Posts about Public Spaces
On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.
On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.
Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.
The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.
That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.
On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.
Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.
But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.
DC's great public spaces work that way because they're surrounding by active and visually interesting things. How can new places become great as well? By making sure they aren't surrounded by blank walls. Murals are a good start.
Like many, I joined the herd that flocked to District Flea, the new flea market from the creators of Brooklyn Flea, on its opening day in September. But by the time I entered the market at 9th Street and Florida Avenue NW, a blank grey wall disrupted my train of thought. The wall belongs to the Floridian, a condo building completed a few years ago.
Have you ever walked in a space and said, "This is wrong?" That's what I did.
After regaining my composure, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and vendors, especially the shop that had two amazing terra cotta pipes for sale. (Hopefully they aren't sold yet.) Thankfully, District Flea will continue until the end of November, and hopefully it will return next summer.
But if District Flea officially makes its home in this lot, something has to be done with this tidal wave of a wall intimidating patrons like me. A mural would be a good way to enliven this space and make it more visually appealing and inviting.
Compare it to Brooklyn Flea, where the historic neighborhood context provides several beautiful vantage points for visitors to enjoy. These buildings may not be part of the market, but they add to its atmosphere and character in a way a blank wall simply doesn't.
Painters have created murals around DC for decades, but they can be hard to find. In Cincinnati, my previous home, it seemed as if every empty wall in the city had art on it.
The District is fortunate enough to have Murals DC, an organization that helps to replace illegal graffiti with artistic works, revitalizing sites within the community while teaching young people the art of aerosol painting. They are responsible for over 30 murals throughout the city, and perhaps could help to create one here.
"A People Without Murals Is A Demuralized People," a mural in Adams Morgan. Photo by art around on Flickr.
I might be crazy for feeling bullied by an inanimate blank wall, but a mural is still worth pursuing. I'm sure District Flea's parking lot is already a likely site for a new apartment building. But until it's forced to move, we should still strive to make this site a better a place to be.
If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you'll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.
Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.
The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.
Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.
Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).
Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.
The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.
But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Barracks Row Main Street is studying ways to redesign the public space around the Eastern Market Metro station. While many neighbors see the potential to make a great gathering place, others don't want anything to change at all.
Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates is leading the Congressionally-funded Eastern Market Metro Park study, which will explore ways "to renew and upgrade" the two trapezoid-shaped public plazas, medians and two smaller triangular plazas on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th streets. Despite their location between busy Barracks Row and Eastern Market, the spaces are underused and poorly maintained.
Weinstein led another study in 2010 that explored ways to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue around the public space, making it a complete square. But that effort ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and those concerned about the plan's traffic impacts.
The new study will look at function, aesthetics, and the best way to accommodate all modes of transportation, including better pedestrian pathways, the location of the Capitol Bikeshare station and the Metrobus stops in the south plaza, and managing pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. It will also produce detailed designs for a children's play area in the north plaza, and look at an innovative storm water retention system as part of the effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia River.
Planners say that "nothing is off the table," except for consolidating the square by rerouting streets around it.
Will more activity mean more noise, or a better public space?
In July, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells hosted a pair of public meetings to hear about the types of changes residents would like to see around the Metro station. After a brief presentation, we broke into small groups where we discussed our thoughts on the current square and what we would and would not like to see in it in the future.
My group seemed opposed to any changes at all. They questioned why money was being spent on this, whether it was legal and who this was to help. Some people seemed mainly concerned about stoplight timing, which did not seem to allow for the speedy movement of cars and pedestrians through the area.
They scoffed at the idea that the project had the word "park" in it. "Who said they wanted a park here?" one person asked.
One major concern they voiced focused on the lack of maintenance within the existing plaza. Trees went unwatered, rats were allowed to nest and several items like benches and lights had fallen into disrepair. "Why not fix what we have first?" some asked. For the same reason, group members also opposed any kind of water feature, along with music, food trucks or eating areas, which would produce noise and trash.
Group members seemed resigned to the idea of a children's play area as long as it wouldn't kill any trees, but their primary point was that it should be "a park, not an amusement park." But we did find universal support of better storm water management, lots of trees, more benches and non-polluting lights.
How to embrace space's potential
While many residents place an emphasis on creating a quiet place that is easy to traverse, what the neighborhood really needs is to activate the Eastern Market Metro Park with an emphasis on creating a place for people to play, work, shop, eat, and rest. By making it into a great place, the kind that people wanted to stay in instead of pass through, it would have a greater constituency that could push for better maintenance.
It seems my group was the outlier, because when other groups reported what they had discussed, they strongly supported the idea of an interactive water feature like those at Yards Park or Canal Park. Several suggested adding a stage for live performances and various gatherings. Others mentioned food trucks and more dining tables. One group focused on tying the public space in with the library at 7th and Pennsylvania.
The meeting's organizers are collecting additional comments about what should happen here. In my comments, I suggested that an interactive water feature and playground area in the north plaza was a natural way to attract kids and families. It's also a perfect area for a statue of a local person. In the eastern median, I recommended installing a dog run.
The south plaza should become a space where people will linger. Furniture, like movable chairs, benches, and permanent fixtures like tables with chess boards on top, will help draw people. A low stage for music and events could support programming while doubling as a seating area the rest of the time. The city should allow food trucks to use the parking spaces along D Street.
We should also use the western median to connect Barracks Row and Eastern Market with a brick walkway down the middle and to add spaces for vendor booths on the weekends, creating a stronger connection between the two commercial areas. The smaller triangles could become larger by removing the sections of D Street that separate them and then improved by adding benches, more permeable surface, and rain gardens.
Finally, a mid-block crosswalk across Pennsylvania Avenue with an advanced stop line and even a traffic light will help people cross. People want to walk here, and we should let them do it safely.
Future meetings, design work planned
The meeting's organizers will put a recap of the meeting on their website, but it's not up as of yet. There are also several ways to offer comments, including an interactive map and a suggestion box at Eastern Market, though the deadline is today.
However, there are more public meetings planned for later this summer. Planners hope to complete two alternate master plan concepts for the Eastern Market Metro Park within 6 months.
At a recent public hearing, neighbors of McMillan Sand Filtration Site renewed calls to make it a park. But the only way that can happen is by developing part of it as a neighborhood, and it's up to the DC Council to make it happen.
Residents filled a June 6 public hearing held by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to oppose plans to sell the derelict 25-acre site to Vision McMillan Partners, who will build homes, shops, offices and a park there. But others, including Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth say it's the best way to bring McMillan back to life.
It would be prohibitively expensive just to make McMillan a park. Since the underground cells are made of unreinforced concrete, they would have to be demolished and rebuilt just to make them safe to enter. Allowing some private development will give the neighborhood new amenities while paying to keep the best of what's already there.
Plan preserves historic structures while creating new park
VMP's plan preserves all 24 of the plant's above-ground structures, including the vine-covered sand silos visible from North Capitol Street, along with 2 of the below-ground filtration cells. 2/3 of the site will remain open space, while the southern third will become an 8-acre public park with a pool, recreation center, and a community center with meeting rooms and an art gallery. VMP promises that this will be "one of the largest and best-designed public park spaces in the District."
The historic buildings will become part of a new neighborhood with
about 800 585 apartments and townhouses, half 10% of which will be set aside for families making between 50 and 80% of the area's median income. There will also be street-level, neighborhood-serving retail anchored by a 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store. Along Michigan Avenue, there will be taller office buildings with a medical focus, taking advantage of proximity to Washington Hospital Center across the street.
To make this happen, however, the DC Council must decide this fall whether to declare the land as surplus and "dispose" of it. They can do this either by selling it to VMP or granting it as-is to VMP under existing zoning, which wouldn't allow major redevelopment to occur. They could also divide the property and sell off the parts to different owners and under different zoning. They can do all of this in a single set of hearings and votes, and they should to ensure that this process happens as quickly and fairly as possible.
Throughout the summer and fall, the council will hold separate public hearings on whether to surplus McMillan and the details of VMP's plan. Meanwhile, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board is reviewing VMP's plan to redevelop the site with housing, shops, offices and an 8-acre park and will hold hearings about it this month and in September. They've already offered comments about the proposal and will make their recommendations before the end of the year.
Plan will improve stormwater collection, traffic
Groups like Friends of McMillan Park and the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club argued that McMillan is already a public space and should become a public park. However, one DMPED official I spoke to after the hearing said that the city can't afford to do the work necessary to make the site safe for public occupancy. If the District retains ownership, the site would most likely remain decrepit and fenced off indefinitely.
Opponents maintain that the site's underground cells are needed to retain stormwater, mitigating the effects of frequent floods in Bloomingdale, which is downstream from McMillan. But DC Water already plans to replace two of the cells with water storage tanks, which will remain after redevelopment. Meanwhile, VMP has also promised to incorporate stormwater retention and buffers into the buildings and landscaping on the site, reducing stormwater runoff.
Another top complaint was traffic. Residents feel that the neighborhood's roads are already quite congested, especially at rush hour, and could not handle the extra trips generated by a major office, retail and residential center on the McMillan site. There is no question that the Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest non-government employer, needs better public transportation service, as it is not located near a Metro station.
VMP plans to build a bus turnaround for shuttles between McMillan and the Brookland Metrorail station, which would operate until a planned streetcar line along Michigan Avenue is built. Moreover, North Capitol Street has been designated a Bus Priority Corridor, meaning that the city intends to make changes to the street design and traffic flows to permit faster and more frequent bus service. The development would also open new through streets across the McMillan site, improving traffic flow and connections within the larger neighborhood.
Ward 5 needs parks, but it needs housing too
Some opponents say that new development should happen elsewhere in Ward 5, like on vacant and abandoned lots along North Capitol Street or Rhode Island Avenue. While not enough resources have been dedicated to encouraging more infill development, there's no reason why that can't happen in combination with the redevelopment of McMillan.
It is true that Ward 5 needs more and higher-quality parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. But the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole are growing and are need more affordable housing, as well as more diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within walking or biking distance or a short transit ride.
VMP's current plan reflects the input of community members gathered over the course of several design charrettes that were open to the public. It satisfies the need for several types of amenities in this part of the city in a balanced way. It combines buildings that are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods with a large park, and preserves some of the historic filtration cells and all of the silos and brick regulator houses.
We have an opportunity to transform a decrepit former public works site that has been fenced off for over 70 years into a citywide destination: a vibrant and attractive new place to live, work, shop and play that serves many of the needs of residents in this part of DC while incorporating many reminders of its unique history. The Council shouldn't waste any time taking advantage of it, as an opportunity like this won't come again soon.
If you'd like to tell DMPED and the Council to surplus McMillan and allow VMP's plan to happen, you can contact them here. Comments must be received by June 20.
DC's art community was chagrined to see the Hirshhorn cancel plans to build an inflatable "bubble" to house seasonal events. This is a good time to ask, "what now?" The bubble would have been a striking sculptural statement, but is that what the National Mall should be?
Should the Mall be a singular urban space, defined by consistent neoclassical style, or an architectural sculpture garden for individual masterpiece buildings? Either vision could be great, but with no agreement on what the Mall should be, neither is happening.
The question is not really about artist preference for classical or modern styles. That's a distraction. Rather, the question is whether the focus of the National Mall should be its open public spaces, or its buildings.
If the focus is the public space, then that space is better defined by framing buildings that have a consistent character.
Many of the best urban public spaces in the world are "outdoor rooms," where a plaza or park is framed by surrounding buildings that act as "walls." The activity mostly takes place in the central space, but the buildings define the central space's character. The more consistent the surrounding buildings, the stronger that character.
On the other hand, if the focus is the individual buildings, then it's more interesting to have a wider variety of styles. No one wants to see an art gallery where every painting is the same, after all.
Historic plans envisioned the Mall as a singular space among neoclassical buildings, with the Capitol as major landmark. But that idea has given way in recent history to much more individualized buildings. Besides the Hirshhorn, there's the the National Museum of the American Indian and the under-construction National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
It would be nice to have a great public space and a variety of architecture, but unfortunately the two visions are mutually exclusive. Urban walls need consistency, and sculpture gardens need variety. The more we push in one direction, the worse the Mall will function as the other. So which is it?
Urbanistically, neither option is necessarily better than the other. The Mall is such a large space, with such large buildings, that the normal rules of Jane Jacobs urbanism don't generally apply. There will be few corner stores or sidewalk cafes no matter what, and no mixed use.
I like the American Indian museum, and I think I would have liked the Hirshhorn bubble. But I'm not sure I'd sacrifice the Mall's overall character for too many more standalone masterpieces. Either way, it would be nice to make a decision and then stick with it.
What do you think?
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.
Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison circulated on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.
There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.
It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.
Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.
People and cars are forbidden from using the top floors of many public garages in Montgomery County.
Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.
In 2011, photographer Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.
"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.
Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they freaked out and packed up.
To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.
That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.
In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.
Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.
For more examples, check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring.
"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.
Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."
The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.
"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.
Downtown Silver Spring is anchored by the Civic Building. Rockville Town Center has its library. Wheaton, meanwhile, will have the Montgomery County Planning Department. If the revitalization of Wheaton is going to succeed, it'll need much more than a government office building.
Last month, the Park and Planning Commission made a nonbinding agreement with Montgomery County to build their new headquarters and a town square on Parking Lot 13 at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, for which the Montgomery County Council set aside $55 million last year.
A new headquarters would be a big improvement for the Planning Department and Department of Parks, whose current home in downtown Silver Spring is a aging, cobbled-together building I jokingly call the "Fortress of Planning." But the county's decision to locate it at the core of downtown Wheaton gives these agencies some pretty big shoes to fill.
Done well, the headquarters could be a catalyst, drawing people and investment to the area while serving as an example of everything Montgomery County stands for. Done poorly, it'll be a black hole, sucking the life out of Wheaton and hampering its redevelopment. How can we Montgomery County get this right? Here are a few suggestions:
Mix it up.
The current concept is to build a 150,000-square-foot building that would contain the two departments' headquarters, a credit union, a day care center and an underground parking garage. A second building could later be built behind it with apartments and ground-floor shops.
That seems a little backwards. After all, the headquarters would directly face the new town square, which would be a more desirable location for retail than farther up the block as proposed. Restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating could help add life to the square, while putting offices there that close at 5 pm would just create a dead spot.
Montgomery County should follow Arlington's lead. Its located its Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development and other government agencies in Courthouse Plaza, a complex with ground-floor shops, restaurants, a movie theatre and a farmers' market surrounding a pedestrian mall. While the space isn't as robust or lively as Clarendon next door, it's active throughout the day and the week and serves as an anchor for the larger neighborhood.
Engage the public.
Planning isn't the sexiest government agency. Little kids don't idolize zoning clerks the way they do fire fighters and police officers, and with one exception you won't find many television shows about planners. Nonetheless, planners play an important role in shaping our communities, and the new headquarters provides an opportunity to tell that story.
One example of how to do that is the House of Sweden in Georgetown, which houses the embassies of both Sweden and Iceland, plus offices and a conference center. Designed to reflect the Swedish ideals of openness, transparency and democracy, the building is open to the public and hosts exhibitions, talks, and concerts showcasing the nation's arts and culture.
The Planning Department already holds public events like last fall's open house or their annual speaker series. These events, usually on weekends or during the evening, could help activate the building outside of the Planning Board's twice-weekly meetings.
It would be cool if the building's design could make those activities visible from the street, the same way that the House of Sweden's lobby opens to the Georgetown Waterfront. It could include a small gallery to showcase the latest projects, allowing residents to find out what's happening in their community while, say, going out for dinner.
Design for a statement.
Most modern public buildings are unremarkable and undistinguished. For every gorgeous, inspiring edifice like the Civic Building, there's a Transit Center whose design prioritizes utility and little else. That's not acceptable for an agency committed to improving the the county's built and natural environment.
In 2011, the District of Columbia moved its Office of Planning and other agencies into Waterfront Station, a mixed-use project on the site of the former Waterside Mall in Southwest. Designed by renowned local architects Shalom Baranes Associates, Waterfront Station earned LEED Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council due to the use of energy-conserving features like a green roof and shading devices to reduce heat gain from sunlight.
Like in Arlington, there are shops and restaurants on the ground floor, including a Safeway. The Office of Planning itself doesn't necessarily engage the public, as it's located on the 6th floor and you have to go through security to reach it. However, placing this agency and others in this complex still makes a meaningful statement about the District's commitment to urban revitalization and environmentally-sensitive development.
I've been skeptical in the past about the merits of relocating the Planning Department and Department of Parks to Wheaton, but now that it's basically a done deal, let's make this the best project we can. For decades, Montgomery County has been a leader in innovative planning, and now it's time for county officials to put their money where their mouths are.
The Kennedy Center yesterday unveiled an expansion plan to build 3 new pavilions, including one in the Potomac River, along with pedestrian bridges across Rock Creek Parkway and to the east. The project would partly alleviate some of the Kennedy Center's 1960s urban design errors.
It connects the 1.5 million-square-foot arts center to the river, as its designers originally imagined, and as many have proposed since. The addition will principally house the center's extensive music education classes, although it includes rehearsal space and some smaller performing spaces.
Designed by the office of New York architect Steven Holl, the $100 million plan consists of 3 pavilions. Two rest on top of a 3-story plinth, and the other one sits on a floating platform in the Potomac. Bridges will span Rock Creek Parkway to connect the landside and riverside sections, finally connecting the massive balcony of the Kennedy Center to the ground.
The plinth is the key to the project, allowing the architects to connect the addition to the new building without degrading Edward Durell Stone's marble box. Holl used a similar scheme to add a large addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Blending this plinth into the onramps of the Roosevelt Bridge creates the appearance that it is part of the landscape, with small objects on top of it. The plinth is stepped down on the land side, to let light in to the rehearsal spaces and create privacy amid the highway mess.
Down the ramps, the riverside pavilion will house a stage for small performances. Located right on the Rock Creek multi-use trail, it would break up a loud, boring stretch of the trail. Passers-by might find a show to linger at. Parents could bring kids to music classes by bike, then enjoy time to themselves without getting back into cars. Importantly, it connects the project to the Georgetown waterfront, meaning that a night at the opera might be more pedestrian.
It does not, by any means, eliminate the Kennedy Center's isolation, which comes from the I-66 spur that cuts a deadening trench into Foggy Bottom. However, lightly noted in one of Holl's watercolors is a pedestrian bridge to an unspecified destination. This might be the missing piece that would make the expense worth it.
Such a bridge would make the Kennedy Center accessible by foot from both sides. But it would have to be executed as well as the river-side connectors. If the bridge is not kept busy with activity somehow, like the floating pavilion does, it will not be well-used.
Rafael Viñoly's plan to create a public square was cancelled in 2005. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects.
The plan is considerably more modest than the previous expansion plan by Rafael Viñoly, which would have cost $650 million but patched together the urban fabric on E Street. Although this plan does not preclude that more ambitious project in the future, it fulfills some of aims of that design.
Therefore, this plan also opens the site up to more audacious rethinking of the Center's location in the city. For example, replacing the highway to nowhere with a high-capacity boulevard and filling in blocks recovered from the project would reduce the need for a multi-million dollar deck and expensive structural systems.
This new building looks to positively alter the riverbank, aesthetically and functionally. It is a positive step forward that avoids the pitfalls of a grandiose scheme. However Holl's design evolves, by the intended completion in 2018, could be the first phase of rethinking Foggy Bottom as a more human-scale environment and reconnecting DC's arts center to the rest of the city.
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