Articles yesterday referred to the area bounded by 13th, 14th, I and K streets NW as both Franklin Square and Franklin Park. Franklin Park is the area of grass, trees and paths within those boundaries; Franklin Square is the name that owners and occupants of the nearby buildings, including the Franklin Square Association, use in referring to the area. (Published 1/17/88)
Franklin Park hasn't changed that much in a half century or so. Birds still flock there, though it's said that gulls, pigeons and swallows are frightened away every now and then by a solitary hawk circling above the park's magnificent stands of 100-year-old trees. People still crisscross it as a shortcut and, in pleasant weather, congregate on its edges and around the central fountain.
But the surrounding area is changing decisively. Almost all of the 19th- and early 20th-century remnants bordering the park have been demolished; five new office buildings have gone up of late; in the next few years the huge gaps in the park's architectural frame will be filled.
It is possible to stand in Franklin Park today and pretty much visualize what the area will look and feel like in 1990. The trees will be there, and the birds, and the great park itself will be spruced up by improved lighting, wider walkways and such. But the human demographics, as they say, will have been transformed.
Button-down busyness will replace 14th Street sleaze; lawyers, engineers, accountants and the like will supplant groups of unemployed males and backpack kids from the now demolished I Street Youth Hostel. They'll roll up the streets by 9 p.m. The area is on its way to becoming the "prestige office" enclave the city's comprehensive plan says it should become.
This is a blessing, but it's a mixed one. Architecturally, the new environment is likely to be a big disappointment. And, despite the fact that the city's policy has been extraordinarily consistent, one can't help but feel that in planning terms the Franklin Park area represents a missed opportunity.
On the architectural front there was some news last week as the Gerald D. Hines Interests, the Texas development firm known for big projects and famous architects, began circulating drawings and model photos of its Franklin Park project, designed by John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson.
The building, designed principally by Johnson, will occupy more than half of the long stretch of I Street on the park's southern edge. By comparison with other new Franklin Park office buildings or with the structure under construction next door, designed by the Weihe Partnership for Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. and destined to take up the rest of the block, the Johnson design represents an advance, a step up in image, sophistication and quality of materials.
Of course, the five office structures completed in recent years on the park's borders are a medium-quality lot, if that. Two, located on the southwest corner of 14th and K streets NW (designed by the Washington office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) and on the southeast corner of 13th and I streets (designed by the Weihe Partnership), are straightforward exercises in filling out the zoning envelope -- they're clean-lined ribbon-window boxes, sawed off at 12 stories, which is what zoning allows.
A third, on the northeast corner of 13th and I (the Weihe Partnership), is more of the same except for the minimal, if welcome, gesture of cutting away at the box in deference to the adjacent Franklin School, the neighborhood's most picturesque historic building. A fourth, on the northeast corner of 13th and K (the Van Group) is also more of the same, except for a heavy-handed effort to give the fac ades depth by recessing windows on the 9th and 11th floors.
At best these buildings are neutral; they don't pretend to much. None has much to offer the public in the way of architectural statement, textural interest, formal ingenuity, appealing details. Lobbies are uniformly tight and nondescript, despite money spent on stone facings and floors. Only one mildly entertaining retail space was carved out -- a little outdoor courtyard next to a luncheon restaurant on 14th Street (it looks like an afterthought and, more or less, like a prison, but could be improved). So far, only one interesting store -- Utrecht Art & Drafting Supplies at 1250 I St. -- has moved in.
Among these buildings Arthur Cotton Moore's heroic effort on the southwest corner of 14th and I streets automatically stands out. It's something of an ugly duckling, but admirable especially for the surrealistic sense of scale created by a solitary pillar that defines the carved-out corner and holds up the top floors. This was an engineering feat needed to keep excess weight off the Metro station immediately below, and Moore made the most of it -- it's a rare place in Washington where one experiences such a sense of towering height. Still, a limited budget and unattractive, make-do materials largely negate Moore's admirable urban design intentions. He wanted to form a busy, feel-good urban corner, but it didn't really work out.
The Manufacturers Life building under construction across the street is an odd sort of composite. The formula is simple and unsatisfying -- lavish materials ("Imperial Chestnut Brown granite" slabs) suggest, sort of, old-time Washington and acres of reflective glass, the postwar city. It's a building with some shape -- cutaway corners, a grand, recessed entrance lobby and shallow fac ade bays -- and some elegance. The wristwatch clock tower and handsomely framed storefronts are nice touches. But this is a design that pretends to a lot without delivering much in the way of genuine character -- the uneasy proportions and all of that glass will only emphasize the building's lumpishness.
By contrast, Johnson, for his first commercial commission in the city, takes an even bigger lump and makes something of a virtue out of it -- his symmetrical design, recalling this city's perennially revived classicism, is all of a piece from its narrow black granite base to its slanted slate roof. It is a forceful whole -- the main fac ades on I and 13th streets comprise dramatic, 11-story engaged columns framed by rusticated limestone piers at the corners and a cornicelike band of square windows and the slanted roof at the top. Inside, the richly articulated, three-story lobby, with fluted Doric columns, will remind many of the city's old-style banks.
Arguably, Johnson's essay in stripped classicism is just the right sort of design decision for the future Franklin Park neighborhood -- it uses the classical language to suggest that a certain weighty dignity adheres to the business matters being daily discussed around the park. Demonstrably, the southern edge of the park would look a lot better had the Manufacturers Life building deferred to the Johnson strategy.
But it is also true that Johnson's building is too much of a good thing. It occupies too much space, lengthwise, as do others among the new projects facing the park (such as the behemoth currently being designed by Hartman Cox for the northern edge, taking up two thirds of one of the longest blocks in the city). And its version of the classical language is official, stentorian. This is not a design that encourages active street life, metaphorically or actually -- one is hard put to imagine much lively retail activity going on inside.
Obviously, a plentiful supply of attractive offices is a necessity if the city is to continue to compete successfully, and Franklin Park offers office workers a lot of advantages. Access by train and car is excellent and, above all, the views are splendid. Franklin Park is huge, for an urban place; year-round it provides a tremendous sense of spaciousness to all comers. However, a single, simple question -- would not these views have attracted people to live along the park, as indeed they used to? -- suggests how unfortunate are the results of our continued reliance upon single-use zoning for such large, attractive areas of downtown.
It is too late, of course, to change anything along the edges of Franklin Park. The area has been zoned for high-density commercial development for many years; developers, naturally, having bought the land at prices reflecting potential profits to be made from office construction and management, are building the biggest office buildings the law allows. It's probably too late to do much about truly mixed-use development in the rest of the downtown area (with the notable exception of the segment controlled by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.).
This is a shame. But there are other areas of the city -- and, perhaps even more importantly, in the booming suburbs -- where the basic rules of the game could be changed, mandating the growth of places where people live, work and play in close proximity.