together to fund, build, and maintain these projects.

With political will, green infrastructure can be a viable solution to our stormwater problems. Our organization, the Washington Interfaith Network, a local citizen power organization made up of faith, labor and community based organizations, is building a citywide coalition supporting green infrastructure in the Clean Rivers Project. We would like it to include a clear comprehensive plan for green job creation and neighborhood revitalization along with river restoration.

On Earth Day 2013, we will gather 800 neighborhood leaders at Temple Sinai, next to Rock Creek Park, with officials from DC Water and City Council to make public commitments for creating such a plan in the next six months. With $2.6 billion in debt to pay back, we can't afford to do otherwise.

Architecture


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.

Sustainability


See the Chesapeake's rivers as a transit map

Cartographer Daniel Huffman has an amazing series of transit map-style diagrams. Instead of showing ground transportation, though, these show our systems of rivers. The one for the Chesapeake is fascinating.


Southern half (Maryland and below) of Chesapeake diagram. Images by Daniel Huffman.

Geoff Hatchard pointed these out, which mostly date from 2011 and before. There are tons more for all over North and Central America, showing the Hudson, Mississippi, Colorado, systems off the Great Lakes, and many more.

Looking at this, it's striking how little many of us likely know about our rivers. Sure, if you drive or take a train to Philly or NYC you can't help but notice the Susquehanna, and the Potomac forms a major border between states, but other than going over a short bridge and it forming a county boundary, how much do we really notice the Patuxent? For how many is the Rappahannock little more than half the name of a commuter bus agency? Yet these are major features of our geography and our lives depend on our planet's hydrology.

(There are a number of rivers not on the map, notably including the Anacostia, Occoquan, and everything on the east side of the bay.)

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