This morning, the National Capital Planning Commission (the federal government’s planning body for the DC area) released a great proposal for the future of the Federal area of the city. It calls for decking over not only the E Street Expressway but almost all of the “ramp spaghetti”, creating space for new buildings east and northeast or the Kennedy Center and a park to the southeast connecting to the Lincoln Memorial.
In the Federal Triangle area, the report also suggests a “Federal walk” guiding tourists to notable works of art among the federal office buildings, a more usable public space at the currently-barren, raised Freedom Plaza around 13th and Pennsylvania, and redevelopment of the FBI building to include street-level retail and restaurants, matching the livelier streets around it.
It also repeats and extends some past NCPC ideas for Southwest, including decking over part of the Southwest Freeway near the Banneker Overlook and creating a new 10th Street Overlook nearby, burying the VRE tracks to restore Maryland Avenue, a canal across East Potomac Park, and redeveloping some of the less historic concrete buildings, especially the Forrestal Building which blocks a view from the Smithsonian Castle down to the Potomac River.
NCPC also discussed the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which proposes to develop some parcels on the edge of its property to raise an endowment allowing it to provide for its retired veterans in the future. The plan is substantially the same as the one I reviewed previously, with a few small improvements.
They have reduced the number of parking spaces at DDOT’s request from the enormously high 6,500 to a slightly less enormous but still very high 5,155. If DC or WMATA improves bus service to the site, the number of spaces will decrease further. In the meantime, the plan calls for a shuttle bus to Columbia Heights and Brookland/CUA Metro stations, but those shuttles will only run 30 minutes outside rush hour, making them unlikely to seriously reduce car ownership or usage by residents or employees.
The plan also shifted some retail to Irving Street, on the exterior of the development, from the interior. The Office of Planning (and I) had criticized the way the plan “turns its back” to Irving Street; this change ameliorates that, though there will still be blank walls from parking garages on several of the blocks, albeit attractively concealed garages.
The biggest controversy at the NCPC meeting concerned open space. A small parcel on the west side, Zone C, was designated for possible future development of low-density (and suburban-esquely arranged) townhouses, but AFRH had always emphasized its desire to always leave this parcel forested. It abuts Petworth, and many residents and officials had advocated for creating a public park in Zone C and possibly Zone B, perhaps with some money from the National Park Service or the District of Columbia, perhaps partly as a condition for approval of the other zones.
The staff recommended NCPC approve the other zones with the condition that AFRH agree to negotiate for the next two years. AFRH argued against this idea because they don’t want to decide what to do with C in the next two years; they use it currently, and hadn’t planned to touch C for at least fifteen years. They want to keep it for the private use of their residents at least that long, ideally indefinitely as long as their finances remain sound.
Several board members objected to any conditions that would further delay financing which would help this needy institution. Ultimately, NCPC approved only Zone A, leaving Zones B and C as part of AFRH, requiring future debate and NCPC action before they can become buildings, a public park, or anything else.
After further discussing the proposed MLK Jr. National Memorial on the Tidal Basin and Georgetown Waterfront Park, NCPC dove into minutiae with a debate about 20 feet of height. Basically, the Height Act allows buildings on commercial streets to be 20 feet higher than the width of a nearby street, up to a maximum of 130 feet; a mixed-use building on M Street at Capper-Carrollsburg in Southeast fronts a 250-foot wide right-of-way bisected by a parking lot that will become Canal Park.
The street on the west is 2nd Street, 90 feet wide; on the east is 2nd Place, 70 feet wide. Once, 2nd Place was also called 2nd Street. Should we consider this a 250-foot wide single street with green space in its center, like E Street in Foggy Bottom, or two separate streets separated by a park? One would allow a 130-foot-high building, another only 110 feet.
The zoning administrator has ruled the former; the NCPC staff takes the opposite view. Harriet Tregoning made a good case for why nitpicking 20 feet is beneath NCPC and not especially vital to the federal interest, but by a narrow 5 to 4 vote, NCPC voted to oppose the extra 20 feet.