By Katie Blizzard
Coalition for Smarter Growth Communications Intern
The Coalition for Smarter Growth ended its fall 2012 walking tour season on a high note in the Van Ness neighborhood on Saturday, October 13th, when some 65 residents showed up to learn more about the area’s historical development and what design changes are on tap in coming years.
Planning experts Matt Bell from EEK Architects, Andrea Limauro from the DC Office of Planning, Erik L. Thompson from the University of the District of Columbia, and Kelly Peterson from the DC Department of Transportation led the tour, which was co-sponsored by Forest Hills Connection, Ward 3 Vision, and the National Association of Realtors.
Bell and Limauro opened the tour with background on the Van Ness neighborhood and how it compares to similar areas in the District. Georgia and Wisconsin Avenues have areas of continuous commercial development. Connecticut Avenue, on the other hand, was envisioned and zoned to have equally-spaced, low density commercial corridors within walking distance of residents living in the apartment sections between them.
The more successful parts of this corridor are in largely flat portions of Connecticut. Van Ness, arguably the most struggling area, has an uneven topography. Matt Bell observed that this topography forced builders to create overly large setbacks, plazas, and similar items that ultimately resulted in the architectural barriers and barren spaces that make it less friendly to pedestrians.
The tour stopped by two sites in particular that prompted insightful discussion. First was the Van Ness Square development at Connecticut and Yuma. The speakers said that this development detracts from the area’s attractiveness to pedestrian shopping. They noted the parking lot and two curb cuts in the front of the building, and the high turnover of businesses in the building.
The Intelsat complex also led to a lengthy discussion. The site, designed by John Andrews in 1988 specifically to house Intelsat, remains one of the few examples in DC of high-tech architecture. When it was built, it was acclaimed for its innovative architecture and incorporation of green building technologies. However, the building does not function well internally or externally and the green features are now dated, leaving the door open for future owners to redevelop the site so that it better contributes to the surrounding streetscape.
The tour concluded at the University of the District of Columbia campus, where UDC’s Thompson showed the group plans for the student center that is currently under construction. This new development will bring the campus towards the street and better connect the front of the complex to the interior main plaza. Thompson also highlighted that UDC currently has the largest green roof in the District, an accomplishment that underlines the university’s commitment to sustainable practices. Attendees voiced their appreciation of this opportunity to connect with the institution, which has a large impact on the area but does not often interact with community members.