Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

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.

Entry to Washington DC sculpture on New York Avenue NE, taken from the Metropolitan Branch TrailThird, 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.

Anatomy of a Main Street building (cropped)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.

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At 1:54 AM, Blogger Douglas Andrew Willinger said...

So weird the parroting of the "racetrack" by those who said so little about MLB's desecration of the South Capitol Street plans for the stadium.

It's actually a decent design given the constraints which got a free pass.

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are a lot of things I have to say about this so-called "sculpture" which was made chiefly for car viewing and not for anyone else at all- but I would need a few pages to give it the full desecration it deserves. It is a lusy piece of junk and an eyesore for one thing. We need to go back to traditional figurative sculture that is human based and not based on some alien otherworldy ideas of what "modern art " is ot should be. Public art means art for people and not for an elect few- and this crap is exactly that- made for an elecet few who "understand " it. Actually there is nothing to understand- it is the emperors new clothes- that is- no clothes at all. It is 100 % gimmick.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

The racetrack is a direct result of NCPC's planning for grand spaces and their desire for formal monumentality:

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I get the desire for formal spaces for monuments, per the Museums and Monuments Plan from what 1999?

But the impact on the surface from having so many lanes can be quite deleterious and can't be mitigated all that much.

So more and more in some places in the city I have come to favor tunneling for roadway infrastructure, particularly for what we might think of as middle distance and through traffic.

E.g., I have written about this in terms of North Capitol Street/Blair Road, and I certainly agree with the recommendations from the old New York Avenue Transportation Plan to underground the through traffic aspects NY Ave., which for much of the traffic, functions as a connection between BW Parkway/I-95 and I-395.

I don't know this area well enough to know if those kinds of solutions are possible there.

And while I riffed on the roadway element of the bridge proposal, the reality is that CFA was likely mostly responding to the bridge design specifically and not the approaches.

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the general concept of a circle can be improved upon. Its a start.

I kind of like the NY Ave Bridge sculpture. I don't find it all that difficult to comprehend, its a abstraction of a plant or tree branch form. And pretty democratic and accessible too.

It sure beats a "Welcome to our Blighted Community" "public art" feature such as most murals. Lots of places do metal sculptures in all kinds of forms. They're sturdy and hold up, especially for a roadside installation. I like a lot of the screens, lattice, and brise soleil that you find in more normal, more diverse and creative cities, but DC is just too uptight for that.

NY Ave is difficult for a whole lot of reasons, but its looking far better than it used to. Its a highway corridor- and necessary to move stuff. Sorry but DC residents aren't going to get their goods from the places that make stuff delivered on the back of a bicycle.

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phildelphia has public art murals but they are designed by professional artists and not given over to children or downright ameteuers as they are here in DC- with the same boring Frederick Douglas themes and aforcentric communist inspired garbage that is basically even poor for cartton art. In Philly the afrocentric themes are neighborhood based and are far more interesting and likeable than in DC. Also- Philly has a super strong figurative arts tradition which DC lost over the years [ we once had it] and is now replaced by junk. Cartoon art and children -low labor cost type "art" not only sucks- it doesn hold up to time at all. Much of modernist "art" is the same. It is just a cop out and a an excuse for people who not real artists to make believe they are real when they are total bullshit. Dont tell me what art is - it is what I do for aliving and have been doing it my entire life. And it is way better in Philly where realism / quality representational art is not frowned upon and the politics are tertiary if that.

At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Turns out the NY Bridge is a "real" artist (I guess), and has done a lot of the metal work I already liked but didn't know who did it (DCA, Chicago Library, others). Kent Bloomer studio. I like his stuff.

At 9:43 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

What is interesting if that "design" is a way to save the L'enfant city and/or the rowhouse city from the builder-uppers.*

The coherence of the low buildings really is a huge asset. "viewsheds" don't really capture that. It is always a sense of amazement when I see the DC rooftops -- nothing like it in the world.

* relaxing height limits in Anacostia, friendships hts, etc won't impact that. Of course most of those areas are pretty marginal.


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