The planned art installation “Rain” will brighten the otherwise-drab M Street underpass next to the NoMa Metro station. Hopefully it will lead to more development the neighborhood needs, like better bike lanes and places for people to gather.

The M Street underpass in its existing state looking west. Photo by the author.

“These are already spaces where people sit, they wait for buses and they talk to neighbors,” said Tony Goodman, the ANC commissioner for the district that includes NoMa. “I hope to see seating and gathering spaces. It really is essential that we have more gathering spaces.”

At the April 27th community meeting where Goodman commented, community leaders noted that while Rain brightens the transitory space, it doesn’t include any ground-level improvements to the underpass. This is largely due to the limited scope of the project, which does not include the sidewalk or walls.

Image from NoMa BID.

NoMa has engaged landscape architect Michael Vergason to help address this shortcoming and to work on other park projects throughout the neighborhood. He identifies the northeast and southeast corners of the underpass, the latter adjacent to the Metro entrance, as possible gathering spaces.

“We will work on and think about how the ground plane can extend in and, perhaps, something of the quality of the overhead can extend out,” Vergason said at the meeting.

He declined to comment on a timeline, saying that some elements of gathering spaces may go in alongside Rain and some may go in incrementally over time.

The M Street bike lane could get longer

It’d be great for M Street’s protected bikeway to continue through the underpass. However, the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) controls the road and the sidewalk.

Robin Eve-Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), said that DDOT is working on plans to continue the bike lane through the tunnel on the southern sidewalk. The project would also likely include moving the Capital Bikeshare station to the south side of the underpass from the north side.

These plans would turn the southern sidewalk into a de facto space for bikes and the northern one into a space for pedestrians.

A bike lane through the underpass could eventually be part of an extended lane along M Street NE, connecting the Metropolitan Branch Trail and 1st Street NE to the 6th Street NE protected bikeway and Union Market.

Rain could be live this fall

The NoMa Parks Foundation and design team Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects hope to complete and share a prototype of Rain with the public by this summer. Installation could start this fall.

Andrew Thurlow, a partner at Thurlow Small and a lead designer on the project, said the central tenets of Rain are to improve safety and brighten the space while also knitting together the neighborhood on both sides of the underpass.

“How can lighting act as a condition to start to begin to bridge these two scales of these neighborhoods?” he said. “This particular portal, this tunnel space, could act as that connective tissue… you can start bridging neighborhoods in this way.”

The LED lights that are “a little similar to George Lucas’ lightsabers” in Star Wars will hang from a series of vaults on ceiling of the underpass, said Thurlow. The lights will react to the activity in the underpass in four distinct phases. For example, at night, it will cascade from the edges of the space to the center and back out again, like a pedestrian passing through the tunnel.

Cross section of Rain in the M Street underpass. Photo from NoMa BID.

The M Street underpass is just the beginning of the $50 million investment that the District is making in parks in NoMa. The neighborhood is investing about $2 million in M Street and similar projects for the underpasses on K and L Streets, and Florida Avenue NE.

“I think we have a fabulous design,” said Eve-Jasper of the M Street project. “We have a great design team and we think L Street will be right behind it.”

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of Eckington and tweets frequently about planes, trains and bikes.