The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Parks

Public Spaces


The latest design for the new Third Street park in NoMa emphasizes kids and dogs

There's a park going in at 3rd and L Streets NE, in NoMa, and after nearby residents chimed in about what they did and didn't like about the first three designs, the architects put forward new plans. Out is dead space and a moat with a bridge, and in is more space for dogs and kids, and some variable topography.


The latest design for the Third Street park. Photo by NoMa Parks Foundation.

Landscape architect Lee and Associates' design includes a large space for dogs that is pushed up against the existing walls that abut the planned park and shifts space for children and adults, including a jungle gym-like wall-holla structure, to the area facing the streets.


An elevation from the latest design of the Third Street park looking south from L Street, with the wall-holla at the center of the park. Photo by NoMa Parks Foundation.

Stacie West, the director of parks projects at the NoMa Parks Foundation, says the updated design uses a lot of elements from the previous "The Wall—West" design and takes the mounds from the "The Mound" design.

The plan also adds a double gate for the dog park space and a water fountain for humans.

Specific lighting, plant and tree, and material selections will be made as the Third Street park moves through the design phase, says West.

The updated design was presented at a community meeting on June 11, with attendees saying that there was mostly praise for the plan.

Residents of NoMa have expressed desire for dedicated space for both dogs and children, something the neighborhood currently lacks. There have been questions about whether the Third Street park should be split between these two uses, however, the general consensus is that this is the best solution for the small, shady site.

"I'm going to be completely honest, this is a somewhat dark, small site," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), in May. "It's a great site for a greatly designed small dog park."

"We need to think of this as a little jewel that's convenient for people in this area," she said.

NoMa hopes to begin construction of the Third Street park in 2017 and open it before the end of that year.

You can weigh in on the proposed design here.

History


One of Silver Spring's earliest schools had a merry-go-round, boat rides, and a carnival

Once houses had gone up in postwar suburbs, communities needed stores, schools, and other services. Sometimes builders provided these, but other times it was up to the public sector or entrepreneurs. That's how Silver Spring's Alexander School came to be.


The Alexander School, c. 1955. The Ferris wheel, bought used from a Pennsylvania carnival, is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Kaye Kendall Giuliani.

Meeting suburbia's need for childcare and schools

In Silver Spring's Four Corners community at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, suburbanization began in the 1920s and accelerated through the 1930s and into the war years. By 1942 enough families had bought homes that Montgomery County met the demand for new schools by building Four Corners Elementary School. Plans to build 238 temporary houses for wartime workers exacerbated the need for more educational infrastructure.

For younger children and to provide daycare during the summer, Hilda Hatton bought a six-acre former farm, one of the area's last remaining large agricultural parcels, and founded the Benjamin Acres School. Named for the colonial land patent out of which the property was carved, the Benjamin Acres School opened in the summer of 1943 as a day camp and nursery school for children ages four to 14.

Hatton operated the school until 1947 when she relocated to Annapolis and reopened it as a boarding school. She sold the property, which by that time included a two-story residence that had been converted into a school building and a swimming pool, to Ernest L. Kendall. Kendall (1906-1990) was an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.


Ernest L. Kendall teaches a history class at the Capitol Page School. Library of Congress photo.

Ernest Kendall goes to Washington

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931. He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After school he began working in public education and by 1930 he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford. Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at the George Washington University.

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic. The legislator suggested Kendall join the Capitol police force or that he start a school for pages. Kendall chose the latter. The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, a dank space in the Capitol basement, where Kendall developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia. Kendall received a contract to continue as the school's principal through June 1947. At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed. Four months later, he bought Hatton's Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the "Alexander School"—to get a top listing in telephone directories—and set about navigating Montgomery County's tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school's facilities.

"He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school. So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place," recalled Kendall's son Fred, who began his career as a camp counselor and who later became the Alexander School's principal. "It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there. Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things." Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building. "He added a merry-go-round. He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version. And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature," explained Fred Kendall.


Former Alexander School/North Four Corners Park Location. Base map from Google Maos, inset from Sanborn Fire Insurance.

Suburban amusement park, or school?

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts. The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems. During the school year children performed in elaborate productions and in summers it was filled with cots for naptime.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility. Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts. Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday. And, Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

"The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents," explained Fred Kendall. "His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work. And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare." A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school. Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather: "If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus."


Newly renovated North Four Corners Park and former Alexander School site. Photo by the author.

Ernest Kendall sold the school in 1983 to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. Twelve years later it was again sold, this time to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as expansion space for the neighboring Four Corners Local Park. The expansion plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency's plans. During that time the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015. The new space represents not only an improved Montgomery County amenity—increased parklands—but it also marks a new era of suburban recreation in the space first begun nearly a century ago.

Public Spaces


Check out these ideas for the new Third Street park in NoMa

A new park is set to go up in NoMa, at 3rd and L Streets NE, and the NoMa Parks Foundation recently unveiled three potential designs. Each has a dog park and an area for small children, including a unique jungle gym-like structure to increase play space in the small park.


The jungle gym-like "wall-holla" proposed for the Third Street park. Image by Carve.

The park will be the first in a planned system of parks in the near northeast neighborhood. Hoping to maximize space in the nearly 8,000-square foot plot, each plan by landscape architecture firm Lee and Associates splits the land about evenly between dogs and humans, with the jungle gym structure—called a "wall-holla"adding play space for children on a vertical plane.

"You have microunits, this is a micropark," says Jeff Lee, founding principal of Lee and Associates, at a meeting on the designs earlier in May.


The three plans by Lee and Associates for the Third Street park. All images by NoMa Parks Foundation and Lee and Associates unless otherwise noted.

The first two designs dubbed "The Wall-North" and "The Wall-West" place the space for dogs up against the wall of the Loree Grande on the southern edge of park with the outer areas of the park reserved for children and neighborhood residents. This layout dedicates the sunniest areas of the park to children and residents.


The Wall-North design.

"Incorporating the wall-holla is so important in options one and two," said Tony Goodman, the ANC commissioner for 6C06 that includes NoMa, at the meeting. The structures, which he has looked at elsewhere, have capacity for a lot of children and will maximize use of the space.

"They're very cool," said Goodman, adding that the first one in the DC area is being installed in Gaithersburg.


The Wall-West design.

One aspect of the The Wall-West that jumps out are the many curving benches that allows users to face each other. This would cater to NoMa's deaf residents and students at nearby Gallaudet University, which includes seating arrangements that enable visual communication in its DeafSpace design standards.


The Mounds design.

The third design, "The Mounds," does not include a dedicated children area but adds a knoll and bridge for dogs.

Responding to resident input

The designs for the Third Street park are a result of strong resident desires for a dog park and space for children in the neighborhood. NoMa currently lacks both.

There were a lot of questions about the designs at the meeting, as residents like some aspects and not others. For example, a number of people did not like the lack of separation between space for children and others in The Mounds.

The lack of separation in the design is about seeing how the elements of The Mounds would fit into the overall scheme for the park rather than a final proposal, says Lee.

The final design for the Third Street park is likely to include various elements from the three proposals, he says. Lee and Associates can combine aspects residents like and remove ones they do not as it moves through the design process.

Despite support for a dog park in the neighborhood, some residents asked whether NoMa should hold off on designs for the space until the uses for the planned NoMa Green off the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) are determined.

"I'm going to be completely honest, this is a somewhat dark, small site," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of NoMa BID. "It's a great site for a greatly designed small dog park."

She continued: "We don't need to wait on designing this. We need to think of this as a little jewel that's convenient for people in this area."

NoMa plans to hire a designer for the NoMa Green and a small plot at the corner of the MBT and R Street NE donated by developer Foulger-Pratt within the next few months, says Jasper.

In addition, there is a small dog park owned by The Gale Eckington but open to all residents across Harry Thomas Way from the planned green site.

Lee and his team will refine their designs next, likely focusing on the two wall designs based on the resident comments at the meeting. The neighborhood will hold another community meeting once this process is complete.

Construction of the Third Street park is expected to take about three months with a target opening date in 2017.

Bicycling


Out: The Metropolitan Branch Trail's sharp curve at R Street. In: A straighter, smoother ride.

Today, people using the Metropolitan Branch Trail have to make two sharp turns at R Street NE to stay on the trail. The NoMa Business Improvement District has plans to "soften" the route by making it straighter and to add a small park alongside it.


A conceptual drawing of the softened curve on the MBT and the new small park at R Street NE. Image from NoMa BID.

After the NoMa BID studied how to make the MBT safer, it called this corner of the trail "the single most cited area of concern on the trail for personal safety, rider comfort, and placemaking."

In addition to softening the curve at R Street, the BID also plans to build a long-planned Q Street connection to the trail as part of its new large park, temporarily dubbed the NoMa Green. The connection will shorten the walk to the MBT, the Metro and shops in NoMa for nearby residents.

"It's going to be a single whole in the end," says Robin-Eve Jasper, president of NoMa BID, on the new plot and the NoMa Green.

"We really need to get the designer for the NoMa Green on board and then we can ask, 'optimally what does this all look like?'" she says of the two spaces, which will be designed together.

Other improvements may be made to MBT as part of the green. NoMa has received proposals from designers that include raising the trail where it passes the green to increase separation and widening it to reduce bike-pedestrian conflicts, says Jasper.


The NoMa Green site, and the Q Street connection. Image from NoMa BID.

MBT users should not expect immediate changes. While NoMa is working to hire a designer now, both the new plot and green will need to go through a design and public comment phase before construction can begin. At best, that will be at the end of 2017.

A developer donated the land

Developer Foulger-Pratt made softening the curve on the MBT possible. The company is giving the 23,000 square foot plot to NoMa while reserving the right to build a parking garage underneath it as part of a coming development.

While the garage could delay construction to at least 2018 and require a temporary rerouting of the MBT, it is better than the alternative, which would be no change at all.

NoMa has used all of the funds it budgeted for land acquisitions, says Jasper. It has spent $17.2 million of the $50 million it has for parks from the District government to acquire land for the green and a new Third Street park at L Street NE.

The remaining money will go toward designing and building NoMa's system of parks. These includebrightening four underpasses under the throat tracks to Union Station and a mid-block "meander" between North Capital Street and First Street NE, in addition to the other spaces mentioned.

"The likely scenario is we end up with a temporary condition that is somewhat suboptimal on the northern piece for six months to a year," says Jasper on the impact to the MBT if Foulger-Pratt goes forward with an underground garage.

The developer would pay for a temporary rerouting of the trail, she adds.

Pedestrians


This Annandale park is getting a new foot bridge, after all

In late March, a foot bridge in Annandale disappeared altogether because Fairfax County officials said they couldn't afford to fix or replace it. On Wednesday, however, the county said it will build a new one.


This bridge is gone, but a new one will replace it soon. Photo by Rick Carlstrom.

On March 23, the county removed the bridge, which crosses a tiny stream in Annandale's Broyhill Crest Park, after determining it was in danger of collapsing. At that time, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross told residents that, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority, a replacement bridge would cost $80,000 and there was no money in the budget for a new one.

But in an April 20 email to the Broyhill Crest community, Gross said she and Frank Vajda, the Mason representative on the Park Authority Board, continued to work with Park Authority staff on finding a way to replace the bridge. "Leaving the community bereft of a pedestrian crossing for a long period of time was unacceptable," she said.

"I am happy to report that the Park Authority came through, funding has been identified, and the order for a new fiberglass bridge has been placed," she continued.

A prefabricated bridge should arrive in about four weeks, and the project should be finished in about six.


The trail between Murray Lane and Lockwood Lane where a new pedestrian bridge will be installed. Photo by the author.

"In the meantime," Gross said, "Park Authority maintenance staff will be working at the site to stabilize the stream banks and prepare for installation of bridge foundations prior to the placement of the new bridge."

Gross estimated using park maintenance staff instead of contractors for some of the work will save about $20,000. She can't say what the final cost will be because "we don't know what problems they might run into." The county will still have to hire contractors to install the piers and do some of the stream restoration work, she said.

Local residents who had spoken up about the unsafe bridge for years and urged the county to fix it had been disappointed that the county would simply remove it without any plans for replacing it.

Crossposted from Annandale VA. Also, this post was updated to reflect Penny Gross' comments on costs and savings.

Public Spaces


Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

Georgetown Day School recently downsized its plans for a mixed-use project in Tenleytown. Aside from cutting 50 units of housing, the developers also canceled plans for a pocket park. We called that a loss, but some skeptics said it wasn't a big deal because the park would have been very small. But when it comes to parks, quality is way more important than size. These 10 "teacup parks" show that.


Paley Park in Manhattan. Photo by Mike Boucher on Flickr.

In its original proposal, GDS offered to close a slip lane between Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street and create a pocket park of roughly 7400 square feet. The school offered a few designs, including a splash pad, a skatepark, and a demonstration garden. With the reduction in size, GDS will still close the slip lane for safety reasons, but it will just be another grass triangle.

Opponents of the GDS deal claimed that this small park was just too small, unlike what's typical in Ward 3. Fort Reno, for example, is 33 acres, or 1.5 million square feet.

But little parks can be everything for building engaging streets, something Tenleytown does not have. Here are 10 great park and plazas less than 15,000 square feet that make their neighborhoods a lot better.

Here are 10 great park and plazas that take up less than 15,000 square feet yet still make their neighborhoods a lot better.

1. Paley Park, New York City


Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

If you ask a planner for an example of a pocket park, they'll probably bring up Paley Park. At 4200 square feet, it's smaller than the Ellicott Park would have been. But a water feature, movable seating, and a few delicate trees create a beloved retreat in one of the busiest, loudest parts of Manhattan.

2. Bethesda Row Fountain


Just a slightly thicker street corner. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Because of the lively nearby streets, this tiny triangle of land in Bethesda has been swamped since it opened in 2000, despite being a mere 1500 square feet.

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza


The plaza hosts frequent events. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Designed by ZGF architects, buildings frame this 12,000 square foot plaza, which is just as lively hosting public events or a farmers market as it is demonstrations or a children's splash park.

The design screens the play area from traffic with adult benches. Photo by Bill McNeal on Flickr.

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles


Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

Residents turned a leftover sliver of concrete in Silver Lake into this 2000 square foot parklet, where desert plants shield seating from traffic.

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park


Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

A small neighborhood park, this fits play structures and a field into less than 8,000 square feet. It's hardly the National Mall, but it's still incredibly useful and convenient for its neighborhood.

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York


Fowler Square's temporary configuration. Image Courtesy NYC DOT.

New York's Department of Transportation connected a little island by transferring a single block from cars to pedestrians to create an 8,400 square foot plaza. Although drivers originally opposed it, it has become the highest-rated of New York's plazas and enough of a neighborhood amenity to make the change permanent.

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia


Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

One corner of a neighborhood park, this skate park's small, 6,000 square foot size works well for inexperienced, younger skateboarders.

8. Fox and Laurel Park and Community Garden, Los Angeles


Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

In a space just twice the Ellicot Park lot (15,000), surrounded by a storage facility, the city fit two playgrounds, native plantings, and a community garden.

9. This private park at Brown University


Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

This quiet space between academic buildings and houses takes up 5,500 square feet, but manages to pack in a secluded urban room.

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)


Is this what they call Tactical Urbanism? Image from Google Streetview.

Some residents took a play set out to one of DC's many leftover grass triangles. It's not pretty, and probably not legal, but it's a lot more use than most of them get.

Small can still be great

Whether or not Ellicott Street gets a park, there many neighborhoods in DC that would benefit from a few pocket parks. Meanwhile, Tenleytown is trying to revamp its public spaces through the Main Street program. These examples show that it's foolish to get hung up on the size of a discrete strip of land. With busy nearby streets and good design, you can squeeze a lot of life into a modest space.

Of course, this is just what I could come up with from memory and asking a few people. There are tons of great public spaces of this size. Can you think of any that caught your eye?

Public Spaces


Would it be the end of the world if fewer cars could pass through Rock Creek Park? We'll find out soon.

Work to reconstruct a nearly 6.5 mile stretch of Beach Drive, from Rock Creek Parkway to the Maryland line, will start soon. That will mean closing a section of the road that the National Park Service, environmentalists, and cyclists have long wanted to close but that motorists and some neighbors have fought to keep open.


Cyclists enjoy Beach Drive without automobile traffic. Photo by Oblivious Dude on Flickr.

The work, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will oversee, will happen in five phases, with a section of Beach Drive closing for between four and eight months during each phase. The fourth phase will involve the section of Beach that runs from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road, which officials have considered closing in the past but have not due to strong opposition.

The closures could be a chance for traffic engineers and Park staff to study the impacts of closing parts of Beach Drive to cars.

There was a movement to close Beach Drive in the 60s and 70s

Rock Creek Park has a long history of turning its roads over to cyclists and pedestrians. The first time Beach was limited to bike and pedestrian traffic was in 1966, on the section from Joyce Road to Broad Branch on Sunday mornings only. Over the following years, additional sections of roads eventually closed, and for more of the weekend. There was even an experiment with closing a lane of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north of Virginia Avenue for a week.

Efforts to encourage recreation in Rock Creek Park, and to make it more of a park and less of a commuter route, continued through the 1970s. Pointing to how both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City had seen success with limiting car traffic, NPS announced in 1983 that it would gradually close the section of Beach from Joyce to Broad Branch.

At first, one lane would be reserved for cyclists and joggers during weekday rush hours, and the lane pointed in the direction of the rush hour commute would stay open to cars. Later, once the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness, the Park Service planned to place a gate near Boulder Bridge and permanently close the section of Beach from there to Joyce.

Political pressure has pushed against efforts for long-term closures

Three months later, however, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the DC Department of Public Works and Transportation, the Park Service backed off from that plan and decided to keep Beach open. Instead they promised to build a 2.5 mile trail on that section of Beach Drive. Later, due to the constrained geography of the area and the objection of the National Parks and Conservation Association, the plans for the trail fell through altogether.

In 1988, a FHWA report concluded that Beach Drive was getting more traffic than it could handle. Since expanding the road wasn't an option, FHWA recommended adding tolls, instituting HOV requirements, or permanently closing all or part of Beach Drive.

The report, along with the limited impact of a 10-week closure of the Zoo Tunnel in 1990, emboldened both activists and the Park Service to again look at further limiting automobile traffic in the park.

The process of writing Rock Creek Park's General Management Plan (GMP), which lasted from 1996 to 2006, turned into a showdown between the People's Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC), a coalition of environmental and cycling advocacy organizations in support of closing Beach Drive, and a less-organized coalition of Maryland commuters, Park neighbors, and motorist organizations, like AAA.

The fight over how to use Beach Drive left it open for cars

Several possibilities for closing Beach Drive received consideration, and advocates for limiting automobile traffic finally settled on a compromise to close only the section between Joyce and Broad Branch—the same section as in 1983, where no trail exists and where Ross Drive is an alternative—in the time between rush hours.

But in 2005, the Park Service, again facing opposition from commuters, automobile advocates, and political leaders like Maryland's congressional delegation, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the majority of the DC Council (Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil, all who had supported the closures) and others, chose a different option that was close to the status quo: leave the road open during the entire weekday.

Despite a 2004 traffic study that found midday limits on Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce would have "minimal impact" on travel times and on nearby streets, especially if drivers were encouraged to use Ross Drive and Glover Road, one of the main concerns of the GMP was spillover traffic.

In fact, all of the letters from members of Congress were about the closures, ignoring all other aspects about the GMP. They questioned the utility of the closures, criticized the methodology of the traffic study, expressed fear that diverting traffic onto other roads would be unsafe and inefficient, and promised to find money for a trail in this section.

DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for example, feared that closing any part of Beach Drive at any time during the week would have "severe" impacts on Cleveland Park, Crestwood and Mount Pleasant.

Another concern, brought up by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, was that closing this section to through traffic would limit access for those with disabilities. NPS pointed out that "all park facilities, such as picnic areas, parking lots, historical features, and trails, would continue to be available to visitors traveling by automobile. The only limitation would be on driving the length of Beach Drive between these facilities."

Instead of midday closures, NPS proposed a lower speed limit in this section, down to 20 mph, increased enforcement, and speed bumps or speed tables. But to date, none of those things have actually happened.

NPS also promised to improve the existing trail south of Broad Branch—a process which is, finally, nearly underway—and study expanding the trail north of Broad Branch to Joyce. The upcoming projects will not build a trail north of Broad Branch, nor are there any plans to ever do so. It's not clear that there was ever money to study the trail in that segment or if a study was performed.


Beach Drive Closure similar to 1983 and 2005 proposals

Upcoming work is a chance to test some of these hypotheses

Phase four of the Beach Drive rehabilitation project involves the closure of the very section of Beach Drive, Joyce to Broad Branch, that faced opposition in 1983 and 2005. Will the impact of such closures—during the midday, not rush hour—be "minimal," as the Park Service concluded, or will it be "severe?" Will neighborhood roads be filled with traffic? Will safety be compromised? Will travel times dramatically increase? Will those with disabilities stay away from the park? And what are the impacts during rush hours?

We'll now get a chance to study these things in a much more robust way—during a real-world experiment, which is exactly what Norton, Van Hollen, Mikulski and others asked for.

Unfortunately, since the road won't be open for non-automobile traffic, we won't be able to determine to what extent its closure would increase recreational use.

With phase four still more than a year away, now is the time for DDOT and FHWA to put a plan to study the impacts into place. There is still no trail on the section of Beach Road between Broad Branch and Joyce. Perhaps such a study will show something two reports have already shown: limiting this section to non-automobile use, for part of the day or permanently, is not that big of a deal.

Development


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.


Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.


Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.


Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.


Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

Public Spaces


Check out what’s new with NoMa’s park plans

A lot of change is on the way in NoMa. Work on two underpasses is expected to finally begin this year while designs for a new Third Street park, and the search for a designer for the NoMa Green are underway.


The NoMa parks plan, including planned public and private spaces and existing space. Image by NoMa Parks.

Over the past two years, the NoMa Parks Foundation has firmed plans to build two new parks, partner with private developers to create a mid-block meander, and brighten four underpasses so they're more inviting to use. In addition, private developers have committed to building at least three more public spaces in the neighborhood.

Now, NoMa is ready to put shovels in the ground for the lighting installations in the L Street and M Street underpasses, and it has hired design firm Lee and Associates for the Third Street park at L Street NE.

Underpasses have been delayed, but they're on the way

More attractive underpasses on L Street and M Street where they pass under the railroad tracks into Union Station were supposed to be the first public realm projects completed in the neighborhood. NoMa anticipated installing "Rain"—LED light rods hung from ceiling that reacted to movement through the space—in the M Street underpass by the fall of 2015, officials said at a neighborhood meeting that April.


Rain by Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects. Image by NoMa BID.

However, NoMa attempted to "value engineer" the M Street project by cutting the number of rods from the 4,000 that design team Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects planned, said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), at a community meeting on parks on March 29. This resulted in a less than satisfactory result.

"We're late because we said we didn't do it right," she said. Installation of the full 4,000 rods is expected later in 2016.

Work on "Lightweave," a series of undulating, cloud-like lights hung from the ceiling in the L Street underpass, is also expected to begin later this year.


Lightweave by Future Cities Lab. Image by NoMa BID.

Plans for the K Street and Florida Avenue NE underpasses are on hold for the time being, with NoMa waiting for the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) to move forward with its plans to redesign the Florida Avenue streetscape before beginning the latter project.

What will go in at Third Street?

Lee and Associates is early in its planning of the new 8,000 square foot park. Early site analysis has found that the lot, which is adjacent to the Loree Grand apartments, is shady most of the day and includes a roughly six-foot change in elevation.

"We love topography… these are all elements of design opportunity," said Jeff Lee, founding principal of Lee and Associates, at the meeting.


Site of the Third Street park in NoMa. Image by Google Maps.

The firm will continue its site analysis and collect resident feedback before the next public meeting on the space, when Lee said they hope to present two or three potential designs for the park.

Meeting attendees had a variety of opinions on how the space should be used. Many want a dog park while some ask for a space where children could play, to which Lee responded that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Others ask for passive space to be outdoors.

"We will do our very best to think outside the box," said Lee in response to the myriad of resident requests.

Lee and Associates is well placed to design an interesting park. The firm has worked on a number of parks around DC, including Stead Park near the corner of P Street and 17th Street NW and Gage-Eckington dog park in LeDroit Park.

NoMa Green could get more funds

NoMa is on track to hire a designer for the NoMa Green, the temporary name for the two acres adjacent to the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) it purchased from Pepco in December, this spring, said Stacie West, the director of parks projects at the NoMa Parks Foundation.

The design process is expected to continue through 2017 with construction beginning towards the end of the year, she added.


Site of the future NoMa Green. Image by the author.

Also, NoMa may have secured more funds for the park. The developers of the Eckington Yards project JBG and The Boundary Companies have offered $25,000 to the foundation to go towards the green, as well as install a new bikeshare dock and new public art installation in its promenade across Harry Thomas Way from the park, said Jasper.


Eckington Yards in relation to the new NoMa Green. Image by Boundary Companies + JBG.

"We knew from the beginning that $50 million was not a lot of money to buy land and build parks in a neighborhood where land is as valuable as" it is in NoMa, she said.

NoMa Parks has already spent $17.2 million of its budget on just land acquisition for the green and the Third Street park.

A meander is in the works

Construction of the first section of the NoMa Meander, a mid-block pedestrian corridor between North Capital Street and First Street NE, has begun from N Street to Patterson Street, said Jasper. The section is being built by JBG as part of its mixed-use Capitol Point development.

Skanska will build the next section of the meander on the block between M Street and Patterson Street.


Site plan for Skanska's development on the NoMa Meander. Image by Skanska.

The meander will anchor the developer's new mixed-use development for the site, including locating the entrances to its planned residential and commercial buildings as well as new retail space, on the corridor, said Kelly Nagle, a development executive for Skanska USA, at the meeting.

When fully built out, the meander will stretch from New York Avenue to Pierce Street in NoMa.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC