Columbus Circle, which sits in front of Union Station, is one of DC’s most-traversed public spaces. It’s up against some unique challenges to development because it’s so close to the Capitol grounds, but with the right plan Columbus Circle could be DC’s next great neighborhood.
Columbus Circle as it is today (left) and as it could be with the right plan (right). Image by the author unless otherwise noted.
Bordered by a sprawling Massachusetts Avenue lined with parking lots and open spaces, Columbus Circle functions primarily as a glorified traffic circle despite the beautiful views of the Capitol Dome directly to the south. Every day, thousands of commuters hurry across its treeless expanse relieved only by a few patches of grass and the historic Columbus fountain.
What would the city gain if the area between Union Station and the Capitol grounds were developed? I propose a new mixed use neighborhood centered around a public space for people to enjoy. This new neighborhood would add much needed housing near transit while also linking Downtown to Capitol Hill.
Columbus Circle was intended to be developed
In 1901, an effort to commemorate DC’s 100-year birthday yielded the McMillan Commission, which produced a plan for future development in the District. Based on Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan and the existing ideals of the City Beautiful Movement, the commissioners sought to “prepare for the city of Washington such a plan as shall enable future development to proceed along the lines originally planned— namely, the treatment of the city as a work of art…”
Union Station, designed by D.H. Burnham & Company in 1907, was designed to anchor a grand civic space in the manner intended by L’Enfant. Senator McMillan envisioned the train station and its surrounding buildings “be treated in a monumental manner, as they will become the vestibule of the city of Washington, and as they will be in close proximity to the Capitol itself…” Although the federal government purchased twelve blocks southwest of the station soon after the plan was unveiled, this vision was never completed.
Here’s what Columbus Circle could look like
The rendered site plan below illustrates my proposal for a built-out Columbus Circle centered on the historic Columbus Fountain ensemble. While retaining the existing number of car and bike lanes, Massachusetts Avenue would receive a road diet, enabling the extension of the existing green spaces outward into more usable parcels.
The green spaces would be lined with trees and benches helping to break down the plaza’s expanse into more humanely scaled and pedestrian friendly spaces similar to Dupont Circle.
My plan for Columbus Circle could preserve Historic Senate Park and its fountain while building up the northern and western edges with new government buildings (shown in red below). Designed by Bennett, Parsons, and Frost in 1929, Senate Park is framed to the south by the Capitol and to the east by the stately Cannon Office building. Preserving the park would ensure a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds while creating a well defined park for the southern edge of this new neighborhood.
The McMillan commissioners were greatly influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, which espoused harmony in urban ensembles. For Columbus Circle they envisioned buildings of a uniform building height aligned with Union Station and in keeping with its monumental character. The neighboring eight-story office buildings in downtown’s East End align with the top of Union Station’s main façade. This plan would extend the existing eight story height to the new infill buildings (shown in orange above) around Columbus Circle.
Like the Navy Memorial’s relationship with the National Archives Building, the two blocks directly opposite Union Station could pick up on the station’s architectural language as illustrated above.
The sidewalk in front of the two blocks would be layered with a green buffer and outdoor dining spaces allowing pedestrians to circulate through a two story arcade similar to Union Station.
Columbus Circle’s challenges
Despite the potential for a new neighborhood, this area presents many challenges, least of all regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles. Currently, the area below Columbus Circle is zoned as part of the National Mall and Capitol grounds, and as such would need to be re-zoned. Any plan would have to be done in consultation with the National Capitol Planning Commision, the Architect of the Capitol, the Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and the National Park Service.
As the guide for future development in DC, the National Capital Planning Commission just released the Federal Elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, which states that new urban design elements should “express the dignity befitting the national capital’s image.” The plan calls for creating “a sense of arrival to the nation’s capital through prominent gateways.”
Beyond the regulatory labyrinth and the need to maintain a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds, the most difficult challenge is the subjective one: how best to build next to prominent historical landmarks.
Today it’s common for infill buildings to contrast with their historical surroundings, to be “of our time.” Rather than prioritize novelty, the commissioners sought “elements that give pleasure from generation to generation and from century to century.” In fact, the plan’s commissioners went on a seven week European tour to study “what arrangement of park area best adapts them to the uses of the people.”
Washington DC’s current renaissance is breathing new life into many once quiet neighborhoods. All over town developers are trying to keep up with the demand for walkable, transit oriented neighborhoods. This has prompted lively debates over how to best increase the housing supply and the subsequent impact this growth will have on the character of our city.
Pierre L’Enfant and the McMillan Commission left us a legacy that is still relevant today as we continue to grow. Columbus Circle offers an opportunity to add another vibrant neighborhood to downtown and finally have an appropriate entry to the capital of the free world.