Tag Archives: planning

Local Reno Park Project

The Giant Circle at Fort Reno

tenleytown parks 1902

I found the 1910 Parks Commission Plan earlier. Now I’ve been able to find a higher resolution version of the plan, albeit a little different. This one is from the original, famous McMillan Commission report. Click the images to see the whole city.

This is the first time a park at Fort Reno was proposed. Here, it’s imagined as a much bigger circular park centered around the now obliterated, high point of DC. The Black-populated town at Fort Reno was still pretty small; the streetcar had only arrived a few years before. Similarly, you can see that the Chevy Chase Land Company had only begun to make forays into the District. 

The Nebraska Ave and Yuma street parkways are visible. You can see how large they wanted Soapstone Valley park to be, extending up to 38th Street. They also wanted to acquire the slopes of Broad Branch Valley. That would have linked up with Fort Reno, as part of the first iteration of Fort Drive.  Below is a map showing the rights-of-way for the 1897 Permanent Highway Plan and existing roads.  

Is there anything else you see?

tenleytown highway 1902

After the break, a GIF, a GIF, a GIF, I say, a comparative GIF! read more »

planning

What we talk about when we talk about cities

urban renewal ngrams

urbanist ngrams

urban issues ngrams

When we talk about cities, we talk about suburbs.

Architecture Local

Roger Lewis on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This testimony from the NCPC hearings on the Height Limit is part of that series.  

Thanks to these historic limits, the nation’s capital has remained a uniquely memorable, low- and mid-rise city. From many places in the city, views of America’s most iconic, symbolically significant structures – the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House – have been preserved because downtown skyscrapers cannot be erected.

Yet there are places in the District of Columbia where height limits established decades ago are today inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining, a reflection of outdated planning and zoning practices from the early and mid-20th century. These practices were characterized most notably by designation of large areas – land use zones – within the city limited to predominantly one use and uniform height limit. Broad-brush, one-size-fits-all planning and zoning failed to take into account, within each land use zone, locational variations in topography, solar orientation, views and vistas, proximity to parks, adjacency to civic open spaces, and infrastructure, especially transit. It did not differentiate between mid-block properties and properties at major intersections.

Today’s city planning, urban design and architectural principles and techniques – such as computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – are far more sophisticated and effective. Broadbrush strategies of the past are obsolete. We now can engage in fine-grain planning, urban design and zoning. We can identify, analyze and designate specific sites in the city where increased building height and density make great sense aesthetically, environmentally, functionally, socially and economically. This “smart growth” approach can enhance the city’s urban and architectural qualities while yielding fiscal benefits for the city. Furthermore, enacted as an incentive bonus overlaying existing zoning in appropriate locations, increased building height limits – and density – can engender development of much needed affordable housing.

Where should height limits change? In the downtown l’Enfant Plan area of the District, including traditional residential neighborhoods, height limits should remain substantially unchanged to preserve the center city’s dominant character and skyline. But there are specific sites – such as the Southwest and Anacostia River waterfronts – where upward adjustment of height limits would be beneficial without jeopardizing the city’s historic profile. Outside the l’Enfant Plan area, many sites could be suitable for higher buildings, especially near Metro stations and major roadways.

The only equitable, professionally responsible method for identifying places to raise height limits, and for determining new height limits, is to create a detailed, city-wide plan, prior to any rezoning, based on a rigorous, comprehensive study. This is essential to avoid piecemeal, property-by-property relaxation of height limits through variances, exceptions and ad hoc rezonings, a process too often influenced by political and financial pressures. Because municipal and federal interests are involved, the building height study and plan should be prepared collaboratively and transparently by the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Many Washingtonians are apprehensive when anyone suggests modifying D.C. height limits. They envision Rosslyn-like skyscrapers rising all over town, ruining the capital’s historic image. Some believe that raising D.C. height limits anywhere would set precedents invariably opening the proverbial “barn door” to greedy developers in league with corrupt politicians, enabling high-rise buildings throughout the city.

But skeptical citizens need to understand that, through fine-grain urban design, prudent legislation and precisely targeted, well enforced land use regulation, the barn door will not and cannot be thrown open. Therefore, revisiting D.C. height limits requires not only a credible, city-wide planning effort, but also an on-going public education effort to help citizens recognize that legislation adopted over a century ago can be improved.

Roger Lewis, FAIA, is a registered architect and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. For over twenty years, he has written a column for the Washington Post. 

This post is a version of Lewis’ July 19th, 2013 testimony before Congress.  

 

Architecture

What can BIG do for the Smithsonian?

When I heard today that Bjarke Ingels Group will be producing a master plan for the core block of the Smithsonian Institution, I was not really thrilled. Their work is engaging and sharp, but it’s also can come across as trendy and disposable. The buildings I have visited feel cheap and unsubtle in their handling spaces. It’s personal taste thing, but I don’t like what they’ve built.

But then I remembered that the great thing about master plans is that you don’t have to follow them very closely, so you can keep what you want and take what you need. The drawings and guidelines are not permanent impositions on the urban landscape. They’re ideas. Ideas are cheap and BIG is good at rethinking basic  concepts in fresh ways, even going so far as to be able to propose how to realistically bring unconventional projects to reality. I don’t know if I would like to see Morphosis’s intervention in the Arts and Industries building, but it did cause me to look at the building again, to see its qualities and how it might be adapted.

Too much architecture in DC starts out tame and ends up lame. Sometimes its because of design review and sometimes its because of style anxiety. So, it’s important to start thinking big here, and dial it down when it comes to a serious proposal. So, I say we see what BIG proposes for what has to be the most heterogenous block in DC – The Castle, the Hirschorn, the Freer, and the Ripley Center – that’s most of the past two centuries’ movements – and let their ideas challenge whatever architects complete each project.

Local

Broad Branch Road could include all users

The badly deteriorated Broad Branch Road in northwest Washington could become a more complete street that will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers, as part of a much-needed restoration.

Winding west from Rock Creek to Chevy Chase, the 2-mile-long route does double duty for recreation and commuting. It’s necessary link between upper northwest’s neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park, and downtown.

Originally a market road for local farmers, most of its current infrastructure dates to the early 20th century. Patchwork fixes have only staved off a century of deterioration. Flooding has undermined the road’s substructure, most dramatically in 2011, when the bridge over Soapstone Creek collapsed. Since it needs to replace the roadbed anyway, DDOT has taken the opportunity to update the design for modern uses. read more »

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?

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planning Russia

In Moscow, a revolution for transportation

Велодорожки МГУ from Alexander Tugunov on Vimeo.

The city of Moscow opened its first on-street bike path in September. It’s a small sign of a strategic change in the urban development of a city that has become legendary for bad traffic.

According to the article, behavior on the trail isn’t perfect: people are parking in the bike path! Unthinkable! But, also unthinkably, the police has promised to enforce the laws and educate drivers. Now, when I lived in Moscow, I saw the city rip up Leningradsky Prospekt to convert it into a highway. That remains unchanged, but now dedicated trolleybus lanes will run along the highway. The entire transportation and land use strategies are being upended because the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and the Kremlin have realized that you cannot build yourself out of congestion with still more roads.

If there’s any doubt as to whether this is a token effort, Sobyanin’s comments here and there are explicit commitment to a complete transportation strategy. Take this interview on Lenta.ru:

SOBYANINThe easiest option we could offer is: “Let’s build more roads and interchanges, at two levels, three levels, and, sure, everything will be wonderful.”

Lenta.ru : Yes, like in Tokyo, Beijing and other Asian cities.

SOBYANIN: Yes, but it’s a dead end. It is impossible, even if we had a lot of money. And, there can never be enough money, because the building of highways and interchanges costing absurd sums.

That is just the beginning. There’s trams, trolleys, and a hundred miles of metro construction after the break.

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Architecture Russia

“Death and Life” Published in Russian

Jane Jacobs’ seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is now available in Russian by the house Novoe Izdatelstvo. I think this is pretty remarkable that it took so long, but the editor says that it’s appearing at the right time.

In translation, the title is Смерть и жизнь больших американских городов. Literally, that means “The Death and Life of big American cities.” That, to me, loses the valorizing nuance of the word “Great,” but maybe the fancier translation of the word, “великие” has too much Stalinist baggage, or perhaps my reading of the title is wrong. Either way,they say translation is tricky.

In an interview with the Strelka Institute’s blog, the editor of Novoe Izdatelstvo provides his own example:

This issue arises first and foremost with relation to one of the central concepts of Jacobs’s book: the neighbourhood (in our book, “okrug“, or “district”). The word “neighborhood” taken literally means something like one’s personal area, an urban habitat, the borders of which are determined not by the government but by one’s own typical routes of travel, one’s everyday needs and habits, and so on. This word is difficult to translate into Russian precisely because this way of conceiving space doesn’t really exist in our cities.

For the unfamiliar, the term “okrug” is much more of a legal category, like an ANC, that reached its modern meaning during the era of hyper-centralized Soviet housing estates. One other part of the interview stood out to me, where the editor, Andrey Kurilkin remarks:

I would say that this book is like a new optical instrument that allows you to see complex processes where only yesterday you noticed nothing at all. Our intuitive conceptions of a conveniently designed city, with small streets, parks, a local butcher shop across the way, old buildings, and a convivial street life are given a logical and vigorous theoretical foundation.

Jacobs and her work have suffered from creeping hagiography, so it’s good to see the author reinforcing the intention that the book be a tool for understanding, rather than a prescriptive manual.

You can read the introduction here (PDF), and I recommend the other book mentioned in the interview, Seeing Like a State.

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 Reno Park Studies Uncategorized

Reno Park Update 091212A: Finding Activity

Okay, so I mentioned in the last post that neighborhoods, as conventionally defined, are not necessarily the best ways of measuring human activity, and so is the difficult concept of community. However I attempt to define such a thing, it’s going to be imprecise, subjective, and doubtful. But most people can recognize  community when they see it. Likewise, when you look a good space, you can tell because of the people there.

Last year, when I was but beginning my job as an apparatchik of the цarьchitect, I quoted Freddy N. in On The Geneology of Morals:

Only owing to the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified within it) which conceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a “subject,” can it appear otherwise. For just as the popular mind separates the lighting from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were an neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum, there is no being behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely the fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.

Now, replace “strength” with “community.” Community is, in essence, an act. It is not merely your sheer propinquity to another human meatbag, nor crude ethnic similarities, it is the action to do like others, to help the person nearby, to talk to them, to smile at the man on the street when he says hello. Community, is an cooperative action between people, in the conscious and subconscious, of coming together and working for each other’s values. Why one might associate with one another, and care for them is a wholly different question. But it is relatively easy to see evidence of community, just as it is possible to see evidence of social activity.

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