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Posts about Urban Design

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?

We originally ran this post last year, but since the history hasn't changed we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Replacing the FBI building won't work without plans for a new Pennsylvania Avenue

A mixed-use development is due to replace the FBI building in Penn Quarter. Right now, the rules that will guide that six-acre redevelopment are stalling over a few issues. The biggest problem is the risk that the current draft ignores the best possible outcome: a Pennsylvania Avenue that devotes enough space to pedestrians.


Schematic (in beige) of the height and volume planners envision for the site. Image from NCPC.

In the next decade, the FBI will leave their downtown headquarters, swapping its current home at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW with a developer in exchange for for a vast campus in either Virginia or Maryland. Right now, government agencies, led by the National Capital Planning Commission, have to clarify what the government will allow the future developer to build on the land.

The new FBI headquarters will be expensive. The larger the development rights are, the better the deal the government will get. A bigger offer means the federal government will pay less money out of pocket, or even recover a surplus. So the government agency negotiating the swap, the General Services Administration, wants NCPC to permit as much leaseable floor area as possible.

While working on the guidelines for the swap, NCPC is also working with designers to re-imagine Pennsylvania Avenue as a lively mixed-use street with performers and sidewalk cafes. A busier street requires wide sidewalks. The FBI site does have a wide sidewalk now. However, that's on space borrowed from the lots the FBI building was built on in the 1960s. The GSA wants that space back for the deal.

NCPC's planners struck a compromise: they'd give GSA about half of the space back, which would mean GSA getting a feasible building that leaves generous room for outdoor restaurant seating, similar to I Street between the Foggy Bottom Metro and Whole Foods. Not satisfied, the GSA is fighting the guidelines, threatening to use an escape clause that lets it set its own rules.

This fight is missing the point: the only reason sidewalks are tight is because the roadway in Pennsylvania Avenue is ridiculously wide. Everyone involved knows this. They're thinking of changing it, but the planners have to act like it will stay the same.

Autocentric visions reshaped Pennsylvania Avenue


Pennsylvania Avenue cross section, if L'Enfant's vision existed today. Image by author with Streetmix.

At founding, Pierre L'Enfant and later surveyors laid out Pennsylvania Avenue's right-of-way to be 160 feet wide, with 40-foot sidewalks under a canopy of two rows of trees. That didn't last. By the 1902, the sidewalks had narrowed to 27 feet.

You can see how cramped this gets on the north sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets, especially where retail windows project into the street.


Between the Victorian "projections" and the 1970s trees set usually far from the curb, the sidewalk between 6th and 7th gets cramped.

In the 20th century, planners reimagined the street as an active monumental promenade with sidewalks bigger than L'Enfant imagined. They also assumed that space given over to solely cars could never decrease. So they borrowed space from the properties on either side of the right-of-way, demolishing the older buildings and mandating that new buildings rise a prescribed distance from the property line.

On the south side of Pennsylvania, Federal Triangle's designers went with 30-foot setbacks for a total of 50 feet of setback. In the 1960s, planners decided a large federal building should sit on the northern side 50 feet back from the property line, creating a plaza-like space of 80 feet. The current FBI building is the only part of that vision that was completed.


The 1960s plan imagined a vast promenade flanked by federal buildings. Image from SOM, created for the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue.

By 1974, planners had started to see how mixed uses bring activity to streets. So, the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan added residential, commercial, and arts buildings, but kept the setbacks for aesthetic reasons.


At the FBI building, the sidewalk is wide enough to allow three rows of trees. Image from Google Maps.

At the same time, historic preservation laws blocked demolition on the remaining old buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. That leaves the north side as it is today: massive sidewalks running discontinuously for half of the length of the road, and narrow sidewalks where the historic building still stand. It will never be complete.


In this diagram of Pennsylvania Avenue, dark green stretches are setbacks of 75 feet or more, light green are about 50 feet, pink are between 26 and 44 feet, and red are 25 feet or less.
Image from NCPC

The only way to make the sidewalks consistently wide would be to narrow the vehicular roadway. For the avenue-wide plan, planners are considering doing that. The catch is that because nobody has approved an avenue design with wider sidewalks, for the FBI site guidelines, NCPC has had to assume that building back at the legal lot line would leave only the narrow 27-foot sidewalk.

The full setback has some influential defenders: DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, the Committee of 100, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the landscape architects Elizabeth Meyer and Elizabeth Gilbert sitting on the Commission of Fine Arts.

Developers and the notable architect Richard Rogers have backed the GSA's request for a bigger building. The DC Historic Preservation Office has backed a building at the lot line as well. They don't care about the square footage, they want the plan to follow the L'Enfant Plan exactly as surveyed in the 1790s.

So earlier this month, NCPC split the difference and decided new buildings on the FBI block would stand back 30 feet, for a 57-foot buffer similar to the one across the street at Federal Triangle.

This half-hearted compromise sets a precedent that will make it harder to fix the design of the street later. It will probably also result in a worse land deal. NCPC has stated that if, in the future, the avenue redesign gives sidewalks a bigger share of the roadway, they could rethink the design of the FBI site. But a change made 3-4 years from now, after closing on the deal would effectively give the developer a large amount of area for free.

If we can move buildings, we can move the roadway

The details of the deal hide the biggest assumption: that the amount of space given over to cars cannot change and the sidewalks could never get wider. But the massive roadway comes from 1900s guesswork. Now, a growing body of research based on the roads that guesswork has created says narrowing the roadway is the only sensible thing to do.

The thing is, Pennsylvania Avenue could have 40-foot sidewalks, double rows of trees, fill out the block as L'Enfant envisioned, and have a cafe, all without removing a single lane of vehicular traffic.


Cross-section of the street, if a new building were built at L'Enfant's lot line. Image by the author using Streetmix.

All of the lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue are 11 feet wide. That plus the 12-foot median-slash-protected bikeway adds up to the expansive, hard-to-cross Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleven feet is a big, suburban traffic lane. Lanes of that size are never appropriate for an urban setting, wide open views or not.

First, narrow lanes would be safer. Wider lanes encourage speeding, and streets too wide for many people to cross on time. Whatever their intentions, the current configuration is designed for moving traffic, not taking in the view as a pedestrian.

Imagine a street for tourists, not traffic

To show what's possible with only the 160' right-of-way, let's do a quick exercise. Assume each direction needs on 11' lane for buses and trucks. That leaves six feet, plus the 12-foot median up for grabs. Plus, the current road is four feet off center, and the sidewalk trees are set further in than most streets. That adds up.

Of course this will require professional study, but we can use Streetmix to understand what's possible for a 21st-century street.


Just narrowing the vehicle lanes slightly make the sidewalks wider and the road more symmetrical.

I like the double row of trees some blocks currently have. Every block could have that in this design. I like the idea of having some outdoor cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue. This design has room for that. The monumental views are important; this design keeps the avenue symmetrical by moving the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway behind a barrier on the less compressed south side.


With six lanes at 9 feet wide, L'Enfant almost gets his road back. Image by author with Streetmix.

With a more adventurous nine-foot travel lanes, I was able to split out the road with bikeways in each direction, with barriers wide enough for bus stops, a roadway that's easier for people of all abilities to cross, and as a bonus, restore L'Enfant's dimensions.

And again, this is without eliminating a single vehicle traffic lane. Think of what the possibilities could be if that is allowed.

Narrowing the Pennsylvania Avenue roadway would allow for the sidewalks planners want for the FBI building site. It gives GSA a more valuable building to swap in its deal. And it restores consistency to the historic streetwall Pennsylvania Avenue had, before planners who'd never been stuck in traffic tore it up.

There's a joke in architecture that "there's nothing more designed than the site." That is, designers are used to working inside artificial parameters as if they're laws of nature. As a result, public is missing the only win-win scenario. Narrowing the road is the only way to meet historic, economic, and vibrancy requirements this project has.

At the least, the guidelines should include a stronger statement of support for a narrow road and a consistent streetwall to avoid setting this condition in stone.

No trends suggest 11-foot lanes are what DC needs in the future. The lack of this perspective by the leadership of the multiple agencies involved is a bad sign.

In the meantime, consider reimagining Pennsylvania Avenue with Streetmixand sent what you come up with to NCPC, along with any other comments on the FBI site's square guidelines: info@ncpc.gov

Links


National links: This week in pedestrian shaming...

Pedestrian safety campaigns in New York and Pittsburgh are kind of missing the point, just like Zillow did when it tried measure the best places to trick-or-treat. But Oakland's new transportation department is making some very progressive moves. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by FaceMePLS on Flickr.

Stop the shaming: The New York City DOT and the City of Pittsburgh are using flyers, guides, and even a dressed up grim reaper that talks to walkers to try to stop pedestrian deaths. The problem is that the campaigns blame potential victims, ignoring the fact that infrastructure isn't available for walking and roads aren't designed for safety. (Curbed)

Halloween metric botched: Trick-or-treaters tend to naturally identify the best urban design: it's easiest and safest to trick-or-treat in places where people drive slowly, where streets are narrow, where front doors are close together and houses have stoops. But in an attempt to quantify the best places for kids to enjoy Halloween night, real estate tech company Zillow developed an index that focuses more on home values and population ages rather than good urban design. (Slate)

Oakland's transportation turnaround: Based on policy changes the city has made in the last six weeks, you could argue that Oakland, California is at the forefront of a transportation revolution. The recently-formed transportation department has created a strategic plan, developed new parking policies, and moved traffic analysis away from a metric that just encourages more driving. The future is so bright, I swear I've seen the DOT employees all wearing shades. (Streetsblog California)

Just as good as St. Jane?: "Asset-based community development" is the process of creating an inventory of a neighborhood's strengths and organizing them together towards a greater good. Outside money and expertise will not help if the neighborhood is not first organized and aware of its strengths. Arizona State professor Otis White says this kind of approach is just as important to ones proposed by Jane Jacobs. (Otis White)

The perfect intersection: If an intersection is designed correctly, it can become a safe place for all road users. This article lays out 16 wonderful illustrations of ways to do that: there are bump outs, which narrow the streets at pedestrian crossings; speed tables, which raise the crosswalk for motorists to see pedestrians; and bike rails, which allow cyclists to stop at a light and stay on their bike. (Wired)

Quote of the Week

Pulitzer Prize winner Inga Saffron recently wrote about the impact Robert Venturi and Jane Jacobs had on modernist architecture fading in popularity:

At a time when urban renewal was mowing down vast swaths of American cities, Venturi and Jacobs championed the importance of maintaining older buildings. [Venturi] spoke about the "messy vitality," or complexity, that comes from a jumble of styles and urban facades. The phrase echoes Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet" performed by strangers who interacted as they went about their daily business on city streets. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Pedestrians


Three examples of great street design in France

On a recent trip to France, I had my eyes open for smart design. Three cities in particular were full of examples of how to make streets for people rather than cars. Here's what I noticed.


Rue de Trois Cailloux, a pedestrian street in Amiens, France. All photos by the author.

First, a small bit of context: the cities I visited were Amiens, Rouen, and Chartres, three regional capitals in northern France. Amiens and Rouen each have a little over 100,000 people, while Chartres has about 40,000. Here's where they are in relation to the rest of the country:


Image from Google Maps.

1. Amiens

Amiens is a small city known for its soaring Gothic cathedral, which is the tallest completed cathedral in France. The cathedral was built to house a relic—a piece of John the Baptist's skulland was built at such a grand scale to accommodate pilgrims who would come to see it. In Amiens, a large pedestrian street (Rue de Cailloux) cuts through the heart of the city, taking you through rows of trees and water features and past stores, bakeries, banks, and more.

At points, Rue de Cailloux intersects streets carrying car traffic, but the roads narrow so much at these intersections that instead of pedestrians waiting for a break in cars to cross, the cars had to wait for a break in the people walking to drive through.


Intersection of Amiens' pedestrian street with traffic.

When my mom and I arrived, we got stuck in a long line of traffic; I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it was because of the significant volume of pedestrians milling across an intersection like the one pictured below.


Cyclists wind down a street in Amiens.

2. Rouen

Rouen is another city known for its beautiful Gothic cathedral, which was painted by Claude Monet. A brief stop in Rouen to see the cathedral also meant stumbling onto a similar street. The Rue de General Leclerc in Rouen runs through the center of town and consists of two designated bus lanes flanked by a lane for pedestrians and cyclists.

Compared to Amiens, this pedestrian- and transit-oriented street wasn't as bustling or green. Tourists seemed confused about where to walk and the few passing bicyclists would swerve into the bus lanes, which are separated by a low gutter rather than a steep curb. But the bus passengers waiting at stops up and down the street showed that the design provides a useful alternative for bus transit compared with the traffic-heavy streets surrounding Rue de General Leclerc.

3. Chartres

Chartres, a suburb about an hour and a half outside of Paris, is a delightful medieval town crowned with yet another awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral at its heart. The cathedral soars above the small medieval town below it, whose buildings are generally only three or fours stories and whose streets are often only just wide enough to accommodate a car.

Ultimately, the grand structure serves to put the human scale of the medieval town center into perspective. And the automated bollard system set up throughout this center limits the presence of cars, meaning you can stroll the streets and ponder that difference of scale in peace.

When cars do appear on the winding, narrow roads of Chartres centre ville, they share the space with pedestrians and cyclists.

Is our region full of towns woven through with small medieval streets? No. But that doesn't mean cities like it can't learn from the scale and prioritization put forth by cities like Amiens, Rouen, and Chartres (plus, Annapolis is pretty close).

Given that the Arlington County Board recently approved pedestrian-only streets, and that such streets in other cities have been reversed due to low pedestrian traffic, these French examples give us good fodder to consider what makes or breaks a street that is not primarily used by cars.

The primary key to a successful pedestrian street, it would seem, is a city that designs streets so that pedestrians feel safe and welcome. As Arlington moves forward with their plan, it will be interesting to see how they implement parallel plans to encourage walking and biking, and therefore the success of their newly approved car-free zones.

Links


National links: How the highways happened

The US highway system is around partly because of a road trip Dwight Eisenhower took right after WWI, and if our leaders don't invest in our transit infrastructure, we'll have to sit back and hope for the best until they change their minds. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called "Flow," which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they'll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city's multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It's an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they've always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that's coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that's better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

"Drive-ins shifted the film industry's focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl."

- Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Development


The FBI building's new owner will be allowed to build tall, and D Street is coming back

Reconstructing D Street NW and allowing buildings taller than DC's usual height limit are likely at downtown's J. Edgar Hoover Building, once the FBI moves out. The National Capital Planning Commission's staff backed these proposals, and today the official commissioners will likely accept them. The staff left a third question, how wide the sidewalks should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, up for debate.


Photo of the J. Edgar Hoover Building site before its construction, with lot boundaries outlined in yellow. Photo from NCPC.

The single brutalist building sits on two parcels, called "squares," which D Street bisected before the 1960s. The FBI plans to trade the land with a developer (where it would move is TBD), and the NCPC's decision will make clear exactly what could be built on the land once the FBI moves out.

The first recommendation from the NCPC staff is to return the 70-foot wide swathe of land where D Street once ran to a public right-of-way. That doesn't mean this space will be a typical street. Since the rules are just shaping the building's mass, NCPC's staff left open the door open for other possibilities, like pedestrian-only and pedestrian-priority woonerf spaces between the two restored blocks.


The FBI site in the Pennsylvania Avenue special planning area. Image from NCPC.

The North block will be tall and dense.

The second rule NCPC is poised to adopt is that buildings on the large northern block, called Square 378, will rise to 160 feet. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act specifically allows buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to climb that high, measured from Pennsylvania Avenue. The 1974 plan that created these square guidelines has sculpted the surrounding cityscape, so although some buildings reach 160 feet by the White House, those buildings' bulk steps back in tiers several times away from Pennsylvania. The Newseum is a great example: it's only 90' at the Pennsylvania Avenue property line, but rises to 140' at the apartment building at the rear.


Maps showing heights around the FBI Building. Buildings to the west (left) tend to be taller. Map from NCPC.

Buildings on the north block also have to fill out much of the block on the first floor. Because of its size, the block will almost certainly end up as a few different buildings above grade. The 2016 D-7 zone caps offices and hotel density, but allows unlimited apartment density, and planners will likely insist on some mix of uses. Plus, with buildings aligned to the property lines, the likelihood of an internal semi-public central space, similar to CityCenter, is higher.

The southern block is wedged between priorities

The future of the southern, triangular block is more complicated because of the way Pennsylvania Avenue was reimagined in the 20th Century. In order to shape the scenic view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue symmetrically with Federal Triangle, planners want the new buildings to have horizontal setbacks, like New York skyscrapers. More importantly, the size depends on how wide planners choose to make the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.


The current building is set back 75 feet from the curb, which is enough for three rows of trees. Image from NCPC

The current FBI Building sits nearly 75 feet away from Pennsylvania Avenue's curb and 40 feet from the property line laid out in the L'Enfant Plan:

That's the result of a 1964 plan that envisioned the avenue as a grand federal space and nothing else. Providing space for parade grandstands was more important than street activity. Later planners went for a more modest setback, but recently, facades have risen close to the property line, as at the Newseum.


The Newseum is much closer to the street than the FBI building.

With a re-opened D Street and a 50-foot sidewalk, the south site will be small. Leaving a larger footprint seems like the best way to get an active ground level. Setbacks a few floors up would protect the views and leave a large enough footprint for uses other than high-end residential, at least at the lower levels.

The NCPC report leaves this issue up for debate, apparently because of a conflict between two roles it has to uphold. One is to preserve the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan that created these guidelines in the first place. The other is preserving the L'Enfant Plan, which says buildings should rise at the property line. In fact, the District's Historic Preservation Office feels that not building to the property line would have a negative effect on the L'Enfant Plan. Their objection might be a formality, but it's enough to leave it up for a longer debate.

It comes down to the roadway

NCPC's staff mildly recommends mirroring the setback on the south side of the street, at Federal Triangle, to create a more symmetrical streetscape and leave generous sidewalks to handle the crowds. Where buildings rise from the historic streets, like between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the 20-foot sidewalks can get crowded.

This rationale leaves out an important detail: the reason those sidewalks seem crowded is the width of the roadway.


L'Enfant's design for Pennsylvania Avenue had an 80-foot roadway, 30-foot sidewalks, and 10-foot buffers. Image from NCPC.

There's nothing sacred about that width. In the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a much narrower roadbed there. Then, at the cusp of the automobile age, the McMillan Commission and others decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue to make it more striking. As with the other roads widened in the wake of this plan, the reality of streets congested with fast moving vehicles was obscured behind glamorous renderings of grand boulevards.


The McMillan Commission and its successors widened the roadway to 107.5 feet. Image from NCPC.

The truth is that Pennsylvania Avenue will never be symmetrical. On the north side, multiple landmarked buildings rise taller than Federal Triangle. One side will have some street bustle, the other will be formal. It may be better to accept this asymmetry and design around it.

While part of NCPC considers what will replace the FBI building, other staff are studying how to make Pennsylvania Avenue more lively in the long term. If that's the goal, right-sizing the street is the best way to get the sidewalks to handle crowds. It wouldn't be the first time space allocated to cars in the early 1900s was returned: the two gravel paths on the Mall were turned over to cars for decades before pedestrianization in the 70s. The aesthetic impact remains the same.

NCPC planners will move on to finer grained detail with today's decisions out of the way. A reopened D Street and a dense north block are steps in the right direction. Planning the south block for a future where pedestrian space and monumental views aren't beholden to car traffic follows as well.

Housing


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Public Spaces


Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

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


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

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

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

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

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

1. Paley Park, New York City


Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

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

2. Bethesda Row Fountain


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

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

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza


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

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

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

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles


Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

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

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park


Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

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

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York


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

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

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia


Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

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

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


Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

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

9. This private park at Brown University


Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

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

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)


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

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

Small can still be great

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

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

Public Spaces


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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