Luring People Back to D.C. Streets
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9 1998; Page B01
It's lunchtime on a scrumptious, 70-degree sunny day in downtown Washington. But Lynette Grooms won't be eating outdoors, which says something about people's antipathy toward downtown D.C. streets.
Grooms, a legal secretary from Suitland, is carrying takeout food past the empty benches of Herald Square, an uninviting space of disconnected buildings, wide roads and a church park dominated by homeless people at 13th Street, H Street and New York Avenue NW. She heads into an office building overlooking the square, where she'll dine at her desk. Nothing draws Grooms outside.
"It's so much traffic out there, it's not relaxing," said Grooms, 27. "If there were fountains and benches and more park space, it would be appealing on a nice day like today."
This is how ordinary residents experience the dysfunctional public spaces of downtown Washington, a predicament that keeps people away from the city instead of drawing them toward it. Now, a group of business, civic and cultural leaders is developing plans to improve the physical surroundings of many downtown streets, including those at Herald Square.
In this way, they say, the now moribund street life would be resuscitated by special "rooms," with their own coordinated "furniture" such as trash receptacles, benches, fountains, landscaping, lighting, newspaper boxes and vending carts. The first step, scheduled for this spring, is installation of distinctive "wayfinding" signs and maps in a 120-block area bounded by Constitution Avenue, 16th Street, Massachusetts Avenue and Interstate 395.
The planned changes aren't just physical. The Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), which is coordinating the plan, wants to capture the lively atmosphere of places such as Dupont Circle or Georgetown, where residents and tourists are welcomed by the street life, restaurants, shopping and museums.
"The great cities of the world are known for having great public places where people gather to relax, socialize, shop, see and be seen," said Joseph Sternlieb, deputy director of the business group. "These great places include public markets, waterfront parks and central squares. What they all have in common is that they are destinations unto themselves and they enliven the city."
Formed last year, the business improvement district is best known for its army of red-uniformed street cleaners and security patrols, financed by property owners who voted to impose a tax on themselves to support the improvement area. Now, it is taking on more of a city planning role.
Changes won't be made easily. The plan's success depends on persuading property owners to spend thousands of dollars -- much of it on top of the special tax they already pay -- to alter their buildings and sidewalks in ways some already have resisted. One parking lot owner, for example, is cool toward a BID proposal to turn the lot into a children's playground.
"The goal is fabulous," said developer Chip Akridge, whose company is installing brighter lights at the Metro Center subway entrance at 13th and G streets NW. "Whether we're going to accomplish the goal, I'm not certain."
Other cities have overcome obstacles. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, influenced by Parisian streets, is moving to replace his city's jumble of bus shelters and newsstands with a coordinated set of structures. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, claiming he's a fan of Martha Stewart, has spent millions on trees, flowers, benches, distinctive sidewalk bricks, lighting and other "streetscape" projects.
"People see that the city is investing in their infrastructure and their quality of life and are much more comfortable" living there, Daley said.
The D.C. planning group is starting small. Working with a New York-based consultant known as a "space doctor," the group has identified three intersections where it wants to make changes: 13th and E streets; 13th and G streets; and 13th Street, H Street and New York Avenue.
The BID's executive director, Richard H. Bradley, and Fred Kent, its consultant, are heavily influenced by Tony Hiss, a New York author who writes extensively about how people experience places. Hiss says that the more reasons people have for going to a place, the more secure they feel and the longer they will linger. The trick, Hiss said, is to combine seating, landscaping, activities, fountains, food, music or art.
Freedom Plaza, which is a national park, is a case in point. It anchors an area that includes the Ronald Reagan Building, the National Theatre, the Warner Theatre, the J.W. Marriott hotel and the Shops at National Place, but those attractions aren't as connected as they could be by the plaza. Too hot in summer and swept by cold winds in winter, Freedom Plaza is rarely used, especially on weekdays, despite having thousands of office workers nearby.
"People love to eat lunch outside, but if you sit here for 10 minutes, you're roasting," said Joan Marchetti, 31, an office worker taking a break at Freedom Plaza recently.
The space doctors have proposed adding features or events on the sidewalks and streets around the edges of Freedom Plaza that they say would make it more inviting, including carts selling flowers, books and food; a farmers market; or a spring flower show. Parts of the plaza also could be sectioned off by trellises or low hedges to create spaces for playing chess or lunching.
"The whole dust bowl [Freedom Plaza] has to go," said Sally Marshall, assistant vice president of the Kaempfer Co., which owns the Warner Building. "It's just a matter of getting the Park Service to go along with it."
The National Park Service isn't going along, at least for now. "It's not in our plans today to revamp Freedom Plaza," said Lisa Mendelson, a Park Service planner. There's no federal money available for changes, and Park Service officials say they are satisfied with the festivals and concerts there on weekends and the plaza's sense of open space.
"People don't stumble much on the museum because they don't walk in this area at all," said Carol Lascaris, board president of the art museum.
Traffic lanes at the intersection could be reconfigured to allow the sidewalk in front of the museum to be widened and an attention-getting sculpture to be placed there. The sidewalk in front of the bank could be transformed into a plaza, evoking the public squares of Latin America, where the bank conducts much of its business.
A thornier proposal is adding vending kiosks at the small, church-front park now occupied by homeless people. Kent, the consultant to the BID, said he believes that quality vendors -- the church's bookstore, the nearby Cafe Mozart -- would attract office workers and others whose presence would make the homeless so uncomfortable they would no longer sleep at the park. The business improvement district has hired a full-time employee to help establish a downtown service center for the homeless.
"If the park becomes a welcoming place, as opposed to a hide-out, it has a different feel," said the Rev. Robert H. Craig, pastor of the church. "Everyone is welcome at the park, but hopefully, no one takes it over."
No one can predict the fate of the business improvement district's initiative. The success of similar efforts in Chicago, New York and Charleston, S.C., hinged in large measure on the mayor's involvement, no doubt because "when the city seems appealing, so does the mayor," as Chicago architecture critic Blair Kamin put it. Bradley, of the BID, said he may enlist the help of the District's financial control board and whoever is elected mayor in November.
But for now, developer Akridge said, "the fact people are talking about this at all is encouraging."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company