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Public Spaces


America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but


Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgracefix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconicbut grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvaniamost notably the FBI Buildingare openly hostile to pedestrians.


The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.

Pedestrians


A 12-block "shared space" street will soon line the Southwest Waterfront

"Shared space" is the idea that some streets can work better when, instead of using curbs and traffic signals to separate users, pedestrians get priority using subtle but effective visual cues. Washington will soon have a prime example in Wharf Street SW, part of the Wharf development on the Southwest Waterfront.


Rendering of Wharf Street SW. All images from Perkins Eastman unless otherwise noted.

Streetsblog recently interviewed a key shared space messenger, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, showed off built examples in Pittsburgh and Batavia, Illinois, and discussed the potential of shared space to transform the narrow streets of New York City's Financial District.

Many of the historic examples of shared space that remain, like Market Square in Pittsburgh, Haymarket in Boston, or South Street Seaport in New York, are within what were wholesale markets or ports, where people, goods, and vehicles always intermingled. Old wharves and quays have become distinctive destinations in many cities, from Provincetown to Seattle's Pike Place Marketand an inspiration to others who want to create human-scaled environments today.

Washington, DC, had just such a working waterfront for centuries, but bulldozed almost all of it in the 1950s amidst federal fervor for slum clearance and urban renewal. Just a few weeks ago, developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront broke ground on the Wharf, which will transform 27 acres of land into 12 city blocks housing 3.2 million square feet of retail, residences, hotels, offices, and facilities ranging from a concert hall to a yacht club. Many architects and landscape architects worked together within a master plan designed by Perkins Eastman.

I talked with Matthew Steenhoek of Hoffman Madison Waterfront about how the Wharf's public spaces have been designed to accommodate pedestrians first and vehicles (from semi trucks to the occasional police helicopter) when necessary. Below is an edited transcript.

What are the various kinds of streets and alleys that visitors will find at the Wharf?

Maine Avenue [on the land side of the site] has a pretty traditional street section with four lanes: vehicular traffic, turn lanes, parallel parking, and street trees. There will be a grade-separated, bidirectional cycle track on Maine's south side, outside of the existing street trees but separated from the sidewalk by a second row of trees. We're using permeable asphalt for the cycle track because it goes over the critical root zone for those big old street trees.

On Maine, you have a channelized design: traffic moves faster, there's a lot of through bicycle traffic connecting to the [Potomac and Anacostia riverfront] trails, so the through traffic happens there. We'll leave the median lanes utility-free and streetcar-ready, so if the District decides to build a line through there they can do so at a much lower cost.

As you move into the site, it transitions into the shared space approach. Besides the two major [entry] intersections at 9th and 7th, it's all curbless. The public street ends at the Maine Avenue cycle track, and from there in they'll be private streets. This gives us much more latitude in terms of our design approach, so we can vary from traditional street standards and requirements.


A circulation plan for phases one and two shows both shared spaces and pedestrian spaces.

Differences in paving material, texture, color, and pattern will help differentiate the spaces within the major public spaces. There's also bollards to separate the edge and center of the street in busier locations.

There are a lot of clues built into the paving, which will use a kit of different pavers. There will be a smooth and continuous path dedicated for pedestrians, while the places where vehicles are allowed as guests will have a split-block finish with a little rougher texture. In order to slow the speeds down, the paving patterns will change as you transition from one zone to anotherlike where you might be introducing pedestrians or bikes into the space. The smooth surface in no way limits where the pedestrians can go, though, and the curbless environment invites pedestrians to really use the entire space.


Most of Wharf Street's right-of-way is dedicated for pedestrians.

There aren't a lot of obstructions within the spaces. They're straightforward and kind of utilitarian, designed to be able to be closed, or partially closed, [to cars] when it's busy. Restaurant seating can spill out there, and the shared space can become a true public space.

Wharf Street runs directly along the water's edge. It has a typical section of 60 feet across, with three modules: The closest 20 feet [to the buildings] is a café seating zone, where the paving is smooth and flat so that they can move furniture around. Right outside there is a dedicated pedestrian path, then the shared movement, or travel, zoneone way for vehicles moving or parking or loading, but cyclists and pedestrians can go any which way. The movement space is the center 20 feet, using smaller, more textured pavers.

The outside 20 feet has a dual allée of trees, and it's where the fixtures and street furniture areno bollards, but there are trees. That zone, again, has a smooth texture. Along the bulkhead [seawall], there's a huge wooden timber down the side for people to sit on. We also have flexible seating all throughout. Having the flexible seating is part of the traffic calming: things are going to change and feel different every day.

Throughout the parcels, there are alleyways that come through. Those are much tighter, more intimate spaces, from 25 to 40 feet wide. The alleys are not back alleys, they're public spacesnot a place for stinky exposed dumpsters leaking things. DC got rid of most of its alley buildings [via the early 20th century's Alley Housing Clearance Commission], but the few alleys that are left are pretty great.


Alleys will welcome pedestrians, not just service vehicles.

The only place where 55 foot long trucks are allowed is at the concert hall [at the west edge of the development]. Everywhere else will only have deliveries on 30 foot trucks. Since we have retail on all sides of the buildings, it's tricky to find the "back of house" space [service entrances]. The idea has been to work with [retail] operators on loading hours, so that during prime pedestrian hours there's not loading happening, and to screen and integrate the loading areas so that they can function as good public spaces when they're not being used.

The way that the shared space is set up will encourage everyone to slow down. It's not a highly predictable zone, which gives people a false sense of securitythey don't look around themselves. The character of the space will allow it to do what it needs to do, while remaining safe and accommodating for all the different users.

Like around 7th Street Park, cars are allowed, but it's not going to be the fastest route to anywhere. There's a splash fountain and benches in the middle of the street that you have to make a one-way loop around, and another one down at the District Pier where cars will have to go around to get to Blair Alley.

There's another totally pedestrian zone at District Pier. That's the most intense area of pedestrian activity, since there's lots of things happening here [with the pier and concert hall]. We'll have another [pedestrian zone] over at M Street Landing across from Arena Stage, and a third at the Waterfront Park, which we designed through a community charrette process. At Waterfront Park, vehicular access is only to dinner cruise boats, and to the police and fire pier. Ninety-nine percent of the time that will be a nice broad path, but the open space is so a police helicopter can land right in the middle.

Can you describe the process of deciding upon a shared space approach?

That was one of the really upfront visions that [design architect] Stan Eckstut had for the site. He saw it as a true, mercantile, flexible space. Having hard curbs really does limit what you can do with the spacewhat it wants to be in 2017, and in 50 years, may be really different. Very early on, in 2008 probably, we had that 20-20-20 allocation set up for Wharf Street. It's tight enough to create a comfortable space and encourage that vitality along the water.

A lot of thought went into how to execute it, but we always knew it was going to be shared. From the start, everyone bought in on that vision of flexibility. It will be a nice change from most of the new streets and places that are being constructed around the city, some of which are very rigid and kind of sterile.


A piazza adjacent to Wharf Street will allow cars access to a hotel entrance, without providing through access.

We have a healthy storefront allowance [for retailers to design their own spaces]. Also, these blocks are relatively small by city standards, around 250 feet square. Since the citywide average is 300-500 feet, our fabric is much more porous than that. [Our historic preservation consultants] came up with a list of old alley names from the neighborhood, some of which we'll resurrect here as a link to that past. Hopefully, these approaches will mitigate the fact that everything's new. Ultimately, it needs to get lived in to feel real.

What primary benefits did the shared space approach offer?

Our reason was placemaking. For us, it was starting with a question of "what's the space going to feel like?" We wanted to bring something interesting and uniquea space that'll work tomorrow, and in 50 or 99 years, when our ground lease is done. Vehicular capacity wasn't important, since these are not continuous routes through to anywhere. Most cars will just want to go to and from the garage.

Shared space just made sense for any number of reasons. We wanted to slow the traffic down, but not with obtrusive traffic bumps. These are second-generation traffic calming ideas: adding uncertainty, variety, texture. It's saying, "Hey, you're welcome to come in as a motorist, but behave." Everyone else is going to behave. [Since they're internal streets] we could have some fun with the signage, something like "walk your car."

The exponential drop in injuries when cars only move 15 or 18 mph is very telling. At that speed, people can still communicate nonverbally, with eye contact or a nod. Get above that, and that all breaks down, and instead you have to rely on lights and signs and bumps and those crazy things. We're going a little more low key than that. If everyone's moving at or below 15 mph, you can negotiate those intersections without the need for stop lights and all that equipment.


The Maine Avenue Fish Market, a fixture of DC's waterfront that has long mixed crowds with cars, will remain at the west edge of the Wharf's site. Photo by D.B. King on Flickr.

Were there other examples that sold you on the concept?

We think that we have the right solution for this place, of course, but we did travel to see other waterfronts. Along Nyhavn, the famous slip in Copenhagen, there's two strips of smooth pavement that are the width of the pushcarts they used to unload the boats. That street section, how it feels and meets the water, was definitely an inspiration, just because it's a wonderful place. It's pedestrian only, because there's just so many people, but we have the ability to do the same.

Stavanger, Norway, did a really nice thing with the paving to differentiate parking, driving, and walking spaces. We adapted that solution here: It's all the same tone and all looks about the same, but the textures break things up without putting thermoplastic stripes and giant yellow signs. That makes for a more visually pleasing public environment, creating a public space instead of a traffic sewer.

And of course, right now on the site, the shared space that we already have today is the Fish Market. It's more of a mixing bowl, and it's functioned that way for years. It works just fine because it doesn't "work" in a conventional sense, and that's how it really works.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog USA.

Public Spaces


Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offerand, even more, the questions they choose not to asktilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.


The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.


Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.



Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

Public Spaces


Can NoMa turn dank underpasses into lively public spaces?

Can the mostly-empty space beneath the railroad tracks approaching Union Station become active spaces that enhance the NoMa neighborhood? The NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) hopes so. Some other cities have been able to activate underpasses; can these show the way?


An idea for the L Street underpass from the NoMa BID public realm design plan.

The BID launched a design competition to find "an artist, team of artists, designer or architect" to "beautify, enliven and activate" the spaces under the tracks on Florida Avenue and K, L, and M Streets NE with a "sensory experience."

"We want to turn those spaces into places that people want to come visit because they are so attractive and cool," says Robin Eve-Jasper, president of NoMa BID.

Funding comes from the $50 million Mayor Gray recently authorized to help NoMa combat its dearth of parks. The DC Council still must approve the spending, but Eve-Jasper says that she expects this to happen by the end of May. Responses from design teams are due by May 9, with a plan to present proposals to the public in September and select a final design in October.

Underpasses get little activity today

Pedestrians currently use the underpasses as little more than empty zones to cross from one side of the tracks to the other.

M Street is the most active of the four, as it is the main access route to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station and the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for residents who live on the east side of the tracks. It also contains a Capital Bikeshare station on its northern sidewalk.

Neighborhood residents headed to NoMa's main activity center at the corner of M and First Street NE, where there is a Harris Teeter supermarket, other stores and offices, also use the M Street underpass.


M Street NE underpass looking west.

Cars dominate the Florida Ave and K Street underpasses, which dedicate six and four lanes to car traffic, respectively. Both streets have narrow sidewalks and see significantly less pedestrian traffic than M Street.


Florida Avenue underpass looking east.


K Street underpass looking west.

The L Street underpass is the least used of the four, according to my observations. It has wide sidewalks and only two lanes for carslike M Streetbut lacks easy access to the Metro or the MBT, and the activity center of its sibling a block north.


L Street underpass looking east. Photo by author.

Other cities have activated underpasses

Highway underpasses have become public space in a number of other cities. Many include basketball courts, bike trails, skate parks and play areas for children.

Underpass Park in Toronto, located under the western end of the Eastern Avenue overpass near the Don River, is a widely-cited example. A recent Architectural Record report found the park's basketball courts and skate park popular among area residents, but the children's area was less so.

The article also noted that an art installation called Mirage, which includes reflective panels that add light to the underpass, does provide some illumination but adds that more mirrors would have brightened the space.


Underpass Park, Toronto. Photo by Rick Harris on Flickr.

Other examples include Burnside Skatepark in Portland, Oregon and I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park in Seattle, both of which are under overpasses.

The underpasses in NoMa lack the height and depth of many of these spaces. This makes it difficult to fit amenities like basketball courts or skate parks, though a linear children's play area could fit on either L or M Streets.

Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood may offer some of the closest examples to the spaces in NoMa. A number of underpasses under a Metra rail line through the neighborhood sport murals by local artists and some even have corner shops built into their corners.


Underpass mural in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Photo by Marc Monaghan on Flickr.

Asked what NoMa BID envisions for the four spaces, Eve-Jasper says that she is leaving that up to the architects and designers to decide. What do you think would work best in the underpasses?

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.

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.

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