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Public Spaces


Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront

The Wharf development has the potential to create an exciting pedestrian-oriented, human-scale space along DC's Southwest Waterfront. But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring.


Is all this human activity too "carnivalesque" for CFA board members? They might prefer a dead yet monumental space. Images from PN Hoffman/Madison Marquette.

On March 27, the US Commission on Fine Arts issued preliminary comments on the proposed development that were as predictable as they were disappointing. While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has "improved substantially," commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

The commission's letter to the DC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development argues that:

[T]he design continues to present unnecessary emphasis on specific moments or events within this linear urban spaceusing too many materials, too many elements, and too many unrelated formswhich may result in a carnivalesque character, and they suggested editing the vocabulary of design elements to create a calmer, more dignified effect. ...

The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuousnot interrupted by new paving patterns from incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streetsto reinforce this central organizing element within the project.

These suggestions, like others in the past from CFA, undermine opportunities to build pleasing, lively gathering places in favor of an austere architectural monument. Such input is one explanation for Washington's many underwhelming and little-used public spaces.

This fascination with "continuous" features is precisely what has created dead zones throughout the city, from the expanse of M Street SE leading to Nationals Stadium, to Massachusetts Ave. from Union Station to the Convention Centerdubbed the "mediocre mile"as well as the existing design of the Southwest Waterfront that this project aims to replace.


Diagram showing how different materials emphasize varying spaces.

Stretches of new development that are indifferent to pedestrians and provide little or no animation produce unappealing public spaces. At best, they are devoid of activity until a special event is superimposed; at worst they become havens for crime for lack of "eyes on the street." The best new development needs the very design features that the commission's members dismiss.

As the councilmember for Ward 6, home to the Southwest Waterfront, I challenged Monte Hoffman, president of the site's major development company, to:

  • Design buildings with variation and architectural interest at the ground levelthe opposite of suburban buildings that are appreciated from the window of a car;
  • Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms;
  • And most importantly, reject the failed architecture around Nationals Stadium that has created cavernous, blank, uniform design for blocks on end.


Top: Oslo, Norway. Bottom: Pike Place, Seattle, Washington.

Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable "neighborhoods" by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area.

This delineation and animation recognizes the failure of the soulless, uniform development across the countrythe "Applebee's effect." Yet commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures "both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project."

It's time to end the drumbeat of new developments in the nation's capital, from the convention center to TechWorld, that provide the type of architectural simplicity the commission favors but establish mammoth dead zones which inhibit activity and entertainment and ultimately compromise safety.

We must resist federal reviewers' impulse to stamp out street-level interest and animation, especially when projects like the Southwest Waterfront development offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

Update: The original version of this post said that many CFA members do not live in DC, but it is even more descriptive to point out that they don't live in the Washington region at all. We have changed this to better reflect Wells' original intent. Intro paragraphs are often significantly reworked in the editing process for clarity, length, and to get main points up top, including in this case, so any blame for this phrase should go to the editors and not Wells.

Public Spaces


NoMa BID gets green cash for green space

DC will spend some green to get some green in NoMa. Mayor Gray recently authorized $50 million for new parks in the fast-growing neighborhood.


Photo by Cristina Bejarano on Flickr.

Mayor Vincent Gray recently signed a measure to let the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) spend $50 million in parks and public realm funds for the neighborhood.

The first of the parks is planned for the underpasses under the tracks approaching Union Station, on Florida Avenue and K, L, and M Streets NE. The NoMa Parks Foundation is evaluating at least four more sites for future green space in the area.

Green space is sorely needed in NoMa. Aside from the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT), the only available park lands are privately-owned lots that are sometimes available for popular neighborhood events.

For example, the NoMa Summer Screen outdoor movie screenings attracted up to 1,200 people per viewing in 2013. However, the screenings happen on an undeveloped lot on 2nd Street between K and L NE. Toll Brothers City Living owns the lot, and plans a mixed-use development there in the future.

Since there's no public land available for parks in the neighborhood, Mayor Gray's budget includes $25 million to buy land, and another $25 million for physical park construction.

Many blame zoning for the lack of parks, as the city failed to buy property for future green space in NoMa before it upzoned the territory. This significantly raised property values, making a park far more expensive.

But the lack of parks hasn't detracted new residents or businesses. More than 3,000 people live in NoMa, with 714 additional residential units scheduled to open in the 2M and Elevation developments this summer, according to Doug Firstenberg, chair of the NoMa BID Board of Directors.

"NoMa as a residential neighborhood continues to grow," Firstenberg said at the neighborhood meeting. "It's really delivering on our goals to become a mixed-use neighborhood."

On the commercial front, NPR moved into a new headquarters building on North Capitol Street last year, and Google is scheduled to move into new offices at 25 Massachusetts Ave NW later this month.

NoMa BID data shows that 49% of planned square footage is undeveloped property. This includes about 6,247 residential units, roughly 548,349 square feet of retail space, and 9.32 million square feet of commercial space.

"It's absolutely phenomenal what is happening right now in the District of Columbia," said Gray, who said that NoMa is the largest part of the city's overall growth. "We're adding 1,100 to 1,200 people a month here in the city."

Other progress in NoMa

First Street NE is on schedule to reopen with a new separated bike lane in May, says NoMa BID President Robin Eve-Jasper. The opening will conclude a year of construction work that turned arguably the neighborhood's main street into a maze of potholes and construction barriers. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has repaved the street, begun striping, and is adding the bike lane. A block party is planned for the street's reopening next month.

However, major road construction in NoMa is far from over. DDOT is evaluating options for a significant redesign of Florida Ave through NoMa's northern section, to make it a more pedestrian and bike-friendly thoroughfare. No timeline for the project has been set.

NoMa BID also unveiled a free outdoor wi-fi system on select blocks earlier this month. The system can handle up to 1,000 users at a time and will continue to be expanded and improved, according to Eve-Jasper.

Demographics


By 2040, DC's population could be close to 900,000

The latest future population projections forecast that by 2040 the District of Columbia will have a population of 883,600. That would far eclipse the historic high of 802,178, from the 1950 census.


Projected population increase from 2010 to 2040, in thousands. Image by COG.

Despite that growth, DC would still rank as only the 4th most populous jurisdiction in the region, behind Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. But the next 26 years could narrow that gap considerably. Demographers project that only Fairfax will add more people than DC. Prince George's will add fewer than half as many.

The forecasts come from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which is sort of a United Nations for local governments in the DC region.

COG's forecast report has a treasure trove of fascinating demographic info, not only about population, but also jobs and households. For example, by 2040 COG's demographers expect DC to have over 1 million jobs.

Of course, these are only projections. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. COG's forecasts often fail to predict the biggest peaks during booms and lowest dips during busts. But all in all they've historically been reasonably accurate.

So get ready for more neighbors.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Zoning


DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

History


How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.


A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.


Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.


Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.


John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

Events


Events roundup: From Silver Spring to Shaw to Sweden

Talk about transit, walkability, and sustainability in Montgomery County, Shaw, and even Sweden at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by Evil Sivan on Flickr.

Rapid transit happy hour: If you like chatting about transit while enjoying a post-work beverage, join Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth at a Montgomery County transit happy hour on Tuesday, April 15.

Learn about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plans and talk with other transit enthusiasts at the Metro- and MARC-accessible Communities for Transit office, 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 500, in Silver Spring. RSVP here.

After the jump: Walking tours of Shaw and East Falls Church, budgets in Arlington, and zoning in Montgomery County.

Smart growth and sustainability in Sweden: Interested in how other cities handle neighborhood and district planning? Walker Wells, a green urbanism program director at Global Green, will discuss sustainable planning practices in three Swedish cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo. The presentation is at the National Building Museum (401 F Street NW) on Tuesday, April 15, 12:30-1:30 pm. RSVP here.

Tour Shaw and East Falls Church: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tours resume with two great ones this month. On Saturday, April 26 from 10 am-noon, see how new development is bringing a renaissance to the historic Shaw neighborhood in DC. And on Saturday, look at ways the area around East Falls Church Metro could become more walkable and bikeable. Space is limited so RSVP today!

Arlington Capital Improvement Plan forum: Arlington is preparing its 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan and needs your input! From streetcar funding to pedestrian projects to street paving, provide your opinions at a public forum on Wednesday, April 16 from 6-8:30 pm in the County Board Room, 2100 Clarendon Blvd at Courthouse Plaza.

Montgomery zoning update open house: Montgomery County planners have been hard at work rewriting the county's zoning code to update antiquated laws and remove redundant regulations. The Planning Department is hosting a series of six open houses beginning next Tuesday, April 22. Planning staff will be in attendance to answer questions. The full open house schedule is below:

  • April 22: Rockville Memorial Library (6-8 pm)
  • April 24: Wheaton Regional Library (6-8 pm)
  • April 29: Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring (5-8 pm)
  • May 1: Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville (6-8 pm)
  • May 5: UpCounty Regional Services Center, Germantown (6-8 pm)
  • May 6: B-CC Regional Services Center, Bethesda (6-8 pm)
Do you have an event we should include in next week's roundup and/or the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send it to events@ggwash.org.

Bicycling


Curb-protected cycletracks are now appearing in DC

Two new cycletracks will open in DC this spring, on M Street NW and 1st Street NE. Their designs are a step up from previous DC cycletracks, since they each include spotsthough on M, a very brief spotwhere a full concrete curb separates bikes from cars.


The 1st Street NE cycletrack (left), and the Rhode Island Avenue portion of the M Street NW cycletrack (right).

The 1st Street NE cycletrack connects the Metropolitan Branch Trail to Union Station and downtown DC. DDOT installed its curb last week, from K Street to M Street. Crews are still working on striping and signals, but the project is close to opening.

The M Street cycletrack is longer than 1st Street's overall, but the portion with a curb is shorter. It's less than one block, where the cycletrack briefly curves onto Rhode Island Avenue in order to approach Connecticut Avenue more safely. Officials say the M Street cycletrack is a week or two from opening.

Typically DDOT uses plastic bollards instead of curbs. The bollards are less expensive, easier to install, and can be removed occasionally to perform street maintenance. But they're less attractive and less significant as a physical barrier, compared to a curb.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


In November, "concern" won’t cut it for Bowser

Muriel Bowser has won the Democratic nomination for DC mayor. Do you know what she stands for?


Photo by weeviraporn on Flickr.

Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the DC Council, has won what's typically the District's highest-profile race while generally minimizing the amount of discussion on her vision for the city. Sure, she supports better education, jobs, lower crime, affordable housing and a functional government. But every other candidate in the primary backed those things, too.

Bowser was quite adept at citing facts and figures but also showed a real talent for framing issues in a way that sounded good to everyone. She generally praised many ideas in the abstract but remained noncommittal as they became concrete.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Parking


Top 6 reasons a parking garage near 14th and U is a bad idea

Some are pushing for a municipal parking garage on S Street, NW near 14th Street. To break even, such a garage would need to charge $3.51 to $4.33 per hour. What if it didn't have to break even? Should taxpayers subsidize a parking garage here?


Photo by Michael Kappel on Flickr.

Many cities do subsidize parking, often heavily. They often believe, rightly or wrongly, that unless public money contributes to making it easy for people in cars to drive and park in the area cheaply, then businesses won't thrive.

But a publicly-subsdized parking facility is not the answer for the 14th and U corridors. Here are the top 6 reasons this is not the right solution to Logan Circle's and U Street parking.

1. The area is doing great without it.

A presentation touting the garage proposal says that "Cultural and retail uses have led to the vibrant, walkable neighborhood we enjoy. However they also rely on a significant number of visitors to succeed." Does this argument really hold water for the Logan Circle and U Street area?

In his column supporting the concept, Roger Lewis writes that "the neighborhood around 14th and P hums with activity around the clock." In fact, restaurants on 14th Street are mostly full night after night, and the most popular ones have an hours-long wait or a weeks-long line for reservations.

It certainly seems like there is no shortage of people going to the businesses on the 14th and U Street corridors. That's not to say that some people couldn't benefit from adding even more subsidized parking beyond the existing free spaces on residential streets, but it probably wouldn't affect businesses' health or tax revenue for the neighborhood.

Some, like people with disabilities, have a particular claim to need help getting to an area, which is why DC has rightly proposed dedicating some meters for disability parking. For a lot of other folks, it seems this would just be a subsidy to make it cheaper to get to an area that doesn't really need it, and which they can still drive to, for a cost.

2. It won't solve residential parking frustration.

As we discussed in the last part, people will often bypass a pay garage to park on the street when street parking is free. Today, people can park for free on one side of every residential street near 14th and U during evenings and weekends.

So long as that is true, people are going to circle for neighborhood parking. Besides, for almost all destinations along 14th and U, nearby residential blocks are much closer than this garage would be. The bottom line is that adding supply is not going to make local streets clear and easy to park on. The moment they are easy to park on, people will park on them for free!

3. It might not even fill up.

In Columbia Heights, the large DC USA garage continues to go largely empty, even though it costs just $1.50 an hour. Parking remains scarce on many nearby blocks, for exactly the reason above: the street parking is far easier to find and more convenient.

DC would run a serious risk of building an expensive garage and then finding it largely unused.

4. It will have significant downsides to the neighborhood.

A garage would draw a lot more traffic to the area. That traffic would be particularly bad on S Street, but also bad in the rest of the neighborhood. If people didn't park on neighborhood streets, then a lot of traffic from people circling would go away, but there's every reason to believe that this garage wouldn't stop on-street parking.

5. There are much better ways to deal with parking.

It would be technically simple to require that anyone from outside the neighborhood parking here use the pay-by-phone system (or an alternative for those who can't use it) to pay a rate for parking that equalizes supply and demand.

Plus, on-street parking has another advantage: you can park a block or two from your destination, instead of always having to park at 13th and S.

Lewis mentions a shuttle from the parking garage, but there already is a Circulator from the Metro at McPherson Square and from the corner of 14th and U, a block from the U Street station. For those who can't walk from the Metro, the garage might be a little closer, but it would save only at most 2 blocks.

Karina Ricks, of Nelson\Nygaard, said that another approach some cities like Asheville have taken is to set up shared valet parking systems. People can drop their cars off at one or more fixed locations, and valets will park the cars. This would save restaurants from all having to staff their own valets.

Where would the cars go? Perhaps to some of the buildings that have garages but only open them up during the day. The valet provider could reach a deal with these buildings to use the garage at night. And if only valets are parking there, it wouldn't be necessary to staff each garage.

6. There are better uses of land here.

Any proposal to have the city provide cheap land always needs to be weighed against what else could go on the land. Housing would actively bring in tax revenue, as opposed to a parking garage which would burn through money. With public land, the District's policy has been to seek affordable housing, which could help more people of lower incomes live in this booming area.

Plus, existing residents probably would much rather live near residences than a large parking garage. Even if the garage were underground, it would generate a lot of traffic and diminish the value of whatever could go on top, or cut down on the amount of affordable housing that DC could get in a bidding process for the land.

But if someone wants to pay for some land, build a garage which isn't an eyesore or a source of unnecessary noise, or build some parking underneath a new building to sell to the public, that could be okay. But this isn't happening, which is why some nearby businesses are hoping the government will subsidize parking. That's not a good investment.

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