by Marlene Berlin and Mary Beth Ray
Natural. Sustainable. Musical. Certainly not terms you’d use to describe Connecticut Avenue at Windom Place today.
But the group that gathered at the July 19th streetscape design charette were focused on what the Van Ness intersection could be, with the right elements.
“Imagination and money are all we need,” said Travis Price, an award-winning architect, Forest Hills neighbor, and adviser to this effort. He led this charette, which met to flesh out ideas birthed during a community brainstorming session on March 8th. Price and his firm will produce a concept design with the results.
Those seated around the table at Saturday’s gathering included representatives from Fannie Mae, the University of the District of Columbia, American University, Calvert Woodley and DC’s Office of Planning; landscape architects working on Saul Centers’ Park Van Ness project and UDC; members of ANC 3F’s Van Ness Vision Committee; and members of the community.
We met at UDC, in a space provided by Professor Ralph Benton, the program director at the Department of Urban Architecture and Community Planning. Bread Furst was very generous in providing pastries. And ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham, who helped arrange the meeting space, brought bag upon bag of supplies to make sure we had everything we needed – a map of the area, markers and pencils for drawing, and large pads of paper with easels.
After introductions by Van Ness Vision Committee Chair Mary Beth Ray, Price showed slides illustrating how nature can intersect and enhance urban streetscapes and architecture. Then, he set the group to work. Commissioner Ray had visited this area many times over the weeks, and had ideas about how to bridge the entrance to Soapstone Valley east of Connecticut with UDC to the west. She grabbed a marker and drew an allée, or promenade, with a line of trees in the middle of Windom and thin lines of dime-deep water on each side. She proposed making Windom a cobblestone way on both sides of the Avenue, evoking the stones in Rock Creek Park.
This idea garnered a lot of oohs and ahhs, and the ideas took off at a gallop. Gary Malasky, a former community member who built the WAMU building, suggested that we embrace the Native American history of the area, perhaps through use of native soapstone. Vision Committee members Frances Wu and Ken Terzian, members of the Vision Committee, returned to an idea that came from the March charette: A walkway rising above the concrete to a place of respite overlooking the park.
Erik Thompson, the director of real estate and capital construction at UDC, described the light show on the UDC plaza and suggested taking that theme all the way to Windom Place, so that the light draws people onto the campus. Picking up on the light theme, Price floated the idea of steel cables with tiny lights crisscrossing Connecticut Avenue. Vision Committee member Larry Rausch suggested that the cables display a changing array of art. Ryan Hand, the Office of Planning’s Ward 3 planner, picked up on the play of light and shadow and suggested that even during the day we had the potential for a creative streetscape. The area is zoned for taller buildings like Fannie Mae and WAMU, and development will eventually head in that direction.
Vision Committee member Marjorie Share emphasized programming, and a place for community events. This turned folks’ attention to the UDC amphitheater and its potential. Travis had shown a video of a live piano and string concert performed at the space.
Barbara Jumper, UDC’s vice president of real estate, mentioned the university held a Peruvian festival on its grounds in the spring and has a good relationship with many of the area’s embassies. Mary Beth Ray is eager to bring activity and recreation to the area, and she suggested the addition of a nature-themed mini-golf course. Travis added that flooding it in the winter could create an ice-skating rink.
We discussed retail possibilities, including an REI-like outdoors/bike shop, a charcuterie, and a beer garden and wine tastings at Calvert Woodley. Words heard often included urbanity, activity, overlook, natural softness, tranquility, sustainability, music, art, water, trees, light, gathering place and destination.
Price and two architects from his firm, Kelly Davies and Amir Abadi, were busily taking notes. Davies said they had more than enough ideas for developing the concept design.
Van Ness truly is on the verge of something great. This effort got off to an auspicious start almost two years ago with a walk at Van Ness organized by the Forest Hills Connection and Coalition for Smarter Growth. It attracted close to 90 people.
But it was the same old “what’s wrong with Van Ness.” Somehow we needed to shift the debate to what’s special about the area.
Marlene Berlin invited Mary Beth Ray, at that time a new ANC commissioner, on a different kind of Van Ness tour: the outdoor amphitheater at UDC, the park in the middle of the embassies in the International Chancery Center, and our entrances to Soapstone Valley. Then they organized another walk of Van Ness with members of DC’s Office of Planning and DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration.
“Build on your assets – the connection to Rock Creek Park, the international community, UDC,” was the clear message. We were off and running.
Next came the formation of ANC 3F’s Van Ness Vision Committee, the Vibrant Retail Streets workshop, the Forest Hills Connection retail survey last fall, the meet and greet for property owners at Van Ness in February, and the Windom charette in March. The next stage, setting all these ideas down on paper, can now commence. ANC 3F voted last week to commission Travis Price to create concept designs and renderings of a new neighborhood hub.