Sunday, July 13, 2008

DC News: Planning a New Downtown

Last week, the National Capital Planning Commission released a plan for improving the downtown areas surrounding the National Mall. It focuses on four sections. They are the Federal Triangle (bounded by Pennsylvania Ave, Constitution Ave, and 15th Street NW), the Northwest Rectangle (the area between the White House and the Kennedy Center), the Southwest Rectangle (south of the Mall, between the Capitol and the Tidal Basin), and East Potomac Park (a good winter birding spot).

All of these areas are crying out for revitalization. Many of the downtown areas can feel cold and desolate outside of business hours, when the massive federal government buildings stand empty. When I first moved there ten years ago, it took a lot of trial and error to learn to avoid certain parts of the Federal Triangle – especially anything in the vicinity of the Reagan Building – because there are frequently long stretches without any public space. Here is how the NCPC characterizes the area (pdf):

The north side of Pennsylvania Avenue now enjoys a lively mix of commercial, retail, residential, and cultural activities, while the south side appears lifeless. The connecting streets between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues are typically deserted outside of office hours and are dominated by government buildings that are closed to the public. Attractive interior courtyards are used for parking and loading operations or closed off for security reasons.

On the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI’s operation and security requirements have prevented street-level public uses along the entire block. Security installations and the building’s unornamented International Style architecture exacerbate a fortress-like presence. Across the street, revitalization of the Old Post Office (OPO) building and adjacent glass pavilion has not achieved its potential.

Throughout the precinct, poorly landscaped building yards and the absence of a clear way-finding system, create a monotonous public realm. The parks, plazas, and commemorative spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue are showing their age, and the precinct's nationally significant art and architecture are inadequately showcased.
It is good that the planners recognize such problems and are suggesting steps to remedy them. Their solutions emphasize making a more pedestrian-friendly environment by breaking up some barriers to circulation and improving public spaces like the Freedom Plaza. They also suggest adding more museums and sidewalk cafes along Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street NW to give more people a reason to go there, even on weekends.

The plan also offers some interesting ideas for East Potomac Park (pdf). Among other things, it suggests cutting a canal through the northern end of the park and building several vehicle and pedestrian bridges across Washington Channel south of the dock area to increase access to the park. It also would add a Metro stop on the Yellow Line near Jefferson Memorial. It is not clear how the proposals for East Potomac Park would affect it as a birding spot. Birds like loons and grebes might be less likely to come up Washington Channel, but other than that I do not think it would make much difference, except that it would be more accessible.

I like where the NCPC seems to be going with their framework plan. How successful it is will depend on implementation. There are a lot of obstacles such as security concerns at federal offices and whether there will be funding to redesign all of the spaces. I hope that at least some of these proposals will be implemented. It would improve the downtown for both residents and visitors.

On a sour note, a country club has formed a "grassroots" campaign to oppose the Purple Line. (For those not familiar with the DC area, the Purple Line is a proposed light rail route that would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton, thus reducing strain on Metro's Red Line and traffic in the Maryland suburbs.) Their main complaint so far seems to be that the line would run through the country club, though they gripe about taxes too.

At least the streetcar plan seems to be trundling along.