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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Depressing Places

This weekend, my job had me going to a site up in Columbia Gateway, a sprawling, depressing office colony in Howard County. It is an intimidatingly isolated, desolate, oppressing void of a place. I grew furious trying to figure out which anonymous LeCorbuseurian complex housed the site where I was meeting my colleagues. It was a very depressing landscape, and I couldn't wait to leave.

Then it dawned on me that thousands of people work here every day.

Columbia Gateway. Photo by Howard County

I find my self oppressed by the traffic-choked pedestrian-hazardous landscape of Laurel Lakes, and I am doing everything in my power to move. But push comes to shove, I can walk to the store. If someone is causing problems in my neighborhood, it will be noticed and police will be called. Those police shouldn't have too much problem finding the suspects. It is Lower Manhattan compared to Columbia Gateway (except they have the skyscrapers up there).

Perhaps I am ruminating on the concept too much. I may be reading too much James Howard Kuntsler. But then CNN illustrated human's desire for beautiful and memorable settings. The visual stimulation of the beautiful planet in the hit film Avatar is striking people on such a level that going back to the cul-de-sacs, drive-thru fast food joints, and office parks of reality has caused them depression.

I have not seen Avatar yet, but I plan to do so soon after reading the CNN article. I know the symptoms. I was a little depressed when I returned from my two months in Europe, having seen such awe-inspiring places as the Abbey at Fauntevrault, the American Cemetary in Luxembourg, Heidelburg Castle, Chateau Vianden, the Ardennes Forest, Die Bergstrasse, the Amsterdam canals, and Chateau d'Angers and then returning home to the billboard littered landscapes of Route 1 in Laurel. Fortunately, I go to downtown Silver Spring, Clarendon, H Street, Hyattsville, Chinatown, or one of the DC area's many other great places, and I get over it. They may not be on par with the beauty and sense of places as the Abbey at Fauntevrault, but they are memorable places designed for enjoyment of people.

Perhaps the visual magnificence of Avatar is so otherworldly beautiful and James Cameron has accomplished something truly profound. I'll let you know after I watch it. But perhaps many Americans are already depressed by their lack of access to truly beautiful places, and Avatar simply defined that their need for such places that was already festering inside them.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Coast Guard HQ: 2,000 Cars, No Boats

A historic campus. An idyllic untouched corner of real estate in close proximity to the seat of federal government for a great nation. The headquarters of an esteemed branch of the military and an a department headquarters for a government agency. No nation on earth could improve on a venture like that. But in the United States, we throw in a 1900 space garage.

The United States Coast Guard Headquarters design has been approved. I'm not an architect nor am I capable of eloquently stating my disgust at a coast guard headquarters that looks like a spa retreat off in the woods despite the nearby convergence of two navigable rivers, but I will openly take issue with the 1,973 space garage. It is definitely better than surface parking, but this is a historic site, virgin land with views of the convergence of the rivers, the Capitol, and the monuments. Real estate in America doesn't get more prime than this. And DHS is dropping a greenified Tyson's Corner transplant with a huge garage in the middle of it, complete with a sexed up drainage pond and ample parking.

I've advocated that a campus like this ought to house an institution of higher learning, particularly UDC. To me, that would be the ideal way to dignify that site (Although I don't know what your average UDC student would think about moving into dorms that formerly housed mental patients... but one would think the good people hat DHS and the Coast Guard would have similar concerns!)

I'll admit my reaction is perhaps a bit pessimistic considering that I have not seen an illustration or elevation that contextualizes the complex amongst the St. E's buildings, but with streetcars imminent, location near two Metro stations, and traffic congestion already problematic, a huge parking garage has me worried that this is just going to be another office park like those in Columbia, Gaithersburg, or Tyson's Corner.

The garage is built into a slope visible from Haines Point. Several measures were put in place to minimize the visual impact of the structure, such as putting more of it underground and a green wall system on the northern facade, however on an important site like this with available transit alternatives, I would expect better planning and land use than a green-guilt version of the same disposable crap office box we have all come to know and hate.

Students of architecture, I beg your input on this one. I am at a loss for words. If the Army built something that ugly, I would be even more embarrassed as a veteran than I am when West Point gets annihilated by the Naval Academy in football every December.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Imagine a streetcar on Alabama Avenue

When DDOT unveiled its Streetcar vision in October, I was little disappointed by the amount of service in River East. Indeed, the area's reputation has been mired in negativity for quite some time, which has lead to, for better or worse, a very different kind of land and economic development in Wards 7 and 8. This is evident in the distribution of services proposed by DDOT.

River East has experienced a great deal of suburban style development. Wickedly suburban. Affordable housing is often not accessible to the six Metro stations that serve this third of the city. Isolated affordable housing can often turn out to be frighteningly similar to ill-fated housing projects. Requiring people of lower income to rely on automobile transport greatly increases their cost of living, further exacerbating the poverty. But shiny new developments in River East, for all their efforts at civic improvement, are still focused around the automobile.

What really disappointed me about DDOT's plan is that all the streetcar lines appear to run THROUGH River East. Along the Anacostia River, perhaps, but they fail to connect many of the neighborhoods to the system, including several that are not very accessible to Metro. This plan would lead me to infer that Congress Heights and Fairlawn are and will be for the foreseeable future dependent on the rest of the city to be a viable place to live. The lines connect River East to the rest of the city, but they don't connect River East to River East. Not as much as it could, at least.

With DC's population rocketing past 600,000 and developers running out of "River West" real estate to develop, Benning, Deanwood, Anacostia, Washington Highlands, Hillcrest, Fort Dupont, and the rest of River East's many neighborhoods will becoming increasingly attractive for development. But the same type of dense, walkable, transit-oriented, traditional neighborhood design is not possible if River East goes as underserved by streetcar as it is by Metro (6 stations versus 31 in the rest of DC and not transfer stations). So I conceived a line that would make it feasible to live in Congress Heights and work in Capitol Heights without taking Metro all the way to L'Enfant Plaza first. I give you a proposal for a ninth streetcar line, the Alabama Avenue line:

View River East Streetcars in a larger map

Blue indicates lines laid out in the DDOT plan, purple indicates possible future streetcar extension laid out in the plan, and red is the Alabama Avenue line. Obviously, significant portions of the line also run along Southern Avenue and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. It connects prominent neighborhoods to Metro stations and other streetcar lines. It puts more of the rail transit infrastructure within walking distance for District residents who will benefit most from its service and economic development. It is intended to interact with the neighborhoods as places where a significant portion of the District now lives and could potentially work in the future.

Where the city will ultimately have a streetcar network, River East will only have lines. The Alabama Avenue line would create a network that would compliment the existing Metro stations and the already-planned streetcar lines. It may not generate enormous ridership projections right now, but it would certainly draw more walkable urban development to Alabama Avenue and the other proposed corridors. We plan roads in anticipation of future development. Why can't we make that same investment with our streetcar network?

Cross-posted on Imagine, DC