Can Washington D.C.'s Great Public Spaces Be Greater?

The agencies responsible for the layout, design and security of federal buildings are taking a lead in developing plans and garnering public feedback to redesign Washington, D.C.’s network of public (and often federal) spaces.  David Alpert, editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington, hosted an online “chat” with Shane Dettman and David Zaidain of the National Capital Planning Commission, (NCPC) to discuss the initiatives.

Of people polled for the survey, only 9% find federal public buildings in Washington welcoming and accessible. The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s real estate arm, created the Good Neighbor Program, which leverages federal real estate in support of community development with a focus on developing public spaces.

The Reagan Building, the most active federal space in the country.

The Reagan Building, the most active federal space in the country. Source: NCPC video.

Here is a breakdown of the major topics and points from the hour-long discussion.

The securitization of D.C. buildings

Online chatters mentioned that unnecessary security at federal buildings negatively impacts public space. They also wondered why security measures are uneven across different federal agencies and buildings.  One reader asked, “Why can I walk into Congress with nothing more than a metal detector sweep, or into Walter Reed or the Navy Yard with nothing more than an ID check, while some of the more minor and innocuous federal agencies are locked up tighter than Fort Knox? The security priorities seem extremely jumbled.”  David Zaidain responded, “there’s no one coherent security policy” for all the buildings.  His agency established an interagency task force to improve security solutions and designs and hopefully address this issue.

Mixed use federal buildings

Those participating the online discussion wanted to see multiple functions on the ground floor of federal buildings like shopping, dining, cultural attractions, parks and plazas as well as more people-friendly design.  Most federal buildings fail on this front.

Zaidain mentioned the FBI building, which he said does not contribute to public use on Pennsylvania Avenue, but he said the Monumental Core Framework Plan provides a vision for redeveloping this specific block.  The plan is a joint effort between the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and NCPC to “re-imagine federal precincts near the National Mall” as a series of interconnected destinations that incorporate the mall, waterfront and downtown D.C.

One reader commented that several federal office districts “go dead at night” and asked about the concept of the “18-hour neighborhood.”  NCPC is aware of this issue, which they say is addressed in the Framework Plan.  Particularly they call for redevelopment on the 10th St corridor in Southwest D.C. (also known as L’Enfant Promenade) that includes mixed use. They also call for reconceiving C St SW to improve walkability.  Planners say that the public can expect a future park and two memorials in the area.

The conundrum of Constitution Avenue

One participant found Constitution Avenue to be a huge waste of space, noting that the only activity on the streetscape is the sale of t-shirts and hot dogs.

The much maligned Department of Commerce Building.

The much maligned Herbert C. Hoover Building (Department of Commerce). Photo by Cliff

Dettman responded that the GSA is modernizing the Department of Commerce building (on Constitution Avenue and 14th) and plans to relocate the National Aquarium to the South side of the building. There are also plans to create a more modern entrance. They would also like the Avenue to have a linear park, storm water management and are working to develop the Federal Triangle Heritage Trail.

Historic preservation as a barrier to change

According to Dettman, the historic architecture of federal buildings, particularly those in the Federal Triangle area, can create barriers to change.  He noted that to incorporate ground-floor retail,“it would have to be thoroughly studied and done very carefully.” While his hesitance may have merit from an architectural standpoint, if it is studies that need to be done, then the federal government should be doing them.

Additionally, Dettman discussed the possibility of placing housing within federal buildings in the near feature. While it seems unlikely, NCPC is pushing to at least discuss the concept. They cite the Newseum residences as a good example of what we could look forward to in the future.

The scale and challenges of bureaucracy

Most federal agencies are not involved in real estate issues, but they do have individual real estate managers responsible for their properties. The number of individual agencies and their varying cultures could be a boon for changes in D.C.’s public reams or make a process that’s been a long time in coming even longer.

A hopeful future

It is exciting that the federal government is starting to discuss the potential for improving its public spaces and igniting civic and retail activity in and around its buildings.  One key element of progress is engaging each building or department to capitalize on the unique elements of buildings and their inhabitants.

L’Enfant’s plans for the city included plenty of visible open space, and he attempted to highlight the power of  federal government through his planning for federal structures. Since 1791, his design has been destructed, re-envisioned, ignored, reclaimed and exulted.  L’Enfant planned the Capital Building as the city’s center and constructed wide diagonal avenues with circles, rectangles and parks at the intersections. The challenge to both modernize and acknowledge his designs is formidable.

More information on the Monumental Core Framework Plan can be found here.

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