Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Van Ness


Van Ness construction could close sidewalk for 2 years

The last time the sidewalk by the Van Ness Square demolition site was closed to pedestrians, it was a temporary measure. But the latest closure could last much longer.

Photo by Pat Davies.

Developer Saul Centers will tear down the shopping center and replace it with a new apartment building. At a pre-construction meeting last week, representatives from Saul told the community that the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk alongside the construction zone will be closed for two years. DDOT regulations won't allow a covered walkway because of underground construction that was too close to the street.

Instead, pedestrians would have to cross to the west side of Connecticut at Albemarle and Windom. By last Saturday, Saul had already closed off the sidewalk, and it was clear how dangerous this situation was going to be.

I saw a blind man walking north in the street and a man with a toddler on his shoulders coming toward him. Of course, the blind man could not see the large sign announcing the closed sidewalk, but the father definitely could.

ANC commissioner Sally Gresham was also out on Saturday afternoon and spent an hour monitoring "how folks were dealing with" the sidewalk closure. "The results are very scary!" she wrote. Gresham counted 102 people walking on Connecticut Avenue itself, including 6 young teenagers on skate boards, 22 strollers with 1, 2, or 3 adults, 35 people carrying bags of groceries or small children, 26 elderly people, and 13 people using canes, walkers, or leg braces.

Luckily, this was the weekend, and parked cars did provide something of a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. But I wondered about the march of pedestrians on automatic pilot during the Monday morning rush hour.

When asked if there will be a police presence to monitor the situation, Commander Reese of the 2nd Police District said the agency would pay attention to it, but did not have enough officers to have them out on the street.

On Monday morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m., I decided to take a look. Most pedestrians were crossing where they should:

All photos by the author unless noted.

But there were quite a number crossing mid-block and walking in the street.

People crossing mid-block on Connecticut Avenue.

People walking in the street.

And with no police in sight. I forgot they were only monitoring the situation.

I emailed the photos to DDOT, and Director Terry Bellamy replied, "I am alerting our Public Space Team to investigate and make recommendations." According to Saul Centers' Kimberly Miller, construction superintendent "Jason" met with DDOT inspectors, who noted that pedestrians weren't following the posted signs, but that the project still complied with DDOT requirements.

This is not a satisfactory outcome. After pondering the issue, and thinking of the places I have traveled that control pedestrian crossings a lot better than we do, the solution came to me on my afternoon walk. I went home and dashed off another email proposing that pedestrian path be controlled through fencing that allows people to enter stores but prevents pedestrians from crossing the street mid-block.

New legislation may also improve pedestrian safety around construction sites as well. The Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013, which will take effect December 20, requires anyone seeking permits from DDOT to block a sidewalk or bike lane to also provide a "safe accommodation" for pedestrians and bicyclists to use instead.

As of today, the sidewalk is open again, but it's unclear for how long. Will the council's new legislation make a difference for pedestrians on Connecticut Avenue over the next two years? We will keep you posted.

A version of this post appeared on Forest Hills Connection.


Park Van Ness will fill in Connecticut Avenue streetscape

Developer BF Saul plans to replace its Van Ness Square, a low retail complex that contains a Pier 1 Imports, Office Depot, and a number of other stores, with a 273-apartment building and ground floor retail.

This is the second large matter-of-right proposal on Connecticut Avenue right now, but unlike the other, the glassy Cafritz building at Connecticut and Military, this will not only add housing opportunities and activate the street but has an attractive design as well.

Architects Torti Gallas and Partners designed the new building, 2 blocks north of the Van Ness Metro station. It's called "Park Van Ness," mirroring the Park Connecticut, an Archstone apartment building immediately next door. Park Van Ness will rise 7 stories from Connecticut Avenue, the same height as the Park Connecticut.

This building is right at the end of Yuma Street. The plans show a large arched opening between two halves of the building that lines up with Yuma Street, so drivers or walkers on Yuma will be able to see through to Soapstone Valley Park, a branch of Rock Creek Park, immediately beyond. Past the arch, the opening turns into a large plaza overlooking the park below.

View from Yuma Street.

The rendering shows a security gate across the archway. It's not clear whether this will be open during the day and just control access to the plaza at night, or will block off the area beyond for residents alone 24-7. The floor plans show a "club room" for residents opening onto the plaza. It would be far better if this overlook can serve as a semi-public space where people can sit and perhaps enjoy a coffee they might purchase from one of the retail spaces.

Representatives of BF Saul did not yet return calls asking for more details about this part of the plan.

Area ANC Comissioner Adam Tope says that BF Saul plans to make the building some level of LEED, but hasn't yet specified what level. The owner also hopes to put up to 4 restaurants in the ground-floor retail spaces of the north half and other types of retail on the south side.

This project could take a big step toward activating the streetscape in this area. Here, there is surface parking in front of the existing Van Ness Square, which does not create an appealing pedestrian environment. The same is true for many of the buildngs at Van Ness, constructed during a period when many architects and developers weren't trying to create appealing, walkable places; therefore, Van Ness has too many large voids, street-fronting parking, or buildings (like Intelsat) set far too far back from the street.

The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail. That means that while many residents will bring cars, not everyone can or will have their own car. The parking will be underground in the front, while the back of those floors will have apartments overlooking the park several stories below Connecticut Avenue.

Aerial rendering of the Soapstone Park side of the building.

Will residents support or fight this?

The Art Deco style should fit in well at Van Ness and please residents of the area, in addition to the benefit they gain from new restaurants and more patrons for area businesses. Still, some people may try to fight more density along Connecticut Avenue just on principle, even though this is not taller than the adjacent building.

Saul representatives claim the building is matter-of-right, said Tope, so they will not need to go through formal public hearings for any zoning exceptions or variances.

Some people in neighborhood are up in arms right now about matter-of-right projects, not because of this one, but because of the much less attractive glass building Cafritz is proposing farther up Connecticut at Military Road. There, some people want it to be smaller and others just want it to look less glassy, but the building conforms to zoning, so DC officials and Councilmember Cheh have no legal power to force them or block the project.

The Cafritz proposal at 5333 Connecticut.

Chevy Chase listserv moderator Mary Rowse recently posted a message calling for a historic district along Connecticut all the way from Tilden Street (the northern edge of the current Cleveland Park historic district) to Chevy Chase Circle. She wrote,

This stretch would include the three remaining undesignated low-scale commercial pockets along Connecticut Avenue at Chevy Chase, Nebraska & Fessenden and Van Ness. ... Having a Historic District provides a framework for managing new construction that respects the scale, design, siting and compatibility of existing structures.
The preservation office would likely not oppose the BF Saul Van Ness project, beyond perhaps dictating some design elements. It's harder to know what the appointed Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) might do; they often go along with staff reports, but in several cases this year, some members pushed to remove a floor or two from a building despite a favorable staff report when enough opponents show up.

A historic district would address two impulses. First, many people want to be able to push for a better design. That could mean different architecture, or better detailing at street level, or more ground-floor retail. Others want to simply increase pressure to limit the size of new buildings.

I sympathize with the first impulse. The Park Van Ness design seems good, but not so much at 5333 Connecticut. On the other hand, the belief that smaller is always better seems to dominate too many preservation debates these days. HPRB has used its powers much more often to shrink projects versus to improve other elements of their design.

In fact, the question of what makes a "historically compatible" design varies widely. Ron Eichner wrote in response to Rowse's email:

I have never been a fan of this idea of creating an historic district where nothing historic happened and neither the neighborhood layout nor the architecture is remarkable. Even as a back door way to give ANCs design review, it is a flawed idea, since all the HPRB reviews for is whether a project contributes to an historic district or not, which allows for lots of leewayjust look around town in the historic districts. In the 5333 case, I suspect that regardless of the ANCs assessment, HP would see the 'historic pattern' as big apartment buildings on the Avenue and single family houses on the side streets, and approve the project massing.

As for the facade design of the [glassy] proposed building, as much as we don't like it, HPRB is pretty friendly to the outmoded and sorta dopey idea that glass 'expresses our time' (as opposed to expressing the Mad Men time of the 1950's when glass walls were actually new and special) and they like contrast between periods so I wouldn't assume that historic district status and HPRB review would have changed a thing.

Residents understandably want some say in development projects, but the existing processes that give them a say, like historic preservation, often don't focus on the real factors that affect how a building interacts with its surrounding area. We end up with some cases (like 5333) where residents have no ability to push a project in a better direction design-wise, and too many others where review ends up harming our overall housing supply more than it improves a building's design.


UDC will fix dead plaza with student center

The University of the District of Columbia wants to build a student center on what's now an empty plaza creating a hole in the Connecticut Avenue streetscape right at the Van Ness Metro station. An active building here would be a big improvement over dead space.

The plan calls for landscaping and some cafe seating along the Connecticut Avenue frontage. The building will also have a green roof as well as a rain garden between it and the existing buildings. The remaining plaza area will also get a small lawn as well as some other landscaping.

Here's the new building:

The design happens to look quite a bit like DC's new libraries, for better or worse:

Left: Benning library architectural sketch. Image from DC Public Libraries.
Right: Anacostia library. Photo from And Now, Anacostia.

These new libraries have gotten some architectural praise, and since both are institutions devoted to learning, it makes some sense for UDC to look somewhat library-like. Certainly this is far better than the concrete bunker architecture of the buildings behind it.

On the other hand, this still seems a bit boring. It would be nice for the building to have a more defined top. and the current urban design thinking discourages arcades along the ground floor like this building appears to have.

What do you think?

Update: several commenters pointed out that the ground floor doesn't have an arcade, just a "structural reveal" where the ground floor has visibility into the structure.

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