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Planning Musings

NCPC Needs Bolder Vision for DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue

Comments submitted on April 26, 2022 to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) on The Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative’s Vision and Concepts.

NCPC is correct that Pennsylvania Avenue has too much asphalt and space dedicated to cars, but the New Vision is not bold enough to return “America’s Main Street” street to a thriving destination. The most important feature of a thriving main street is a having cluster of shops and restaurants with nearby residents, visitors, and office workers who will meet friends on the street, dwell in the parks, and patronize the businesses all day and night.

Pursuing the Urban Capital, Linear Green, or Civic Stage options will correctly reclaim space from vehicles but will not use that space to add residents or businesses to a street where monumental office buildings dominate the land use. Instead, NCPC should be bolder and use the reclaimed space to create new city blocks and an urban scale street from 13th to 3rd Street NW. NCPC should look to Rochester, NY for inspiration.

Recently, Rochester removed a section of its Inner Loop. At 190-ft. wide, the scale is comparable to Pennsylvania Avenue. Rather than create a park along the right-sized roadway, Rochester established new city blocks that have quickly filled with multifamily homes and businesses. NCPC should follow this model. New residential buildings could preserve vistas of the Capital and leave room for venues at the West End, Market Square, and John Marshall Park, but new buildings would enhance these venues by providing more people to enjoy them.

This immediate area is already awash in open space, including the intimate National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, the vast National Mall, and the heavily underused John Marshall Park. Adding park space, even with nice seating and shade, will increase long-term maintenance costs without necessarily bringing more people to use it outside of major events.

If, as I suspect this bolder vision is a non-starter, then NCPC should advance the Linear Green concept. This concept represents the most substantial change from the status quo and prioritizes pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders along a corridor that that has focused first on cars for decades. Eliminating the regular din and exhaust of cars would make the corridor a more pleasant place to dwell.[1]

To keep people coming outside of events, the design must provide all the many features that make other spaces popular: retail/restaurant kiosks, outdoor dining, public restrooms, playgrounds, dog parks, splash pads, interactive public art, exercise equipment, seating, and shade. Include spaces for pick-up and organized sports and games: basketball, sand volleyball, skateboarding, ping-pong, chess, cornhole, tennis, pickleball, and more. The corridor has ample space to tuck these courts and amenities among the new trees and landscaping envisioned in this concept.

Providing these amenities would depart from the City Beautiful-inspired designs for Federal Triangle, but they would go a long way towards making the corridor a functional, useful space for residents and visitors alike. I live walking distance to Pennsylvania Avenue, but I avoid walking along it and dislike crossing it on cold-windy and hot-humid days alike. Pennsylvania Avenue is competing for my attention with 14th Street NW, Franklin Park, Chinatown, and more—all within easy walking distance. It does not offer much today, but if I could grab a coffee and a sandwich to enjoy at a shaded table, meet friends for tennis, or bring my nephews to the playground then I would visit and stay on the avenue far more often and for longer than the handful of big events that bring me to it today.

Thank you for considering my comments and I look forward to seeing this New Vision evolve.

[1] NCPC must not pursue the Constitution Avenue underpass proposed with the Civic Stage concept. Underpasses create hostile pedestrian environments and enable reckless speeding.



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