Would streetcars in D.C. spoil the city's vistas?

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; E01

Does the District of Columbia want to awe America, or inspire it? That's the philosophical question underlying the suddenly hot debate about streetcars, the overhead wires that power them, and the combined effect of both on the city's streetscape.

Tracks already laid in Anacostia and along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington show how close the city is to realizing the dream of adding an efficient modern streetcar network to its increasingly clogged grid of streets and balky, overcrowded Metro system. But an 1889 law that bans overhead wires in the historic city could slow implementation and increase its cost.

Arguments against overhead wires rest on two essential assumptions: that the city is filled with streets that have historically significant and aesthetically impressive views; and that wires and poles would be ugly intrusions on these grand vistas. The former is questionable, the latter a matter of opinion.

But the deeper issue is Washington's relation to the nation. Do we want to preserve the early 20th-century sense of ourselves as a grand, imperial city that overawes tourists? Or do we want to be a model city for the 21st century, a place where visitors from across the country and around the world can be inspired by innovative experiments in sustainable urban life?

For many of the vast hordes of tourists who visited Washington for cherry blossom season, this city may be their first experience of walkable streets, mass transportation and extensive public parkland. There are certainly other more progressive cities on the tourist agenda -- most of them not in America -- but the power of Washington to lead by example shouldn't be overlooked by residents who take its considerable amenities for granted. A streetcar system, quiet and pollution-free, connecting neighborhoods once balkanized by race and economic distinctions, would be an important chance for Washington to lead by example.

So what to make of historic preservation concerns raised by groups, such as the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, that overhead wires -- the easiest and probably the cheapest technology to install -- would ruin the open view down D.C. boulevards? One wonders if they've actually gone out in the street and looked for a view anytime recently.

There are, of course, some impressive views in the District. The Capitol and its majestic dome make views down Pennsylvania Avenue iconic and inviolable. But there are no plans to run the streetcar system down Pennsylvania Avenue (although there are admirable plans to create bike lanes down its center). From the Mall, the view north up Fourth Street SW gives one a good sense of exactly what preservationists believe they need to protect: the mini-Acropolis of the Old City Hall (designed by George Hadfield) topped by the pediment of the National Building Museum (designed by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs) behind it. This is indeed an example of Washington's open streetscape yielding a beautiful vista. But there are no plans to run a streetcar up Fourth Street.

There are plans, however, to run it down Eighth Street in Northeast and Southeast Washington, and one might worry that wires would impair the view of the Navy Yard gate, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the great federal architect who also worked on the Capitol and the White House. Except that Latrobe's gate, much altered over the years, is all but blocked from view by the hideously ugly bulk of the Southeast Freeway.

If you listen to preservationists, the most ardent of whom oppose any overhead wires in the city, you might think Washington was loaded with great vistas. And it is, but not the awe-inspiring views they're thinking about, which turn out to be fairly few and often not that impressive. Even down our wide avenues, sightlines tend to terminate in small monuments that are best seen up close.

The great views down the streets of Washington are just coming into their full glory as the leaves of spring return. These aren't wide-open vistas with monumental buildings in the far distance; they are tunnel-like views of shaded streets, overarched by majestic elms, oaks and maples. These shady tubes of green, which are rare in newer and suburban neighborhoods, are the truly distinctive beauty of Washington. The only reasonable concern about running overhead wires should be the protection of trees that create these glorious canopies.

According to Mike Galvin of Casey Trees (a nonprofit group committed to protecting and restoring trees in the District), that means maintaining ground permeability around tree trunks and avoiding an overhead wire system that would require damaging pruning of the leaf canopy. Both principles argue in favor of running wires closer to the centers of streets, right where they would most obstruct the theoretical beauty so dear to some preservationists. But would that really matter on, say, Eighth Street SE, where the old trees are spectacular and the view of the Navy Yard long since obliterated by a highway?

Right now, progress toward new streetcars, which could begin rolling as soon as 2012, depends on moving forward with a so-called "hybrid" streetcar that would use wires for most of its 37 miles, with batteries or supercapacitors (which recharge and discharge power somewhat like a hybrid car) to power it in historically sensitive areas. This mix of wires and some wireless stretches (of up to a mile) would keep the views that are truly remarkable intact (on and near the Mall or crossing North Capitol Street). It would also allow the District Department of Transportation to keep in place track it has already laid, and to shop around among different streetcar vendors for cars and future equipment.

"When you have more than one manufacturer that is building those vehicles, it is a lot more flexible," says Scott Kubly, head of DDOT's streetcar program. Flexible, and cheaper, not just to get the system started, but to maintain and expand it.

The ardent (shall we just say unreasonable?) anti-wire contingent would prefer a system that runs entirely on underground power, which DDOT says is problematic during snow and ice and would force them to work with a single proprietary vendor, thus potentially driving up costs and keeping the system in thrall to a single supplier.

This is a ridiculous demand, and not just because it would limit the District's options, force it to pay more and result in a system that might not function during weather such as we all remember from February. It is ridiculous because it assumes that wires are ugly.

Some wires are, and one is thankful for the many District neighborhoods where the majority of wires and cables are underground. But wires powering a modern and environmentally friendly streetcar are the opposite of ugly. They are a manifest advertisement to the world that the city is committed to public transportation, limiting its carbon footprint and improving quality of life. The flexibility of a hybrid system means that not only can the occasional monumental views of Washington be preserved wire-free, but that in certain areas the really distinctive views -- the urban allees of overarching trees -- might be kept wire-free, too. If DDOT is flexible on both counts, the addition of streetcars would be as beautiful as any view of a marble monolith anywhere in the District.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company