Last night, DDOT released renderings of its design for the proposed Spingarn streetcar barn. The proposal is a passable building, but the design is likely to disappoint residents who’d been expecting great architecture.
DDOT originally wanted to locate the maintenance facility for its H Street streetcar under the Hopscotch Bridge, near Union Station. That proved impossible, so DDOT switched its plans to the most practical alternate site: the Spingarn High School campus.
Though the design lacks the ornament and detail of DC’s historic streetcar barns, it is typical of contemporary institutional architecture, which is a step up from the bare bones necessary for industrial buildings.
In fact, this design looks very much like a modern school. If DCPS were building a new education building on the same site, it would probably look pretty similar, at least as seen from Benning Road. Adjacent residents likely won’t feel they are living right next to an industrial facility.
However, it’s not the sort of civic architecture that leaves much of an impression. Many cities’ new car barns aren’t good civic architecture either, but DDOT has been suggesting that this building would be better than merely okay.
The design guidelines call for “the highest aesthetic quality,” and there’s a lot that could be done to improve this building. Some of DC’s new libraries show how civic buildings can indeed be exemplary.
Some changes can improve the design
The primary purpose of the barn will be to park and maintain streetcars, but it will also include a training center, offices, and employee prep areas. One nice touch in the building design is that those non-industrial uses line Benning Road, so that from the sidewalk the upper floors of the building look like a school or office instead of a warehouse. Unfortunately, the ground floor is bare, so the illusion is incomplete.
Design guidelines call for public art to be included, and these renderings don’t appear to have any. Perhaps that first floor wall would be a good location for a mural.
Another disappointing facet is the location of the public entry on the side rather than the front or corner, where most would expect it. The reason appears to be that the interior layout puts offices and a copy room at the street corner, pushing the entry back a few feet onto 26th Street. This seems needlessly confusing, and prioritizes the wrong function.
The Historic Preservation Review Board discussed the project on November 1. Their comments begin at the 2:00:00 mark on the archived video, and focus on whether or not a modern-looking building is appropriate, and whether the plan could be reduced to have less visual impact. They did not take any vote at that meeting, but will do so when they consider the landmark application for Spingarn later this month.
The streetcar project is important, and this car barn is good enough to not delay the project. But while this is pretty good for a building that’s basically a garage, it could be much better. A car barn on the Spingarn campus makes sense, and this one isn’t terrible, but residents asked for an exemplary building, and DDOT said it could deliver.
DDOT also needs to be more open to the public about its planning for the streetcar. These renderings came out at 4:30 pm the evening before a Presidential election. Given the concern neighbors have about the planning process for the car barn, DDOT must make every attempt to be as open as possible.
It’s not necessary to completely start over, but some improvements do seem in order. Likewise, as DDOT starts to plan for future car barns in other neighborhoods, they shouldn’t settle for “just okay.”
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.