Projectors could shine interactive art or sign language shapes on the walls of NoMa’s underpasses. Large sculptures made of LEDs could give visual interest to the ceilings and walls. Ten teams of architects envisioned ways (some dubious) to illuminate and enliven the tunnels where K, L, and M streets and Florida Avenue cross under the railroad tracks.

Image by Citelum US.

The NoMa Parks Foundation, which is affiliated with the local BID, is conducting a design competition for the underpasses. Now, these are dark and unexciting spaces; while they will still be underpasses, NoMa hope to make them more appealing ones.

If successful, they also could help knit together both sides of the railroad tracks by creating some concrete sense of place adjacent to the urban fabric on either side, instead of just a dead zone. Some of the architects seem to have devised interesting ways of doing that; others perhaps missed the mark.

K Street

K Street is one of the hardest. It has narrow sidewalks flanking four lanes of car traffic. Relatively few pedestrians cross here.

Some of the designers seem to have embraced the car-oriented nature of this underpass and don’t really try to create a pleasant pedestrian space, while others think more broadly.

All photos from the NoMa BID created by the respective architect teams.

United Visual Artists proposes linear lines of light that visually extend the street grid through the underpass. It’s simple — perhaps too simple.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO uses the many columns which hold up the bridge between the lanes of traffic to create a moving zoetrope effect. This seems like a terrible idea as it only works at high speed, making it clearly geared to the driver and not the pedestrian, but at the same time, would distract drivers who need to be watching the road.

Some cities including New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Kiev have put images like this in their subway tunnels (sometimes as ads). That seems like a much smarter location since riders aren’t operating the train.

CINIMOD + Studio LDVC + TALL designed a series of arcs around each end of the underpass which gradually line up to form a geometric ovoid shape as you approach the underpass. This seems like it would work well at pedestrian scale and speed and give more of a sense of the underpass being something to go to instead of merely through.

L Street

In contrast to K Street, L Street has very wide sidewalks but just two lanes of traffic. This creates far more opportunities to do something with this space. This also is the underpass with the most submissions (five).

A rendering from the NoMa Public Realm Plan showed the area packed with good-looking stock photo people like a rave is going on or something. In reality, this will still basically be a sidewalk between places, but the teams tried to make it a sidewalk you want to go to.

Narduli Studio devised a clever idea: a series of cameras that take photographs of the pedestrians and cyclists walking by, then project silhouettes of them on the wall that gradually fade over time. This would create a continuity between who is here now and who was here before, populating the underpass with the people from the past. When trains rumble overhead, the light pattern will add waves to represent sound.

Future Cities Lab (top above) and Mik Young Kim both created variants on the “make something artistic out of LEDs.” Future Cities designed a weaving truss while MYK shaped them into a tree that will change color. The tree idea could give some natural feel to a place that is very utilitarian.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO, the people who also suggested the zoetrope, suggest suspending rods overhead that will sway back and forth to make it look like it’s raining. I fear making people feel like they’re out in the elements in bad weather is not a good way to make an underpass a welcoming space.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber’s idea is to turn a wide sidewalk into what’s effectively a much narrower one by building a big wooden structure with vertical poles that make a gentle arc. It’s visually interesting, but makes both the center and side sections vary in width, constraining pedestrian and bicycle flow.

M Street

All three of designs for M Street are based on LED light strips.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber have another of their space-eating wooden structures.

Synthesis + Architecture & Moritz Waldemeyer would suspend some long lines of webbing. This also seems to cut down significantly on the space available for walking.

Meanwhile, Mik Young Kim (which proposed the tree of light for L Street) suggests an undulating “energy field” along the ceiling and wall, with sections popping out to form benches.

This one looks interesting, so much so that their rendering shows all of the pedestrians gawking at the ceiling but getting in the way of others. Also, apparently people would take photos of models on bicycles inside the underpass.

Florida Avenue

Citelum US’s proposal, called “Luminous Aether,” does the most to link the underpasses to the concept of parkland (which is very scarce in NoMa and was part of the impetus for the competition). Projections on the walls would rotate between the concepts of air, water, earth, and fire, each interacting as people walk past.

The proposal by Dulio Passariello + Ray King would project six hands on each wall making the American Sign Language letters for F-L-O-R-I-D-A. A background projection would change color throughout the day as speakers play the music of Duke Ellington and the sounds of a Florida beach.

This, especially the hands, goes the furthest to relate to the actual surrounding community as Florida Avenue connects the Metro station to Gallaudet University. Unfortunately, the Gallaudet community has not been involved in the process thus far, so this might need changes to comply with guidelines about the light and color necessary for deaf persons to see each other sign in the underpass.

Which do you like?

Overall, the CINMOD light circles (K Street), Narduli persistent mural (L Street), Mik Young Kim energy field (M Street), and Passariello sign language mural (Florida Avenue) seem best. I also really like the Citelum “Luminous Aether” projections, and perhaps that could go on one of the other underpasses (like K Street, whose designs aren’t the most exciting). It’s also worth considering using the Mik Young Kim tree instead of the energy field for M Street if there is room.

It’s a little disappointing that so many of the designs focused on LED light strips or projections. While it’s perhaps natural that designs for underpasses would be about light, they also could do more to create actual places for people to go.

Update: Tony Goodman, ANC commissioner for the area, wrote in an email:

In general I think that the designs should be brighter and more cheerful, while avoiding new obstructions that block pedestrian and bicyclist flow. For L & M Streets there should be more opportunities for people to sit, linger talk and sign as M Street especially is an increasingly popular meeting place for people in the neighborhood.

This project is entirely within public space and paid for with public money, so it’s essential that the community is more involved in the implementation than they have been in this RFP process so far.

What do you think?

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.