A New President’s Park South

Today, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced Rogers Marvel Architects has won a design competition for a new President’s Park South, a 52-acre historic site located between the White House grounds and the Washington Monument. Redesigning President’s Park South, which is one of the most-visited landscapes in Washington, D.C., is a challenging brief for a designer. The site, which includes Sherman Park and the Ellipse, a number of monuments, and a closed through-street (E Street NW), is home to the national Christmas tree and also filled with tourists, local joggers, and sports teams year round. Any new design must meet the tough security requirements of the U.S. Secret Service but be more easily accessible for the thousands of tourists and locals who use the space. In addition, a new design must accomodate both bicyclists and those driving into work at the White House every day, and offer an “attractive environment” for visitors while maintaining the site’s “historic integrity.” Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design and an advisor to the competition, said “it’s a challenging, intriguing project” with issues that only “some of the most creative minds in the field of design” can solve.  

Some 30-plus firms submitted proposals but only five firms reached the finals and presented to the NCPC last week, including Rogers Marvel Architects, Reed Hilderbrand Associates, Sasaki Associates, Hood Design Studio, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. First, here’s a review of the winning team’s proposal, then the four other finalists:  

Rogers Marvel Architects (winner): Rob Rogers, the only architect presenting out of the five finalists, partnered with Quenell Rothschild & Partners, a landscape architecture firm, to create a proposal that “separates out layers of public space and security to improve the visitor experience.” Rogers, who has lots of experience implementing high-security projects for the Pentagon and other government organizations, said “security is very expensive but part of the public realm for the long-term and here to stay” so his team’s proposal invests heavily in security. In addition, his team’s design would balance the need to maintain the site as a “compelling place” given Marine One lands there, along with a “playground” for local residents. A reopened E street would become a “public gathering place,” a pedestrian plaza framed by a seating wall on the south side. Through E street, there will be “traffic-calming textured crosswalks with clear pathways.”  

The Ellipse’s lawn would be replaced with super robust “turf grass” so it would function like Sheep’s Meadow or the Great Lawn in NYC’s Central Park. “It would be designed for heavy use.” Rogers would also add a formal paved promenade all the way around the Ellipse to provide easy access for strollers. Managed parking would be kept in place but new “native-planted, vegetative swales” would be set within walkways between the new promenade and parking spaces. The grade of the Ellipse would be subtly regraded to camoflauge the views of the cars from some viewpoints.

Interestingly, Rogers would move the security barriers to the far south end of the Ellipse, enclosing the entire park in a new set of security measures. Perhaps there’s one downside though: it cuts the Ellipse off from the Washington Monument, severing the freeflow of people between the sites.

Reed Hilderbrand Associates: Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, said President’s Park South is an “open space that symbolizes American democracy,” but has been plagued in recent years by barriers. As a result, the visitor experience is highly frustrating: “People don’t understand why they can’t get a view.” To remedy the lack of access and maintain the security, his team’s proposal would rely on a system of bollards and “existing historic fences” to create sets of zones that can be secured. A new pedestrian plaza would appear where the southern end of the White House grounds meets the top of the Ellipse, the “pinch point” that causes so many problems now. E street would be open to pedestrian and bike traffic but the system of sallyports to check cars would remain in place.

Returning the tree canopy to its former glory seems to be a key element of his design approach. “We want to reconnect the president to the people by making the Ellipse people-friendly.” A central part of that effort is rebuilding the tree canopy depleted 15 years ago. This process would include diversifying the trees, restoring the soils, and capturing and using water on site. “The landscape needs to be built to last and built sustainably.” Overall, Hilderbrand said his firm’s proposal was an “urbanistic” one, which enables “promenading” and will help create a “diverse, strong, honorific, well-populated place.”

During Q&A, NCPC members zoomed in on the bollards. Harriet Tregoning, director of D.C.’s planning department, wondered if bollards are the way to go given there are new security measures that can be built into the landscape like granite benches or curves. Other NCPC members wondered how “procurable” the elements were if they needed to be replaced after a bomb attack.

Sasaki Associates: Alan Ward, FASLA, sees an opportunity to “reconnect the White House to the city and reconnect the Ellipse to the city” through a “simple and economical design.” Ward would move the sallyports up north and open up E street to pedestrians and bicyclists. On a new E street, only limited car traffic would still be allowed. A long narrow wall that also act as seating would provide a new security barrier along the northern end of the Ellipse, offering a “usable edge and security within the design.” In front of this bench-wall would be a “significant plaza space” in the center of E street, which would open up the park for visitors angling for photos. Additional seating areas on the side would enable pedestrians to stroll and relax, while a new cafe would also be added in one of the shaded, tree-covered side groves. Within the revamped E street zone there would be a separate bicycle lane driving through east to west.

For views, Ward proposed “subtle grading changes” to block views of parked cars along the southern ends. A stage for event space would also be created with a lawn with seating.

Tregoning wondered if a delineated bicycle lane was the best idea. She found the idea “hazardous” and called for a blended space where bicyclists and pedestrians would have to navigate more carefully, like a Dutch woonerf.  Other NCPC members wondered about the “purposeful geometry of the paving” and whether it’s necessary to create pathways with different styles.

Hood Design Studio: Walter Hood, ASLA, recent winner of the National Design Award, thinks President’s Park South is a “hybrid landscape” because it “has to do many things for many people,” namely serve as a residence, public recreation site, and forum for democratic expression. It’s also a “palimpsest,” something that can be wiped clean and used again. In that vein, Hood proposed “moving forward towards a new future a new place” that would reference earlier designs by Andrew Jackson Downing but also feature “articulated urban spaces” and ha-ha walls to offer subtle security measures. Hood emphasized the need for “squares” at either end of E street along with “garden circuits” that would tie together the landscape and paths.

On the other side of the proposed ha-ha wall, which would separate car traffic from a new pedestrian plaza near the southern end of the White House grounds, would be an undulating granite bench. Near the benches, a set of 50 glowing, interior-lit bollards would represent each of the 50 states. “People could get their photo taken in front of their state.” Porous pavements would be made up of Potomac river stones, and create a bold visual presence around the fence of the White House grounds. The overall planting scheme would feature native plants and bioswales would be built on the park’s side panels. The goal is to create “something familiar yet quite different.”

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, recently completed a project to revamp the north side of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. As a result, he’s already got an experienced team in place that can do work on politically-sensitive, secure, historic landscapes. For President’s Park South, Van Valkenburgh prioritized the need to create “permanent and appropriate security infrastructure that clearly separates vehicles from pedestrians” and “creating a sense of one continuous landscape” featuring big new trees and low plantings. He said his firm would help restore the site to President Jefferson’s original vision of the landscape as a “garden” so that the entire White House landscape could be “seamlessly experienced as a romantic landscape.” He also believed his plan for adding lots of lush vegetation would help “diminish the visual impact of security.”

The Ellipse today is a “dispirted public public,” which he found “visually disconcerting.” The security constraints and the original structure of the site help to create the “pinch point” where the Ellipse meets the southern end of the White House grounds. Van Valkenburgh’s team would undertake a “very straightforward reconfiguration” reducing E street from four to two lanes and using walls and gates (not bollards) to separate pedestrians from cars safely. “Gates indicate passage and make clear which areas are restricted.” Pedestrians would be offered a range of paths along E street and through a new central pedestrian plaza, creating a mix of different visual experiences amid the gardens. Security would be hidden by low plantings in places. Because the budget is not being spent on major changes to the structure of E street or other infrastructure, more funds would be available to “move in big trees” around the Ellipse. The current landscape, which is just a “skeleton,” could be “wonderful quickly” and help “connect the President’s landscape to the people’s.”

Van Valkenburgh, who seems to have been through the ropes before with the Pennsylvania Avenue re-do, left some design elements open to discussion. He said that “the materiality is very sensitive” and he’s open to being “flexible.” This may be smart given he said First Lady Laura Bush didn’t like any of the pavements he chose for Pennsylvania Avenue, so these were all changed during that project’s design process.

On the overall process and next steps: the National Park Service led an inter-agency process that resulted in a “Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House and President’s Park,” which created a vision for updating this historic landscape. According to NCPC, the winning design will go on to “inform the development of alternatives” for the new park, which will then be completed through a larger process run by the National Park Service and the U.S. Secret Service. Any ideas from the five finalists’ proposals could be included. These final designs will be reviewed through a “federal and local review and approval process,” which also includes an environmental assessment, over the course of the year.

Watch the presentations online.

Image credits: Rogers Marvel Architects

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