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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


The Eisenhower Memorial is moving forward, but metal tapestries might get in the way of the view

A proposed memorial to President Eisenhower in Southwest DC keeps trudging through the federal approvals process, even as it's surrounded by controversy. But federal planners want some changes, especially to the way the memorial affects views of the Capitol.


The Eisenhower Memorial from Independence Avenue, SW. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the project at its meeting Thursday. NCPC doesn't decide whether the memorial is aesthetically good enough; that job lies with the Commission on Fine Arts. But it will consider whether the design meets various technical requirements, complies with federal laws on memorials, and most of all how it fits into the commission's interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan.

The NCPC staff recommendation carries a lot of weight with the commission board, which will make the decision. The big news in the report was that repeated tests found that the 80-foot-tall stainless steel tapestries, which are a major (and very controversial) part of the design, dramatically exceeded durability requirements.

The National Park Service also found that the memorial's maintenance costs would be about the same as those of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and less than half of the World War II Memorial's.


A 2014 plan drawing of the memorial square.

The report says that the current design meets 4 of the 7 principles NCPC set down for the memorial in 2006: It creates a green space, respects the surrounding architecture, helps to restore Maryland Avenue, and creates a unique commemorative space.

However, the staff had some objections about how the tapestries affect the monumental openness the NCPC sees in the L'Enfant Plan. Other concerns revolved around lighting and pedestrian circulation.

The design of the memorial has changed considerably over the past four years. Critics have portrayed Frank Gehry's attitude as inflexible, but the NCPC submission package shows a dizzying number of alternatives and tweaks. Documents given to the CFA show even more.

In the wake of a bitter conflict with President Eisenhower's grandchildren, Gehry added larger-than-life statues in front of the bas reliefs, adjacent to a life-size statue of teenaged Eisenhower. These changes rightly put more emphasis on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

Officials wanted to be sure the tapestries would survive exposure to the elements over a long period of time. Independent studies tested tapestry elements' resistance to corrosion, impact, and fatigue. The corrosion tests subjected the tapestry to water, salt, soot, and sulfur dioxide, simulating acidic pollution that causes damage to the stone and bronze typical of DC's monuments.


The side tapestries serve as gateways to the memorial complex.

Using the stainless steel alloy that the fabricator has chosen, 317L, there was almost no corrosion, and welds held 5 times the expected load even after a thousand-hour salt water shower. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the tests met their standards.

The Park Service also dismissed concerns from opponents that trash would accumulate; the largest concern seems to be that the designers did not pay enough attention to the effects of bird poop.

Viewsheds strike again

However sturdy, the tapestries infringe on the Maryland and Independence Avenue rights-of-way, the NCPC staff report argues, and diminish the significance of the surrounding buildings in making an urban space.


A model shot of sightlines through the 2013 version.

The report finds that the tapestries and columns change the view towards the Capitol significantly, specifically narrowing it from the full 160-foot right-of-way to a 95-foot gap. The Gehry team argues that the rules permit artworks like the tapestries to occupy the right-of-way, but not a 50' gap at the center called the cartway. The designers say that the tapestries frame the view of the Capitol Dome, bringing more attention to it.

NCPC staff agree in principle, but say the 10' diameter, 80' tall columns and semi-opaque screens impact the view enough to violate this rule. Moreover, they say this approach contradicts L'Enfant's vision for wide-open monumental avenues.


A comparison of setbacks and the outboard column.

Similarly, the NCPC report found that one column along Independence Avenue extends past a 50-foot setback line matching the adjacent Wilbur Wright (FAA) and Wilbur Cohen (SSA) buildings. The design team argues that since setbacks on Independence Avenue range from 24' to 133', NCPC's choice to use directly adjacent buildings is arbitrary.


Streetwalls along Independence and Constitution.

Finally, the report finds that the way the tapestries create a semi-transparent precinct within the existing building fabric overshadows the existing buildings, particularly the LBJ Department of Education building. The bottom third of the tapestries would be almost solid, the middle section would be around half solid, and the top, around 20%. The report deems this level of density to be too high to respect the architecture of the building behind it.


Rendering from Reservation 113, showing the impact of the tapestries.

I understand the concerns of the NCPC staff. The L'Enfant Plan is a landmark that deserves respect. However, compared to the rigor of the technical analysis, the justifications for the principles are a little thin.

Unoccupiable columns are not buildings. Semi-transparent screens are not simply walls. The reciprocal views aren't ruined on Maryland Avenue. Screening a background isn't the same as blacking it out. Using the unremarkable, objectlike Wilbur Wright Building to establish a 50' setback needs more justification than what's in the report, particularly since NCPC violated its own height rules to approve the MLK memorial.

Conceptually, treating the 160-foot corridor as the total viewshed turns it into a beautiful abstraction unmoored from the experience of people actually there. It defers too much to the beautiful emptiness that's great for looking at but not so good for daily life.

There's already a stately, monumental avenue across the Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial offers a future for Maryland Avenue that preserves the key view while putting pedestrians first.


The LBJ Promenade, showing potential uses.

The memorial's most underappreciated aspect is the proposed LBJ Promenade, a street-sized walkway framed by the Education building and the tapestries. Meant to make more of pedestrian connection than is currently there, that kind of dense space is what a live-work Southwest needs. The NCPC may still find fault with the position of the tapestries, but I'd be more persuaded by their reasoning if they emphasized the tidiness and monumental emptiness less for this site.

The Eisenhower Memorial still has a long way to go before a shovel hits the ground. The agencies with power to approve or halt the memorial have very different opinions. The Commission of Fine Arts likes how the tapestries frame the view to the Capitol, but a few members question their ability to enclose the space. A Congressional committee has proposed stripping funding from the memorial for the year, but that might change if NCPC approves the design. There is a lot of uncertainty at this time.

At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren. The technical evaluations of the memorial have been promising. The doubt in my mind has been eroding. It's too early to count the memorial out.


A tapestry, the east path, and the presidential tableau.

Public Spaces


Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.


Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Events


Events roundup: Be there or be square

This week, think about the future of a plaza in Arlington and the urban landscape through photos and film at events around the region.


Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Re-imagine Arlington's Courthouse area: Envision Courthouse Square is a community effort to plan the future of Arlington County's civic center including a vibrant public space.

Join fellow residents at a community kick-off planning meeting and visioning session this Wednesday, March 26, 7-9 pm at Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard.

After the jump: See slides about H Street's past, watch films about the environment in our region, wish Metro a happy birthday, and attend a panel about whether government agencies listen to what you have to say online.

From pleasure gardens to streetcars: Enjoy a photographic history lesson on DC's H St NE, along with a lecture from local historian Sarah Shoenfeld. Shoenfeld will "present a slide show depicting H Street's lively past, from its early development as a transportation link between DC and Maryland, to circus parades, Louie Kavakos's night club at 8th and H, and the original Granville Moore."

This event is part of the DC Public Library's Know Your Neighborhood series and will take place at the Northeast Library (330 7th St. NE) on Tuesday, March 25 at 6:30 pm.

"Our Cities, Our Planet": This year's Environmental Film Festival focuses on urban environments around the globe, including many in this region. The festival wraps up on March 30, but there are a few films still to see that are relevant to our region:

  • Reel Portraits: Jane Jacobs is a discussion with a filmmaker working on a project about Death and Life of Great American Cities author Jane Jacobs and her legacy on cities. March 26, 6:30 pm at the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Student Shorts including ones about the Potomac River, Anacostia River, and Chesapeake Bay. March 26, 7:00 pm at American University.
  • Farming for the Future: Enduring Traditions-Innovative Practices looks at how farmers, including 4 farms in Virginia, try to meet the demand for sustainable, locally grown food and remain profitable. March 29, 7:00 pm at American University.
  • Sanctuary shows how at-risk teens in DC and endangered eagles help each other through life's struggles. March 30, 12 pm at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Happy birthday, Metro!: Metro turns 38 this week. What better way to celebrate Metro's birthday than by telling your local politicians you support Metro Momentum, the long term plan for more capacity? Send an email now through the Coalition for Smarter Growth's online campaign.

Who listens to your opinion? A lot of people share opinions about public projects on blogs and social media, but what happens to all of that? Often, official government agencies accept official comments but don't see or factor in views posted in many other places. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agency feedback systems and new online technology work together.

NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The panel is Wednesday, April 9, 7-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.

Public Spaces


Arlington looks at a town square for Courthouse

Can Courthouse, the area around Arlington's county seat, become a vibrant civic center? One solution may be a new town square, which Arlington County will consider as part of a new planning effort for the area.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Envision Courthouse Square will update a 1993 plan which envisioned this area as a state-of-the-art government center with a signature public open space for everyone. Arlington hopes to retain that vision while updating the details to better promote multiple transportation options, smart growth, energy efficiency, and placemaking.

This effort centers around the county-owned parking lot one block from the Court House Metro station. Arlington County will consider creating a public open space, like a town square, that will be an "integral component" of the government center.


The study area boundaries. Aerial photo by Arlington County.

The study will also look at the privately-owned AMC Courthouse movie theater, the county-owned Court Square West building, and the "Landmark Block," a group of small, low-rise buildings (some of historic importance) which a single owner has recently consolidated. That recent consolidation, as well as the impending expiration of the county's lease on their current office space in 2018, provide significant opportunities for a public-private partnership to reshape this area of Courthouse.

Envision Courthouse Square will look at how to use public and private buildings in Courthouse, including what types of public amenities other than government offices would be a good fit there. It will make recommendations about building location, height, and density, including a future county office building in the area.

Planners will consider improving the overall pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular circulation network between Courthouse and surrounding neighborhoods. They'll consider valuable cultural resources, like historic buildings, the well-known "Memorial" and "Mother's" trees, public arts, and a potential cultural facility. All parts of the plan will emphasize sustainability, from building and landscape technologies to an energy master plan for the whole community.

If you're interested in helping craft an updated vision for Courthouse, the first community workshop is this Wednesday, March 26th from 7-9 pm at Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard.

Architecture


Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?


All photos by the author.

To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.

Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.

"Where rock-and-roll was invented"

When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.


Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.

Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."

Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."

"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.

Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?

To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.

The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.

Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.


How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.

Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.

Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.

Could the Youth Center represent the future again?

The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.

And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.

Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.

Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.

In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Public Spaces


It takes more than open space to make a great urban park

The Silver Spring Transit Center isn't finished yet, but there's already support for turning vacant land next to it into a big park. However, this really isn't a good place for a park. There are also lots of small, underused parks nearby, and with some alterations, they could help quench the demand for open space.


The unfinished Silver Spring Transit Center. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County Councilmember Hans Riemer recently proposed building a two-acre park next to the Transit Center instead of an originally planned hotel. On his blog, he talks about the many "green urban parks" in downtown DC, like Dupont Circle. "Silver Spring deserves one too," he writes.

What makes a great urban park like Dupont Circle, or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or Union Square in New York? They all have grassy areas and trees, and are nice places to enjoy the outdoors. But they don't exist in isolation. What happens on the edges of great urban parks is what makes them successful.

Great urban parks need people and buildings, too

Parks like Dupont and Rittenhouse sit in the middle of very dense, busy neighborhoods with thousands of people living and working nearby. The surrounding buildings also create a frame around the space, making it an outdoor room. Most of the buildings that face Dupont Circle have a store or restaurant on the ground floor. On Rittenhouse Square, there are apartment building entrances and restaurants with dining terraces opening to the square.


What happens on the edges of Rittenhouse Square make it a great park. Photo from Google Street View.

Together, these things make a space that people are constantly using throughout the day, eating lunch, playing chess, making music, holding demonstrations, getting exercise, or just passing through.

Compare that to the Transit Center. Most of the surrounding buildings don't face the space Hans Riemer would like to be a park. At the street level, all you'll find are fast-food places, lots of blank walls, and loading docks, none of which do much to generate life on the sidewalk. Putting a park here wouldn't change that context.

We know that because there used to be a park next to the Metro station before the Transit Center was built. It was a popular skate spot, but it was also run-down and empty. It wasn't a good park.


A site plan of the proposed Transit Center park. Image from Montgomery County.

It would be different if we could build a park with shops and restaurants directly facing it, and lots of people in very, very close proximity to use it and pass through it all the time. In fact, that's what the Transit Center plans already call for: a smaller park, less than an acre in size but with some green areas, directly adjacent to an apartment building, an office building, and a hotel.

Unfortunately, those plans are on hold due to a breakdown in negotiations between developer Foulger-Pratt, which also built the Transit Center, and Metro, which owns the land. But that doesn't mean we should throw them away.

Silver Spring has lots of open space, but we don't use it

People complain that Silver Spring doesn't have enough parks, but we might actually have too many. In downtown Silver Spring, there are literally dozens of small pocket parks, the result of a requirement that new development include an open space that's accessible to the public.

Many of those spaces are poorly designed and go unused. County planners and residents have already been working to fix this problem.

In 2008, the Planning Board recommended eliminating the pocket park requirement and build big parks instead. Two such projects have already been approved. The redevelopment of the Blairs will include a big park, while the Studio Plaza development on Fenton Street will have one as well.

And last year, the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board suggested looking at ways to repurpose existing parks and county-owned properties. Evan Glass, chair of the board and a candidate for County Council, has proposed reusing the current Silver Spring Library as a recreation center and park space once the new library is built.


There's a big, grassy park a block from the Transit Center, but it goes unused. Photo by the author.

Some of downtown's pocket parks could be repurposed as well. There's already a big, grassy park exists a block from the Transit Center at the Discovery Channel headquarters. But it isn't really used and was closed for months after a gunman attacked the building in 2010. Across from the Transit Center, Montgomery County will turn a bus turnaround into another small park with trees and landscaping.

These spaces aren't perfect. But they exist, and if any community member or elected official is serious about improving open space in downtown Silver Spring, they should start here.

There's a better use for the Transit Center site

It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, creating great parks in urban areas means more buildings. Silver Spring needs a critical mass of people and stuff to generate the activity needed to give our streets and parks life. Meanwhile, too many bad parks have instead created big, gaping holes in our downtown, sucking out activity and life.


The park we could have at the Transit Center. Image from Montgomery County.

The Transit Center is a bad place for a big park. But it's a good place for buildings.

Montgomery County and Maryland taxpayers have already spent upwards of $120 million on the Transit Center, on top of money spent decades ago to build the Metro station, and money we will soon spend to build the Purple Line. Where they converge will be one of the most valuable development sites in the region, and a significant opportunity to encourage transit use and generate tax revenue.

Not taking advantage of this would be a colossal waste. So would ignoring all of the open spaces Silver Spring already has, as well as the opportunities we do have to create new and better ones.

Public Spaces


Beach volleyball in the Inner Harbor? Not for much longer

For 11 years, Baltimore's Inner Harbor has played host to a beach volleyball league, which helps present a healthy, active image of the city to the 13 million people who visit the harbor each year. But instead of being celebrated, the league's getting kicked off-stage.


Baltimore Beach Volleyball's home in the Inner Harbor. Photo from BBV.

Baltimore Beach Volleyball (BBV) has 2500 weekly participants and plays games seven days a week from May to September. 87% of its players are millennials, or adults between 20 and 34, 88% are single (in case you're looking), and 37% come from outside of Baltimore City, according to Todd Webster, who runs the league. BBV has been touted as the largest inner-city metropolitan league on the East Coast, hosted games for the International Olympic Committee, and become a permanent stop on the Toyota Pro Beach Volleyball tour.

Baltimore ought to give BBV the proverbial keys to the harbor. Instead there are plans to boot the volleyballers from the Inner Harbor to Swann Park, an out-of-site, out-of-mind location two miles to the south in the shadow of Interstate 95.

The city of Baltimore, Waterfront Partnership, and Greater Baltimore Committee recently released the Inner Harbor II plan, which looks at ways to improve and expand open space around the harbor. It proposes replacing BBV's field and an existing park as well as the Pride of Baltimore memorial with a subterranean parking garage topped by an oval grass lawn and a small, sand "destination." How this lawn will be programmed is unclear.

The plan will cost $40 million, though parking revenues will offset some of these costs.


The Inner Harbor 2 plan would displace Baltimore Beach Volleyball, as well as the Pride of Baltimore memorial. Image from the plan.

Baltimore leaders have concluded that the Inner Harbor and Rash Field need a refresher. But the results of a citizen survey about the area suggest that residents prefer more local retail in the area and want to address the lack of activity in some parts of the harbor. The plan doesn't ignore those concerns, but its bigger proposals do overshadow them.

There are good ideas in the plan, like a pool barge. But unfortunately, leaders are rushing to start with Rash Field, a controversial and expensive part of the plan. How did the architects choose a grass oval lawn and sand lot for the top the garage? How is the proposed lawn not redundant with the similar West Shore Park and grassy feel of Federal Hill?

Baltimore and the Inner Harbor planners would benefit if they mixed in some of the affordable ingenuity demonstrated by Janette Sadik-Khan's New York City project portfolio. Her mantra: "Do bold experiments that are cheap to try out." She loves to talk about how Times Square was successfully transformed with lawn chairs and paint. All urbanists should view her TED Talk.

Instead of replicating amenities that already exist, there are ways to provide things that citizens actually want and retain an existing draw, all at much lower cost. Beach volleyball could become an anchor and destination for the area with the addition of local food and beverage vendors, water features, specialty kiosks, and tables overlooking the volleyball courts. The space could also accommodate other activities, like bocce, ping pong, yoga, Zumba, stationary bikes, and kayaks.

Meanwhile, the Rash Field garage is not only expensive, but unnecessary with the existing 45,000 parking spaces in downtown Baltimore. Has the city studied the possibility of valet parking service operating from the visitors' center as an alternative?

A valet service might make better use of existing parking capacity, be more convenient for visitors, and provide jobs. To increase access, extend Charm City Circulator coverage. Creating a safe network of cycle tracks to serve bicycles and bikeshare, which will launch this July, on the bike-unfriendly roads ringing the Inner Harbor would help.

In addition, building the parking garage will disrupt an important public space for up to two years of construction. The view from Federal Hill is a very photogenic spot, and a popular site for tourists and visitors. An unnecessary parking facility isn't enough of a compelling reason to take this space away when smaller changes would have a much shorter and less disruptive effect on the area.

This plan also would have an impact on the city's millennial community. Many young professionals seek healthy and active social amenities. The data shows clearly that millennials are driving Baltimore's growth more than any other generation. For young professionals, Baltimore Beach Volleyball is arguably the Inner Harbor's top draw. Unceremoniously kicking them out will not be viewed charmingly by this opinionated generation.

Millennials heavily populate nearby neighborhoods and have brought new life to the city. Why not ask them to help program the harbor?

A version of this post appeared at Comeback City.

Public Spaces


St. Elizabeths new ice slide is more than a fun ride

Over 700 people crowded the new St. Elizabeths East Gateway Pavilion during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend for DC's latest winter attraction: a $220,000 ice slide.


Tolliver and her son. Photo by the author.

"They didn't want an ice rink, they wanted to do something different," says Kelsie Wright, whose company KCW Communications, LLC was contracted to oversee the slide, as well as decorate the pavilion with lights to create a winter wonderland east of the river. Government officials hope that the slide, and the $8 million pavilion overall, will set the stage for revitalization of the St. Elizabeths campus, which hasn't seen development in over 60 years.

The exclusivity of the attraction is what drew Cherry Tolliver and her four-year-old son to the slide on January 25, one of the coldest days this winter. A resident of Alexandria, Tolliver knew of no other amenity of this type near her home.

"My son loves it. I rode with him the first time, then he started going by himself," she said.

Braving the cold along with Tolliver was Capitol Hill resident Clara Ewell and her 3-year-old daughter. "It's fun because it's not enough snow to go sledding," says Ewell, who was led up the stairs and in line nearly a dozen times by her pint-sized toddler, who craved the rush of the slope in her mom's arms.

The inflatable tube that whips down the frozen ice and into a bumper wall is equipped to seat one adult and one small child. Toddlers who are able to independently hold the handles can ride alone after parents sign a safety release form.

A few feet away, both families took advantage of the warmth and accommodations inside the pavilion's entertainment facility. A children's playroom housed games, arts and crafts; hot beverages and snacks could be purchased by the resident pop-up coffee shop, The Orange Cow Café; and a movie screening section was set up adjacent to a guest lounge area.

Unlike any space readily available in Ward 8, the pavilion opened last October as an urban park, welcoming experimental and temporary retail, dining, and educational and community events. Thus far, the 180-acre campus has seen success with events such as its fall festival, farmers' markets, yoga and cooking classes, and food truck vendors for US Coast Guard employees and the surrounding community. Soon, patrons can expect outdoor movies and other events highlighting the site's extensive green space.

With an underground tunnel separating them, amenities like the pop-up café and food truck vendors should cater to the 3,700 US Coast Guard employees who have recently relocated headquarters to St. Elizabeths West. If the federal government can find the funding, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to bring another 10,000 employees from FEMA, the TSA, and others in the near future.

"What we are witnessing this morning," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton during October's opening of the pavilion, "is the beginning of the transformation of Martin Luther King Avenue."

The ice slide will be in service every weekend until February 17th. The fee is only $5 for adults, and free for children.

Crossposted on Elevation DC.

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