The Best Three Blocks in DC: Columbia Road, NW

By Art Rodgers

Cropped version_A Rodgers_Best 3 blocks mapWhen it comes to hyperbole, “it’s got it all” might be the most overused, but with regards to describing what makes Columbia Road, NW from 19th to 18th Streets a successful urban street, it’s dead on.  Ok, so it doesn’t have a zip line into Rock Creek Park, but with the slope and the trees it could be fabulous.

There are three core elements to the best three blocks in DC and they start with Kalorama Park, which has huge shade trees, two playgrounds, a community garden, a basketball court and a beautiful westward facing slope for catching the sunsets.  It is the community’s center and without it, these three blocks would be far more ordinary.

Next it’s got people living in anywhere from six to eight story buildings, to row houses, to even a few single-family detached homes.  Through tools like rent control, limited-equity coops, and a few nearby subsidized buildings, all kinds of people live in the neighborhood including fixed-income retirees, a few low-income families and of course the ubiquitous young professionals.  That said, I wouldn’t disagree that some more affordable housing, so lower income families could be in boundary and send their kids to one of the District’s best public school at Oyster, would be a good idea.

A Rodgers 3 blocks blog post_Kalorama Park & surrounding apt bldgs at sunset

Kalorama Park and surrounding apartment buildings at sunset (Photo: Art Rodgers)

The final core element is handy daily shopping including two local grocers, three competitive dry cleaners, a liquor store, a gallery/frame shop and an athletic shoe store. Not far away there is a hardware store, an electronics store, a post office, and several import stores.  The stores keep the sidewalks active with people running errands, picking up a carton of milk or other sundries or going out for a tasty frozen treat on a hot summer night. Did I mention the range of restaurants from fabulously affordable Mediterranean and Peruvian Chicken to Brazilian, French and Sushi and how they are adapting to the growing population of toddlers? No? Well I have now.

Note: The delicous new restaurant Mintwood Place almost made it into this graphic, but its too new to be a neighborhood institution, however a recent siting of President Obama builds a really strong case!

Note: The delicous new restaurant Mintwood Place almost made it into this graphic, but its too new to be a neighborhood institution, however a recent siting of President Obama builds a really strong case! (Graphic: Art Rodgers)

I must admit the rest of what makes the best three blocks in DC are an accident of location.  It’s bracketed by Rock Creek to the west, Walter Pierce Park to the north, 18th Street’s entertainment strip and Marie Reed’s comfortably dog eared, but shaded and cool kiddy pool to the east.  Beyond the three blocks in the immediate neighborhood are two more supermarkets, and farther are the adjacent destinations of Woodley Park (Red Line Metro) across the fabulous Duke Ellington Bridge, Columbia Heights (Green Line Metro) connected by the DC Circulator and Dupont Circle (Red Line Metro) with all that they offer.

Others may wish to point out how the assets of their neighborhood make them such wonderful places to live, and that’s actually the point.  Let’s identify what are the elements of urban areas we love and make sure that all the neighborhoods of DC are provided the same opportunity for relatively sane (but never boring), if not high quality urban living.

 

Height Limits Make Great Places

By Kim Williams

Around the turn of the 20th century civic activist, urban visionary, and developer Mary Henderson clearly got city planning. Among other things, she understood that by controlling building heights, you can create great places for the benefit of the public.  A stroll through Meridian Hill Park with its low-scale buildings framing the park to either side confirms this attitude.

According to the 1910 Height Act, buildings at the time could rise 85 feet on residential streets.  For the strong-minded Mary Henderson, 85 feet was too high, especially for Meridian Hill Park where views to the city were a major part of its allure.  Henderson argued that buildings that rise above the standard skyline cut off light, air and harmony of height.  In her flamboyantly written editorials and oral testimonies, she claimed these streets were diseased and suffered from what she labeled “pulmonary consumption of residential avenues.”  Henderson also often noted that buildings that rose above a certain height made “pygmies” out of existing building stock—quite a visual image illustrated by the historic photograph here.

As a reference point for building heights along residential avenues, Henderson looked to the Champs Elysees in Paris, noting that it always maintains a “comparative general height of 65 feet, which is enough for four or five stories.”   So, with 65 feet thus established as a maximum height in her own mind, Henderson set out to maintain it around Meridian Hill.  To either side of the park, along both 15th and 16th Streets, she built nine private mansions and foreign legations all conforming to this height limit, some of them shown here: 

When other developers deviated from her established norm, she interfered.  In 1915, for instance, she negotiated the purchase of land away from developer Harry Wardman who planned the construction of three apartment buildings overlooking Meridian Hill Park at 15th and Euclid Streets.  After completing the deal, she expressed satisfaction that the park was “now protected from any surrounding which could fall below a certain standard of beauty.”   The following year, when the Kennedy Brothers proposed construction of the Meridian Mansions apartments (now the Envoy) at 2400 16th Street at a height exceeding Henderson’s ideal notion, she sought to stop its construction.  When she found she couldn’t prevent it, she instead negotiated to collaborate on the building’s design, to “have a hand in helping it fit into the pattern.”

When it came to the Hadleigh Apartments (now the Roosevelt), she took her fight against its 77-foot height to Congress.  In her Congressional testimony, Henderson argued that the view from Meridian Hill Park was “the only one remaining in the capital” and is comparable to similar outlooks in Paris and Rome, which she claimed “have been preserved for posterity.”  Although it was built higher than she would have liked, the owners were required to eliminate pergolas that rose above the roofline, cutting off those precious views.

As long as Mary Henderson was alive, it seems, the height of buildings on Meridian Hill was held in check.  After her 1931 death, however, developers were free to exercise their zoning rights, introducing several aberrations into Henderson’s vision for Meridian Hill, the most egregious example of which is found at the base of the park, eliminating the views Henderson fought so hard to protect.

Despite such intrusions, the scale of buildings surrounding Meridian Hill Park as imposed by Mary Henderson makes the park one of the city’s great places.

Taming the Big Box

By Stephen Cochran

Pentagon City, VA (Credit: Street Google)

We’ve all been here.  It’s one of those places where we hand over $1 billion shopping dollars each year to Maryland or Virginia.  If even half of that money could be spent in DC, our 6% tax rate would generate $30 million in revenue.  That’s enough to supply 300 new affordable housing units, or pay for the education of 1600 District children, every single year.

The city has been working for decades to reverse this loss of dollars, and we’re starting to see results.  Larger retailers are moving into the District to supplement our local stores.  Some are bringing new designs that fit in with, and bring new life to, our traditional neighborhood centers. Others, unfortunately, continue to bulldoze trees, fill in wetlands, or construct stone-walled mesas so they can just replicate their suburban stores.

Planners need to provide models of how major retailers can come into the city without compromising good design and active street life.

Los Angeles, CA (Credit: Stephen Cochran)

This storefront I saw on Broadway in downtown L.A. shows how to do it:  name recognition, openness to the street, pedestrian and bicycles friendliness, and a broad selection of brand goods at every-day low prices.

Having a vital shopping street need not take a zoning overlay, or city subsidies; just some creative entrepreneurs, sensitivity to scale … and a lot of red paint.