Greater Greater Washington

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Architecture


The winner of a design competition will build the WWI Memorial. Here's what that means.

Today, the sponsor of the World War I Memorial will choose the winner of its design competition, meaning we'll get a sense for what the memorial will look like in the end. Whether or not design competitions succeed depends heavily the work that goes into planning them.


Pershing Park and its memorial today. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The Memorial will go into Pershing Park, a secluded 1970s plaza at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House. Congress chose that location because it already has a memorial to General John Pershing, who led US troops in World War I.

The memorial sponsors sent out an open call for ideas last year. The winner will come from of one of the five finalists named in November 2015. After getting feedback, these five designers have revised their projects and submitted them to a jury of architects, historians, and politicians. On Tuesday (after a snow delay), the memorial commission will vote on the jury's choice.

Here's how design competitions work

Design competitions aren't part of the process for most buildings, but governments and other big institutions like them for major projects. They give those sponsoring the competition (and ultimately responsible for the building) a few options to choose from rather than picking a designer based on prior work and a business plan.

Every competition begins the same: with a design brief, a document that outlines what the sponsor wants. Then, they split into three basic formats:

  1. The most celebrated kind is an open competition where pretty much anyone can submit a design. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example, and the World War I Memorial is using this model.
  2. An invited competition, where a client looks at only a hand-picked few designers is the second type. The Lincoln Memorial is one outcome of this format.
  3. A slight variation on that is a qualified competition, where anyone can submit qualifications, out of whom a few get asked for designs. The Eisenhower Memorial followed this model, which is common for federal projects.
Most open competitions, including the World War I Memorial, have two stages. In the first, anyone can present their design in a very limited format. For the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the jury winnowed 1,200 entries to six finalist from a single drawing. Qualified competitions make the same selection by looking at past work or credentials.


Henry Bacon beat out one rival for the Lincoln Memorial, John Russell Pope. This design by Pope is closer to what the McMillan Commission envisioned. Image from the Library of Congress.

In the second round, open, qualified, and select competitions work the same. Each team works out a detailed conceptual design. In better competitions, the competitors work with the sponsor, review agencies, and constituents to refine the design. Then, at the end of this, a jury composed of stakeholders or designers picks a winner.

Well-run design competitions can have big upsides

Malcolm Reading, a design competition designer, who ran recent competitions for Gallaudet University, and the Guggenheim Helsinki, put it this way in an interview: "I would say that competitions are, in general, more meritocratic. The process itself, run properly, allows talent to rise to the top and a level of public debate and engagement that would not be possible with a direct commission."

The best example of this process working is the tightly controlled competition that brought us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Take a look at this booklet promoting the memorial. It outlines so much of what makes that design iconic: an apolitical remembrance of the dead, a list of names, and a site of personal reflection. That's interesting, because this is the design brief, written months before Maya Lin began her class assignment that eventually become an American icon.


Detail of Maya Lin's first-stage entry, showing visitors' experience at the center of the memorial and exiting. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lin realized these conceptual elements with brilliant clarity. But the competition's designer, Paul Spreiregen, had laid the groundwork for a minimalist design like hers to win. He wrote the brief to encapsulate the desires of the Veterans who commissioned it. Washington's design review agencies wanted something low, so he pushed for a landscape design in Q&As, and set up a jury of accomplished modernist designers.

History shows design competitions aren't a simple solution

Good outcomes aren't guaranteed. If a sponsor issues a bad brief, ignores problems with the site, or doesn't trust the jury, all hell can break loose.


The winning design for the World War II Memorial changed a lot. (Image from Friedrich St. Florian)

The sponsors of the World War II memorial imagined a huge project when they picked a design, including an underground museum in a floodplain. Both the design and what the commission asked for changed dramatically over years of controversy and costs.

The chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Richard Stilwell, fired the designers of the tragic winning scheme and instructed the local architect of record to execute a heroic diorama. A similarly heavy-handed client guided the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.


In the winning scheme for the the Korean War Veterans Memorial, visitors would have "walked home" between statues of troops. (Image from Lucas Architects)

The World War I Memorial designer has a lot of changes to make.

The World War I Memorial's process is mixed. The designers brought collaborators onto the design teams in the second stage for mid-point review, which is great. While the brief gives fewer aesthetic preferences than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's sponsors did, the goals of commemoration are clearer than other recent memorials.

But the memorial commission made a huge mistake when picking a site. After getting rejected from converting DC's World War I Memorial as a national one, the memorial commission went around the city's review agencies by getting Congress to pick the site.

The brief contradicts itself, encouraging designers replace the existing park because it is secluded, but also forbidding any activity-generating features and ignoring how this memorial plot connects living city around it.


Some WWI competition entrants have changed significantly already. Here's the first stage entry for "Plaza to the Forgotten War"

As a result, a surprising number of groups have spoken out against the competition. That includes the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the DC Historic Preservation Office, which led to designers needing to change their schemes significantly.


In the second-stage mid-review version, design now preserves more of the existing park. (Both images from Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

World War I has little political clout. Unlike World War II, there are no living veterans. Pershing Park has a lot of influential supporters. Whatever is chosen will change significantly. By proceeding without realistic about what they could do on the site, the memorial commission wasted the primary advantage of a competition: choosing a designer based on a concrete vision.

Much more goes into commemorating history than the spectacle of choosing designers. The jury, the site, and the ambitions of the sponsor are as important to a good outcome. In this case, the simplicity of competition seems to have hidden fundamental problems in the project.

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Architecture


When it redesigns its campus, Gallaudet hopes to pioneer architecture for the Deaf

The southwestern edge of Gallaudet University borders a growing urban center, but fences close the campus off. Now, the school is rethinking its design and redevelop some of its land to bolster finances. To do this, it's reimagining 6th Street NE as a corridor that zips together deaf and hearing communities.


Gallaudet's 6th Street gate is not exactly community-friendly. Photo by the author.

Gallaudet is using two projects to create the first urban environment designed for the deaf. First, it's redesigning its public spaces, including the 6th Street streetscape, the campus grounds, and a few small buildings. Second, it's developing four large parcels of land that front 6th Street NE.

As the world's only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet has a set of design guidelines the school calls DeafSpace; the redesigns will fit with both that and the 10-year master plan that zoning requires.


Base image from Google Maps.

Gallaudet wants new buildings and new ideas for tailoring its design to the Deaf

Gallaudet's main entrance on Florida Avenue NE is nearly half a mile from where Union Market, the neighborhood's new attraction, sits on 6th Street. Redeveloping the parking garages and auxiliary buildings there will tie the campus to its surroundings without harming its historic campus by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who also designed Central Park.


JBG's conceptual plan for the 6th Street development project. Image from JBG/Gallaudet.

A large part of the development plan has already started. In 2014, the school selected the developer JBG and architect Morris Adjmi; the team behind the Atlantic Plumbing project at 8th & V NW, to build 1.3 million square feet of building on the parcels.

Gallaudet has already used internal workshops and two design processes to pioneer a way of designing spaces for the Deaf. The school wants to stay innovative in this field as moves forward, so it's holding a two-part design competition to shape its public spaces.

For now, it's gathering input from neighboring communities and asking for designers to form teams with specializations like interaction design in addition to architecture and urban planning.

A panel will narrow those teams down to just a handful in October, and the teams will then submit rough designs for feedback from the student and neighborhood communities. After a round of revisions, a jury of experts will pick a winning approach in February.

Using a competition allows Gallaudet to draw on a range of expertise that goes beyond the immediate community, which is important given that this is the school's largest planning endeavor to date.


The Gallaudet master plan emphasizes connections towards the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro. Image from Gallaudet.

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

Gallaudet is promising vibrant streets and high standards of sustainability, both of which are now common in DC projects. But making spaces for deaf people will require designers to think a little harder than usual.

Gallaudet developed its DeafSpace guidelines when it realized its campus didn't suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets. The guidelines go way beyond the "universal design" requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of focusing just on patches for audiological deafness, uncapitalized, DeafSpace is custom tailored to culture shared by people participating in Deaf (capitalized) communities.

It's not an overstatement to say there's a distinct Deaf Culture. Many of our social norms, from how we say goodbye to what kind of art we enjoy, rely on hearing. The Deaf have different norms, and the way they talk is also different from English speakers. Although most deaf students can read and write English, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language, with different grammar, vocabulary, and dialects.

In sign language, a single hand sign changes meaning depending on where the signer makes it, its orientation, movement, and what their facial expression is. To communicate in ASL, you need to see the whole upper body. A bar with low, intimate lighting will kill an ASL conversation the same way loud background music does for the hearing.


DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

Since Deaf Culture prefers clear vision and generous personal space, those are the conceptual building blocks. Sign language requires people to stand further apart and use more space, so, hallways have to be wider. Signers have to keep their hands free, so in DeafSpace, there are as few manually opening doors as possible.

If a deaf person can't see through a door, they can't tell if someone's in a room, so windows are helpful. But at the same time, an ASL user can spy on a conversation through that glass. In this case, translucency balances the competing needs. In general, reflective surfaces on cabinets or walls a deaf person might often face help with spatial awareness. Even paint helps: blue walls help hands and faces pop no matter the skin tone.

DeafSpace is a distillation of these needs and solutions into what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander calls "patterns:" generic rules and forms that a designer can combine to create a multifunctional, comfortable space. The leader of the DeafSpace project, Hansel Bauman, sees it as a way of designing spaces around Deaf interactions and experiences.

But DeafSpace has few patterns that apply to open areas and urban space. Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater? There are a lot of new issues open spaces present. I think bringing more brainpower to these issues is why Gallaudet is holding the design competition.

Plus, Bauman wants to take the concept further, to design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities. That might seem basic, but between a tendency to stick to financially proven conventions or get lost in an artistic vision, it's easy to forget the human interaction behind the built environment. The competition could bring this idea some much needed attention.

Tailoring an urban space for Deaf experience may force competing teams to get back to basics about how spaces facilitate interaction between people. Maybe the competition will let designers to reexamine the patterns of design for a sidewalk cafe or a multi-story building's front door.



The Flipboard Cafe in Melbourne, Australia has complex connection to the street. Brolly Design

Gallaudet's decision to open up its campus to a pedestrian-friendly, dense 6th Street is an extremely promising step. One step further would be taking the focus on buildings as amplifiers of social interaction and applying that design across the city.

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Development


This map takes another look at "urban" vs "suburban"

Last month, I used housing density to map the real boundaries between "urban" and "suburban" in the DC area. But what if you took other factors into consideration? This map looks a little different, but still shows that there's more "city" in the region than what's inside the DC line.


How economist Jed Kolko would classify "urban" and "suburban" parts of the region. Map by the author with Kolko's data.

My maps are based on research from Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, who mapped several other metropolitan areas around the country. He reached out to me with his own data for the DC area, which is available on his website. While I only looked at housing density as a measure of urbanism, Kolko included several other factors, including the density of jobs and businesses, how many people go to work without a car, and the presence of multi-family housing.

Compare Kolko's map to my map below. One big difference is that his analysis only goes to the zip code level, while I used Census tracts. That makes my map is a little finer-grained, focusing on neighborhoods as opposed to larger areas. And while he agrees that there are "urban" places well outside the District, Kolko's analysis finds fewer of them, particularly in Northern Virginia.


My earlier map, looking solely at housing density.

Kolko classifies all of the District, Arlington, and Alexandria as "urban," even areas that are pretty spread-out and arguably suburban in character, like the Palisades in northwest DC. Like me, he also includes several older communities in Maryland that originally developed around streetcar lines and as a result look very similar to urban neighborhoods in DC, like Hyattsville, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.

My map also identified many newer communities that are gaining more urban characteristics, like White Flint in Maryland or Tysons Corner in Virginia. Kolko includes several of those places in Maryland, but not a single one in Virginia. In fact, he doesn't consider anything in Fairfax County "urban."

I wasn't the only blogger to look at housing density as a measure for urbanism. NextSTL, a St. Louis-area blog, made a similar map and found that "urbanism" can be found on both sides of the city line there too.


Image from NextSTL.

What do you see in these maps? What factors do you consider make a place "urban" or "suburban"?

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Public Spaces


Fairfax trades a parking lot for a new park

Old Town Square in Fairfax used to be a park that nobody used because it was wedged between two parking lots in the middle of the city's small, historic core. Now it's bigger and more inviting, and it's helping Fairfax embrace its urban roots.


Looking towards University Drive and North Street. All photos by the author.

In its former life, the park was called Kitty Pozer Garden, and it sat next to a city-owned gravel parking lot with space for about 25 cars. A lot of that parking lot is now part of the new park.

The extra space allowed the city to install a splash pad where people can cool off in a fountain during the summer. The fountain has a waterfall feature, and there's seating all around as well as a new clock.

The Old Town Square site is sloped toward the intersection of University Drive and North Street, and in the future it will play host to public performances and other community events.


View of the park from across the street. Photo by author.

The new development and historic buildings around it help frame the park. Old Town Hall, which the city now uses for events, is next door, and both the City Fairfax Regional Library and some mixed-use buildings the city built in 2008 (which also replaced some surface parking) are across the street.


Photo by the author.

Like its neighbor Falls Church, the City of Fairfax doesn't have room to grow outwardly since it's an enclave within the much larger Fairfax County. The solution is to become more dense, and parks help ensure efforts to do so include green space.


New bike racks in the park. The remaining parking on the site is in the background. Photo by the author.

In a way, Fairfax is recreating the small, walkable core that it had before shifting its focus to move lots of cars along Chain Bridge Road and Main Street. Old Town Square, a project that was years in the making, will help bring people back into the heart of Fairfax.

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History


Gas stations were much better looking in 1924

Most gas stations these days are pretty garish, but gas stations weren't always so. Check out this vintage 1924 station, from Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.


Lord Baltimore Filling Station. Photo by the National Photo Company, via the Library of Congress.

This is the Lord Baltimore Filling Station, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW. It may not be truly typical of the era, but it's hard to imagine seeing as sharp-looking a gas station today.

It's not only the nice architecture that make this notable. It's also the urban design. This isn't as great for sidewalk life as a row of main street-style shops, but it's a building that fronts on the sidewalk. It could be a lot worse.

Do you know of any unusually good-looking gas stations? What makes them interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Architecture


What makes a city attractive? Here's how to know for sure

Six characteristics can make any city in the world beautiful, says pop philosophy group The School of Life. This video tells us what they are.

Alain de Botton, the author of The Architecture of Happiness, founded The School of Life as a kind of think tank for everyday life.

According to the video, whether a city is pretty or ugly hinges on its balance of variety and order, how much life is on its streets, whether it brings people close together while keeping them comfortable, how much mystery exists within it, the scale of its buildings, and whether or not it's unique.

The video says these factors come from fundamental human preferences. They make it obvious that a city that's close-knit and vibrant is better than one that's full of parking lots and "soulless" skyscrapers.

DC stacks up great in some ways, and could be better in others

DC is very compact, and it's built to a human scale. For example, the video talks about squares making people feel contained but not claustrophobic, and we have our own version of squares in circles and pocket parks.

On the other hand, while many of us love the L'Enfant City, it lends itself to planned districts where there isn't any mystique. And as the video's narrator tells us, "Excessive order can be... a problem. Too much regularity can be soul destroying. Too much order feels rigid and alien. It can be bleak, relentless and harsh."

How would you apply some of these attributes of attractive cities to improving the Washington region?

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Development


Hired to redesign a street, children make magic

This video shows the magic that happened when school children in Quebec got a chance to reimagine a street, as part of a school project. They cut space for cars and added land to play games and grow gardens, making the street a better public space.

If you're like me and don't speak French (big thanks to contributor Agnes Artemel for her help!), here's a translation: The video is called "Student planners." In re-creating the street, the students made it amenable to more modes of transportation and narrowed the part for vehicles. They also brought the speed limit down to 12 km/hr and built space to play games and grow gardens.

It's inspiring to see that intuitively, these kids designed a public space to accommodate all kinds of needs.

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Transit


Long Branch is primed for revitalization, but it needs the Purple Line to make it happen

For some neighborhoods, the Purple Line is more than a transit line. Without the Purple Line, revitalization might not happen in Long Branch, on the border of Silver Spring and Takoma Park.


The location of Long Branch. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

Long Branch has long been an immigrant hub. Tens of thousands of people from Central America, West Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere have moved to the area in recent years, attracted by low-cost housing and economic opportunity. Nearby Langley Park is widely known as Maryland's International Corridor.

But the neighborhood is also isolated from opportunities in the larger DC area. While it's a mile away from the revitalized downtown Silver Spring, Long Branch continues to struggle with crime, disinvestment, and a lack of economic opportunities.

Laying the groundwork for a new Long Branch

Attempts to give Long Branch new life have come in fits and starts. In 2002, the Long Branch Task Force began planning for how to bring down street crime and code violations in rental housing, both of which had become rampant. Two housing organizations with close ties to county government renovated hundreds of units nearby, preserving affordability for qualifying residents and providing resident services such as after-school programs.

But there's been little momentum in Long Branch's commercial core, centered on what planners refer to as Long Branch's "superblock," centered on Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road. While Flower Avenue is a lively, walkable street that already attracts people, Piney Branch is a commercial strip designed for heavy car traffic, with oversized lanes and retail parking lots that doesn't match Flower Avenue's forward thinking.

Commercial landowners who have failed to invest in their properties over the years would see increasing land values with two Purple Line stations, at Piney Branch and Arliss Street and at Piney Branch and University Boulevard. With Purple Line trains passing down the center of Piney Branch Road, they'll finally have an incentive to remake the area as a more walkable urban place.


Arliss Street will get a Purple Line station (if the line is built). Photo from Google Maps.

To attract and shape redevelopment, Montgomery County passed the Long Branch Sector Plan last year. A theme of the county's planning approach is a "road diet," redesigning Piney Branch Road with a median and wider sidewalks to create a safer pedestrian environment. As a light rail line that runs in the street, the Purple Line can build on existing neighborhood connectivity and not create new impediments.

The plan also creates a "commercial revitalization overlay zone" for most of the town center. This is one of the new overlay zones in a revised 2014 zoning code designed to encourage higher-density, mixed-use development in many locations around the county where high volume transit exists or is planned.

Meanwhile, the City of Takoma Park is leading the Flower Avenue Green Street project, which will make this walkable street even better with traffic calming features, improved sidewalks and advanced stormwater management.

Long Branch needs the Purple Line to stay on the right track

The Purple Line's two stations in Long Branch will solidify the groundwork that the county has laid there. Long Branch is already a transit-dependent community; ridership on the area's eight existing bus routes is significantly higher among Long Branch residents than elsewhere, and household car ownership is sharply lower than other suburban areas.

The Purple Line would put important job centers like Silver Spring, College Park, and Bethesda a short train ride away, instead of a long and inconvenient bus trip as it is today. It will also makes Long Branch more attractive to investors, meaning residents will get the amenities they need and that Long Branch will become a more pedestrian-friendly urban district, which is what the county wants.

The effect the Purple Line will have on Long Branch is also important at the state level, as Maryland has started to recognize that transit that links inner-Beltway communities is a must if we are to avoid suburban sprawl.

However, new Governor Larry Hogan could stop this project altogether, and his intentions aren't clear yet. Much is at stake for Long Branch and other neighborhoods along the International Corridor as they wait to see if the new governor takes the logical next step to overcome blight and unlock economic opportunities for residents.

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Pedestrians


The neighborhood where everybody "jaywalks"

When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.


Drivers stop to let a man and his dog cross East-West Highway. All photos by the author.

East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George's County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.

When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump 'N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.

South Silver Spring is now one of the region's youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.


Parents run across East-West Highway with their kid.

As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.

Even though it's fairly narrow, it's still designed like a high-speed commuter route, even as more and more people are walking and bicycling in the area. In some places there are no sidewalks, and the two crosswalks between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are each a quarter-mile apart, at least a five-minute walk. Even when you get to a crosswalk, the signals are timed to move cars through, making pedestrians wait for up to two minutes to cross.


People line up to cross East-West Highway at one of the few stoplights.

So people choose to cross where it feels convenient, or safer. In four months of non-scientific observations, I noticed that everyone seemed to cross in a few specific places. I started crossing there as well, and realized that most drivers will stop for you. And when I drove out of my building's garage, I always waited before turning, knowing that someone might be crossing.


Where to cross East-West Highway. Stoplights are in red, popular informal crossings are in blue. Click for an interactive map.

But this isn't ideal. A century of training people not to walk in the middle of the street means that nobody, including drivers, expects this to happen. Thus, informal crossing points aren't as safe as formal, designated places to cross that pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can all recognize. And the unpleasant experience of walking in South Silver Spring depresses foot traffic, which hurts both existing businesses and prevents new ones from opening.

Even if it wasn't built for walking, East-West Highway became a place with lots of walkers. It's time for this street to adapt. More crosswalks would be a good start, as would filling in the missing gaps of sidewalk. More stoplights, or pedestrian-only signals called HAWKs, would be even better, as would a median where people could wait while crossing.

Yes, these things might cause additional delays for drivers. But as one of those drivers, I'd rather have a slower, safer street with more places to shop and hang out. As its surroundings become more urban, East-West Highway is a highway in name only.

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