Uniting the Divide of Barracks Row

Posted November 26, 2008 at 2:06pm

Twelve urban planning graduate students from the University of Maryland want to help solve one of Barracks Row’s biggest problems: bridging the divide between its languishing southern end beyond the Interstate 295 overpass and its thriving northern blocks along Eighth Street Southeast.

For one of their last classes before most of these students graduate in May, they’ve devoted a semester to a project called Connect Barracks Row.

Alexander Chen, who teaches the capstone class in the fall, selected Barracks Row for the project based on the recommendation of a former student now working in the D.C. Office of Planning. Chen said he sought a neighborhood with two criteria: an area with a size that a class could manage in a semester, and active community groups willing to work with the students.

The class narrowed the assignment to the part of Barracks Row near Navy Yard south of the I-295 overpass, which they say has been neglected while the rest of Barracks Row and the adjacent area around the Nationals stadium have flourished in recent years.

Currently, those who wish to get to the southern end of Barracks Row must walk under the overpass, with traffic roaring overhead. And even if pedestrians do find their way to the lower end, they don’t find much there in terms of stores, restaurants or nightlife.

Louis Wassel, who has served as interim executive director of Barracks Row Main Street since September, said he is “delighted” with the students’ research of the neighborhood’s conditions.

“It’s really the groundbreaking first steps to talk through the process and understand what elements go into the existing conditions,” he said. The students “give an outside perspective of providing additional information that as Barracks Row we may not be able to spend the time and effort to reach out to others.”

The class researched the history of the neighborhood and got a feel for its problems through Internet surveys and interviews with major stakeholders such as business owners and residents.

They used the information to put together a physical model and computer models of what Barracks Row looks like now and presented it all at a community meeting on Oct. 29. About 30 people attended the presentation (PowerPoint slides from the presentation are available at connectbarracksrow. wordpress.com). They could move the parts on the physical model and talk to the students about the neighborhood.

The students would like to make the area more open to pedestrians and encourage more retail development, so they have focused on changes that would take the focus off the freeway overpass. Though she didn’t want to reveal any specifics of their proposals, Brule said they’ll detail those possibilities and recommend one at a Dec. 18 meeting with the community.

Brule, who interns at the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning, said the practical experience has taught her a great deal about working with the community.

“Personally, I’ve learned how hard it is to really achieve true community input,” she said. “I think we definitely did what we could and still are aware that certain populations aren’t going to be as well-represented as others.”

Internet surveys naturally leave out anyone who doesn’t have Internet access, she said. Though students also knocked on doors and distributed fliers inviting residents to the October meeting, it’s difficult to attract new perspectives.

The class works on a project in the District metropolitan area each fall. The other three times Chen has taught the class, the students worked in Tenleytown and near the Rhode Island Avenue/Brentwood and West Hyattsville Metro stops. Spring studio classes focus on Baltimore, and a summer class goes abroad — next year to St. Petersburg, Russia. Past international projects have taken students to Mexico and South Africa.

Following the Dec. 18 community meeting, Brule and her classmates will use attendees’ responses to make final edits to their report. They will hand it in to Chen for a grade and also pass it on to Barracks Row Main Street and the D.C. Office of Planning. By the end of January, Chen said, it will be online alongside reports from past projects at the University of Maryland Web site, arch.umd.edu/student_work/planning/ index.cfm/Studio_Reports.