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.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A project that screams the necessity of design review: Anacostia's Reunion Square

Once I got heavily involved in local land use issues in DC, the first major national conference I attended was the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual meeting, in Cleveland in 2002.

One of the many many things I learned about when I was there was about Cleveland's "Business Revitalization District Overlay" zoning, which mandated extra-normal design review in districts targeted for improvement.  The point of the design review was to ensure the coordination of projects and to reduce the risk of bad design negatively impact the value of adjoining properties and limiting the positive impact of public investment in those communities. From the webpage:
Certain proposals for construction, exterior alterations, building demolitions or signs in the City of Cleveland must undergo a process known as "design review." The City established this process as a policy to ensure that any visual changes to buildings or open spaces will enhance the architectural character of Neighborhood Commercial Districts.
In DC, the only places that are subject to local design review as a matter of course are areas designated as historic districts, although local projects can be subject to federal design review if they are in or impact the federal interest area of the city.

I remember submitting testimony about the Main Street program in 2002 or 2003 about how when commercial district revitalization programs are created in the city, a certain set of protocols, including design guidelines and review procedures should be created, modeled after (1) the Cleveland overlay and (2) design and development guidelines created in other historic commercial districts, such as the North Park Main Street program in San Diego--an early example of an urban Main Street program.

These documents are now out of date and were retrieved via, but I found them quite trenchant back in 2002.
-- North Park Development Guidelines, adopted September 1997 (they might seem out of date now, but think about the time and context in which they were created)
-- North Park Main Street Design Guidelines (Most historic districts create these kinds of guidelines as a way to manage change and to provide guidance and predictability wrt decision-making. They are based on the period of architectural significance of the area and the architectural styles that were then prevalent and the type of building and how it was designed to perform its use--commercial buildings were designed differently from houses.)

The new development, Reunion Square, will be constructed at 2001-2027 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, and will incorporate existing buildings as well as spaces currently vacant.

Granted there is a historic district in Anacostia, so the project pictured to the right ("130 Residences, Offices and a Playhouse: The Plans For Anacostia’s Main Drag," Urban Turf) will have to go through design review, which judging by the container box/Tinkertoy nature of the design, isn't likely to do much in the way of context sensitive development.

The new building absorbs and decontextualizes the remaining historic commercial rowhouse buildings present on the site and diminishes the architectural integrity (granted it has plenty of holes already) of the commercial district as a whole.

This reminds me of an argument I had with the H Street Streetscape and Transportation Study team back in 2003.  They said that people said--because of holes created by the riots, holes "filled in" by typical suburban style strip shopping development (H Street Connection, Autozone) and blocky office buildings--that the corridor was disjoint.

I said the point wasn't to "tie it together" with ersatz crappy public art and other initiatives, but to "make it joint" by ensuring that new projects strengthen and extend the architectural integrity of the buildings on the corridor.

And that it was the responsibility of the planners to explain what was wrong and how to fix it.

They did drop the ridiculous direction they were going in, but they didn't necessarily put together a good discussion of the whys and heretofores of the disjointness.

FWIW, I am less doctrinaire than I was 12 years ago.

Tavern on H Street NE.

I am okay with some contrapuntal architectural treatments of buildings where they end up being more like sculptures, painting facades wildly etc., so long as the design and integrity of the place/district as whole is strong enough so that it can withstand approaches that would otherwise diminish the overall integrity of the ensemble.

However, Bilbao is one thing while the Anacostia neighborhood is another.

The architectural integrity of the ensemble in the Historic Anacostia commercial district is not so strong as to be able to withstand the Reunion Square design.

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At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this proposal has absolutely zero imagination- the same institutional flat roofed box that is just about the laziest and cheapest looking possible alternative

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

The way to get to design review districts is gradually extend them from the historical areas.

The "Finger' house on V is an example -- there is a small section there that is not historic.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

would work if we had a strategy and if people in "the movement" could make good, articulate arguments about the value of historic preservation to saving the city, urban design, quality of life, amenities, etc.

People don't see how it's related.


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