Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Waterfront Verdict: TBD

Last night developers and dignitaries, architects and planners from around the city descended on Southwest to hear the grand unveiling of the latest redevelopment plan for the Southwest Waterfront.  The standing-room-only crowd has left, but the future of our front yard remains undetermined.

The proposal is very promising.  Summaries and high-lights of the proposal can be found in the City Paper, The Little Quadrant that Could, and at  More information about the project is at the development team's website.

However some critical components are cause for concern and many other important considerations need to be clarified.  The Washington Post published an excellent piece to stimulate discussion, using the Arena Stage redevelopment as a model for the Waterfront.  The following is a brief review of what Southwesters might further examine as the development scheme moves forward:

Viewsheds: The new plan achieves a much better job of addressing viewsheds to the water from Maine  Avenue and M Street than previous iterations.  However water viewsheds that extend deeper into Southwest will be terminated or notably impaired, such as those along G and 10th Streets.  To some extent this is the unavoidable result of the mid-century realignment of the street grid west of Maine Ave.   More on Banneker later.

Traffic Circulation:  The transportation investments are remarkable; arguably without precedent in the DC region.  Successful integration of pedestrian, bicycle, Metro, Streetcar, personal vehicle and bus traffic within and around one of the most complex land use districts around will be critical.  Will the volume of pedestrian traffic from the Waterfront station effectively channel and dissipate along existing and proposed sidewalks without spilling into vehicular lanes or neighboring private property?  What about pedestrian traffic from L'Enfant Plaza Metro, 10th Street/National Mall, the Tidal Basin?  How will the Streetcar successfully navigate along a boardwalk no wider than that which exists today?  9th Street and its terminus appears designed specifically to facilitate vehicular movement from the Freeway.  Maine Street already congested from the Freeway to Southeast DC: how will the dramatic increase in vehicular traffic be accommodated?  Will vehicles instead take the more local 4th and P Streets?  Where will buses park?

Physical Connections to Residential Southwest:  The development team focused a lot about the arrangement of buildings activities that would go on within the development and the harbor to the west, but very little to no time was spent on the east side of the development.  Will the development, as the Post worries, be insular?  While the architect generally conveyed that retail/restaurants will surround the whole development, it's unclear if it will be active.  Some tenants, specifically professional retailers like banks and are desirable because of their strong financial capacities.  But they stimulate little street-level activity or are of limited local interest.  Another indicator of connectivity, and geographic priorities is where the entrances for the high-rise tenants (residents, hotelers, office workers).  Plans indicate they are focused on the cul-de-sacs and harbor-side.

Building Density & Heights:  Lead architect Stan Eckstut delicately argues that by allowing 130 foot buildings throughout the development, the team could provide a remarkable 60% of the development as public open space.  This common urban development argument for increased height implies a tradeoff: horizontal or vertical bulk.  Certainly, the waterfront suffers from a dearth of activity and a series of slim towers is more consistent with Southwest's form and a desire to maintain a street-level connection to the water. But perhaps Southwest should question the level of added density that is being thrust into the plan by the District government and the developer is both feasible and appropriate?  The Washington Post review particularly argues that the building heights adjacent to Arena Stage are troubling.  Indeed, should this civic landmark be dwarfed by a high-rise hotel?

Building Skin and Other Design Trademarks:  Exterior materials, textures, and colors should not be inconsistent with the existing Southwest design template.  The Post worries that the proposed buildings appear "to be oversize boxes of brick or paste-on faux stone, with a bland mix of sleek contemporary and historical references and generic, cookie-cutter design."  Although Eckstute suggested that the buildings would be setback on higher floors to open up viewsheds, it's unclear that the marginal setback would be significant enough to prevent corridors from resembling dark alleys.  Importantly, while the presentation featured quaint models of narrow European streets,  the buildings proposed in Southwest are much taller.  Although DC's soon-to-be built City Center project will use this design feature precedent in America for this concept is limited at best.

Perhaps what merits the closest examination is the "whimsical" lighthouse (Eckstut's term).  The lighthouse would directly compete with the Washington Monument.  It's unclear that there's any precedent for lighthouses anywhere in the metropolitan DC region, much less Southwest.  The only comparison perhaps is the lighthouse-inspired tower at Washington Harbour.  And at the end of the day, the pastiche lighthouse is unnecessary, as the development will be visible from miles away, presuming the development retains the planned row of 130' (plus 10+ foot penthouses) tower.

Market Square/10th Street: While this precinct is the most removed from residential Southwest, in some respects it is the most important given it's the critical link between Virginia and recreational spaces on the east and the National Mall and office precinct on the north to residential Southwest.

As Eckstut noted, Market Square represents a notable departure from anything that exists in the city.  As with many elements of the SW plan it could be a wonderful novelty, but pitfalls remain.  Seattle's Pike Place, the model for the Square is a derivative of the eclectic Pacific Northwest culture.  Today, it is a leading tourist destination.  Can this concept be successfully transplanted to Washington.  What characteristics would make it appealing to Southwesters?

While the activities within the Square are important, the connections to the east and particularly the north are critical to the success of the entire project.  The utilitarian nature of the existing easterly connection vastly curtails non-vehicular circulation and activity: how will the development overcome these obstacles? On the northern approach, both buildings that frame the passage along 10th Street significantly impinge on this key corridor, compromising the goal of various public-private efforts like the National Capital Framework Plan to reconnect Southwest to the Mall and downtown DC.

The Southwest Waterfront plan is a enormously complex development.  This preliminary review is an attempt to briefly touch on the issues that Southwesters may want to focus on in the coming months and years.  Traffic, shadowing, and environmental studies are a few of the important analyses that should be forthcoming.  Review, analyze, comment, and critique.  But ultimately, Southwest would be well advised to embrace the project.  While other developments continue to remain on the shelf, this an unparalleled opportunity for the betterment of all Southwesters.  Monty Hoffman,  CEO of lead parter PN Hoffman has assembled a very experienced project team; it clearly shows in the quality of the plan, particularly considering all the constraints and competing interests.

The next public opportunity for the community to review and comment on the plan will be at October's Southwest Neighborhood Assembly meeting on October 25 at St. Augustine's Church.  Come prepared.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Makes SW, SW (part 2 of 2)

Parking - shielded by bushes in various arrangements 

A discussion of Southwest would not be complete without the mention of automobiles.  Planners in the 1950’s and 1960’s went to great lengths to accommodate the car.  In fact, all the large residential developments here are organized around, or built above, ample parking.  The recently-demolished Waterside Mall sacrificed the 4th Street connection to the National Mall for a large underground parking garage that stretched from 3rd to 5th Streets.  Perhaps most damaging, the 395 overpass was constructed, separating the residential and office zones of Southwest DC from one another.

Le Corbusier's Unite Habitation
Wikipedia’s article on Le Corbusier notes that “one of the first to realize how the automobile would change human agglomerations, Le Corbusier described the city of the future as consisting of large apartment buildings isolated in a park-like setting on [columns]...  Le Corbusier's theories were adopted by the builders of public housing in Western Europe and the United States. For the design of the buildings themselves, Le Corbusier criticized any effort at ornamentation. The large spartan structures in cities... have been widely criticized for being boring and unfriendly to pedestrians.”  Indeed, while Southwest proves successful on many levels, the blocky unornamented masses of most Southwest residential buildings are uninspired, and building entrances are located for arrival by car and not on foot.  I always find it curious that the townhomes facing M Street SW each have a gate with a sign indicating that it is the rear entrance -- with the front entrance facing the interior court and parking.  I also scratch my head at the scale of some of the spaces: the vast and underutilized plaza at Tiber Island could host a military parade!
Tiber Island Plaza

Newer development in Southwest have attempted to right some of these wrongs, for example by restoring 4th Street SW and lining it with interestingly-massed and handsomely-ornamented buildings.  The scale of the pedestrian spaces is more human, and the buildings embrace the metro that arrived in Southwest in 1991.  A bicycle rental station was installed at 4th and M Streets SW just this week.

What do I hope to see from PN Hoffman and EEK?  Truly I cannot say it any better than what is stated on the project website, “As the maritime front porch to the Nation’s Capital, the redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront should embrace a clean and active river; eliminate barriers and provide public access; produce an active urban riverfront and park system; showcase distinctive cultural destinations; and build a strong waterfront community. The redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront will set a new standard for waterfront urban development.”  Let’s hold the developers to their word.

Southwest in the News

Name Your Stop: Spurred recent efforts to rename Metro stations in Southwest and Near Southeast, media outlet, TBD asked readers to submit their own station name alternatives.  An animated Google map shows that the possibilities are endless in our politically-sensitive city.   Among the suggestions: "Waterfront/DDOT/1950s Urban Renewal/M St/Ft McNair/Arena Stage/Marinas/Titanic Memorial/kthxbai".  Obviously most veer on the witty end of things, but transportation planners and community leaders accross the city are seriously concerned about comprimising the simplicity and clarity of the origninal approach to Metro nomenclature.

Marine Development: Many people have been keenly looking forward to what Southwest Developers PN Hoffman & Co. have in store ashore. The Washington Post profiles the "Murky Waters" for Southwest's live-aboard's.

Free-thinking on the Freeway: Longing forward to a SW without the SW Freeway? TBD weighs the odds.  Also, Stay tuned for a "Point"-- "Counter Point" set of posts on BUILT Southwest DC in the near future.

Youth, Violence, & Vigils

This summer a number an unusually high number of incidences have rocked the Southwest community, from large social disturbances to assaults and murders.   The past Saturday, a candlelight vigil was held for the recent Half and P Street murder; another vigil is being planned to commemorate the anniversary of a 2008 Southwest killing.  Beyond commemorations, responses to the disturbances in Southwest have varied.  Fortunately, in part because of Southwest’s strong legacy of integration and remarkable depth of socially-conscious entities, most incidents continue to be isolated and don’t create social or physical division. 

Nonetheless differences are notable.  In the past, individual residential complexes have reluctantly resorted to more extreme solutions, such as perimeter gating to improve security by limiting access and permeability.  This summer however, residences have focused on increased or more strategic monitoring.  One case is Tiber Island.  While the most effective solution might be to gate off the property, Tiber Island believes there is a tremendous amount of value in having an open and accessible environment--particularly for greater Southwest, but also Tiber Island.  So Tiber Island has changed the routes for it security patrols and is considering a large investment in high-resolution cameras.  In addition, there is an effort to coordinate private security among the residential communities along 4th Street, south of M Street.

At a higher level, Southwest's community organizations have also been grappling with these issues. 

Monday night Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells headlined a meeting led by a number of community entities including two ANC Commissioners, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, and leaders from several of the affordable housing complexes.   The meeting was ostensibly organized around a $250,000 Sasha Bruce grant for "job-readiness training, mentoring, college-readiness prep, enrichment and health/wellness" targeted for youths 14-20 years old.  Meeting highlights included:
  • Tommy Wells announcing he was having success in getting the council to  permit community social workers to have access to police information on juveniles and how he was trying to get the curfew hours moved earlier. He also told of the $250,000 grant that enabled service providers to provide older SW youth crime prevention services.
  • MPD Lt. Nicholas Galluci explaining how the police knew every juvenile in SW and were having success preventing violence, with emphasis on K and L St. SW
  • The head of the public housing police department who recommended residents call 411 (not the housing police) to tell the city of troubling activity.
  • The head of the DC Housing Authority reporting on the installation of new lights – courtyard, front porch, back porch, etc. – on Housing Authority property at Syphax Village, James Creek, and soon at Syphax Gardens and Greenleaf Gardens.
  • DPR representative Tim Murphy recommending the Wilson High class in Alternatives to Violence as an applicable model.  The class explores the successes of successful peacemakers such as Mandela, King, Day, Gandi, and Schweitzer.
It's not clear what, if any conclusions or next steps were identified; I was unable to attend the meeting.  Feel free to report any additional details of the meeting by adding comments.

Ironically, at the same time a lively and informative discussion on youth development was taking place at the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly's community meeting.  A spectrum of Southwest's educational leaders were invited to discuss their initiatives, proposals, and suggestions. 

Veronica Hegens of the Water Front Child Development Center spoke of an entrepreneurial day care center that is leveraging a number of community assets including Fort McNair and churches near the 1547 1st Street SW child center.  She expressed how she is working to develop a 360 degree safe haven that involves parents, sociologists, and psychologists. 

Amidon-Bowen Elementary School principle LaShante' Knight discussed her many efforts to encourage parental and community involvement, such as a ‘fall fitness day’ with parents.  She noted there are a number of ways community members (and parents) can volunteer, from mentoring to office work.  Knight heartedly conveyed that the students have the understanding that the community doesn’t like them (due to the youth-crime perception), but they are “determined to prove everyone wrong.”  She also is looking to develop an enlivened PTA.  Gratefully, one of her ultimate goals is to make Amidon the first choice for Southwest families.

Speaking of, another featured guest was Ward 6 School Board candidate Melissa Rohan.  The upwardly-mobile Southwester spoke of her strong belief in public schools and on reinvigorating Southwest schools in particular.   Audience members warmly embraced Rohan who argued that investing in public schools was much preferable to having to fall back on corrective or disciplinary programs.  Discussion on recommended approached followed.

One hopes that this tumultuous period will mark a turning point for Southwest youth and community development rather than the anniversary of a dark one.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes SW SW? (part 1 of 2)

by guest commentator Ilan Scharfstein
As the SW community prepares to engage with the planners (EEK) and developers (PN Hoffman) of the Maine Avenue redevelopment, I spent some time thinking about what makes the Southwest Waterfront the unique neighborhood that it is.  By better understanding the defining characteristics of our neighborhood, I reasoned, I can better analyze the EEK proposal that will be introduced at Arena Stage this Wednesday evening.  Most people from other neighborhoods in the city who visit me here are surprised by what they find.  “It’s so different here” or “It’s so quiet and peaceful here” are two of the most common reactions.  Why is that?

It strikes me that there are five notable characteristics of the Southwest Waterfront.  For one, we have the luxury of large open spaces, plazas, fountains, lush landscaping, and large distances between buildings -- not to mention access to a river.  Second, the large residential communities pair high-rise buildings that are set far back from the street with low-rise townhouses that reinforce the street wall.  This provides a comfortable scale for walking along the street, and allows the aforementioned sunlight to shine in.  Third, there is a clear separation of retail space from residential space: rather than buildings with ground floor retail, Southwest was planned with a neighborhood shopping center -- the former Waterside Mall -- at its heart, while the residential buildings remained residential from top to bottom.  This is quite different from, for example, more recent developments in Columbia Heights, U Street, and the Ballpark area, which all contain mixed-use buildings.  Fourth, the plan broke with L’Enfant’s road grid, creating numerous superblocks and cul-de-sacs to restrict through traffic.  Finally, the architectural expression of the buildings is unique in the city.
Waterfront Tower -- architect I. M. Pei

This architecture itself has five principles, originally formulated in 1926 by the influential Swiss-born architect and planner Le Corbusier.  One, buildings are lifted off the ground plane on concrete columns (the most muscular examples are at Tiber Island and Carrollsburg, but virtually all the 1960’s-era Southwest buildings display this).  On a practical level this allows for cars to more freely navigate under the buildings, but it also expresses the fact that the facade is free-floating.  This leads to points two and three, a free plan and free facade.  Put another way, the facade and interior plan are largely independent of the building structure, allowing for walls and windows to be placed where the architect desires rather than where the structural engineer requires.  Point four, ribbon windows: Le Corbusier advocated for long horizontal glass expanses because these proved the point that the facade was non-structural and free-floating.  Locally, large expanses of glass are more in evidence than horizontal stretches of windows.  Point five: roof gardens that compensate for the footprint taken up by the building (reference the expansive gardens on the roof of Harbour Square).
Pilotes at Carrollsburg
Pilotes Reinterpreted at Waterfront Station

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Urban Renewals

Mid-Century Renewal Plan, with Cloethiel Woodard Smith
During the middle of the 20th century, in a controversial process Southwest was given a clean slate.  Almost all natural and built landscape features were cleared.  In it's place, the period's most well-regarded professionals and policy-makers were asked to create a new community.  It would become the largest, most complete urban renewal effort ever undertaken.

Southwest's new shape was remarkable departure from preexisting 19th century development patterns, patterns which recently have been boldly resurrected and repackaged as "new urbanism" and "transit-oriented-development."  The former promotes active, pedestrian-oriented streets, typically laced around a moderate level of density (rowhouses and 3-5 story buildings) and often typified by neo-traditional architecture.  The latter encourages concentrated development around transit, typically fixed-rail.

Both of these recent interpretations of urbanism have emphasized undulating street-front walls at ground level.  By encouraging developments to uniformly extend to the front of their property line, both pedestrian and building activity is focused, thereby creating inter-connected and lively areas.  This approach has become today's standard design template: examples include  Capper-Carrollsburg,  Capitol Hill OasisClarendon Commons...and ostensibly the Southwest Waterfront.

Capper Carrollsburg Senior Building #2
While this historicist approach toward development has been popular and in many cases successful, Southwest may not want to wholeheartedly accept it as the best template for our waterfront area.  Southwest's urban form has many distinguished and desirable features that for various reasons have not been well capitalized or appreciated.  We will examine these features in the coming days.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Community Coordination

Southwest is blessed with many civic-minded residents.  Indeed Southwest's long-standing volunteer corps is undoubtedly one reason why Southwest has been one of the region's most diverse yet stable and successful communities over the past fifty--and arguably two-hundred years.  Buttressed with many well-intentioned and capable leaders, Southwest civic institutions have effectively responded to new threats and opportunities.  

Over the past several years however, many community leaders have become increasingly concerned at the splintering of organizations and initiatives; a splintering that is compromising our ability to successfully introduce, discuss and reconcile what are often competing opportunities.  In many cases, these conflicts arise simply because of inadequate coordination.

This coming week there are at least three major general "all hands" meetings which overlap with many more specific meetings like a monthly condo board meeting.   Next week's general meetings include:
  • The Southwest Neighborhood's monthly community meeting, featuring Southwest's educational leaders (Monday)
  • A Youth Violence Task Force community meeting, supported by Tommy Wells (Monday)
  • PN Hoffman's unveiling of their Southwest Waterfront Proposal (Wednesday)
Southwest Waterfront Concept
While organizers of these general meetings are each targeting the same audience, none of the announcements were distributed more than a week in advance.  As a consequence, some of the 'specific' meetings are now being cancelled.  Attendance at the general meetings will be lighter despite the importance of the subject matter and the investment of the meeting organizers and speakers--many of which are volunteers.

Undoubtedly it is challenging to find ideal dates for events, but many of our major conflicts can be eliminated by better coordination.

Randall School Art Gallery Moves Forward

Corcoran proposal for Randall School site
As the Washington Business Journal reported yesterday, the D.C. Council just endorsed the transfer of the Randall School site from the Corcoran Gallery of Art to a joint venture led by D.C. development company, Telesis Corp and Miami-based CACB Holdings LLC.  As many of you will remember, Corcoran had planned to relocate their arts school to the Randall School building.  The move was to be financed by Monument Realty, who secured approval to add a residential component to the rear of the Randall site.

Like many Southwesters when this new arrangement first developed, Council members expressed some concern, but ultimately concluded this is the best option available.  While this proposal wouldn't return the School to a traditional educational facility, it would retain an educational component and provides additional advantages.

CACB holdings has demonstrated its interest and abilities in the community by artfully resurrecting the neighboring Capitol Skyline Hotel.   Since purchasing the property, CACB holdings has transformed the Art Deco gem into a hub of activity not only for visitors, but residents with an upgraded cafe' and a variety of programming from comedy nights to synchronized swimming contests and other popular pool events.

The new Randall School proposal would build a housing, hotel, and a gallery on the property, an arguably stronger mix of uses than the previous proposal.  Southwest has no shortage of housing.  Indeed the high proportion of housing is one reason why despite the density, Southwest has less pedestrian activity and retail opportunities than areas like Dupont Circle, Clarendon and Capitol Hill.  Integrating a hotel and a museum to the project better complements Southwest's existing assets by bringing new employment, retail, and cultural opportunities, supporting more daytime activity, and thereby increasing public safety.

The new proposal also provides an attractive set of public amenities, including landscaping for the Eye Street Park, space for community meetings, art exhibitions for Southwesters, a free art festival, free admission to the museum for Southwesters, and new sculpture on the traffic circle at H Street and Delaware Avenue.  The building program itself offers advantages: instead of projections into public space planned in the Corcoran development, the new proposal increases public space by partially reopening Half Street.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Southwest D.C. - a model for New York City

In the coming months, we will have the opportunity to help shape a defining development for Southwest and the D.C. region at large.  EEK Architects, led by the Southwest Waterfront developers have put together a compelling vision to redevelop the city's leading maritime center.   It features a variety of uses, structures, and open spaces.  To knit these components and draw people into the 26-acre site, the plan draws on design inspirations from around the western world.   At the same time, Southwest's own design template provides important precedents.

Several hours to the north, a renounced Danish urban planner, Jan Gehl is radically and thoroughly transforming New York City under the Bloomberg administration.  The concepts Gehl uses to describe this radical transformation are remarkably similar to those that characterize Southwest DC.

The Danish planner recognized earlier in his career that architects in Copenhagen had "started building buildings" without building cities.  He found this to be a retreat from the "garden city"tradition featuring "complexes of high-rises" where "everyone could see the garden and later, the parking lot."   Recognizing the pitfall, he "decided to make the public realm so attractive it would drag people back into the streets, whilst making it simultaneously difficult to go there by car"  "This phenomenon can occur outside in the garden, in the parking lot, in the common house, and along walkways."

As the plans for Southwest's waterfront develop over the next several months, we should carefully consider how this development will  integrate with and enhance Southwest's existing garden city template.

Posts in the coming days will further explore Southwest's basic "garden city" template and 21st Century additions to the fabric.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Upcoming Events

Southwest Waterfront Plan Unveiling: The PN Hoffman – Madison Marquette Waterfront Team will present the proposed redevelopment plan and seek community input for this signature mixed-use project on Washington, DC's waterfront. 
 The forum will be held at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW
  on Wednesday, September 29, 2010.   A informal information session & open house from 6:00 - 7:00 will be followed by a formal presentation and Q&A from 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM

Book and Bake: On Saturday October 16, the Friends of the Southwest DC Public Library will be hosting a book sale from 10 am to 3 pm.  The library is at 900 Wesley Place SW, near 3rd & K SW. Meanwhile, the adjacent Church of Christ is hosting a pancake breakfast, flea market and bake sale.  Enjoy free entertainment.

9th Annual Jazz Preservation Festival: On Saturday September 25, Westminister Church will host a free all day jazz festival featuring over 50 area musicians, as well as artists, vendors, food and horse rides.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Getting Things Started

Neighborhood Nomenclature: How should Southwest be identified?  Recognizing the importance of one of our foremost assets, the ANC recently voted to support an effort to add Arena Stage to the official name of Southwest's signature Metro station, Waterfront-SEU.  However some have concerns about the name-creep.

Helicopter meeting: Here's you opportunity to learn about all those birds buzzing along the waterfront.  MWCOG is sponsoring a study on helicopters: panel discussion is tomorrow night.

National's Finale: Last night's attendance dropped to a season low.  Only week game left!