DC Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and Councilmember Tommy Wells criticized the design for the planned memorial to the Ukrainian Manmade Famine of 1932-1933 on Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station, primarily for of the way it turns a blank wall to F Street.

F Street view of the memorial. Image from NCPC.

Both ultimately voted against the design at yesterday’s meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, but were the only dissenters. Tregoning said,

Even though a crowd of people might be on the other side of that wall, interacting with the memorial, talking about their experiences in the Ukraine, talking about hunger problems, whatever it might be, if you’re on the other side of that wall, nothing is going on.

I think we suggested at the time of the commission meeting that it might be ameliorated with a lower hight so that you can see that there are people on the other side of that wall, or maybe some porosity or transparency, so that it wasn’t just a blank wall. I think the pattern that was picked is very lovely; I like the interplay of the shadows of the trees on the wall, but it doesn’t really take away from the fact that it’s a public space deadening element.

One thing that might make a difference is in the new design, the deeper landscaping is also clearly a front and a back. So you have a low wall, but people are not going to be inclined to be facing out toward F Street because it seems like in that landscaped area, no feet should be in that area, no people should be sitting and facing that direction.

Wells worried about the potential for the blank wall to attract crime at night:

I am a strong believer and agree that we use public space when we can as teaching spaces, especially in the nations capital, and this fits into a vision for what our city should be. But I am also concerned this is an area where we have a lot of tourists, where folks are walking at night. There are not a lot of eyes on the street as you have in some other areas. This clearly creates potentially a nice hiding space.

Peter May, of the National Park Service, defended the design:

I understand the concern, but don’t necessarily agree that it is as negative an effect as Ms. Tregoning suggests. Given the full range of things we have looked at for this memorial, this is by far the best concept. Some of the suggestions for making it more porous or lowering the height would significantly diminish the concept.

Given the expanse of F Street, and the liveliness of what happens along F Street along its entire length, particularly across the street, I don’t think this is particularly deadining.

It’s certainly not without precedent to have a 1-sided memorial ... it does exist in other circumstances with memorials in certain settings. This is a lot more successful than those in setting the memorial confortably on the site.

It is admittedly a 1-sided experience, but frankly, the concept doesn’t work when you try to make some of the changes that were suggested. I think it is an excellent design and am very very pleased with it as it is.

May wasn’t the only person less concerned about blank walls; Presidential appointee John Hart said, “Having a blank wall is not necessarily a detraction.”

Tregoning took exception to May’s point:

I am underwhelmed by the argument that we’ve done worse in other parts of the city. I’m sure that’s true, but I think that by creating a back to this memorial that’s hidden from everything that happens on the other side, it does create not just safety issues.

These are areas where people can undertake activities unobserved by people on the other side of the wall, whatever those activities might be. If you create a blank wall that’s clearly the back of something, given the other activities that take place in the area, you will find that it attracts some amount of disamenity in terms of how it ends up getting used.

Another commissioner noted that there are homeless shelters in the area, and Tregoning added that she was referring to the two Irish pubs nearby.

Tregoning also suggested the applicant use a lighter colored stone for the paving and benches. That would keep the surfaces cooler in the summer, she noted, and make it a more enjoyable place to sit for lunch.

Former DC Councilmember and mayoral NCPC appointee Arrington Dixon suggested a translucent wall to create less of a barrier, and noted that “wheat grows in sunlight.” Architect Mary Kay Lanzillotta, from Hartman Cox Architects in DC, replied that the design came out of a design competition, and the entry called for a bronze sculpture, so her firm did not explore that type of option.

Lanzillotta gave some insight into her thinking around the issue:

I think the prominent elevation here, and the way that people will experience this — many people — will be driving down Mass Ave and North Capitol. Those are the 2 prominent streets here, and that is why the memorial was turned towards that direction as well.

We can certainly hope Lanzillotta was not saying that she was more concerned with the experience for those driving through the area than those walking through the site or trying to use the plaza. A design philosophy centered around a “drive-by” experience instead of the pedestrian scale was responsible for many of the worst planning mistakes of the past, like L’Enfant Plaza, mistakes NCPC is now trying to correct.

Urban designers have learned through painful experience that blank walls can be some of the most destructive elements that get created with good intentions. This isn’t a very large blank wall, but it’s a blank wall just the same, and it’s disappointing to see this level of unconcern from NCPC staff, NPS, the architect and others.

The empty public reservations in DC will turn into memorials over time. That’s appropriate. These can be memorials that either contribute to the urban experience or detract from it. Each piece matters, even small ones, because they add up to a whole. NCPC and the federal commissioners will rightly put interpretive experiences foremost in their priorities, but they should also take great care to respect and enhance the pedestrian experience as they review and approve new memorials.

Here is the video from the meeting. The presentation about the memorial starts at 14:48 in the video and the question and answer period starts at 26:55.


David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.