Posts about Tenleytown
Bruce DePuyt and I talked Tuesday about the Babe's project, a planned 55-65-unit apartment building one block from Tenleytown Metro which will not have underground parking and whose residents will not be able to get resident parking stickers.
A lot of people are nervous about this proposal, but it really should be a no-brainer. The Office of Planning report said that there are 560 parking spaces available for rent nearby. In just the garage at Cityline at Tenley (the building with the Container Store), there are 110-120 spaces going unused each night, and 50 during the day.
That means that even if almost everyone brought a car and just rented a space, everything would be fine. There's a strange legacy assumption that everyone who parks would need to either park in their own building or on the street, but there are actually a lot of garages in Tenleytown.
Plus, Douglas Development is explicitly planning to market the building to people who don't want to have cars. The Container Store at Cityline only sells containers. That doesn't make it a bad store because it doesn't also sell furniture or clothing. If you want containers, go there. If not, shop somewhere else. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with having a building for people mostly without cars, and other buildings and houses and neighborhoods can serve people with different needs.
Bruce was worried that someone with a car would want to buy a unit from an initial owner (actually, it's an apartment building, not condos, but I forgot to mention that on the segment). Regardless, I pointed out that some apartments in some buildings have decks, or more bathrooms, and others don't. People choose where to live based on the available amenities, and not every apartment, condo or house has to serve every need for every person.
This is a simple economic concept, but it seems to escape many people, like Councilmember Jack Evans (ward 2), who was on the show before me. Bruce asked Evans about the proposal. Evans made the odd argument that a building designed for people to ride transit one block from the Tenleytown Metro is a bad idea because there isn't a Metro station in his own neighborhood of Georgetown.
I think it's a major mistake to do that in the District of Columbia. The reason being that the Metro system, the bus system does not work well enough to get people around in the city. I live in Georgetown. There is no Metro. For me to get around I'm taking buses, transferring, it takes me a long time to get anywhere.This thinking reflects one of the most common cognitive errors we see in policy debates. People extrapolate their own experiences to everyone else. If I need to drive, everyone must. If I need a certain size apartment, everyone must. Therefore, the government must force the market to build those things.
We don't all need the same type of housing. Some people do need, or want, large suburban houses with big yards and 4 bedrooms and 2-car garages. We have a lot of those. Other people would rather save money and time and buy or rent a small unit without parking if it lets them live near the Metro.
Our zoning need not force everything into a single mold. That's what 1960s planners tried to do, and we know it was a failure. With the agreement to withhold residential parking permits to residents of this building, there's no way it can negatively effect anyone else. That means there's no reason to forbid Douglas from constructing the apartments they think the market demands.
After more than 3 years of meetings, discussions, proposals and counter-proposals, ANC 3E Thursday night unanimously supported a controversial proposal to build a new residential building with ground-floor retail on a corner near the Tenleytown Metro station.
My house is located on the same block as this site, the old Babe's Billiards at the northwest corner of Wisconsin and Brandywine. I've been keenly interested in the fate of this now-derelict building.
The commissioners agreed to the project only after negotiating a long list of stipulations, which they formalized as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to legally bind the developer and all successive owners of the property.
Despite unanimity amongst the commissioners, there was no shortage of vocal opposition from a few of the longstanding opponents of this development.
The prime bone of contention has been developer Douglas Jemal's request for an exemption from the parking requirements. The building would have one disability parking space and no other on-site parking, though there are several garages nearby.
Several local residents voiced strong feelings that skipping underground parking for the planned apartments and retail would make it more difficult to find parking spaces in Tenleytown. At least one attendee argued against the project's density, claiming that its 4.8 Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) would make it would be one of the most densely-developed sites in Upper Northwest.
All opponents fear that if built, this project might become a precedent for future high-density, parking-free buildings in Tenleytown which, they say, will overrun our neighborhood with hundreds of new people and cars parked on side streets. Opponents expressed frustration that the 5 commissioners seemed to have already made up their minds. They were unlikely to be swayed by arguments that have already come up many times times at meetings and on neighborhood listservs since 2009.
However, such concerns feel overblown. The ANC has pushed to allay the parking concerns as thoroughly as possible by imposing draconian restrictions on any and all residents of the building. No one living there will be allowed to get residential parking permits (RPPs). The deed to the property will require that all leases forbid tenants from attempting to gain RPPs, and if Jemal sells the property or it becomes condos, those restrictions will follow to future owners.
Essentially, no one living in the building will be able to park full time on the streets of Tenleytown. Jemal will market the building to people interested in living car free. Those with cars will have to live elsewhere or rent spaces in the Best Buy or Whole Foods parking lots, which have extra capacity today.
Some people may indeed try to get around such prohibitions, but both the ANC and Jemal have tried to limit the impact on street parking as much as possible. To the best of my knowledge, this approach is new for DC, though it is common in other jurisdictions, including Arlington. Some worry that it won't completely succeed in binding parking restrictions to the site, though the DC Council could back it up by passing legislation to codify the no-RPP rule for developments that request it. A bill to do that narrowly failed on second reading last month.
As to fears that this project will set a precedent, the commissioners were all quite clear that they do not consider this project a template for all future Tenleytown development. Rather, they see it as a sort of pilot program for a site that presents significant challenges.
The site is unique. Despite its prime location just one block from a Red Line Metro station, it sports an odd 1-story concrete structure. It includes a below-grade level, which used to house a movie theater. It is essentially a huge concrete bunker, currently painted an ominous black.
The current building is 100% structurally sound, which presents the developer with a dilemma. Either the developer can use the existing building as a concrete base for a taller structure, or he can demolish the concrete bunker, haul away the rubble, dig a deep foundation with underground parking, and build on top of that. This choice is a no-brainer for this particular site.
Using the old concrete base does make it impossible to dig underground parking on the site, but nearly everyone involved has agreed that given the incredibly close proximity to Metro, a zero-parking approach is worth trying. Demolishing the old building would be extremely unfriendly from an environmental standpoint, the millions of extra dollars of expense would likely make the project economically unfeasible without adding 4 or 5 additional stories, and the extra parking spaces would merely encourage extra cars to come into the neighborhood.
The ANC took care to state that this level of density and parking should not necessarily be considered "the new normal" in Tenleytown. If this project is built as currently planned, it will take several more years to judge the effects of this zero-parking experiment, and the ANC explicitly said their vote should not impact the impending zoning rewrite.
From a personal standpoint, with my house being on Brandywine Street, I'm thrilled that there won't be a parking garage 100 feet down the street. It would mean a huge number of new cars buzzing around the block. While I have a single off-street parking space at my house, I personally haven't gotten to use it since my wife found out she was expecting our first child a few years ago.
I have never had difficulty parking on nearby 42nd Street, and while I do anticipate that this development will inevitably make street parking near my house a little bit more difficult, isn't that the unavoidable price of new development?
I love the small-town character of Tenleytown, and I love that you might mistake it for a sleepy suburb despite its incredibly central DC location, but I also don't want the Tenleytown stretch of Wisconsin Avenue to remain littered with rubble heaps, blacked out buildings, and mattress stores. We need revitalization around our highly valuable Metro Station, and if revitalization brings more people to the area, I say, "Bravo!"
A building proposed for Tenleytown deserves praise for putting density in the right spot, but its design is too fractured to contribute to the character of Tenleytown. Although the building fills the majority of the lot and is lined with retail, it is neither an interesting work of architecture nor a quiet background building.
The Bond at Tenley suffers from overcomposition. In order to break up the bulk, the architects at Shalom Baranes and Associates used large-scale overlapping conceptual volumes to break down the sense that the building is a single, solid object. These shapes mostly refer to differences in the building's urban context, like the angles between streets. Baranes then intersected and manipulated them into each other in order to diminish the presence of the building's mass.
However, at smaller scales and different locations, the same figures repeat. Blocks and grids overlap and glance by each other, repeating the same general patterns. Rather than using the shifts of scale to contradict figures or develop simplicity, the architects jostled oversized parts together.
PUD filings and renderings on the project's website show the façades principally forming a thick bar along Wisconsin Avenue. From this block, a pane of gray metal splits out to match the north-south orientation of the city's grid and the Brandywine Street façade.
By itself, the scissor neatly registers the odd angle formed between the old Georgetown Pike and the city's grid, while opening up to the street. But then there's the brick elevator tower and a separate set of bay windows and the parapet, and a dozen different windows.
But that's not it. The retail strip is articulated as entirely separate from the top of the building, weakening the relationship of the upper stories to the street. A second color of terracotta runs up the middle of the Wisconsin side, implying another, imaginary volume. Then, there are several tiny balconies protruding from the front, some of which are created by the formal moves, and others seem arbitrary. A look at the floorplans reveals a tortured façade that generally adds up to nothing in particular.
Typical residential plan at right, ground floor at left.
With all of these inflections, what do any of them mean? What part of the context or urban form does the building highlight? A more limited number of operations, with a greater depth of detail, would produce a better environment for passers-by. A building with more depth would stand on its own, even as other buildings fill up the neighboring lots and residents become inured to its presence.
Consider the difference between the sounds of two popular summer pastimes: crashing waves and fireworks. One is a repetitive, muffled noise with numerous subtleties, such that the slightest change in timing can make you hold your breath. The other is loud, arranged for variety and effect, and very, very loud. Worse, Baranes' design is like a fireworks show where every explosion is meant to drown out the noise of every other explosion, so you can't pin a boom to a flash or react to one before the other. Which one would you rather live in?
It's not entirely fair to pick on this building, but it is representative of the city's reputation. When national publications criticize Washington for its conservatism, they are not talking about the traditionalist works. They are talking about the endless formalized reference to context, uncommitted postmodernism, and the high-end banal glass. The plaid grid of featureless panels is so common in DC buildings, one could call it DC's "official" façade treatment, the architectural equivalent of the Rickey.
However, the trend towards something more lively is already embedded in the design. The architects have called for a terracotta rainscreen for the Wisconsin Avenue façade. The systems used allow for more variety and greater sustainability. Baranes have already successfully used this kind of cladding at Waterfront Station, in Southwest DC. On a smaller project like this one, they could be more experimental with how these small, ceramic panels add to the experience of passers-by.
The design of this particular building is important, because it will set the tone for the coming development in this neighborhood, as it diversifies and intensifies. More generally, the building represents a particular fixation of Washington architects: design not to meet context, but originating in the various shapes of buildings around it. SBA is one of the A-list architecture firms of the DC area, and already has a presence in Tenleytown, the excellent Cityline. A clean design that develops complexity without ostentatiousness is entirely possible.
If Tenleytown is to look different from downtown, this project can start to make the distinction. This is the first building of a coming regeneration. The importance of setting the tone is important. Tenleytown needs transit-oriented development with enough cohesion and activity to maintain and grow its identity. Simply deferring to the mediocre context will not develop the neighborhood, but merely perpetuate the present state in nicer materials.
Rather than use its influence to oppose all design, ANC 3E and the Tenleytown community should work with the developer to produce a better design, one with rhythms and scale that relate to the street and surroundings while bringing something new and vital to the area.
Cross-posted at цarьchitect.
Responding to requests from neighbors, Safeway created an excellent mixed-use proposal to redevelop its Tenleytown store that will reinvigorate its stretch of Wisconsin Avenue. They deserve kudos from residents, not the litany of complaints the project team got at a recent ANC meeting.
In 2009, Safeway announced plans to expand this aging store. Ward3Vision, a group of residents who support more walkable and sustainable urban places, joined others in the community in urging Safeway to approach the expansion more creatively and sustainably than its original proposal.
Safeway went back to the drafting board, and partnered with Clark Realty and New Urbanist architects Torti Gallas to design a mixed-use development with a 56,000 square foot grocery store and 190 residences.
The development team has spent a lot of time engaging the community. They have created an imaginative project with reasonable density that will blend into the existing neighborhood fabric while also enlivening the street.
The plan calls for more than just replacing the timeworn Tenleytown Safeway with a new store. By adding a residential building, the project will reinvigorate this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue marked by aging commercial development and help it start to transform into a mixed-use commercial and residential district.
Unfortunately, at the March 8 ANC 3E meeting, residents lodged a litany of complaints about the height, density, and parking and traffic impacts of the project.
Some Ward 3 residents have criticized the project as being too dense for the surrounding neighborhood. But the site's location on Wisconsin Avenue, between the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations and served by high-frequency bus lines, makes it very appropriate for transit-oriented, slightly denser development.
Growth like what Safeway proposes will bring increased foot traffic and customers to stores and restaurants, giving residents in quieter surrounding neighborhoods more shopping and dining choices, and bolsters DC's tax-base while adding minimal traffic.
The development team showed great sensitivity to community concerns. The architects moved delivery traffic to Davenport Street from the originally proposed location on Elicott Street, where drivers will now unload in a covered delivery court. This buffers the noise and keeps truck traffic away from Georgetown Day School students across the street. The team also added a cover over the delivery court after residents voiced concerns about noise.
The architects added a row of liner townhouses to screen off the potentially blank, uninteresting walls of the grocery store, enhancing the sense of a residential environment. They also stepped back the height of the building to create terraces, increasing green space for the development, and added a second entrance to Safeway along 42nd Street to make the shopfront livelier.
Also, in direct response to concerns expressed at the January ANC meeting, the development team removed one whole story from the residential main block, making it 4 residential stories instead of 5 as originally planned.
There are, of course, details that still need to be resolved, such as how to foster lively street life, how to to minimize traffic congestion and enhance safety, putting utility lines, and encouraging other amenities like bike and car sharing.
The one area that could most improve is at the corner of Ellicott and 42nd, where WMATA has a small service building often referred to as a "bunker." Safeway and Clark are negotiating with Metro about this property. A semi-public use, such as a coffeehouse pavilion, would bring many benefits to the community and developer alike. DC could also modify the slip lanes in this area to create additional public space.
Either way, the final proposal is an excellent one. The team has shown willingness to compromise, and deserve full support from area residents.
Douglas Development wants to rebuild Tenleytown's long-vacant Babe's Billiards into a mixed-use development with 60 residential units and ground floor retail space. Perhaps most significantly, Douglas wants to build no parking at all on the site.
The once-popular neighborhood nightspot has been shuttered for several years, despite its location just a few hundred feet from the Tenleytown Metro station.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E will hear about the proposal tomorrow night (Jan. 12) at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets NW. It would help for smart growth supporters in the area to attend and encourage the ANC to support this worthy project.
The former Babe's sits on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street, near the top of a hill with downward slopes to the south and west, and Douglas's proposal promises to utilize this topography creatively.
Douglas Development's proposal would allow for a potential sit-down restaurant to have an outdoor seating area along Brandywine Street and for the sought-after retail tenants (no dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants, or banks) to have tall, airy ceilings as high as 16-18 feet.
Although the retail mix in Tenleytown is improving, this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has long been associated with mattress stores, cheap fast food, dry cleaners and lots of banks (okay, maybe not the banks) that belies the affluence of upper Northwest and the proximity to the student population at American University.
A ground-floor restaurant would be an ideal tenant for the space and provide significant value to the community, but if the ANC or Zoning Commission requires parking, that won't be possible due to the topography.
Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.
The site is also just a few hundred feet from the Metro station, is well-served by several bus routes, and is within walking distance of two grocery stores and other amenities.
Despite the fact that people who are willing to pay a premium to live directly next to a Metro station have fundamentally different travel patterns, with much lower car ownership and transit usage rates than the surrounding neighbors, Douglas Development is planning ahead for the few people who may own a car. The company proposes to aggressively pursue shared parking agreements with neighboring businesses with spaces that go unused every day.
Douglas could also help reduce driving demand further by providing amenities like car sharing spaces and dedicated bicycle parking. Supportive neighbors have recommended making both a part of the community benefits package.
While the predictable opponents of any change have opposed the Babe's development, city officials in Santa Monica, California, recently approved a very similar 56-unit mixed-use development without any off-street parking. This despite the fact that it will be at least a half decade until the light-rail Expo Line is extended to Santa Monica. The Babe's site already has Metro nearly at its doorstep.
If a mixed-use development can be built in car-centric Southern California without any off-street parking, years before a light rail connection will be provided to the neighborhood, DC's elected leaders and planning officials should have the courage to support a similar development in a walkable community, already well-served by transit.
I urge smart growth advocates to attend the ANC 3E meeting. The Babe's issue might not come up until later in the meeting (perhaps around 9:30pm), but if you come earlier, you can hear from the folks at Safeway who are planning to rebuild the store at 42nd and Ellicott Streets NW, along Wisconsin Avenue.
There are sure to be the usual opponents of any Wisconsin Avenue development in attendance, so the more proponents of a mixed-use development of the Babe's site in attendance, the better.
The center of Ward Circle near American University is an unused and wasted space. The road design heavily favors car traffic and features few bicycle or pedestrian facilities. Closing some traffic lanes and adding pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes could make Ward Circle a more coherent public space.
The center of the circle, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues NW, is currently inaccessible to pedestrians and features only a statue and some shrubs in the middle. Pedestrians and cyclists are able to travel around the circle but not into or through it.
An improved park would serve many, as both American University and the Department of Homeland Security headquarters are within walking distance. Students could study or take a break from classes, and DHS employees could eat lunch in the circle, in the vein of the denizens of Dupont Circle.
In addition to sharing the two circumnavigating lanes with Massachusetts Avenue, Nebraska Avenue has two express lanes that travel through the middle of the circle. Even if pedestrians did want to travel into the middle of Ward Circle, they would have to cross both the outer travel lanes and the inner express lanes.
DDOT studied the option of closing the Nebraska Avenue through-lanes in the Rock Creek West II Livability Study. Doing so would slow automobile traffic but could help make for a better public place.
One alternative to improve traffic flow, through an expensive and logistically difficult proposition, would be to tunnel Nebraska Avenue under Ward Circle. Several other avenues tunnel under other circles in the District: Connecticut Avenue under Dupont Circle, Massachusetts under Thomas Circle, and 16th Street under Scott Circle.
Even without a tunnel, eliminating the express lanes and routing all traffic around the circle would improve the space. Crosswalks with leading pedestrian intervals would make it easier to cross only two lanes of traffic. Otherwise, DDOT will have to install crosswalks for both the outer and inner lanes.
Benches would also make the circle a more attractive place to spend time. Trees or larger shrubs along the edge could screen some of the traffic noise and provide shade. Lighting would make the circle a safe and attractive place to be at night.
DDOT redesigned Thomas Circle in a similar way in 2006. DDOT removed the middle lanes through the circle and restored the circular shape. Thomas Circle still needs additional amenities in the center to make it a more welcoming space, however, and similar improvements to Ward Circle would create a better community park.
Nebraska Avenue is also an unfriendly bike corridor along an important commuter route. Nebraska connects AU and DHS to Tenleytown, the closest Metro station. AU runs a shuttle to the Metro and DHS runs some shuttles, but biking along Nebraska can be treacherous with the traffic.
DDOT is considering widening the sidewalk on the north side of Nebraska and installing a bike path. According to Jim Sebastian, Nebraska Avenue is too narrow at 40 feet to install bike lanes on the street. The north side of Nebraska has heavier pedestrian traffic than the south side, so DDOT is only looking to expand there.
Increasing bicycle accessibility and mobility between Tenleytown and the circle should also be a goal of the redesign. A bike path along the sidewalk could encourage more bike commuting from Tenleytown to Ward Circle. DDOT should also add a second Capital Bikeshare station at the circle and expand the station at Tenleytown.
Currently, there is only one bike share station on Massachusetts Avenue to the northwest of Ward Circle. A station directly at the circle would not only accommodate more bikers, but it would also make it more of a destination. DDOT is now crowdsourcing suggestions for new stations, so residents, students, and nearby employees can suggest adding one here.
Finally, the bike lane network near AU is incomplete. Massachusetts Avenue has no lanes, and ANC3D opposed adding bike lanes to New Mexico Avenue near Nebraska. It's good that DDOT wants to add a bike path to Nebraska, but the agency should also push for a more connected and complete bike lane network around Ward Circle.
Ward Circle is close to students, residents, and federal workers, all of whom could benefit from a large green space, and the District should include in its planning modifications that activate the space. The proposed changes will create a better community space that is welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists, while still allowing for automobile flow. What else do you think would improve the circle?
With a more creative approach to preservation, American University's plan for its Tenley Campus could produce better urban design and a more compelling presentation of the site's history.
AU has agreed to preserve several structures on the site: the a former farmhouse called Dunblane House, Capital Hall the main building visible from Tenley Circle, and a Chapel. Together, these buildings form an axis that the Historic Preservation Office has insisted on preserving.
The Historic Preservation Office is right to emphasize this axis; it is probably the most interesting part of the site. The architects at SmithGroup have worked within these requirements to create a private quadrangle between the old house and Capital Hall, which looks good so far.
But AU has also decided to build on the footprints of the existing 1950s buildings and not construct anything that would obscure Capital Hall. The buildings are preserved, but no part of the campus will feel different from the others, even if they are in a slightly different style. The new buildings offer no key to understand on the site they inherit.
To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti's renovation of the Getty Villa. They combined the pragmatic need for an an entry stairway with architectural promenade that helps visitors understand the museum's curatorial approach.
Treating the 1970s replica of a roman villa as an object in a collection, stairs and pathways frame the building in a sequence that calls to mind an excavation. The stair gives visitors a lens with which to understand the building and clears their minds of the drive out to Malibu.
At Tenleytown, the preservation aspect should have the same approach. Rather than preserving the front of the campus as slice of DC's rural history, any new buildings should frame the old buildings in a way that heightens one's awareness of the area's history, which dates back to the tobacco plantations and and dirt farmers who worked the land before the streetcar suburbs.
By at least 1820, Dunblane House stood on the site, connected to what was then called Georgetown Pike by a long perpendicular driveway. In 1902, when the Sisters of Providence purchased the property for a women's college (Immaculata), they constructed Capital Hall and a chapel over that driveway.
Then, when the city was carving out Nebraska Avenue in the early 20th century, they designed it to intersect Wisconsin Avenue at the same spot where the Dunblane axis ends. Now, from the Dunblane site to Tenley Circle, we have a series of related buildings with a lot of history. But those buildings feel disconnected from the neighborhood.
A good redesign of the campus would link the neighborhood to the campus without diminishing the historic structures.In most projects, architects contrast new work through a difference of style. Here, the architects have an unequaled opportunity to explore the difference through urban design strategies.
Capital Hall is oriented towards Wisconsin Avenue, but it's hard to see the connection to Wisconsin Avenue for two reasons. The first is the lawn in front of the building, which distances Capital hall from its focus. The second is that none of the adjacent buildings are on the same axis. The residences on Nebraska are face that thoroughfare, while St. Anne's Church and the old convent on Yuma Street are aligned north-south on the city's grid.
I propose that the most effective way to contextualize the historic buildings is to heighten the sensation of contrast between the four axes at Tenley Circle by framing part of the frontal lawn with buildings. One would be aligned to Nebraska Avenue and the other to Yuma Street, with a staircase and plaza preserving line-of-sight between Capital Hall and the circle.
A rough alternative for the Tenley Circle campus. A public stair leads up to a semi-private courtyard, framing Capital Hall. Wings along Yuma and Nebraska tie the campus to the city.
The plaza would serve as the badly needed front entrance, while focusing the view from Capital Hall to Tenley Circle. Wings that face Nebraska Ave. and Yuma St. would relate the campus to the city streets. The difference in orientation would allow for a poetic negotiation from the historic architecture to the contemporary, and from the work world to the academic one.
At the opposite end of the axis, AU should not have to keep the physical structure of Dunblane House, which does not have any merit for legal protection. However, AU should reinterpret the outlines, either another building or a garden feature, to anchor the axis and suggest an imprint of history.
AU's current plan misses a unique opportunity to interpret history through public space. The HPO's insistence that nothing can occlude Capital Hall will render that history as inaccessible the building itself. A different approach is necessary, one that lets us understand the past in relation to our needs and ideas. I believe that I have only scratched the surface of the tremendous architectural potential at the Tenley Campus.
American University plans to move its law school to its land two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro. That has enormous potential, but the design should more directly engage the surrounding urban fabric.
Unfortunately, as expansion plans are presented it is becoming clear that AU's designs remain pinned to the past. Despite the urban location of the Tenley campus, plans for it are based on flawed and outdated suburban design principles.
Site Plan as of June. Tenley Circle, Wisconsin Avenue, and the front lawn are to the upper left. Up is north. Image from AU.
It makes sense to move the law school to the Tenley campus. Most law school faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school from homes and jobs elsewhere in the city, making the site's accessibility a strong feature. In addition to the Metro, bus lines in eight directions link the circle to points all over Northwest DC. This level of accessibility will make it easy for students to attend classes without ever parking a car on local streets.
The law school should also benefit the community. The Tenley campus is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue that have been struggling for years. An expanded campus would energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity between them where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field.
Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.
But as of July, the designs do not meet of the location's potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus. Those objects relate to each other, but to the city or the local streets.
The worst consequence of this decision is the retention of the marginal green space between the main building and Tenley Circle. Instead of a place for people, the most visible and accessible part of the site becomes a large no-man's-land. At precisely the spot where the campus should best engage the city, it turns its back.
Around the sides, the site plan leaves even more empty shrub-filled spaces. AU has assured worried neighbors that these large setbacks will screen the bulk of new buildings, but they are a half-measure. As at East Campus, AU is trying to screen the buildings as a substitute for designing more attractive or exciting buildings. Here, the choice makes all of the perimeter conditions the same, front and back, and all relatively unproductive.
Moving the buildings to the front would let the designers consolidate the green space into useful parks at the rear of the site, rather than left as unused spaces on the fringe. It is completely contextual to have a larger building with strong streetwalls fronting the main street, with smaller structures set back on the side streets. This is how nearby blocks have developed, and how most blocks on Wisconsin are zoned.
The 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave has a wall of attached storefronts on the avenue and detached homes behind.
SmithGroup's challenge at this site has been to lay out a plan that creates a campus environment internally, and that meets the neighborhood on one side and greets the city on the other. Their plan achieves a campus feel and blends into the neighborhood relatively well, but does not greet the city.
The campus needs an urban front, a kind of civic space where the main building meets Tenley Circle. One way to achieve that would be with a public staircase.
There are many precedents of public staircases connecting dense urban areas with campus environments, both grandiose and intimate. Columbia University's enormous cascading plaza does double duty as the main social location on campus and and as a threshold between the busy street and the academic campus above.
Left: Columbia's Low Plaza. Photo by Julia Fredenburg on Flickr.
Right: Pioneer Courthouse Square. Photo by Bob I Am on Flickr.
And these don't have to be so grandiose. Polshek Partnership's entryway to the Brooklyn Museum includes two large stair-like seating areas with pragmatic ground-level access. Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland is a more casual example of an urban stair.
Also out in the Pacific Northwest, the FDR Memorial's designer Lawrence Halprin designed two fascinating parks that reveal the natural environment and the experience of spaces on sites with significant slopes.
These are all great places to wait, socialize and people watch. They are quintessential urban spaces, and illustrate how clever architecture can connect an urban environment to a campus by a great front door.
AU's choice to locate the law school at Tenley Circle is an opportunity to dramatically improve the character of the neighborhood, leaving it more vibrant and green. To take advantage of this opportunity, AU needs to rethink the urban design of their site plan.
In part 2, I'll discuss the historic preservation issues about the proposed campus.
Cross-posted at цarьchitect.
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