Southwest is a locus of development interest, from the waterfront to L’Enfant Plaza, from the Randall Rec Center to the Buzzard Point Soccer Stadium, not to mention our town center. This development brings energy and opportunity, whether it’s cash for recreational programming, added retail, or new tax revenue. Yet as many wise sages have said, all in balance.
By all accounts, most Southwest residents value the parks and recreational spaces in our neighborhood that make our little quadrant the greenest in the city. The quiet, small-town feel of our community is a result of thoughtful planning by the mid-century architects and planners who believed that nature ought to be an integrated feature of modern city living. Rather than packing in as many residential units as possible onto a plot of land, they planned open spaces and landscaped gardens as an affirmation of quality of life issues over economic concerns. These open spaces are distinct feature of our community that ought to be conserved as an increasingly rare amenity in a crowded city.
Despite popular sentiment, our open spaces are threatened. We’ve seen a panoply of proposals to develop our open spaces. Some are widely known, like the Randall Rec Center, but others, like the recent approval to let a developer build over L’Enfant Plaza, are less known. Yes, you heard that right: JBG recently got the approval to “take the plaza out of L’Enfant Plaza” by filling it in with a new highrise.
Most recently, the city’s Office of Planning released a set of design guidelines for development in Southwest. The guidelines were buried in a staff report released less than a week before the hearing on Bernstein’s Town Center East infill development proposal. Despite the profound and far reaching impact on Southwest residents, there were no opportunities for residents or community organizations to review, much less participate in, their formation.
The report pronounces that Southwest’s “overall density is low for an urban neighborhood, and…there is a surfeit of open spaces.” It summarily dismisses the value of Southwest’s cul-de-sacs, fences, open spaces, and residential buildings, and concludes that the solutions are more density, more streets, and fewer visible security features.
Undoubtedly, Southwest could benefit from redevelopment and additional investment, but the cursory repudiation of neighborhood features valued by our residents is unhelpful and harmful.
The report’s rationale for re-opening streets and breaking up cul-de-sacs is that these features “stymie both traffic and pedestrian circulation.” Indeed, that’s the very reason cul-de-sacs were created, and they are still valued by Southwesters. This need for traffic calming devices like cul-de-sacs to discourage cut through traffic is becoming even more necessary with the new and planned regional entertainment destinations, whether it’s the Wharf’s concert hall or the Nationals Stadium. It is bad enough that residents crossing 4th or M street during rush hour feel like they are risking their lives through the zooming traffic. Are we to give up our quiet residential streets too just so that suburban commuters can shave a few minutes off their drive times? And by reducing vehicular traffic, Southwest’s cul-de-sacs generally promote pedestrian circulation, rather than the opposite.
Due to prevailing security concerns, some residential communities have erected fences along their perimeters. Those decisions generally were not taken lightly, if for no other reason than their expense. Rather than promulgating guidelines that categorically repudiate fences, the city should instead consider an open and positive discussion about how we might best manage our private spaces while addressing the security concerns of residents.
The report determines that Southwest has a “surfeit of open spaces” that “upsets the intended balance of built and natural.” This far-reaching determination seems to contradict the concerns of Southwesters looking for both more active recreation opportunities as well as more passive parkland. This is to say nothing about needs of the thousands of additional Southwesters who may move into new developments in the coming years and decades.
For many years, dog lovers have been seeking a place to let their canine friends run around. Parents have been looking for an effective play space for their children. Gardeners, recognizing that existing community gardens were poised to become the sites for shiny new towers, have been pining for alternative locations. Fortunately, after years of effort, we’ve developed agreements with the city to use park space to meet these needs. During this time those needs have multiplied: upon completion of the new Lansburgh Park garden, demand for plots had become so great that the gardeners realized they would have to subdivide the plots and squeeze in more planting spaces.
As a consequence of these needs, we’re losing our unprogrammed open spaces. After toiling for years to bring new uses to Lansburgh Park, I was struck when the late Ron McBee reminded me that Lansburgh was designed to be a passive space set between our two recreation centers.
Certainly some of these active recreation and communal uses could be accommodated on private open spaces as they are in some cases, but these private spaces are also threatened. Concluding that Southwest’s “inward-facing superblocks have starved the streets of activity,” the report’s guidelines call for rows of infill buildings to line Southwest’s streets.
The guidelines pose a near complete reworking of Southwest. Our residential communities were designed as a delicately balanced network of built and open spaces, connected by pedestrian pathways and landscaped gardens that were carefully separated from the noise, pollution and dangers inherent in vehicular traffic.
While acknowledging the “pleasant secluded spaces” characterizing our residential communities, the report’s guidelines invite a dissolution of Southwest’s pedestrian corridors and open spaces by calling for new buildings lining the street regardless of whether the prevailing open spaces are parking lots, courtyards or intricately landscaped yards.
This leaves one to wonder what we’ll be left with when all our open spaces, whether parking lot, park, plaza, or cul-de-sac, become development pads. One certainly hopes we aren’t following NoMa’s destiny. That area, which has some commonalities with Southwest, used to have a surfeit of open spaces. Several years ago the city released a set of design guidelines inviting new development activity. Soon there was such a dearth of open space that the city resigned to spend tens of millions of dollars to acquire land for 3-4 new parks. Why must we give up our valuable park spaces just so that developers can maximize their bottom line?
We do not accept that that indiscriminate development is the panacea to several real or perceived shortcomings. We welcome a comprehensive discussion about how to better manage Southwest’s public and private spaces.
One resource to consider is the Project for Public Spaces, which has developed perhaps the most universally acknowledged set of best practices. Their global survey and subsequent recommendations for successful open spaces include improving maintenance; adding amenities like public art, bus shelters, and bike racks; and more programming like celebrations and other community events.
We call on all Southwesters who value the open spaces in our community to add their voices to the forum provided by the Office of Planning via the Southwest Neighborhood Small Area Plan (SAP). As Planning Director Harriet Tregoning stated during her remarks at the SAP kickoff event last month, they are counting on Southwest residents to express what is important to them and to hold the Office of Planning accountable for accurately documenting and addressing community concerns in the plans to be developed in the coming months.
There is a lot of investment happening in our community, but development should not and does not have to be at the expense of current residents. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by. If you care about the future of our community, we encourage you to raise your voice now to conserve the opens spaces of our neighborhood.
By: Kael Anderson