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.
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?
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:
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.
This gives the HPRB more latitude in deciding what happens to the property.
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.
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.
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.
To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti’srenovation 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.
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.
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.
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.
Westover Place residents will be protesting the presence of pedestrians at Ward circle Thursday morning during rush hour. But I don’t want to speak for them. Here’s the call to arms they left on the AU Park Listserv:
TRAFFIC IMPACT DEMONSTRATION
A coalition of neighbors surrounding American University will be gathering
together this Thursday morning, May 26th from 8:30 am to 9:00 am to walk around
Ward Circle, crossing Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues several times to
physically demonstrate the impact 600 or 700 students will have on traffic, if
AU puts the number of beds it wants on the Nebraska Avenue parking lot.
Almost 21,000 vehicles use Mass. Ave. daily and about 24,500 use Nebraska. And
yet, AU’s flawed traffic study, which they are presenting to the Zoning Office
to get approval for their beds, claims that adding to the pedestrian traffic
load will have no impact on traffic at the circle.
Help us show the city AU is wrong.
If we can get a large number of residents to walk around the circle several
times, wearing buttons that say “Stop the AU Campus Plan” and have a couple
more stationed on the sidewalk with signs that say “AU Plan Causes Gridlock”
“Honk if You Hate Gridlock” and put large “Stop the AU Campus Plan” in the
center of the Circle, our case will be self evident. Everyone will see
firsthand the traffic gridlock and noise pollution that will result if AU gets
We need your commitment now. Join with your friends and neighbors to really do
something to get our plight noticed and have a little fun. We’re not just paying
lawyers to make studied arguments. We’re standing up for ourselves and using
our feet to fight for our neighborhoods!
We’re meeting just inside the gate of Westover Place, in the front courtyard of
4300 Massachusetts Ave, behind the guardhouse at 8:30 Pick up your buttons and
those of you who want signs can get them. Then we’ll go up to the Circle and
cross the street.
The guard at the gate will be alerted. Secret Code is “Stop AU”. There are
several guest parking spaces behind the Mass. Ave. wall which will work if we
Yep, the issues here do seem pretty self evident. So, if you’re in the area, think about talking to the poor folks. But just do mind to not inconvenience drivers. It’s their street.
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.