DC City Planners Enlist EE&K to help Make Gateway Avenues More Attractive

By Sarah Krouse

Nearly 1 million cars drove into the nation’s capital in 2008. And though Washington is considered one of the grandest cities in the world, it also hosts some of the most lackluster entrances.

Sure, the 236,500 cars that crossed the 14th Street Bridge each week in 2008 caught a glimpse of the Washington Monument peeking over the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

And for the 98,700 cars that moved over the Roosevelt Bridge, the Kennedy Center and Washington Monument framed the District’s horizon.

But the nearly 200,000 cars that moved along North Capitol Street, Rhode Island and New York avenues NE and Georgia Avenue NW saw little more than decrepit auto lots, junkyards and strip malls filled with discount retailers.

Not exactly the images of power and glory tourists have in mind.

When Pierre L’Enfant was dreaming of the grand boulevard that was to become New York Avenue, he probably wasn’t thinking of run-down motels and chain fast food joints.

The District is working to create more attractive gateways to the city, albeit in fits and starts, but still has a long way to go before the city’s entry points truly tell visitors they have arrived.

Sense of place

In the last two years the Office of Planning has completed small area plans in places such as upper Georgia Avenue, the intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, South Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue SE and Deanwood. It recently finished a $270,000 study of North Capitol Street near Catholic University.

“In each of these areas, there are opportunities to use high-quality and innovative urban design, streetscape enhancements, signature redevelopment projects, public art and interpretative heritage signage as tools to enhance the corridors and creative unique and distinctive destinations,” said Anita Hairston, a spokeswoman for the Office of Planning.

The six-month North Capitol Street study, a partnership between the Office of Planning, the District Department of Transportation and the National Capital Planning Commission, explored the possibility of turning Irving Street and North Capitol into a more walkable, even transit-oriented gateway with public parks and a “sense of place.”

“We were asked to look into the feasibility of transforming the area into something that was less of a suburban interchange, something that could connect the neighborhoods in the area and weave in developments like the Armed Forces Retirement Home and Catholic University to make it a better gateway for the city,” said Matt Bell, principal of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, the firm that conducted the study.

The study was meant to guide decisions about future development and transportation infrastructure, he said.

“Now, the only transit is by buses or automobile, not really biking,” Bell said. “The goal is to make the area into something that serves multiple modes of transport and is less strictly dependant on the service of the automobile. We want people coming down North Capitol Street to move through a very grand public space that begins to slow traffic down and make you feel you are moving into the city.”

About 31,900 cars passed through the intersection of North Capitol and Irving streets each week in 2008.

“There is a lot of development activity envisioned for the North Capitol Street area in the next decade including development near Catholic University, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and the McMillan Sand Filtration site and the vision for these areas is walkable, mixed-use development,” Hairston said.

“In order to accomplish this, there was a need to re-imagine the transportation system — the major feature of which was a highway — to include walkable streetscapes; enhanced bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities; and interesting destinations for shopping, cultural activities and recreation,” she said.

New York, New York

A mix of uses and walkability are also key features of two developments planned along the currently blighted New York Avenue.

Abdo Development LLC has long had plans to turn 16 acres now occupied by a junkyard, fast food restaurants and a strip club into a lively, pedestrian-friendly corridor.

Bounded by New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Montana Avenue, the parcel is slated to host more than 3,000 residential units and 130,000 square feet or retail, along with public park space, new Metrobus stops and a large recreational facility.

Signs along the avenue also advertise MRP Realty’s plans to build nearly 1 million square feet of office, retail, hotel and residential space near the New York Avenue Metro station.

The development, called The Washington Gateway, will include two office towers, 262 residential units, a 16-floor, 181-unit hotel and 15,000 square feet of street-level retail.

Transit will play a major role in the project, said MRP Senior Vice President Matt Robinson.

“Metro is a key component and so is the fact that there is a well-developed walk to the New York Avenue station,” he said. “There is a coffee shop, a Five Guys, and there’s going to be a Harris Teeter by the end of next year. There’s a tremendous amenity base. That’s the big difference between our area and the ballpark area, where you walk past a lot of empty lots.”

The project is still waiting on a better economy, though Robinson said the team is actively meeting with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which helps improve public spaces and streetscapes near projects in up-and-coming areas.

MRP gave the commission $50,000 under the land proffer to redesign the New York Avenue Bridge.

Great streets

The arts commission is also working on streetscape projects on Rhode Island, Minnesota and Georgia avenues, and its is finishing a project on the 14th Street Bridge that involves installing kalaidescope-like cones inside the operations tower to add colors during the day and lighting at night.

The art and streetscape improvements join gateway signs installed by the District Transportation Department years ago to replace pre-existing, aging ones.

The arts commission has partnered with the deputy mayor for planning and economic development’s Great Streets Initiative, which works to transform under-invested corridors into neighborhood centers.

A major developing corridor stretches along Rhode Island Avenue from Eastern Avenue to North Capitol Street. The road will eventually see a streetcar line, as will Georgia Avenue, though a time frame is not yet available.

Developers along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor plan to replace strips of laundromats, fast food restaurants and discount stores with diverse retail, transit-oriented residential projects and more intense commercial development that will double the area’s office space.

Washington Business Journal