The Southwest Ecodistrict: Washington, DC Reimagines Another Neighborhood

Continuing my blog catch-up theme of finally writing about events I attended last fall, the DC Office of Planning came to visit the American Planning Association’s monthly “Tuesdays at APA” gathering in November. Their presentation detailed major projects proposed for southwest DC to improve the area’s connectivity to the National Mall and the nearby waterfront and make federal spaces more sustainable, per Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve building performance.

The DC Office of Planning, along with the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service is currently engaged in a long-term reimagining of part of the city’s Southwest quadrant. One project just approved is the Maryland Avenue SW small area plan, and another, longer-term initiative is the Southwest EcoDistrict. I will be talking mostly about the latter in this post but they are complementary and inter-related.

Map of the Southwest Ecodistrict area. Note that the railroad tracks and Maryland Ave. together form one of the sight lines toward the US Capitol, which is just off the map to the upper right. Courtesy of Google Maps.

This fifteen-block area is the home of multiple federal agencies, including the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy, and is bounded by Independence Avenue and the National Mall to the north; see the map above for context. If you have visited DC and been to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Sackler Gallery, or the National Botanic Gardens, you have been in the general vicinity of the proposed ecodistrict. However, there are relatively few attractions actually within this area–whether for workers or visitors–and that is something this plan seeks to change.

Part of L’Enfant Promenade in Southwest DC. The concrete office building surrounded by a large concrete plaza is a typical sight in this area, and something the Ecodistrict wishes to improve with mixed-use, energy-efficient buildings and livelier streets with many types of activity. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes.

The proposals for the eco-district include: analysis of existing infrastructure and modernization at a district rather than building or block level, the return of the Maryland Avenue corridor to a usable street for pedestrians and autos, and improved pedestrian connections to nearby neighborhoods. These will all pave the way for the addition of residential units, hotel rooms, and retail/restaurants. The proposed rezoning of the area to the DD-4 designation would allow offices to be retained, while adding these multiple new uses. At the same time, the area must still accommodate existing CSX freight trains and the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains, which has a busy station near L’Enfant Plaza.

Many of the buildings here were built in the mid-20th century modern style, and are showing their age. They will be due for either major upgrades or demolition soon, so this is a good time to think about money-saving possibilities for the long term. For example, a district energy system (which provides power and heat to many buildings from a central point) or mixed-use buildings, possibly with retail on the ground floor and residences above. I know that lots of folks lament the flood of newly constructed condo and apartment buildings in the last few years and protest that we don’t need more, but this is slightly different. There are very few residences in this part of town, at the same time that the Census Bureau tells us droves of new folks are moving into the District. Building residential components into SW is an excellent opportunity to entice some of those new residents to a neighborhood that is centrally located, walkable and well-served by transit, and will hopefully have more services like grocery stores available in the medium- to long-term.

Trains pass underneath L’Enfant Promenade. A critical transportation link that must be maintained in SW DC. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Johnson.

The Maryland Avenue small area plan, which was just approved and adopted by Council this week, is actually a separate but complementary project. I attended another public meeting last summer specifically about that, but I mention it only in passing here because I’m focusing on the Ecodistrict project. It is an interesting placemaking attempt on its own in addition to improving an important transportation corridor.

Finally, if you live in DC and wish to comment on the Southwest Ecodistrict plan, the DC Office of Planning will hold a public meeting on Thursday, July 19th at 6:30 p.m. at their building, 1100 4th St. SW. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to go; their offices are quite nice and almost directly on top of the Waterfront Metro station.

Flickr photos reposted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

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