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Before writing a famous report on race and poverty in America, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic Senator from New York, earned a name for himself by writing a report on architecture.
In 1962, while serving as an assistant secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, Moynihan wrote a memo titled the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” A half-century later, it still guides the design of public buildings.
Federal offices, he wrote, should “embody the finest in contemporary American architectural thought.” At the time, his writing helped fuel “urban renewal” efforts in the nation’s capital — in particular, the city’s Southwest quadrant.
In an effort to root out urban poverty, officials tore down dilapidated homes and “alley dwellings” in the working-class neighborhood located just south of the Capitol complex. Thousands of residents were displaced to other areas of the city. Modernist public office buildings — the large, box-like structures that characterize the neighborhood today — were constructed in their place.
Fifty years later, the city’s urban planners once again want to give the neighborhood a contemporary makeover. But this time around, their focus is on environmental sustainability rather than urban blight.
Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission released a comprehensive plan to transform Southwest D.C. into “an environmental showcase of high-performing buildings and landscapes.”
The commission’s proposal would create a new 15-block “ecodistrict” on the south side of Independence Avenue, between Fourth Street on the east, 12th Street on the west and Maine Avenue on the south. The revitalization would add an environmentally conscious flare to the “superblocks” of federal and local office complexes.
Among the provisions in the 93-page public draft plan are recommendations that rooftops be covered with gardens and solar panels. Gray concrete walls would be covered with lush greenery. Buildings along 10th Street would be redeveloped and repurposed, opening up an extended plaza between the National Mall and the waterfront.
“It is an ambitious plan. It’s a big undertaking. But I believe, over time, that we can really transform the way future generations live and work … and experience this part of the nation’s capital,” Elizabeth Miller, head of the Southwest Ecodistrict Task Force, said in a presentation to the commission in mid-July.
Portlandia to Washingtonia
The initiative would display some of the newest ideas in sustainable design along the south side of the National Mall.
At the heart of the proposal, according to NCPC urban planner Diane Sullivan, are large-scale renewable energy goals.