Tag Archives: american university

Architecture Local

Washington College of Law animation

I came across this animation of the new Washington College of Law. I think SmithGroup did a very good job with the brief they were given and the attitudes of the HPRB. The only thing that could be improved is the lawn fronting Tenley Circle, which could still become an exceptional space where law students could interface with permanent residents amicably.

In a related development, however, the DC Court of Appeals found that the Zoning Commission miscounted the number of students added to the “Campus,” i.e. the residential portions includes to be 1,000 people higher than claimed. The Zoning Commission will have to reconsider this issue.

Construction continues at the Tenley Campus.

Local

Arguing the sand from under their homes

The strongest criticism to American University’s East Campus project has come from some neighbors in the adjacent Westover Place private community. Their case against the plan, however, is eroded by a development fight thirty-six years ago, where their own homes were the development threatening to spoil Northwest’s character.

Just as some residents are fighting the potential of AU’s campus expansion, so too did an earlier generation fight the development of the parcels that abut the five-acre parking lot that AU wants to turn into a leafy complex of low-rise residential buildings.

A substantial amount of opposition has arisen in Westover Place, a gated complex of rowhouses between Massachusetts Avenue and Foxhall Road. They have been the most vocal and ANC 3D meetings, insisted that AU build its buildings next to other people’s homes, and it was the meeting point of this summer’s traffic protest.

But in 1977, it was the threat of Westover Place that was vexing locals. According to a September 25th, 1977 Washington Post article: “And to the north of this, adjacent to the 5-acre university parking lot, Kettler Brothers Inc., the giant development company that built Montgomery Village, has already cleared more than eight acres where 149 town houses will be constructed. Houses in this development, Westover Place, will sell from about $135,000.”

In the article, entitled “Bulldozers at the Estates,” Phil McCombs reports on arguments and characters not unlike the current fights over American University’s expansion and other developments in the area. Just as before, opponents are appealing to a right of first arrival, but the article lays bare the hypocrisy in living in a development while fighting a development because it will have the same effects your house did. The rowhouses of Westover Place and similar developments paved over Northwest’s last open spaces that seemed so essential to the “rural” character of piedmont Washington.

Similarly to the opposition to the 1960 Tenley Library and the 1941 Sears Roebuck, an enormous to-do was made over the development and yet both became established elements of the community. At that time, however, the changes seemed signified the end of something unique. McCombs quotes the ANC3 Commissioner Polly Shackelton bemoaning the change:

“Here you have these fine established residential neighborhoods, which will be impacted with increased density and traffic and all kinds of things that really could be very damaging,” she said. “I think in a way it’s too bad we don’t have a comprehensive plan.”

She said that development of the Rockefeller estate, for example, “will be devastating because Foxhall Road is already crowded. With 100 new houses there, I don’t know how we’ll deal with it.”

The problematic idea here is “establishment:” that because a neighborhood has reached any level of development, it should be maintained as it is. Are the current residents who now enjoy this property more justified than their neighbors who lived there in 1977, or estate owners who lived there in 1917?

read more »

Local planning

DC HPO says the Tenley Campus is a District

The Historic Preservation Office has released their recommendations for the Tenley Campus ahead of this Thursday, the 27th’s, HPRB hearing. In an unusual decision, they have advised the HPRB to approve the current design, and also to declare the entire campus as a historic district. The Tenleytown Historical Society’s nomination did not ask for an all-encompassing district, but rather a single landmark designation for the entire campus. Their reasoning:

Guidance provided by the National Register suggests that campuses should generally be considered districts, although there are smaller campuses that consist of little more than a central building or two and surrounding space. In the present instance, a district better accommodates the different origins and ages of the major contributing elements of Immaculata, in a manner similar to the often varied neighborhood historic districts.

I find this reasoning plausible at face value. It’s also not unprecedented.  Gallaudet’s campus is a historic district, and Georgetown University may be. The details are more complicated, however. Gallaudet’s district covers much more territory and more historic buildings. Other, similarly sized properties that are not schools have been named landmarks. Indeed, the district only includes three-and-a-half buildings:

The historic district should be designated with the following three buildings considered to contribute to its historic character: the original Immaculata Seminary, i.e., [the 1904] Capital Hall, including its 1921 rear wing; the 1921 Chapel; and Dunblane. The three 1955 buildings should be considered non-contributing, as beyond the campus’s period of significance and representing a phase of school expansion distinctly different architecturally and functionally from the founding era. The 1921 garage should also be considered non-contributing because an addition has considerably altered it and diminished its integrity, nearly doubling its size and closing its original vehicular openings. The sense of clustering campus buildings surrounded by and enclosing landscape, as well as the site’s traditional orientation of, and relationship between, buildings should also be maintained and preserved

Dunblane has been renovated multiple times and burned once. It is unrecognizable from whatever form it may have had. I am fine with leaving a form or mark on the campus, but there is no reason to preserve the building itself if the equally altered garage can go.

I do not necessarily understand why they chose this designation.  I have some conjectures:

  1. It is the result of negotiations between AU and the other parties.  A district designation would most likely preserve the rear green space in perpetuity, but give some design flexibility to AU.
  2. This gives the HPRB more latitude in deciding what happens to the property.
  3. It is easier to justify a district designation than a full landmark designation, given the historic resources.

I do not know the minds of the HPO, but I hope that the reasons for the designation are closely interrogated before the HPRB makes a decision.

As seen in the images, AU recently revised their plans to include a  common area at the front of the building, released a traffic report, and also revealed a much-improved (planometrically) North Hall. Both images courtesy AU. 

 

 

Architecture Local

Don’t Just Preserve History at Tenley Campus, Interpret It.

With a more creative approach to preservation, American University’s plan for its Tenley Campus could produce better urban design and a more compelling presentation of the site’s history.

Capital Hall and its lawn. Image: Wikipedia.

AU has agreed to preserve several structures on the site: the a former farmhouse called Dunblane House, Capital Hall the main building visible from Tenley Circle, and a Chapel. Together, these buildings form an axis that the Historic Preservation Office has insisted on preserving.

The Historic Preservation Office is right to emphasize this axis; it is probably the most interesting part of the site. The architects at SmithGroup have worked within these requirements to create a private quadrangle between the old house and Capital Hall, which looks good so far.

But AU has also decided to build on the footprints of the existing 1950s buildings and not construct anything that would obscure Capital Hall. The buildings are preserved, but no part of the campus will feel different from the others, even if they are in a slightly different style. The new buildings offer no key to understand on the site they inherit.

 

An abstracted amphitheater frames the Getty Villa. Image: The Consortium/Flickr

To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti’s renovation of the Getty Villa. They combined the pragmatic need for an an entry stairway with architectural promenade that helps visitors understand the museum’s curatorial approach. Treating the 1970s replica of a roman villa as an object in a collection, stairs and pathways frame the building in a sequence that calls to mind an excavation. The stair gives visitors a lens with which to understand the building and clears their minds of the drive out to Malibu. read more »

Architecture Local planning

AU’s Tenley Campus is Pinned to the Past

American University’s plan for the Washington College of Law not quite right. Designed to minimize conflicts in the short-term, the current plans are not the right kind of development for Tenleytown.

While AU continues to present its east campus plan before the Zoning Commission, they left out plans for the Law School campus at Tenley Circle, promising to submit them in August. But even with that deadline far off, it is possible to tell that the design is wrongheaded. The site is more urban and has more potential than the East Campus site, so it must be held to a higher standard.

Last year, when AU announced a plan to relocate the two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro and at the intersection of Wisconsin and Nebraska Avenues, the potential for progressive campus seemed overwhelming. As at East Campus, political expediency got in the way of good design. The plan is a recapitulation of suburban design principles hemmed in by unwarranted preservation concerns.


Site Plan as of June. Image courtesy AU.

What is good about the design is how it pairs the program to the site. The law school has a non-residential program, where faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school. Many maintain jobs downtown, requiring a direct link into the city, which the metro can provide. Bus lines in eight directions fill in the transit gaps including an express bus on Wisconsin Avenue, which received a TIGER grant for more improvements. It would be very easy to graduate without ever parking a car on local streets.

It is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue. These have been struggling for years, although most storefronts are occupied as of July 2011. The project could energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field. The project might add a few customers too, since most students don’t have a meal plan.


Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.

As of July, the designs do not meet of the location’s potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus: objects in relation to each other, but not in relation to the city. As the ground plan has evolved, its forms have become more sophisticated, but its relationship to the streets has remained pinned to the footprints and the outdated ideologies that prescribed them. read more »

Architecture Local planning

American’s Unexceptionalism

While American University’s campus plan is a net benefit for Ward 3, the architecture currently proposed for the campus is mediocre at best. Beyond the land-use planning, East Campus and North Hall’s proposed buildings offer little in terms of aesthetics. The spaces are disorganized and the forms are uninspiring. On the outside, the buildings don’t relate the street well, and the facades present foggy contextualism.

Instead of well-executed buildings, the design revolves around appeasing neighbors while important aspects are left undeveloped.

For East Campus and some of the Main Campus buildings, AU hired Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm with offices in Alexandria. They have designed a large dorm at Catholic University, Opus Hall, similar in style and form to AU’s proposed facilities. Other design work was executed by the university’s large in-house architectural group and the firm of McKissack & McKissack. read more »

Local planning

East Campus is Still a Good Idea

American University’s campus plan goes before the Zoning Commission on June 9th. It’s imperfect, but the plan still deserves support.

Last May, I wrote in support of the plan to build a residential complex across Nebraska Avenue from AU’s main campus at Ward Circle. Over that time, the design has changed significantly. In response to overarching objections raised by some neighbors, the design has taken on less of an urban character than it originally had, which reduces its potential. Nonetheless, with architectural alterations, it will be one of the most important developments in Ward 3.

As part of a larger strategy for growth and consolidation of its school, American will replace a parking lot with six buildings of two to six stories. 590 beds, a bookstore, admissions offices, classrooms, administrative spaces, as well as some retail. The benefits for AU have been argued over many times; I’ll let AU speak for itself. But the benefits of the expansion to the neighborhood and the city are public business.

The new facilities will bring students out of neighborhoods. Currently, AU undergrads are spread out, with roughly 2,000 of 6,000 living off-campus. Some of those students do so by choice, but AU only has room to house 67% of its students. Many juniors and seniors have to look to the neighborhood for a place to live. The East Campus would pull students from the neighborhood and the Tenley Campus. Better residential facilities would mean fewer students spread out in the neighborhood, fewer noise disruptions, and less of a demand for vehicular commuting.

That reduction in traffic is no small thing. The new facilities adjacent to the central campus mean fewer trips for students and faculty alike. AU is also reducing the total number of parking spaces on campus, and has promised to expand its existing transportation demand management program. Even so, AU’s transportation study found that its users

The rest of the vehicles are commuters passing through the ward circle area. The three avenues in the area, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Massachusetts currently serve primarily as automobile routes. The new buildings offer the potential to reorient the circle for those who live and work in the area.

Rather than gnarling traffic, as opponents have insisted, the slight uptick in pedestrian activity caused by the new buildings will force drivers to pay better attention to their presence on this urban street. The potential for more stoplights and a redesigned circle opens the opportunity to reduce speeds and dangerous behavior, likewise making the area safer for residents of all ages.

Through commercial frontage and foot traffic, Nebraska Avenue would become a pleasant place for locals to enjoy. Leaving the interior of the campus for students, a commercial perimeter would become another node in the geography of Upper Northwest. It would never become as dense and vibrant as Bethesda, let alone Tenleytown, but as a tertiary urban center, it can merge into the neighborhood.

Finally, the scheme laid out in the university’s plan continues to facilitate the economic activity of American and its affiliates, estimated at $415 million,. Although academic institutions do not pay taxes for noncommercial properties, the Examiner reported last week that students and faculty bring money and talent to the area when they come to the region’s universities. By building on its land efficiently, AU will be making an optimal contribution to the city and enlivening the streetscape through the benefits of density.

There are potential negatives, which AU needs to mitigate. However, in their effort to compromise on objections, AU has layered the new buildings in greenery and minimized certain urban features, compromising potential, while still not satisfying opponents’ demands.

For example, a 40′ buffer of greenery adjacent to Westover Place feathers the campus into the neighborhood, but it’s not good on all four sides. Adding a similar barrier of impenetrable greenery along Nebraska Avenue will separate the campus and retail from the sidewalk. It requires creating a second, separated walkway that will reduce the very urban characteristic of unplanned interactions. It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city.

Worsening the Nebraska Avenue elevation, the most recent plans call for a roadway to be punched through building #1 to the interior campus. A roadway in that place would disrupt the crucial urban space at the sidewalk. Instead, the plans should return to the right-in, right-out entrance on Massachusetts Avenue presented in the March 18th Final Plan. This is similar to the one at Westover Place, the Berkshire, and other nearby driveways.

At the least, the university could build on their plans for the Mary Graydon Tunnel and design the proposed road as a woonerf, prioritizing pedestrians in a roadway that runs through what is the students’ front yard.

Likewise, AU should not be advocating for a new actuated signal on Nebraska Avenue. Instead, it should build timed signals that guarantee AU students the opportunity to cross as frequently and in rhythm with the city’s traffic. A new stoplight, combined with the recommended changes to Ward Circle, would make the area safer than any phystical barrier by limiting the incentive to jaywalk. If a physical deterrent is necessary, planters between the street and the sidewalk should be sufficient, as at Bethesda Row.

Finally, the project should serve as a catalyst for alternative transportation in the area. Bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue would mean better safety and better quality of life for students and neighbors alike. On campus, the administration already promotes a progressive Transport Demand Management plan, with dedicated ZipCar spaces, Capitol Bikeshare, carpooling assistance, shuttles, and SmartBenefits. But without adequate facilities, the full benefits of cycling and bus transit will not be realized.

Smart Growth refers to planning that is appropriate not only at the local level, but across multiple scales: architectural, local, metropolitan, and regional. AU’s expansion plan, which would consolidate students, tame traffic, and create a new node of community, works at the larger three scales. Where it fails is in the way that it addresses the street and human scale, compromising enormous potential for solutions that will please no one and will require remediation in the future.

The Zoning commission should endorse AU’s 2011 Campus Plan with alterations at the architectural scale.

Local

AU Dorms Earn an Easy A

This post was originally published in 2010 on Greater Greater Washington.

With its 2011 Campus Plan, American University has a once-in-a-century chance to reshape Upper Northwest.

The Plan offers two opportunities to local residents. The first is for a beautiful, sustainable, and safe Nebraska Avenue. The second is for a diminished impact on the lives and communities of neighbors. However, in order to reach a mutual solution, residents must give up outdated concerns over traffic flow and urban density.

The Campus Plan, as presented in May, only builds on university land. In addition to the relocation of the law school to Tenleytown, American proposes adding 2,000 new dormitory beds, constructing of a handful academic buildings, upgrading athletic facilities, and vacating leased properties.

Most significantly, the plan would partially eliminate the vast parking lot on the east side of Nebraska. In its place, administrators are asking to build a few dormitories, a row of townhouses, and an eventual “signature” academic building. Even more so than the relocated law school, the dormitory upgrades will benefit the neighborhood.

Housing AU’s students poses problems for administrators and locals alike. The university currently has 6,124 undergraduate students, with only half students housed on-campus. The remaining half live in houses and apartment dispersed throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. Even on-campus housing is less than ideal. Students live in cramped triples and in the Berkshire apartment building.

Having students live in the surrounding neighborhoods causes complications and occasional conflicts. Among other things, some students drive to campus. Moving more students into walking distance will save energy, reduce needless traffic, and cut drunk driving. But more importantly, it may help diffuse tensions between locals and students.

AU is offering a variety of housing styles in their new buildings. Suites and apartment style living join most of the social benefits of group houses with the conveniences of dorms. Moreover, with nicer facilities and fewer cramped rooms, students will be even more inclined to live in university housing. Once they have rooms to party in, students have fewer reasons to form off-campus party houses and fewer reasons to negatively impact the neighborhood.

The new beds will benefit the community by themselves. The buildings that contain those beds and the campus surrounding them can also benefit all other residents of the DC area, through good design.

West of Ward Circle, university buildings will flank Nebraska avenue, opening up potential for a remarkable space that extends the original campus onto the new one. Already, he elimination of the ugly parking lots will improve the area. Good design would make it world-class.

With thoughtful space planning and attractive details, the campus can be a joy to inhabit and pleasant for non-students to pass through. It is possible to design to minimize light and noise pollution. As for density, the floor-area-ratio for the whole campus will only increase from 0.5 to 0.8. There will be plenty of park space left over.

Redesigning Nebraska is in the mutual interest of the city and the university. Nebraska connects American’s campuses and it connects the school to the city. A boulevardized street with multiple pedestrian crossings, improved bicycle facilities, and a usable Ward Circle would transform Nebraska from a dull arterial to the great avenue planners imagined it would be.

The ANCs, neighborhood groups and the university need to work together to craft a plan that matches American University’s needs with a refined implementation that benefits the community. Constructive dialogue, formal commitments, and community benefits will make an acceptable plan into one tat could be a model of academic planning.

Local planning

AU’s plans for Tenleytown up for debate

Tenley Campus on a sunny day

American University is developing their 2011 campus plan, which will guide growth for the next decade.In effect, the plan is also an understanding between the neighborhood and the university about what the part of the city they share should look like in 2020 – and 2060.

In addition to some new buildings on campus AU proposes two major changes: First, the university would erect several buildings on some underused parking lots near campus, which I’ll discuss in a later article. The second proposal would relocate the growing Washington College of Law to the Tenley Campus, a facility between Yuma and Warren streets on Wisconsin Avenue at Tenley Circle.

In the abstract, the relocation should benefit the neighborhood and bring more life to the southern part of Tenleytown. The current location of the school is in an autocentric and distant office park on Massachusetts Avenue, a poor location for a professional campus. However, whether the new building benefits or burdens the community will depend on the quality of its execution and the policies with which the administration operates the school.

Currently, around 800 students live on the Tenley Campus, most of them taking part in the Washington Semester program. They occupy a buildings built for the former Immaculata School, which American purchased in 1987. A handful of those structures are designated landmarks, which AU will preserve; others are forgettable midcentury structures, which AU will demolish to handle the 2,500 students and faculty of the law school.

The site has tremendous potential to make Upper Northwest more walkable and more sustainable. Moving the law school closer to the Tenleytown-AU metro station will reduce the net amount of traffic along Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues. To get to the current law school building, students and faculty can either drive to the generous parking garage, or take the AU shuttle from Tenleytown.

That access to the Tenleytown metro is especially important to these law students, because most live outside the neighborhood and merely commute in for the school day. Likewise, the Immaculata campus sits right on several bus lines — and a potential streetcar line — that will receive efficiency improvements through TIGER Grants.

As a side benefit, the new school would put more foot traffic along the southern block of Tenleytown’s retail area. The current shuttle buses isolates students from neighbors; the three-block walk down Wisconsin would put them face-to face on the main strip. The steady stream of students and faculty would patronize stores and restaurants and justify streetscape improvements that will make Tenleytown nicer for everyone.

On Nebraska Avenue, a well-designed campus would significantly improve the urban architecture of one of DC’s monumental boulevards. Against the other streets, a good architect would be able to make the building disappear into the trees that line the perimeter of the campus. Because the university has no plans or even a design architect yet, the possibilities for integrating the school into the neighborhood are vast. The campus plan is the right opportunity to ask for them.

For all of the potential benefits, the College of Law could still hurt the neighborhood. American could ask for an introverted suburban campus and receive an eyesore and a traffic nightmare. The negotiation between the ANC and the university administration will allow for specific terms of approval to be stated. Design guidelines, operations requirements, and community benefits can be spelled out ahead of time to ensure that both sides gain from the construction and trust is not broken.

American University’s plan is good at first glance. Whether it is good for the next fifty years will depend on how well residents and the university work together to make a lasting improvement to the city.

Cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.

Local

North of Tilden: Construction Phases

It’s spring, and that means it’s construction season. Particularly in Tenleytown, a number of big projects have finally started, some after 6 years of delays. The headlines:

  • Planning: AU presents their twenty-year plan to ANC 3F meeting. Hilarity ensues.
  • Design: Shalom Baranes designing Babes site.
  • Approvals: Chevy Chase Park will gain field lights.
  • Demolition: If the Van Ness Walgreens is coming in, the gas station has got to go.
  • Staging: Fences are up at Wilson.
  • Site Preparation: Janney sets up temporary classrooms.
  • Foundation: A 4-story condo is going up on Harrison street
  • Structure: The Tenley-Friendship Library is no longer a hole.
  • Commissioning: The placeholder building at Tenleytown is complete.
  • Commercial Fit-out: The 4900 block is getting a pizza place.

And the stories below… read more »