Unusually bucolic in comparison to other major cities, Washington has many neighborhoods that border parks or rivers. NoMa, the emerging mixed-use district whose name stands for “north of Massachusetts Avenue,” is a little different. The area’s principal tributary is the track bed that curves north from Union Station, carrying Amtrak, MARC and Metro trains.
Within NoMa are four streets that pass under the rail lines between First and Third streets NE: Florida Avenue and K, L and M streets. On the west side are mostly new residential and office buildings, including NPR’s headquarters; the east side is more residential, but is home to Gallaudet University and the rapidly redeveloping Union Market area.
To make the rail underpasses more attractive for the area’s estimated 18,000 residents and 40,000 daily workers, the NoMa Parks Foundation initiated a design competition “to make this one of the neighborhood’s more beautiful places and also increase security,” said Curtis Clay, the foundation’s director of parks and public realm development. The designs proposed by the 10 finalists were unveiled this week.
The NoMa Parks Foundation is separate from NoMa’s seven-year-old Business Improvement District (BID) but was founded to fill a need seen by some of the BID’s management. “We’ve long understood the need for parks and public spaces in the neighborhood,” said Rachel Davis, the BID’s director of marketing and events.
“One of the feelings about all of this was, those underpasses are dark passageways,” said George Hemphill, who runs the Hemphill Fine Arts gallery and is one of the five jurors who selected the design finalists. “How can the artworks help to make those places more inviting and appear safer?”
“I think already the area is pretty safe,” he continued, “because of the construction that’s gone on and the attention the city’s paid to it, and the attention that NoMa BID has paid to it. So I think the issue is just to make people comfortable with it.”
The additions involve lighting and artwork, not architectural changes, because the structures are historically protected and carefully overseen by Amtrak, Metro and the city’s transportation department.
The art must be easy to maintain and not an impediment to motorists, Hemphill said. “So, for example, if you have a projection that creates a kind of flashing light that could be distracting to a driver or reflect off a windshield in a funny way, then you’ve got an issue there.”
After the competition was announced in April, nearly 250 proposals arrived at the BID’s office. On Tuesday, the group introduced the designs proposed by the 10 finalists, who were revealed in July. They were selected by a jury whose other members are Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a Washington Post contributor; local artist Robin Rose; and Charles “Sandy” Wilkes, chairman of the NoMa Parks Foundation.
The designs are available at nomabid.org and will be presented at a community forum Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. in NoMa’s Lobby Project space, 1200 First St. NE. The BID will solicit community responses online and at the meeting.
The 10 finalists, some of which are teams of multiple firms, are mostly American but include participants from London and Rotterdam. The only local finalist is Citelum, a Paris firm that in 2012 established its North American headquarters in the District. In December, Citelum was selected to manage and upgrade the city’s approximately 70,000 street lights.
The intent was not to choose a single design for all four underpasses, Hemphill said. Still, he added, “there could be a situation where an artist provides a proposal that addresses two of the underpasses that make a nice corresponding relationship. But none of that’s been decided yet.”
After the initial selection, he explained, “the finalists will then actually present much more specific proposals for each setting. Or the artist may decide to choose one underpass and provide all their energy there.”
The final designs will be selected by the end of the year, guided by community input but selected by the five-person jury. Construction will begin next year.
The underpass project is sponsored by a partnership of the NoMa Parks Foundation, the D.C. government, Amtrak and the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority. The total budget for all four underpasses is $1.75 million, which comes from a $50 million capital grant to the NoMa Parks Foundation from the D.C. government.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.