A mixed-use development is due to replace the FBI building in Penn Quarter. Right now, the rules that will guide that six-acre redevelopment are stalling over a few issues. The biggest problem is the risk that the current draft ignores the best possible outcome: a Pennsylvania Avenue that devotes enough space to pedestrians.
In the next decade, the FBI will leave their downtown headquarters, swapping its current home at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW with a developer in exchange for for a vast campus in either Virginia or Maryland. Right now, government agencies, led by the National Capital Planning Commission, have to clarify what the government will allow the future developer to build on the land.
The new FBI headquarters will be expensive. The larger the development rights are, the better the deal the government will get. A bigger offer means the federal government will pay less money out of pocket, or even recover a surplus. So the government agency negotiating the swap, the General Services Administration, wants NCPC to permit as much leaseable floor area as possible.
While working on the guidelines for the swap, NCPC is also working with designers to re-imagine Pennsylvania Avenue as a lively mixed-use street with performers and sidewalk cafes. A busier street requires wide sidewalks. The FBI site does have a wide sidewalk now. However, that’s on space borrowed from the lots the FBI building was built on in the 1960s. The GSA wants that space back for the deal.
NCPC’s planners struck a compromise: they’d give GSA about half of the space back, which would mean GSA getting a feasible building that leaves generous room for outdoor restaurant seating, similar to I Street between the Foggy Bottom Metro and Whole Foods. Not satisfied, the GSA is fighting the guidelines, threatening to use an escape clause that lets it set its own rules.
This fight is missing the point: the only reason sidewalks are tight is because the roadway in Pennsylvania Avenue is ridiculously wide. Everyone involved knows this. They’re thinking of changing it, but the planners have to act like it will stay the same.
Autocentric visions reshaped Pennsylvania Avenue
Pennsylvania Avenue cross section, if L’Enfant’s vision existed today. Image by author with Streetmix.
At founding, Pierre L’Enfant and later surveyors laid out Pennsylvania Avenue’s right-of-way to be 160 feet wide, with 40-foot sidewalks under a canopy of two rows of trees. That didn’t last. By the 1902, the sidewalks had narrowed to 27 feet.
You can see how cramped this gets on the north sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets, especially where retail windows project into the street.
Between the Victorian “projections” and the 1970s trees set usually far from the curb, the sidewalk between 6th and 7th gets cramped.
In the 20th century, planners reimagined the street as an active monumental promenade with sidewalks bigger than L’Enfant imagined. They also assumed that space given over to solely cars could never decrease. So they borrowed space from the properties on either side of the right-of-way, demolishing the older buildings and mandating that new buildings rise a prescribed distance from the property line.
On the south side of Pennsylvania, Federal Triangle’s designers went with 30-foot setbacks for a total of 50 feet of setback. In the 1960s, planners decided a large federal building should sit on the northern side 50 feet back from the property line, creating a plaza-like space of 80 feet. The current FBI building is the only part of that vision that was completed.
The 1960s plan imagined a vast promenade flanked by federal buildings. Image from SOM, created for the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue.
By 1974, planners had started to see how mixed uses bring activity to streets. So, the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan added residential, commercial, and arts buildings, but kept the setbacks for aesthetic reasons.
At the FBI building, the sidewalk is wide enough to allow three rows of trees. Image from Google Maps.
At the same time, historic preservation laws blocked demolition on the remaining old buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. That leaves the north side as it is today: massive sidewalks running discontinuously for half of the length of the road, and narrow sidewalks where the historic building still stand. It will never be complete.
In this diagram of Pennsylvania Avenue, dark green stretches are setbacks of 75 feet or more, light green are about 50 feet, pink are between 26 and 44 feet, and red are 25 feet or less.
Image from NCPC
The only way to make the sidewalks consistently wide would be to narrow the vehicular roadway. For the avenue-wide plan, planners are considering doing that. The catch is that because nobody has approved an avenue design with wider sidewalks, for the FBI site guidelines, NCPC has had to assume that building back at the legal lot line would leave only the narrow 27-foot sidewalk.
The full setback has some influential defenders: DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, the Committee of 100, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the landscape architects Elizabeth Meyer and Elizabeth Gilbert sitting on the Commission of Fine Arts.
Developers and the notable architect Richard Rogers have backed the GSA’s request for a bigger building. The DC Historic Preservation Office has backed a building at the lot line as well. They don’t care about the square footage, they want the plan to follow the L’Enfant Plan exactly as surveyed in the 1790s.
So earlier this month, NCPC split the difference and decided new buildings on the FBI block would stand back 30 feet, for a 57-foot buffer similar to the one across the street at Federal Triangle.
This half-hearted compromise sets a precedent that will make it harder to fix the design of the street later. It will probably also result in a worse land deal. NCPC has stated that if, in the future, the avenue redesign gives sidewalks a bigger share of the roadway, they could rethink the design of the FBI site. But a change made 3-4 years from now, after closing on the deal would effectively give the developer a large amount of area for free.
If we can move buildings, we can move the roadway
The details of the deal hide the biggest assumption: that the amount of space given over to cars cannot change and the sidewalks could never get wider. But the massive roadway comes from 1900s guesswork. Now, a growing body of research based on the roads that guesswork has created says narrowing the roadway is the only sensible thing to do.
The thing is, Pennsylvania Avenue could have 40-foot sidewalks, double rows of trees, fill out the block as L’Enfant envisioned, and have a cafe, all without removing a single lane of vehicular traffic.
Cross-section of the street, if a new building were built at L’Enfant’s lot line. Image by the author using Streetmix.
All of the lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue are 11 feet wide. That plus the 12-foot median-slash-protected bikeway adds up to the expansive, hard-to-cross Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleven feet is a big, suburban traffic lane. Lanes of that size are never appropriate for an urban setting, wide open views or not.
First, narrow lanes would be safer. Wider lanes encourage speeding, and streets too wide for many people to cross on time. Whatever their intentions, the current configuration is designed for moving traffic, not taking in the view as a pedestrian.
Imagine a street for tourists, not traffic
To show what’s possible with only the 160’ right-of-way, let’s do a quick exercise. Assume each direction needs on 11’ lane for buses and trucks. That leaves six feet, plus the 12-foot median up for grabs. Plus, the current road is four feet off center, and the sidewalk trees are set further in than most streets. That adds up.
Of course this will require professional study, but we can use Streetmix to understand what’s possible for a 21st-century street.
I like the double row of trees some blocks currently have. Every block could have that in this design. I like the idea of having some outdoor cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue. This design has room for that. The monumental views are important; this design keeps the avenue symmetrical by moving the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway behind a barrier on the less compressed south side.
With a more adventurous nine-foot travel lanes, I was able to split out the road with bikeways in each direction, with barriers wide enough for bus stops, a roadway that’s easier for people of all abilities to cross, and as a bonus, restore L’Enfant’s dimensions.
And again, this is without eliminating a single vehicle traffic lane. Think of what the possibilities could be if that is allowed.
Narrowing the Pennsylvania Avenue roadway would allow for the sidewalks planners want for the FBI building site. It gives GSA a more valuable building to swap in its deal. And it restores consistency to the historic streetwall Pennsylvania Avenue had, before planners who’d never been stuck in traffic tore it up.
There’s a joke in architecture that “there’s nothing more designed than the site.” That is, designers are used to working inside artificial parameters as if they’re laws of nature. As a result, public is missing the only win-win scenario. Narrowing the road is the only way to meet historic, economic, and vibrancy requirements this project has.
At the least, the guidelines should include a stronger statement of support for a narrow road and a consistent streetwall to avoid setting this condition in stone.
No trends suggest 11-foot lanes are what DC needs in the future. The lack of this perspective by the leadership of the multiple agencies involved is a bad sign.