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The secret park by the White House could be great, if people knew about it

Pershing Park is one of DC’s most unique and potentially pleasant public spaces. Unfortunately, few people have ever enjoyed it, because the park’s best elements are hidden from view behind an uninviting raised embankment.

Pershing Park as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Google.

It’s nice on the inside

I like Pershing Park, at Pennsylvania and 15th Street NW. I wish it worked better.

The inside of the park is a terraced wetland garden that, when it’s in good condition, is absolutely lovely.

The pleasant interior. Photo by pcouture on Flickr.

There are ample shady seats, a duck pond to dip your feet in, and climbable concrete terraces that make the park feel like an adult-size jungle gym.

It’s fun, and pretty, and unlike anything else in DC.

Or at least, it was fun and pretty a few years ago. The park has fallen into disrepair lately. The pond is dry. Orange cones litter the open plaza. It’s abandoned and depressing.

Part of Pershing Park’s problems are simply neglect. Better maintenance could fix the pond and the concrete.

But there’s one big problem, and it may well be unfixable.

People can’t see it

Most people don’t know the park is there. You can’t see it from the street. From three sides, the only thing visible is a grassy embankment straight out of a suburban McDonalds parking lot. The fourth side is literally a parking lot.

Pershing Park from above. Image from Google.

Good urban parks draw pedestrians in from the surrounding sidewalk. When you’re standing outside Dupont Circle, you can see and hear interesting things happening inside the park there. The activity and people inside Dupont make you want to enter it yourself.

Pershing Park is the absolute opposite. It’s plain and boring from the sidewalk. There are interesting things there, but you can’t see them so they don’t draw you in.

Most people just ignore it; the park blends into the background and they don’t give it a second thought.

Those who do look closely see a bunker, a hostile sloping hill with few entry points. From busy Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park more closely resembles an 18th Century military stockade than an inviting civic space.

Until that problem is solved, Pershing will never be a good park, no matter how pleasant it is on the inside. Until that’s solved, Pershing will always be an afterthought.

Let’s fix it

What to do with Pershing Park is increasingly becoming a hot-button issue. One group wants to redevelop it as a national World War I memorial. Kriston Capps at CityLab takes a preservationist bent and says we should restore it.

Either way, the park is falling apart and needs work.

Would it be possible to save the pleasant interior and radically change the bunker exterior? Maybe, maybe not. The park occupies sloping terrain that any design will have to work around. Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid a retaining wall somewhere. At least not if we want to keep the terraces.

But retaining walls don’t have to be so plain or uninviting. There are better examples elsewhere in the city.

It would be a shame to lose such a unique space. If designers can find a way to restore Pershing Park’s terraces and pond while altering the park’s exterior to be more inviting, that would be an ideal solution.

But if not, tear the sucker out. A downtown park that nobody uses isn’t a useful downtown park.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

August 5th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: parks, urbandesign

Gas stations were much better looking in 1924

Most gas stations these days are pretty garish, but gas stations weren’t always so. Check out this vintage 1924 station, from Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.

Lord Baltimore Filling Station. Photo by the National Photo Company, via the Library of Congress.

This is the Lord Baltimore Filling Station, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW. It may not be truly typical of the era, but it’s hard to imagine seeing as sharp-looking a gas station today.

It’s not only the nice architecture that make this notable. It’s also the urban design. This isn’t as great for sidewalk life as a row of main street-style shops, but it’s a building that fronts on the sidewalk. It could be a lot worse.

Do you know of any unusually good-looking gas stations? What makes them interesting?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 6th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, history, roads/cars, urbandesign

A bikeable suburban highway? One Ohio town pulled it off

Wide suburban highways lined with big boxes and strip malls aren’t usually places one finds protected bikeways. But Stringtown Road in Grove City, Ohio is such a place. Check it out:

Stringtown Road.

Since a curb protects the bikeway from the road, it’s technically a sidepath, a sidewalk that’s for bikes instead of pedestrians.

And as you can see in photos from Google Street View, it’s nicer than riding in the street with fast-moving cars, but it’s still not exactly pleasant.

Huge curb cuts interrupt the bikeway, so cars don’t need to slow down much before pulling into the giant parking lots lining the road. There’s certainly a risk that careless drivers will turn without watching, and hit people on bikes.

But that’s a risk that will exist for any car-oriented highway. At least this one puts the bike lane front and center, just about as visible as it can be.

There are some sidepaths along large roads in the DC area, like Route 50 in Arlington or along Benning Road near RFK, but those aren’t commercial highways lined with shops, and their sidepaths aren’t right against the curb like Stringtown’s. This particular layout is pretty unusual.

As more and more suburban communities evolve to become more multimodal, experiments like this will help everyone around the country understand what works and what doesn’t. Grove City is near Columbus, where it’s not the only suburb experimenting with urban retrofits.

What do you think? Will this design work? Comment at Greater Greater Washington to talk about it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

March 27th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign

DC like Amsterdam? We can only hope

According to yesterday’s Express, DC is starting to look a lot like Amsterdam, and not just because of marijuana. That’s fantastic if true.

The top of yesterday’s Express story.

Among the reasons the Express cites for DC’s Amsterdamization are increasing bicycle use, the appearance of streetcars, and Georgetown’s improving C&O Canal.

Amsterdam is one of the world’s great bicycling and streetcar cities. It’s a joy to travel along its extensive bikeways, and even lanes where cars are allowed are amazingly bike friendly. And Amsterdam’s huge streetcar network (with streetcars in both dedicated lanes and mixed traffic) is a case study in successful urban transit.

DC’s nascent bikeway and streetcar networks pale in comparison, but Amsterdam is a superb model for us to aspire towards.

And if it’s true that we can never hope to have as many canals (short of a disastrous global warming-induced flood), we can at least ponder what might have been had the history of Constitution Avenue turned out differently.

Even more similarities

Transportation and canals aside, Amsterdam’s overall urban design is actually incredibly similar to DC’s. We’re both predominantly rowhouse cities, with plenty of brick. Even our street grids are similar: Amsterdam has a relatively small core with twisty medieval streets, but for the most part it’s a city of straight streets and radial avenues just like DC.

These scenes from Amsterdam wouldn’t look all that out of place in Dupont Circle, U Street, or Adams Morgan, apart from how little street space goes to cars..

Amsterdam, but could be DC.

Admittedly, Amsterdam beats DC in a lot of ways. But it’s not Paris or Hong Kong, not so thoroughly alien. And DC is not Las Vegas. Amsterdam and DC aren’t identical, but we’re the same species of city, which means Amsterdam is better in ways that DC can practically emulate.

Plus, we’ve got Amsterdam Falafelshop.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

February 26th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, bike, streetcar, transportation, urbandesign

Best way to protect a bikeway? How about a bikeshare station

How’s this for a natural idea: Locate bikeshare stations between a street’s protected bikeway and car lanes.

That’s exactly the arrangement in Crystal City, where the Capital Bikeshare station at 23rd and Eads helps to form part of the bikeway’s protective barrier.

23rd and Eads. Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

DC has at least one example, on 6th Street NE next to Union Market. You can also find this arrangement in New York, Paris, and a ton of other cities.

It’s just a nifty, straightforward idea that’s too sensible not to use.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

January 28th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign

With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro’s Silver Line isn’t the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.

The Plaza (that’s its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.

The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo from Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn’t open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There’s no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.

Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).

Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it’s clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren’t welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It’s a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It’s not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 14th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: development, fun, parks, urbandesign

If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here’s what it will look like

The FBI is considering moving its headquarters from downtown Washington to either Greenbelt, Landover, or Springfield. If they pick Greenbelt, here’s what the development will look like:

Greenbelt development rendering. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

Under this plan, a new mixed-use transit-oriented development would replace the parking lot at the Greenbelt Metro station. The FBI would occupy the five buildings on the bottom of the rendering, with other offices, apartments, retail, and a hotel taking up the rest.

Greenbelt Metro station is located in the upper left side the rendering, immediately behind the building that looks like a “6” digit tipped on its side. To the right of that building, a central plaza would be the area’s main public space, and one of Prince George’s most urban spots.

Proposed view from the Greenbelt Metro station. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

The Metro’s existing entrance is immediately behind the “6” building. It would be nice if a new Metro entrance would line up directly with the plaza, though it looks more like a short walkway behind the building will connect the station to the plaza.

Since Greenbelt is an end-of-line station, the development replaces all the Metro commuter parking. But instead of surface parking lots, it would go in a new parking garage shown on the far left of the overview rendering, connected to the station with a wide, suburban-style street.

Clustering mixed-use development next to the Metro station and putting the FBI buildings and park-and-rides across the street makes a lot of sense. That layout provides a parking lot for commuters and gives the FBI the space it wants for a buffer without sacrificing the walkability of the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, FBI workers who don’t commute via Metro would use the parking garage on the far right, next to the Beltway.

Overall, this looks like a decent plan. There are a lot of less than ideal trade-offs, but given the demands of an end-line station and the FBI, it’s not terrible.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 31st, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: development, urbandesign

How do you fix Ballston mall? Make it less like a mall

Problem: The Ballston Common Mall isn’t working very well. Solution: Open the mall up to the surrounding streets, so it becomes the center of a lively community rather than a walled-off separate place.

Concept for Ballston mall renovation. Images from Forest City.

Ballston is one of the smallest malls in the region. It can’t compete well against bigger centers with more stores, like Pentagon City or Tysons Corner. Instead, the mall generally only draws customers from a small area nearby, and thus makes less money than other, bigger malls.

Meanwhile, being an enclosed mall that serves mostly local traffic, it saps sidewalk retail away from Ballston’s neighborhood streets. Stores that would otherwise be on the sidewalk are instead bottled up in the mall.

To fix this, developer Forest City plans to face more stores to the sidewalk, and give them more inviting storefronts. It will replace nondescript mall doors with open-air plazas that naturally extend the street into the mall. Capping the building will be a new 29-story residential tower.

Concept for open-air plaza.

Forest City still needs to work with Arlington County to finalize and approve plans. For now, these are just concepts. But if all goes well, the 1980s-style Ballston Common Mall will transition to become the contemporary Ballston Center in 2017 and 2018.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 1st, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: development, urbandesign

How to make cycletracks public art

As more cities build more protected bike lanes, some are beginning to use them as opportunities for public art. In Seattle, the new Broadway cycletrack includes a section with “art bollards.”

Seattle cycletrack. Photo by Gordon Werner on flickr.

Most cycletracks around the US use flexposts or concrete curbs to separate the bike lane from car traffic. A few use other methods like parking stops or zebras, but there are better-looking options available.

In addition to Seattle’s art bollards, a growing number of cities use landscaped barriers.

Vancouver cycletrack. Photo by Paul Kreuger on flickr.

These are great ideas. As cycletrack networks continue to expand, cities around the country can look for opportunities to make their bike lanes more beautiful.

But that being said, beautification adds time and expense to construction, and most cyclists would likely rank having more usable cycletracks sooner as a higher priority than art or landscaping.

So art is great, but there’s definitely a place for easy, cheap flexposts.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 16th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign

DC’s most useless park is a parking lot in disguise

Capping an underground parking garage with a public park is such a nice idea. It’s a shame DC’s most prominent example is such a terrible park.

Spirit of Justice Park. Image from Google.

The South Capitol parking crater is undeniably one of DC’s most inappropriately underused plots of land. It’s 6 complete blocks of parking lots, all in a cluster mere steps from the US Capitol.

By all rights these blocks should be active and vital parts of downtown DC. Instead, they’re under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol, and thus off-limits to the normal rules of city building. In the vacuum of capitol complex land management, vast parking lots for Congresspeople and their staffs are a higher priority than housing, amenities, or attractive streetscapes.

So it’s nice that federal planners at least tried to spruce up this neighborhood-sized sea of asphalt with Spirit of Justice Park, a cap atop a two-block section of parking that’s covered with green space.

Unfortunately, it’s a lousy park.

The biggest problem is that rather than sink the parking below grade, the park is raised a level above the sidewalk. As a result, many people only see an imposing wall, and have no idea the park behind it even exists.

The sidewalk in front of the park. Image from Google.

People who actually want to enter and use the park must find one of only four entrances over the entire two-block area. Of the four entrances, two face the congressional office buildings and one faces the street between the two park blocks (though you can’t walk between them directly), leaving only a single entrance on the south side facing away from the capitol complex towards the public city.

Meanwhile, there are no visible entrances facing east nor west.

Entrances to Spirit of Justice Park. Image originally from Google.

That’s not the only problem. With a parking garage directly beneath the grass, the park’s soil is too shallow to support trees large enough to provide shade or protection against wind. The park is uncomfortably hot in the summer, and cold in winter.

Finally, management apparently only cares about capitol complex workers, because the fountains at the center of each block are switched off over the weekend.

Small trees and a dry fountain hidden behind a wall. No people.

The overall message is that the public is barely tolerated in this park, not really welcome, and certainly not a priority. As a result, the public mostly stays away.

A park that’s not used is a useless park. We can do better.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

May 27th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: government, parks, urbandesign



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