Friday, January 29, 2010

L'Enfant Plaza: Feds to Try Again?

Stalin would be proud. Discouragingly wide boulevards, dominant central government buildings, architecture that reduces human interaction, and a monumental plaza that minimizes individual interference with state symbolism. Such is the state of L'Enfant Plaza - a wrong turn off the Mall for most visitors that conveys the feeling of having intruded into restricted space. Fear not, the government that built the plaza is going to try again.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will begin a public examination of how to transform the area into a "model sustainable community" that will "improve mobility, urban design, and land use; and...capture, manage and reuse most of the energy, water and waste on site." Beginning on February 2nd, the urban planning body will hold public meetings to help create the 10th Street Corridor "ecodistrict."

It wasn't intended to be this way. With federal oversight, planners in the 1950's buried the old working class neighborhood in the name of urban renewal, paving farms, razing homes and history in the name of progress. With such tourist-beckoning buildings as the Department of Energy and U.S. Postal Service headquarters, L'Enfant Plaza resulted from the schemes and designs of such notables as I.M. Pei, who designed the expansive concrete, and the government, which sought to remove the messiness of humanity. According to Jane Freundel Levey, Director of Heritage Programs at Cultural Tourism DC, the area was once a place to shop or grab a bite with plenty of taverns and a vibrant nightlife.

Forget for a moment that there is no 10th Street, nor is the defined area a "corridor." The environmentally friendly rehab is still a rough concept, but one without limitations as to the scope. The task force at work on the project is comprised of such disparate organizations as DC and federal property owners, the GSA, the Smithsonian Institution, the Department of Education and the U.S. Postal Service, to name just a few. Then there is the group of "directly affected stakeholders" such as CSX, JBG, WMATA, WASA, HUD, PN Hoffman, and Republic Properties, a group of owners that will form a second tier of cooperation. Can such a coalition get anything done, much less make an inviting community out of a concrete jungle? According to Diane Sullivan, Sustainability Planner for the 10th Street Corridor Task Force at NCPC, yes. "The group is generally very excited about this, they see this as a great opportunity."

Barriers, both physical and figurative, are formidable. But according to Sullivan, all things are possible. A new Georgetown-like community worthy of a family stroll? "Nothing is off the table at this point." As a first step, the task force will create a framework based on infrastructural upgrades such as changes to the on- and off-ramps of the highway and new street grids. Once that is determined, the landowners will be included in ways to develop within the new framework. Sullivan says the resulting mixed-use district may just include new residential districts. "Part of the framework was to incorporate residential space, we recognize that right now it's largely a federal precinct, but residential is not off the boards." But of course private landowners will ultimately be able to decide how best to use their space, and all plans at this point are mere possibilities.

To wit, JBG is currently working on an impressive $40m renovation of its underground plaza, and will be presenting a plan to the task force for coordination with the broader principles of redevelopment. Bill Dowd of NCPC told DCMud there is an imperative to prevent the federal buildings from "being barriers." As to how much change is possible, the answer will not be known for some time. While NCPC's Sullivan says it will be necessary to "look beyond buildings themselves," it is not yet clear how the project will be funded. Other attempts at developing Southwest have failed, such as the ill-fated attempt to bring the Children's Museum from northeast DC to southwest. It is also unclear whether federal property owners, with an increasingly circle-the-wagons mentality, will allow radical change in their midst, or whether planners will allow I.M. Pei's plaza to be rebuilt, despite its alienating qualities, a factor that seems essential for the task force's goal of connecting the riverfront to the National Mall.

In the end, that will not be up to NCPC, as JBG owns the land, and NCPC will be providing the study but not dictating the outcome to either its private or public partners. Elizabeth Miller, Senior Urban Planner and Project Manager for NCPC, says the plaza itself "is part of our study area. We will be looking at public space but any changes to the plaza are up to the owners. Our goal is to bring appropriate parties to the table, and to look at how far should we go." But she stresses that a "redevelopment scenario" is merely one alternative, and that it is at least theoretically possible that NCPC will recommend no changes to the design.

NCPC says the timeline will be 6-8 months to get task force members up to speed, then a year or so to conduct a redevelopment feasibility study to look at a range of alternative for individual properties and the corridor as a whole. Beyond that all guesses are hypothetical. The first meeting will take place February 2, 6pm at 401 9th Street, NW.

Washington DC real estate and development news


Anonymous said...

Great description! As teenagers rambling around at night in my friend's Chrysler-K car, we'd pull up that ramp and imagine ourselves in the World of the Future. As an adult in the clear light of day, the whole thing ought to be torn down. It's fascinating that this is the creation of one of the "best" architects of the day, IM Pei. I'm sure he and many other's of his generation wouldn't have created such crap if they'd been working in another era.
It's not the architect that's bad, it's the style that sucks!

Anonymous said...

I can just hear the Historic Preservationists now decrying the loss of this brutalist masterpiece when block after block of humane, sustainable, and historic architecture gets ripped down.
There's a reason they called it brutalist, but I guess in the french accent of a phony like Corbu it sounds downright sublime.

Anonymous said...

Pedestrian access to the river sure would be nice.

Eric said...

Insightful. I think I've been there once, trying to figure out if I had entered inadvertantly into a restricted federal area by mistake. You could have also called it depressing and sterile. You could have also said that its typical of IM Pei's later work, all of which goes against all modern principles of urban design, without contributing the slightest bueaty.

Anonymous said...

I work right across L'Enfant Plaza and these changes can't happen fast enough. This should be one of the most vibrant areas of DC (with 4 metro lines, VRE, and several Metrobus and Circulator routes) yet outside of the normal 8-5 work hours this section is dead. The architecture here resembles that of Pyongyang and as bad as these building are from the outside and as harmful as they are to active urban life, they are even worse inside. The HUD building has 4-5 foot thick concrete walls and almost no natural light there. The mall at L'Enfant Plaza is also gross-- low ceilings, minimal natural light, and brass lining from the 1980s along the stores.

Anonymous said...

They desperately need to do something with this area. It's too hot in the summer, the sidewalk and road structure (those awful, uneven blocks) are difficult to walk, drive and cycle on and never seem to get repaired quite right. There's no shade, so it's miserably hot to walk down in the summer. The lights don't work properly (they cut in and out, and when they are on they aren't bright enough to actually see anything). Rip it all out and start over!

Anonymous said...

Let's see if JBG has the guts to rip it out and start over; without their input this whole plan is futile. Great that they're redoing the underground mall, but really, underground malls should be destroyed, not updated.

Anonymous said...

Is NCPC deliberately trying to make this desperately-needed effort fail?! C'mon people, we've figured it out, it isn't that hard. To be a successful urban area, L'Enfant needs A)multiple reasons to stroll "10th Street" [i.e. storefronts with shops, restaurants, a couple of decent cultural/recreational attractions; a connection to the waterfront; architecture that engages the eye], and B) basic pedestrian-oriented amenities [i.e. shade, non-buckled sidewalks, etc].

But it seems that NCPC is skipping that step. I guess it's too boring, too (literally) pedestrian. Instead, they're going straight to a futuristic-sounding "eco-corridor." Reminds me of an old East German board game, whose name loosely translates to "Overtaking without Catching Up."

Anonymous said...

Not to mention all the Stalinists who work in the area on behalf of the neo-Marxist-in-Chief.

Seems like a perfect fit.

Anonymous said...

Goats and GTOs would be happy with pasture

Anonymous said...

gee, Anon 2:49, what did you call them when they worked for the CEO in chief who laid waste to our country? Were they still Stalinists then? Oh wait, I know, they were contractors. Idiot.

Anonymous said...

It's quite sad, and very unfortunate that not once is the now 14 year initiative to establish a memorial to colonial American hero, Benjamin Banneker, mentioned in this blog. Nor is it mentioned that the administrators of the Bannker Memorial, the Washington Interdependence Council, facilitated the $138 million renovation of the entire half mile stretch of the Banneker Overlook Park/L'Enfant Plaza promenade by securing a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, under the aegis of its TEA21 program in 2000 which is paying for the now ten year old on-going renovation of the site.

Nor will the powers that be, including all of the private developers who have forged an alliance to dissuade the success of the Banneker Memorial at this site already officially commemorating Banneker, willing to acknowledge the Washington Interdependence Council's role in being the progenitor of this corridor's revitalization starting in 1997 as they convened meeting with them to sit down at the table and talk about a holistic view of the southwest waterfront renovation and the promenade as a critical gateway between the Mall and the waterfront, and submitted it proposal and vision to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for funding of its overhaul to make way for the Banneker Memorial and transform it into a pedestrian friendly, historic preservation gateway between the Mall and the tri-state waterfronts.

Additionally, no one ever utters a single word about the Washington Interdependence Council's recruitment of the late Lloyd Smith to pursue the offering of a replica of the 1848 Pearl Schooner as a cultural offering at the waterfront to help diversify the amenities there along with the Banneker Memorial, let along give credit to the agency for being the progenitors of the idea to remove the overhead passage of the U.S. Dept. of Energy's building which is obstructing the view to the beautiful Smithsonian Castle.

No, everyone just wants the Washington Interdependence Council, and its Banneker commemorative initiative, to now go quietly away into the night as everyone whose arrogance makes them feel an exclusive entitlement to everything, at the expense of the disenfranchised, as was the case with the poor who were displaced in the first place with the McMillan Plan's brutal urban removal of the poor, in order to build the unsightly L'Enfant Plaza/Banneker Overlook Park in the first place. Even with all of it rich history with the Anthony Bowen home along the now L'Enfant Plaza, which was also an underground railroad stop, the failed attempt of the 77 fugitive slaves on the Pearl Schooner from Seventh & Maine on the waterfront, and Banneker's selfless legacy as America's most unsung hero, not to mention the Washington Interdependence Council's 14 years of selfless, none remunerated work, do the greedy and the abrasively crude, want to begin to act on, let alone, accept the notion of "interdependence", fairness, and morality.

Yes, this is truly sad, as America will apparently never learn, even as it falls into the pits of hell, for its inability to respect and honor the benefits and enormous gifts that African-Americans have rendered the arrogant, time and again, with not even a thank you.

Karma is real, not just individually, but collectively as in the case of a "sovereign state." A sovereign state founded on slavery, with the first to fall as a fatality during the Revolutionary War being an African-American, just as the work of the first presidential commission was salvaged by an African-American, Benjamin Banneker; and over 200 years later this thankless country refuses to honor his many, many gifts to this country, including his playing a major role in creating the nation's capital that the greedy and the arrogant feel that they are the only ones entitled to enjoy. What a pity.

Will the unconscionable ever get a conscious?

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