One day, disjointed streets and lifeless blocks around L’Enfant Plaza could become a complete neighborhood with a connected street grid, park space, mixed-use buildings, a museum and more.
That’s the vision of the Southwest Ecodistrict plan from the National Capital Planning Commission and a companion plan focusing on Maryland Avenue, SW by the DC Office of Planning.
It is one of DC’s greatest ironies that the name “L’Enfant Plaza” was given to an area where L’Enfant’s original street grid is least intact. The railroad took over parts of Maryland and Virginia Avenues before 1888, and later projects to grade-separate the rails created a patchwork of roadways at different levels that don’t connect to one another.
The federal government razed every building in the area as misguided urban renewal in the 1960s. The extension of 10th Street known as the L’Enfant Promenade was originally designed as a pedestrian mall for cultural buildings, but turned into a largely vehicular roadway between government office buildings. The “12th Street Expressway”, a set of off-ramps from I-395, also divides the blocks on either side.
Now, NCPC wants to fix these mistakes from its forerunner, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and other federal agencies of the day. On Thursday, it released a draft of its plan for public comment.
Redevelop the Forrestal building
A centerpiece of the plan is a proposal to ultimately redevelop the Department of Energy’s Forrestal complex, a mid-century concrete structure that spans 10th Street and cuts off views from the Smithsonian Castle. While historic preservation officials have been landmarking many federal buildings of this type, in this case they prefer to restore the view than keep the building.
That will create many opportunities to right numerous mistakes of that era. The buildings replacing Forrestal, which the plan dubs “Independence Quarter,” could also restore the viewshed along Virginia Avenue to the Washington Monument. Despite opening up these views, there’s plenty of room to build something with more space than the current complex. That means it could accommodate DOE and also add residences, making the area lively more of the day and bringing in money to fund the project.
The new buildings could narrow 10th Street back to a width more resembling its role in the L’Enfant Plan, which could accommodate vehicles, sidewalks, bicycles and sidewalk cafes without the enormous expanse of sun-baked concrete of the current “promenade.” The entire street would gain many more trees along its length.
These new buildings, and many others in the district, would incorporate state-of-the-art stormwater handling, energy efficiency, waste management, green roofs and more to create an eco-friendly district. A heating and electricity plant, which currently only serves federal buildings, could be rehabilitated to a more modern and energy-efficient system and serve the private buildings as well as federal buildings in the area.
Make Banneker Park more appealing and give it a museum
At the end of the promenade is Banneker Park, a hillside with an attractive fountain and some grass but little else to draw people. Curving freeway ramps on and off of the adjacent Southwest Freeway cut up the park, linking a traffic oval around the fountain to the freeway and nearby 9th Street.
The plan proposes to straighten out those ramps, so that the off-ramp from I-395 skirts just the edge and reaches a new intersection with 9th Street, while an extension of G Street links 9th to the central oval and 10th Street.
The rest of the park would get a redesign to give it more of a sense of place and a more inviting atmosphere. On part of the site, NCPC proposes placing one of the many museums that groups want to build on the Mall. According to project manager Beth Miller, museums haven’t wanted to go there yet because it “doesn’t have a setting befitting a national museum.” The plan aims to give it that setting.
The plan says that some have suggested building some underground parking for the tour buses that currently idle in surrounding streets, clog the roads and pollute the air for residents and workers. The plan notes that underground parking could be a good idea, but it might also conflict with a museum’s security needs depending on the type of museum, and that the museum is a higher priority.
There is also space underneath the 10th Street promenade for parking now, and the plan suggests putting some tour bus parking there as well as stormwater cisterns.
New buildings would deck the freeway and fill in elsewhere
NCPC proposes decking over I-395 between the 12th Street off-ramp and 9th Street with new buildings. These could create more opportunities for mixed-use living and offices and connect the pedestrian realm along 9th and 10th, including the all-important walk to the new museum.
Farther east, the freeway rises and there isn’t room to place buildings over the freeway at street level, the plan says, but it suggests covering the trench with an array of solar panels.
Finally, the plan would rebuild the grid in this area. That ties into the District’s Maryland Avenue Small Area, which we’ll discuss in part 2.