Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Downtown DC

History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

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.

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.

Government


Where is the DC tech hub? It keeps moving

DC officials are trying hard to woo technology companies to DC, and one strategy to do that is to establish a place in the city with a critical mass of tech jobs. But the location officials say they are focusing on keeps moving.


Photo by Danja Vasiliev on Flickr.

Before 2002, DC offered a tax break to high tech companies, as long as they located in one of multiple "high tech development zones." Those encompassed the majority of land in the city, but excluded a lot of DC west of Rock Creek Park, some lower-density neighborhoods along the Maryland border in the north and northeast, and a few other areas.

In 2012, Mayor Gray pushed for legislation that removed these boundaries and let tech companies anywhere in the city get the tax breaks. Around the same time, Gray announced plans to turn St. Elizabeths East Campus into an Innovation Hub that would "stimulate formation of a technology cluster." The administration reached out to many universities and companies like Microsoft about establishing a significant presence there.

Then, in 2013, the administration invested $380,000 in a new coworking and incubator space, 1776, at 15th and M Street NW. Many small new businesses will definitely want to locate downtown even if and when there is a thriving tech center at St. E's, and St. Elizabeths is far from ready to be a center of tech jobs.


Left: Former "high tech development zones." Image from Google Maps with data from GeoCommons. Right: Locations of St. Elizabeths, 1776, and the Digital DC Tech Corridor. Image from Google Maps.

But last month, the Gray administration announced a new initiative, the Digital DC Tech Corridor, which runs along 7th Street and Georgia Avenue from New York Avenue downtown to Kansas Avenue in Petworth.

A new Digital DC Tech Fund offered venture funding to startups, so long as they locate in this corridor. This is the opposite of the earlier move to eliminate the requirement that tech companies locate within a "tech zone" to qualify for incentives. Georgia Avenue is also a part of the city that could benefit from new jobs and economic growth, but it seemed odd to have a fund that specifically targets one area that's totally different from the other two.

Tech startups in 1776 will not qualify for these grants. Neither will those in the Innovation Hub at St Elizabeth's, nor those at private tech startup hubs like The Hive in Anacostia or Canvas in Dupont Circle. District Cap Table pointed out how the new tech corridor misses the many existing incubator and coworking spaces:


Image from District Cap Table.

Finally, earlier this week and just before the Democratic Primary where the mayor is struggling to win renomination, he announced plans to build a $300 million hospital at St Elizabeths East Campus. This is a completely new idea that's nowhere in the 5-Year Economic Development Plan for St Elizabeths East, and doesn't seem that compatible with the walkable tech hub previous plans envision.

This isn't to say the city has to pick just one and only one spot within the entire District for tech jobs and only focus on that. There will be different kinds of tech companies that might want different sizes of office space, want to be near other companies of a certain type, and have workers who live in different parts of the city.

But all of these changesto remove a specific zone for incentives and then add one, to announce one tech hub, then create another, and change plansis creating whiplash. The city can only create and un-create so many tech hubs before tech policy looks more like a political football than a serious strategy to diversify our tax base beyond the federal government.

Transit


DC pulls back on the one bus lane it was actively planning

The snail's pace of progress on speeding up DC's busy bus routes has taken another step, but a step backward: A dedicated bus lane east and west across downtown has moved from being on the list of projects to build in the near future back to the purgatory of projects in planning.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Elected leaders and transportation officials have been talking for several years about designing dedicated bus lanes for H and I Streets past the White House, which carry some of the highest volumes of bus traffic in the region. Numerous routes all converge there to travel east and west.

In 2011, staff from then-transportation chair Tommy Wells' office, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), and WMATA were talking about how to move forward on bus lanes. Wells was really pushing the city to do more for bus riders, and WMATA had recently issued their "Priority Corridor Network" vision that recommended bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, and more to maximize the region's large investment in bus service.

There was a consensus at the time around starting with one really high-quality bus route with dedicated lanes, real enforcement to make the lanes work, signal priority, and more. This demonstration project would go in a corridor where there are enough buses to make such a project really improve travel times for a lot of bus riders. Folks at the time agreed that a good place to start was H and I.

DDOT started collaborating with WMATA on a study about how to design these lanes. It also added a bus lane project for H and I onto the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), a regional mechanism for DC, Maryland, and Virginia to assemble their lists of transportation projects and ensure they comply with federal air quality rules.

Momentum stalls, and DDOT stops being supportive

The study took a long time to get through procurement, and there were other bureaucratic obstacles that slowed things down. Still, by late 2012 WMATA was close to having options ready to go. Instead, DDOT basically pulled out of the study.

In June of 2013, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy sent a letter to WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan, which we have been able to obtain. The letter says DDOT wasn't interested in pursuing the option of two-way buses using a contraflow lane on H Street, which is what the study ended up recommending.


Potential H Street contraflow bus lane. Image from WMATA.

This year, DDOT removed the bus lanes from the CLRP, and is listing them as a study rather than a project to actually happen. Councilmember Mary Cheh asked about the project this spring in preparation for the annual oversight hearing, and DDOT's response is a classic engineer non-answer saying, in effect, that there are a lot of technical details to work out, and maybe they will work them out sometime in the future, but not now.

What's going on? Mostly, DDOT couldn't do this and the streetcar on K Street at the same time. According to Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's Associate Director in charge of planning, building the K Street dedicated lanes for the streetcar will likely require moving buses temporarily off K, rerouting traffic, and more, although DDOT has not decided the details this time. DDOT may need the flexibility to configure H and/or I in various ways during construction on K.

The agency is also concerned about operational issues, such as how driveways into parking garages and deliveries would work with the lane. As DDOT's responses to Mary Cheh show, the agency also wants to look at fixes identified by the WMATA study that don't involve a lane, such as ways to reduce bus dwell times at stops or prohibiting right turns at some intersections during rush hours.

Sources who participated in internal bus lane discussions, and insisted on remaining anonymous, also say that during the study, DDOT was going through environmental review for the K Street streetcar, and having better bus service on H and I would have reduced the apparent benefit of investing in the streetcar.

Will bus lanes take a generation?

DDOT is still keeping this project on its list of projects under design, and the moveDC long-range plan still shows bus lanes here. But it's clear that, perhaps because of staff turnover or political priorities, DDOT has gone from trying hard to build a bus lane to thinking of this as a low priority at best.

There's more momentum at the moment for a 16th Street bus lane, and maybe that can be the first example instead of H and I. But any lane will need a detailed analysis that could take a year or more, and would have to go onto the CLRP. The H and/or I Street concept had already surmounted at least these obstacles, and could have become reality more quickly.

Even if DDOT has good reasons to wait on H and I, there are always reasons to slow down or not to move forward. Over the years, there has also been plenty of off-the-record finger pointing between DDOT and WMATA about which agency is not doing what needs to be done. Ultimately, it takes courage and commitment to actually work through all of the issues, problems, and community concerns and build something, just as DDOT is now doing with several streetcar lines.

The streetcar is a good project, but there will still be many bus lines serving large numbers of riders. The streetcar will attract a lot of transit riders and drive growth in corridors like H Street, but without dedicated lanes (and in most places, there won't be), it won't be a speedy way to get from one part of the city to another. There also won't be streetcars everywhere in the city, and definitely not Metrorail lines, which are extremely expensive.

Buses move a lot of people today, and if they could spend less time in traffic, could move a lot more without more expense, or save a lot of money. (On 16th Street, for example, the delay around not having bus lanes adds $8 million a year in costs that either could go to more bus service or other city priorities.)

The reasons are clear, and many opportunities are available if and when the transportation department wants to pick up on them. It will just require leadership that's interested in actually making it happen.

Transit


North-South streetcar starts to take shape

A north-south DC streetcar will almost certainly use Georgia Avenue north of Petworth, but could take one of several different paths downtown and to Buzzard Point. DDOT has narrowed down options for this streetcar, and designed potential configurations with and without dedicated lanes.


A potential streetcar stop layout. All images from DDOT unless noted.

This week, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding its second round of public meetings on plans to build a line between Buzzard Point and either Takoma or Silver Spring.

Residents can weigh in on routes along Sherman Avenue or Georgia Avenue between Petworth and U Street, 4 possible routes downtown (14th, 11th, 9th, or 7th), 2 across the Mall (7th or 4th, and several options for navigating Southwest to Buzzard Point.

At the northern end of the line, DDOT planners are still deciding whether it should go to the Takoma Metro station via Butternut Street NW or all the way up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring, which has far more merit as a terminus.


Possible streetcar routes. Click for a larger map (PDF).

Streetcars could get their own lanes, but planners aren't enthusiastic

Street widths vary greatly throughout the corridor, and the streetcar study team has proposed a number of configurations. Some include dedicated lanes, which could provide a faster, more reliable ride but would involve removing curbside parking, which will be controversial.

Other options would place the streetcar in the center of the street, but have it share the lanes between streetcars and private vehicles. DDOT planner Jamie Henson said it would be possible to convert center lanes to dedicated lanes in the future.

Are dedicated lanes worth it for the speed advantage? Henson said that in many areas, including parts of Georgia Avenue, the traffic volumes are not heavy enough to provide a significant speed benefit from dedicated lanes. Aside from downtown, DDOT planners have deliberately excluded congested corridors that would make service unreliable and slow.

Right now, the study does not assign specific layouts to portions of the corridor, but offers alternatives based on how wide each street section is.


Cross-sections with dedicated streetcar lanes and with streetcars in the center of the street. Click to see all of the options.

DDOT is also contemplating ways to accommodate cyclists and streetcars in the same space. One alternative, Option E, includes a bike sidepath around streetcar stops.

Other cities, like Portland, have used a similar design.


A sidepath next to a streetcar stop in Portland. Photo by Matt Johnson.

14th Street and 13th Street through Columbia Heights are off the table


Boardings and alightings along 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue NW. Click for a larger version.

Henson said 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights is too congested to ensure reliable, high-capacity service, especially as the street narrows to one lane in each direction north of Irving Street. The agency also eliminated 13th Street, Henson said, because the streetcar cannot climb the steep hill beside Cardozo High School.

Furthermore, DDOT looked at adjacent land uses to consider the development potential of specific routes. Georgia Avenue is the only north-south corridor that has room for the higher-density, mixed-use development that transit investments spur.

Meanwhile, 16th and 14th streets north of Columbia Heights consist largely of single-family homes, with a few nodes of commercial and apartment buildings along 14th. Georgia Avenue, however, has a greater variety of uses and densities along its entire length.

This disparity between 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue is also evident in how people use the bus routes in each corridor. Throughout the length of Georgia Avenue, there are consistently high numbers of boardings and alightings on the 70/79 Metrobus, while on 14th and 16th Streets, they drop substantially north of Military Road.

Streetcars won't replace bus service

Some residents, particularly in Southwest, have voiced concern that the streetcar may reduce bus service in the neighborhood, which has already lost Circulator service and the 70 bus. Henson said that streetcar service is intended to supplement, not replace, bus service.

What do you think? DDOT wants to know

DDOT is hosting its second round of public meetings this week and next week, including one meeting this afternoon. All of the meetings are open to the public so they can comment on the proposals. Here are the remaining dates:

  • Wednesday, February 19
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW
  • Thursday, February 20
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Emery Rec Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW

Public Spaces


3 choices show different visions for Franklin Park

Should Franklin Park mostly stay as is and get a facelift, or more significant changes? A study by the National Park Service, DC government, and the Downtown Business Improvement District has devised three options for us to consider.


Photo from the study documents.

All of the options add a much-needed children's play area in the northeastern portion of Franklin Park. Residents of the Chinatown area have nowhere close to take their children. They also create some measure of plaza or promenade space which can give people places to eat lunch or for events.

Right now, the park is very large but doesn't provide a lot of usable spaces. The benches are all in a line along the paths, which don't create good spaces to eat lunch in groups. The fountain in the center is, as Dan Malouff put it, "nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza." The paths also force people to walk an indirect route even to get there.

The first pair of alternatives keeps the layout mostly as is, but widen a few paths to create space for farmers' markets and other events, and add bike racks and electric charging stations. At the northern edge there would be a plaza with some moveable seating. One sub-option also adds a building there which could house a cafe, restrooms, park offices, and provide information, while the other has no building.

A second option, called "The Edge," would activate the southern I Street edge with a larger plaza that could hold two small buildings, one for a cafe and restrooms and the other for park management and information.

Dan pointed out that good parks engage the city around them by putting activity along some of the edges. This option would do that. It would also move the southern path so that it leads people more directly into the center, where a fountain with a different design would better engage people than the standoffish current fountain.

The most dramatic change would come in the third option, "The Diagonal," which creates direct diagonal paths from three corners into the middle of the park. There would be plazas on the 14th Street and I Street edges, and the fountain would be much more interactive, the kind where jets of water shoot out from the ground over a large area. The document notes that this can let people enjoy the water at times, while the jets can be turned off at other times to program the center space for events.

This option has the greatest number of movable tables, with many around the fountain and others on the 14th and I edges. Both this and the Edge option give bus riders, many of whom board along I Street, more places to sit in the park while they wait as well.

Some of the options keep more of the existing trees than others. 37% of the trees are large, mature trees, while some trees are not in good shape. "The Center" concept, which changes little, would preserve about 90% of trees; "The Edge" preserves 77% and "The Diagonal" 49%.

As is often the case with such studies, there is a tradeoff between keeping the existing design and trees and building a park that serves the most people. If one were designing Franklin Square from scratch, it might be fairly clear to use The Diagonal. Is that the right call here, or should we make more modest changes for the sake of history, tree preservation, continuity, or other reasons?

Development


Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business

Walmart's foray into urban format stores officially begins today, with stores on H Street and Georgia Avenue opening for business. The H Street store marks the first time in 18 years DC has had two downtown department stores.

I stopped by the downtown store and snapped a few pictures.


H Street Walmart. Photos by the author.

The main entrance leads into a small ground floor lobby. The actual store is one floor up. I was surprised to discover that aside from the lobby, the whole store is a single level.


Walmart layout. Photo by BeyondDC.

Up on the store level, it looks like any other Walmart. Perhaps with slightly narrower aisles.


Walmart interior. Photo by BeyondDC.

Outside, smaller stores will line H Street. A Starbucks and a Capital One bank branch will be first.


Walmart front sidewalk. Photo by BeyondDC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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