Urban Renewal Redux

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.

“The premise is that you can achieve greater results by planning in districts,” rather than individual buildings, Sullivan said in an interview. She added that the group looked to examples of ecodistricts in Portland, Ore., in its early stages of planning.

The proposal includes recommendations for interconnected systems of solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and ground source heating equipment. 

“We’ve spent two years analyzing spreadsheets down to the square foot to see if we can reduce greenhouse gas. ... That was really important to us,” she said.

The NCPC draft plan also proposes redeveloping some of the area’s sprawling, midcentury federal offices.

One of the focal points for the new ecodistrict is a pedestrian-friendly corridor along 10th Street. Opening up the corridor would mean rebuilding the Forrestal Building, which was designed by David R. Dibner and is home to the Energy Department.

The Forrestal complex stretches across a 10th Street underpass, creating a “physical and psychological barrier” between the Mall and the rest of the quadrant. Sketches of the finished project show that it would be would be replaced by two smaller buildings on either side of the street.

“There is a lot of underutilized land” in the neighborhood, Sullivan said, “and certainly redevelopment of the Forrestal Building is a priority.”

According to the plan, the redesigned 10th Street corridor would reduce crowding on the Mall and make room for new civic and cultural destinations. 

“We need more places for museums and monuments,” Sullivan said.

‘Vanished Washington’

Architects from around the country have pointed to the plan as an example of innovative architecture and urban planning. But Simon Jacobsen — a local architect who runs “VANISHED:Washington,” a popular blog about historical preservation — offers a note of caution.

“If there’s one thing that residents of D.C. know well, it’s a bulldozer,” he said in a recent interview.

He said the proposed ecodistrict makes “important” changes in “technology and renewable energy” but leaves much to be desired in terms of the neighborhood’s look and feel.

He compared solar panels to looking at a flat-screen TV. It’s “cool for the first few minutes,” he said. “But people don’t care a bit about the sight of large, dripping hot panels.”

“I don’t know what we were smoking in 1968 in the name of postwar progress and urban renewal,” he said. The commission’s plan, he insisted, doesn’t go far enough in restoring the scale and “human proportions” of the “little, forgotten government neighborhood” that was demolished a half-century ago.

The Southwest ecodistrict won’t be built overnight. The revitalization is in the planning stages, and the commission is still collecting public comments. In its current form, the plan includes a 20- to 25-year timeline.

“We have a once in a half-century chance to get it right,” NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant said during the July 12 public meeting.