Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.
“It’s a disgrace—fix it.”
Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, “America’s Main Street” between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.
Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today’s Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC’s increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?
The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconic—but grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.
Broadway is the heart of New York’s theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris’s Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world’s iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.
Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvania—most notably the FBI Building—are openly hostile to pedestrians.
The sidewalk outside the FBI building.
Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.
Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.
The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.
The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.
Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city’s “grand boulevard,” which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.
Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.
Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.
At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.
In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a “Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative.” Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, “develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city.”
The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.
The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.
Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.