DC's bad urban design as it relates to new transportation infrastructure
There is discussion on the HistoricWashington e-list about the unfavorable reception of the proposal for the Douglass Bridge in Southeast Washington, DC. It was covered in a Washington Business Journal article, "Douglass Bridge design concept `uninspired,` commission finds," and last January ("Formal geometry forces awkward South Capitol design") and in the summer in GGW.
The proposal is for a new bridge, with the approach on one side being a big racetrack to merge a couple roads together (image left although the original racetrack proposal has been tweaked since this design from January), with a big field in the middle, which is disconnected from everything else. I am not sure that the Commission of Fine Arts commented on the portions of the project that lead to the bridge, but they are bad.
Planner Jeff Soule commented in response that:
... the whole idea is a solution without a problem. It spends way too much money without improving access, creates essentially unusable "public" space, and decreases pedestrian safety all at the same time. That isn't even commenting on the aesthetics.
Semi-relatedly, I have been thinking about the general issue of "design" as it relates to transportation infrastructure and transportation agency decision making on a couple of different dimensions. While DC's Department of Transportation has made a bunch of bad decisions, this is a problem across all transportation agencies for the most part.
First, there is the idea of the "unified theory" I am working on creating in terms of repositioning transportation planning and infrastructure development around placemaking, civic engagement, and the concept of the integrated public realm framework.
-- Arlington County's bus shelters and a public realm framework of quality
-- The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example
-- Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods
Second, deriving from this point would be the need to have a landscape architect-"thoroughfare architect" as a top official within transportation agencies and DDOT specifically. Right now the Chief (Traffic) Engineer is the #2 official in a transportation agency, with the most authority really, being a Professional Engineer, to make these kinds of decisions.
There needs to be Chief Thoroughfare Architect with co-equal authority, to weigh in on design, and to provide intra-agency advocacy, guidance, and suasion on urban design matters.
I hope that a thoroughfare architect would have never signed off on the Douglass Bridge racetrack approach.
Third, just as the Douglass Bridge concept is incredibly flawed from the placemaking standpoint, as it is designed specifically to speed motor vehicle traffic throughput, in the "what the hell were they thinking" department, I am nonplussed about the creation of some sort of weird "artistic" "sculpture" as an entryway "element" to "Washington" as part of the reconstruction of the New York Avenue bridge over the Union Station railyard.
I haven't gone up on the bridge to take a better photo, but I have taken some photos from "underneath" from the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Solar streetlights from the MBT get in the way of a full view of the sculpture in the image above.
Fourth, from a planning standpoint, I saw a presentation at the 2007 Main Street conference in Seattle by a graphic design professor at Iowa State. She wasn't a great presenter, but the content of her presentation was "electrifying" from the standpoint of Main Street design approaches. They use a "graphic design" approach and methodology to guide their facade improvement planning and technical assistance projects for commercial districts across the state, which I thought was quite interesting.
I mis-heard her speaking about something else. I thought she said that there should be a "design identity" element in commercial district revitalization plans. She didn't, but there should be. But I guess I was just projecting my own thoughts.
Commercial district buildings need to be designed in particular ways to be successful in terms of relating to the street. These principles have been developed over centuries and should be incorporated into new construction and maintained in the extant built environment.
We discuss this at times as it relates to signage "Signs, signs revisited," or what are the right components of a facade (see image, left, from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency) and many commercial districts do develop design guidelines, but I am intrigued by this broader point of an identity element within a city's Comprehensive/Master Plan and within the Master Transportation Plan , as it relates to the transportation agency decision making process as well.
I don't see how that sculpture should have been approved for New York Avenue. It is context independent and meaningless.
Similarly, in 2003 I had an "outburst" at a public meeting associated with the creation of the H St. Transportation Plan. I hadn't been involved in the planning process because it wasn't part of my H St. Main St. committee responsibilities (or so I thought), and I had planning fatigue, having participated in a bunch of other H Street related planning initiatives, so I hadn't been paying attention.
They presented two alternative "design" scenarios for the street, and one was pretty atrocious, led by an artist, pushing a kind of Afrocentric art focus to "unify" the street. I called it a "brutalist shopping mall aesthetic." My vocal and negative reaction pretty much put an end to that particular design direction.
However, one of the planners there said the street is disjoint and they responding to citizen comments about it and the desire for unifying the street.
I told her it was the responsibility of planners to explain why this is so, and to point out a better direction.
I said the disjointness or the lack of built environmental aesthetic unity had to do with the loss of significant blocks of street fabric that had been destroyed in the riots, and replaced by urban renewal blocky design buildings like the Delta Towers senior housing project, the H Street CDC office buildings, etc.
Below is what I wrote about that particular point after the fact, almost ten years ago, late in October 2003.
Clearly, the point I made then, seemingly about H Street and identity and authenticity versus the manufacturing of ersatz identity is very much relevant today when it comes to the city's transportation infrastructure. A design identity element would be a good thing to add to our comprehensive planning systems.
An extract from an email from 2003:
Second, I want to reiterate the point in response to staff statements about responding to "people's desires for a unifying element" that were expressed in earlier charrettes. The reason for the lack of unity of the built environment on H Street is that it has been punctured severely by the loss of entire blocks of historic building fabric that, lamentably, continue to be replaced with post-modernist value-engineered junk that tears at the coherence of the overall architecture and aesthetic.
The solution is to address the quality of the built environment, not to come up with some sort of faux unifying element, especially one of a generic urban brutalist nature that really doesn't have much connection to the our neighborhood, let alone any neighborhood. (In other venues I have suggested looking at urban design overlays such as those of Nashville, as a way of pushing quality design forward. The Arts Commission's Expressive Sign program is another. So is high quality private investment [in the rehabilitation and restoration of buildings], etc.)
We don't need to create a shopping mall aesthetic on H Street, we need to repair the historic fabric and streetscape, and utilize all the elements of the streetscape to re-establish the neighborhood's inherent beauty.
Focusing on authenticity* is hands down, our best strategy for moving forward as a residential neighborhood and as a thriving commercial district (and as a rich, vibrant urban environment as opposed to an automobile-centric somewhat dull suburb). We are H Street, not "Neighborhood 8" at Potomac Mills.
* Yes, with regard to authenticity the question becomes "who gets to say what is authentic and what isn't." It raises questions of power, race, neighborhood change, the future, etc.
The built environment reflects choices, winners, and losers too.
Labels: branding-identity, civic assets, cultural landscape, landscape architecture, public realm framework, transportation infrastructure, transportation planning, urban design/placemaking, urban revitalization