The Wharf development has the potential to create an exciting pedestrian-oriented, human-scale space along DC’s Southwest Waterfront. But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don’t live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring.


Is all this human activity too “carnivalesque” for CFA board members? They might prefer a dead yet monumental space. Images from PN Hoffman/Madison Marquette.




On March 27, the US Commission on Fine Arts issued preliminary comments on the proposed development that were as predictable as they were disappointing. While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has “improved substantially,” commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

The commission’s letter to the DC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development argues that:

[T]he design continues to present unnecessary emphasis on specific moments or events within this linear urban space—using too many materials, too many elements, and too many unrelated forms—which may result in a carnivalesque character, and they suggested editing the vocabulary of design elements to create a calmer, more dignified effect. ...

The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuous—not interrupted by new paving patterns from incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streets—to reinforce this central organizing element within the project.


These suggestions, like others in the past from CFA, undermine opportunities to build pleasing, lively gathering places in favor of an austere architectural monument. Such input is one explanation for Washington’s many underwhelming and little-used public spaces.

This fascination with “continuous” features is precisely what has created dead zones throughout the city, from the expanse of M Street SE leading to Nationals Stadium, to Massachusetts Ave. from Union Station to the Convention Center—dubbed the “mediocre mile”—as well as the existing design of the Southwest Waterfront that this project aims to replace.


Diagram showing how different materials emphasize varying spaces.


Stretches of new development that are indifferent to pedestrians and provide little or no animation produce unappealing public spaces. At best, they are devoid of activity until a special event is superimposed; at worst they become havens for crime for lack of “eyes on the street.” The best new development needs the very design features that the commission’s members dismiss.

As the councilmember for Ward 6, home to the Southwest Waterfront, I challenged Monte Hoffman, president of the site’s major development company, to:

  • Design buildings with variation and architectural interest at the ground level — the opposite of suburban buildings that are appreciated from the window of a car;
  • Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms;
  • And most importantly, reject the failed architecture around Nationals Stadium that has created cavernous, blank, uniform design for blocks on end.


Top: Oslo, Norway. Bottom: Pike Place, Seattle, Washington.

Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable “neighborhoods” by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area.This delineation and animation recognizes the failure of the soulless, uniform development across the country — the “Applebee’s effect.” Yet commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures “both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project.”It’s time to end the drumbeat of new developments in the nation’s capital, from the convention center to TechWorld, that provide the type of architectural simplicity the commission favors but establish mammoth dead zones which inhibit activity and entertainment and ultimately compromise safety.We must resist federal reviewers’ impulse to stamp out street-level interest and animation, especially when projects like the Southwest Waterfront development offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.Update: The original version of this post said that many CFA members do not live in DC, but it is even more descriptive to point out that they don’t live in the Washington region at all. We have changed this to better reflect Wells’ original intent. Intro paragraphs are often significantly reworked in the editing process for clarity, length, and to get main points up top, including in this case, so any blame for this phrase should go to the editors and not Wells.