Image from Reed Hilderbrand.

The five designs for the parks south of the White House are now available. All replace the ugly existing security with something more attractive, but they differ greatly on how well they will create inviting public spaces and accommodate passing through on foot or bike.

The National Capital Planning Commission selected five landscape architecture firms, from California, Massachusetts, and New York (not DC) to design alternatives to the current rows of concrete barriers and metal fences between the White House and Constitution Avenue.

While each carefully considers how to incorporate security in an attractive way, manage stormwater and help trees grow, and create inviting-looking human-scaled spaces, they vary on how well they link up with the surrounding city. In particular, some strongly consider how to accommodate bicycling along E Street, while others seemed not to have even pondered the issue at all.

All attempt to make the Ellipse itself more inviting than it is today, as an oval-shaped employee parking lot for the White House complex with a giant desolate lawn in the center. But there’s only so much you can do with a big empty oval surrounded by other government buildings and parks that serves little real function outside of White House public events like the national Christmas tree and menorah lightings.

Most create a low concrete wall that doubles as security and also seating for tourists. One, from Sasaki Associates, also suggests a cafe in the west grove just northwest of the Ellipse, but given current Park Service attitudes toward providing food options, it’s likely the Ellipse itself will remain a place people primarily pass through in the vain search for anything good to eat within a half mile of the Mall.

The real opportunity to make a positive difference comes at E Street. It used to be a through route between Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. Closed, it has turned into a forbidding and ugly fortress that looks more in place in Baghdad than Washington. It could at least work more like its counterpart on the north side, Pennsylvania Avenue, as a wide and attractive public space where people can observe the White House, protest, and still use as a through route for walking or bicycling.

Some of the designs embrace opportunities to activate E Street, while others think little beyond the current heavy iron gate look of the place. The less imaginative, like the one from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, keeps the ends largely as they are, with big vehicle gates and guardhouses right by the intersection, small pedestrian gates on the sidewalk, and fences in between:

“Sally port” layout from the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates design.

Others, like Sasaki’s and the one from Reed Hilderbrand move the screening away from the center of the roadway and thereby deemphasize them. Reed Hilderbrand’s approach moves this to the northern edge of the roadway on either end, leaving the remainder as a bollard-ringed shared area that looks similar to Pennsylvania Avenue.

E Street perspective from the Reed Hilderbrand proposal.

Sasaki’s proposal appears to move buildings for screening vehicles around to the perpendicular East and West Executive Avenues, letting official vehicles queue on more of E Street before reaching the checkpoints. This would have the benefit of reducing the amount of time the line spills over onto 15th and 17th Streets, blocking the road, sidewalk and/or bike lanes.

E Street portion of the Sasaki plan.

In the center, where people can view the White House, most designs try to better link the Ellipse visually to the South Lawn. Several create a large central plaza that forms a break in the lines of planted shrubs and where the distinctions between sidewalk and roadway disappear. Walkways from different angles all converge on this focal point which also includes the Zero Milestone marker.

Imaginary tourists on the central plaza in the Rogers Marvel Architects design.

To increase space for a plaza, some proposals reduce the vehicular orientation of the Ellipse. Two proposals, from Rogers Marvel Architects and Reed Hilderbrand, suggest removing parking from the northern half of the Ellipse and instead having a vehicular roadway entering from the northwest, looping around the south half of the Ellipse, and exiting in the northeast.

Flows of motor vehicles (left) and pedestrians (right) on the Reed Hilderbrand plan.

Taking an opposite tack, Michael Van Valkenburgh keeps all of the parking and designs a place to create a future underground parking garage.

As for bicycles, it’s clear some designers were keeping bikes in mind while others were not at all.

Sasaki specifically labels bike lanes on E Street, and Hood Design Studio’s submission shows flow for each mode of travel including through routes for bikes. Meanwhile, the proposal from Rogers Marvel Architects has an attractively laid out set of pedestrian pathways but absolutely no mention of bikes.

All proposals fill their renderings with stock images of people running, walking, standing and otherwise using the spaces. Three, the Sasaki, Reed Hilderbrand, and Hood designs, include people biking through, and sometimes rollerblading as well. The Rogers Marvel Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh proposals, ironically the two from New York, include no images of cyclists (except one on the RMA rendering shown above, with a man in a suit on something the size of a kid’s bike a folding bike gazing at the White House).

NCPC will be exhibiting all five designs at the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW today until Monday, June 27. All groups will present designs live on Tuesday, June 28, and a task force from various agencies will choose a winner by June 30.

You can also view the submissions online and send your comments to NCPC.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.