Current Viewpoint May 18, 2016


If you value the active urban streets and great public spaces happening in District neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and walkable cities across the country, three recent items may be of interest:

1. “The Psychological Cost of Boring Buildings,” newly published in New York magazine, notes that “a growing body of research in cognitive science illuminates the physical and mental toll bland cityscapes exact on residents.” It seems that “there could be more than an economic or nostalgic price to impersonal retail and high-rise construction: Boring architecture may take an emotional toll on the people forced to live in and around it.” The science is new but unsurprising, since engaging public spaces — streetscapes in particular — have long been recognized by progressive urbanists as a key component to urban vitality and sustainability.

2. In Friendship Heights, Md., the Chevy Chase Land Co. announced a renovation of Chevy Chase Center and The Collection (of high-end shops) to be more pedestrian-friendly and inviting. In other words, they are improving the streetscape. It is so interesting how developments in Friendship Heights get built on a suburban shopping-mall model, then falter or fail and are renovated on a more urban, walkable model. Chevy Chase Land Co. is cutting back on parking, reducing the amount of pavement and width of curb cuts along Wisconsin Avenue, making plaza spaces more active, and creating more viable retail spaces. These are very much the same sort of measures Chevy Chase Pavilion and Mazza Gallerie did in their retrofits. These retrofits are expensive, and the landlords would not be doing them unless they made the places attract more people. Good streetscapes are good for the retailers, good for the community and good for tax rolls.

3. In Tenleytown, Georgetown Day School’s proposal for a planned unit development that included innovative and promising features in public space was shot down in part because Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E and the D.C. Office of Planning did not recognize the opportunity to enhance the neighborhood. Georgetown Day and its design team were actively engaging with the community and advocacy groups to work with the Department of Transportation and the Office of Planning to re- imagine and transform public spaces such as streets, sidewalks and park areas around the new multi-use

buildings and the school’s campus using a progressive “Complete Streets” approach that would calm vehicular traffic and create a much more pedestrian- friendly urban environment. This was an unusual and difficult public-private effort with some features such as the dramatic Davenport Steps on private property and other efforts — such as raised intersections to slow cars and protect people — in the public right-of-way. It had a long way to go, but progress was being made.

Sadly, it all came to a crashing halt when George- town Day had to cut back the project. (Georgetown Day has announced it will resubmit a new application after June 1 in order to come under the city’s new zoning regulations, though school officials say the details of the project are not changing.)

For reasons inconsistent with past actions on its part, contrary to good planning practice that emphasizes walkability and transit-oriented development, and despite the mayor’s commitment to increasing housing affordability, the Office of Planning elected not to support the school’s request for slightly dens- er, taller residential buildings on Wisconsin Avenue. This decision is odd, since an almost identical zoning request had once been granted for the Tenley Hill condominium building across the street.

ANC support was tepid at best. Members down- played the positive impact of the streetscape efforts, pretty much refusing to participate in discussions about public space and choosing instead to stake out extreme negotiating positions such as insisting on a zero increase in car trips despite the addition of a new lower school. So to assuage the Office of Planning, GDS backed down and reduced the size of the apartment buildings. This is unfortunate for all: A unique opportunity for extraordinary street-level placemaking is lost, and a neighborhood that needs more density to support retail and a city looking to increase its housing supply in response to growth will lose 50 units, including affordable housing.

For those of us who understand the potential of great streets and public spaces to enrich urban life, the retrofit in Friendship Heights is welcome — albeit too-little-too-late for a development that should have included residential uses and been more urban — and the failure of vision and leadership in Tenleytown is lamentable. Maybe there’s hope when that retrofit happens. Better yet, the Office of Planning should reconsider the merits of the original application now, while adding much-needed housing is still possible.

Susan Kimmel chairs the Ward3Vision Steering Committee.