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Architecture


This federal building is missing a corner. Here's why

The Department of Agriculture South Building an archetypal federal building: big, beige, and boxy. But it's missing a corner. Why? The L'Enfant Plan and a street that no longer exists.


The South Building, with the Jamie L. Whitten Building to the north. Image from Google Maps.

The South Building's fašade stands about 30 feet back from Independence Avenue. The south entrance to the Smithsonian metro stop fits so cozily into the corner, it almost looks as if the notch was built just for it. Of course, that doesn't square with the history.

This building was an exercise in making efficient use of the land. Unlike Federal Triangle, or Southwest's modernist buildings, its walls run right up to the property line. With long, thin wings connected at the perimeter, the South Building was as efficient as an office building could be before air conditioning.

When completed in 1936, it was the largest office building in the world. Only the Pentagon would unseat it. On Independence Avenue, its facade runs for 900 feet of beige brick and green-painted steel.

The architect, Louis Simon, wouldn't have built the setback if he didn't have to. Looking at a satellite photo provides no clues. But, if you look at an older satellite photo, the reason becomes obvious.


The South Building in and its context in 2012. The missing corner is on the left side of the image.


The South Building in and its context in 1941.

Pierre L'Enfant's Virginia Avenue slightly clips the block. You can't see it now, because urban renewal replaced that section of Virginia Avenue with bas-relief urbanism and highway ramps. Ironically, the sightline the architects so carefully avoided was erased thirty years later.

And this brings up the last reason it's so mysterious: the architects went out of their way to hide the difference between the corners. Rather than clipping it diagonally along the property line, Simon's team designed an orthogonal setback that seemed like it was the natural place for the wall.

With two pedestrian bridges and a long walk in between each corner, it's really hard to notice the difference. I wouldn't have noticed it had it not come up in the dispute over the Eisenhower Memorial's setbacks.

For now, it's another one of DC's carefully hidden quirks, like the off-axis position of the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial sitting slightly to the south where Maryland Avenue would be. As Southwest is rebuilt, and Virginia Avenue returns, the purpose of the notch will become more clear.

Transit


More households near transit mean more transit riders

Pop quiz! Can you name the 5 Metro stations that have the highest number of households within a half-mile walk?

Here's a hint: More riders walk to those 5 stations each morning than to just about any others in the system.

It's not a coincidence. According to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, "the more people can walk to transit, the more people do walk to transitand data across Metrorail stations prove it."

But there's at least one surprise: 3 of the 5 stations with the most households in a half-mile walkshed are in Maryland or Virginia, not the District.


Households and walk ridership per Metro station. Image by WMATA.

Columbia Heights has by far the most households within walking distance. That makes sense. It's one of DC's densest neighborhoods, and the Metro station is right near its center.

But the second most household-rich Metro station is Arlington's Court House. Rounding out the top 5 are Ballston, Silver Spring, and Dupont Circle.

All 5 of the most household-rich stations are also among the top 10 stations with the most riders who walk to the station each morning. The rest of the top 10 walking stations are Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Bethesda.

More riders may be walking to jobs from the downtown stations, or from Rosslyn, but those are the destinations, where riders in the morning are getting off. The origin stations are the more residential ones.

All in all, Metro's stations fit neatly along a trendline that shows a strong correlation between more households nearby and more riders arriving to stations by foot.

Even the outliers tell a story. U Street and Mount Vernon Square have the 6th and 7th highest number of households nearby, but they underperform on walking Metro ridership. One might speculate that Mount Vernon Square is so close to so many offices that more people simply walk. U Street is a little farther away, but it's still close enough to downtown that buses and bicycles may be better options for a large portion of riders.

What else pops out as interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


DDOT's 5-point plan to improve 16th Street buses

DDOT isn't yet willing to install a bus lane on 16th Street, but the agency is moving forward on a host of other improvements, and will study a bus lane next year.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The 16th Street bus line is bursting at the seams. It carries more than half of rush hour trips on 16th Street. But the buses are slow, and they're so full that riders in the city's close-in neighborhoods often can't board.

Advocates have been pressuring for bus improvements on 16th Street since 2010. ANC Commissioner (and District Council candidate) Kishan Putta has championed the cause. Now, DDOT has adopted a 5-point plan to fix 16th Street.

Here are the 5 points:

Already complete: Signal optimization pilot program: In July 2014, DDOT retimed 44 of the traffic signals along 16th Street to improve their efficiency. After a few weeks of results, it appears to have sped up traffic (including buses). DDOT will continue to evaluate the results the rest of this summer.

August 2014: More articulated buses: Metro will reshuffle its bus fleet, to provide more long "accordion" buses on 16th Street. WMATA will move the articulated buses currently running on the Y series in Maryland to the 70 line in DC, then move the articulated buses currently on the 70 line to 16th Street. The Y series will have shorter buses, but they'll come more often.

Fall 2014: Longer rush hour operations: DDOT is considering extending the hours of rush hour parking restrictions on 16th Street, to keep more travel lanes open up to an hour longer in each direction. That will keep two lanes open to moving traffic, including buses.

Mid 2015: Transit signal priority & full optimization: By mid 2015, DDOT will expand its signal optimization pilot program to the entire corridor, and install new software that instructs traffic signals to hold a green light a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass through an intersection. That will speed up buses along the route, so they're less likely to have to stop at red lights.

2015-2016: Bus lane study: Beginning in 2015, DDOT will begin a comprehensive study of transit improvements along 16th Street, including the potential for bus lanes and other long-term construction projects. The study will take about a year to complete, meaning 2016 is the earliest DDOT could install bus lanes.

None of these 5 points are new. DDOT has been working on them all for some time. But it's good to have them listed all in one place.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Put affordable housing for seniors in the new MLK Library

The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.


Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.

One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens' ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the timeafforded by their retirementto the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to "celebrate MLK's renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC's contemporary culture and changing needs." Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District's assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city's unique real estate assetslike new floors atop the MLK Librarywe can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let's make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.

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