Photo by Kim Smith on Flickr.

Cars and streetcars could flow counterclockwise around a Mount Vernon Square enlivened with retail, seating and events in the park and along the Convention Center’s façade, under draft recommendations the DC Office of Planning unveiled last night. 

Mount Vernon Square resembles Dupont Circle in many ways. It carries just as much car traffic and sits at the crossroads of several major thoroughfares and transit lines. Yet as an urban space, few would rank Mount Vernon Square as successful.  The Office of Planning (OP) hopes to change that.

The proposal recommends mid-block crosswalks to connect the square to the Convention Center on the north and to 8th Street on the south.  This will help fuse all three sections together. In the square itself, OP recommends reprogramming the walkways and for a more intuitive pedestrian flow through the square and adding two small retail or food pavilions and outdoor seating.

Concept sketch showing streetcar path and retail pavilions.

On the north side, OP wants to rethink the south entrance to the Convention Center.  The building is massive and has the potential to host more permanent attractions like a “mini-Smithsonian” or something similar.  To enliven the south façade more, planners envision the construction of small cafes or retail spaces at the southwest and southeast corners of the building.

Much as the old Convention Center site now hosts temporary events, 8th Street from the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art to the square could likewise become programmed into an active public space. The study team said that the owner of the adjacent Techworld Plaza is amenable to accommodating more events.

The section between the square and I Street is already closed to car traffic and forms a suitable space for outdoor seating and kiosks, though it just ends up as a large, vacant space most of the time.

DDOT will ultimately decide the traffic flow configuration, but the planners recommend a counterclockwise loop, much like the configurations at Stanton Park and Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill.  The loop configuration will allow expanding the interior sidewalks of the square and would eliminate the terribly congested two-way stretch of 7th Street on the east side of the square.

The loop configuration will also accommodate extending the H Street streetcar line onto K Street from NoMA to Washington Circle. Streetcar stops along the edge of the inner square will enliven and activate the space throughout the day. If the streetcar uses “grass tracks” around the square as proposed by this video, the streetcar lane would also visually expand the park.

Under the recommended option, 7th Street south of the square would become one-way northbound, to match 9th Street which is one-way southbound. However, one-way streets have drawbacks. They tend to serve more as through highways than serving the local area, and downtown, especially on 7th Street, there is plenty of local activity. One-way streets force drivers to circle more to reach a destination, and reduce connectivity.

This study doesn’t look at 7th and 9th farther south, but if such a plan were coupled with widening the sidewalks on crowded 7th Street, adding cycle tracks to 7th and 9th, and perhaps building bus lanes that aren’t susceptible to the rampant violation the current ones experience, that could be beneficial; if it simply makes 7th into 3 or 4 lanes in the same direction and it becomes a high-speed northbound artery, it wouldn’t be.

The other options the planners examined include making both 7th and 9th two-way, including through the square, while only turning the east-west roads into one-way roads, or making all roads two-way.

3 options for traffic flow. Click to enlarge.

Finally, no lively public spaces project can work without permanent management.  OP recommends something on the order of a business improvement district (BID) or a smaller management entity to clean and plant the square and adjacent triangle parks. This entity would also facilitate events on the square and manage leasing the Carnegie Library to a potential co-tenant of the Historical Society, which currently occupies the entire building.

To simplify jurisdictional issues, they suggest transferring the park and adjacent small spaces, like the “bow-tie” parks, to the District. Current NPS rules make it more difficult to enliven spaces, like their concession procedures which would greatly slow if not prohibit the proposed food pavilions.

OP will release its full draft recommendations next week, but you can view the 10 priority projects (PDF) now.  What would you like to see at Mount Vernon Square?