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As it redevelops Southwest, the District should follow the lead of Arena Stage

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; E06

The new Arena Stage facility isn't just another amenity added to an encouraging list of redevelopment projects in Southwest. It is an aesthetic and intellectual challenge to the city and developers to do better than they have done in the past.

Sitting at an important intersection in a neglected quadrant of the District, it is a powerful enough architectural presence to force the city to rethink the usual ways it does business, the longstanding barriers to a better Southwest, and the reflexive habits of uninspired development that have marred so much of Washington.

Some of those barriers -- relics of the bad urban planning of two generations ago -- are close at hand. Others can't be seen from Arena, but make their presence known through diminished street life and a sense of psychological isolation.

The Southeast-Southwest Freeway, for instance, creates a jumble of bridges and ramps that make accessing the fish market by foot at best a maze and often a hazard. The highway is three long blocks away from the Arena Stage building, but its impact is just as profound. Sight lines are interrupted, and pedestrians are loath to pass under its dark, wide overpasses. The CSX rail line -- another gash in the urban texture -- only deepens the insularity of the neighborhood.

Although it can't be seen from Arena Stage, a single structure -- the Department of Energy's Forrestal Building -- has an enormous and malign effect on everything in Southwest. Sitting astride 10th Street on Independence Avenue, it discourages tourists and everyone else from walking 10th Street SW to the Banneker Fountain and the 10th Street Overlook. This promenade might be the best antidote to the problems created by the freeway and the rail line -- if it were better connected to the waterfront below it. But the Forrestal Building all but screams at would-be pedestrians heading to Southwest: Go some other way.

And yet, even after accounting for three years of economic downturn, the city has moved forward in the past decade, adding mixed-used, transit-oriented development, new parks and civic spaces, and bike and pedestrian paths, including the Anacostia waterfront path that could eventually link the Southwest waterfront to Nationals Park and the National Arboretum.

The next challenge is to do all of the above better. Despite the incorporation of good urban design principles in much of this new development, the architectural quality of almost all these new buildings is desultory. They are oversize boxes of brick or paste-on faux stone, with a bland mix of sleek contemporary and historical references and generic, cookie-cutter design.

Bing Thom's new building demands better neighbors. And it calls for a more holistic approach to the waterfront -- more porous and open. There are not enough details in the existing plans for redevelopment of the blocks nearby to be sure that it will get what it deserves. The city and its chosen developers, PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, have big plans for the waterfront just opposite the Arena Stage building, but will it be overbuilt? Will views be maintained? Or will it turn the waterfront in on itself, surrounding the marina and public plazas with structures that are so big they encircle the space, creating an insular, commerce-heavy, over-produced "urban space" that is in fact a giant suburban shopping mall?

Unfortunately, initial project renderings by PN Hoffman are not promising. They show a phalanx of 10- and 12-story buildings blocking views of the water from the city -- and they're all the usual glass and masonry boxes.

But Shawn Seamon of PN Hoffman says those were early ideas, from 2007, and the company will announce much more detailed and sensitive plans on Wednesday. He says that views from Arena Stage will be preserved, that lot sizes will be kept small, and that at least 10 separate views through the waterfront development will link the neighborhood to the river.

That's encouraging, as are some other promising elements in the current plans, but it is the execution and the details that will determine success or yet more urban failure for this underappreciated neighborhood. A staircase connecting the 10th Street Overlook to Southwest is a good start.

But what will become of the overlook itself? Designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley, the overlook, now a barren and disused space, shouldn't be overlooked. Connecting it directly to the waterfront makes a lot of sense, but the connection must be done sensitively. Plans now are for a temporary staircase -- perhaps designed for the next 10 years -- until a "grand public" stairway can be built, integrating a new museum or cultural attraction, the overlook and the waterfront.

Plans to avoid slab-style buildings are also promising. Simply reorienting a building 90 degrees can ensure visual permeability, keeping the view of the waterfront as a civic amenity. Keeping a low profile of development opposite Arena Stage -- and moving any higher-profile buildings back from the water and away from the theater -- would be a boon not just to theatergoers, but to everyone living near or visiting what has been identified as the new "neighborhood center" at Fourth and M Streets SW. The best plan would extend the area that feels like waterfront as deep into the city as possible.

The recent reopening of Fourth Street SW, between I and M streets, has had a major and positive impact on the area -- creating what may become a vital north-south corridor, with new retail already filling space. Other connections should be considered as well. A pedestrian connection near where the Tidal Basin and the Washington Channel come together would link the waterfront to East Potomac Park, opening the island to more pedestrians. That's part of the National Capital Planning Commission's Framework Plan, and it can't happen soon enough. More ambitious -- and distant -- plans call for car and pedestrian bridges directly from Southwest to East Potomac Park, but those require creating new canal access to the Potomac River for boats too tall to pass under the bridges. If they're built, they should be stunning bridges that rise to the level of art.

The impact of these kinds of improvements raises the elephant-in-the-room question: What to do about the Southeast-Southwest Freeway? Nothing has traumatized the Southwest neighborhood more severely than this stretch of highway, originally envisioned as part of an inner ring road that (thank heavens) was never finished. Most plans involve mitigating its impact, with new pedestrian connections to the Mall. But this is a perfect example of the District's ingrained habit of thinking small whenever the problem is big. And there is no bigger problem facing this neighborhood than the freeway that severs its connection to the city at large.

Other cities have done what is necessary, removing the neighborhood-killing relics of the dark age of city planning. Converting the freeway to a street-level boulevard should be on the immediate agenda, not the distant, pie-in-the-sky agenda. On the shortlist, with rerouting the CSX line just after it.

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