Can L’Enfant Plaza Become a Place for People?

“Where else is the National Mall right in your backyard?,” said Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), at his organization’s latest public review of the new plans for 10th street southwest, with its widely-detested, urban renewal-era, I.M. Pei-designed L’Enfant Plaza. As part of the new Southwest Eco-district plan, which ambitiously aims turn a stultifying part of the city into a true mixed-use neighborhood, a new L’Enfant Plaza would become a more diverse, forested space, culminating in terraced stairs leading to the Washington Channel and a new waterfront development. Now, visitors must cover walking down a Stalinist-era pedestrian mall, then jump a treacherous off-ramp and run across the highway to get from the plaza’s terminus at Benjamin Banneker Park to the water.

Acosta said the goal of the new conceptual designs, which were created with ZGF Architects, were to provide a people-friendly “connection between the Mall and waterfront.” He said “this is one of the most unique parts of all of Washington, D.C. There are many opportunities.”

Diane Sullivan, a senior urban planner with NCPC, outlined how the point where L’Enfant Plaza meets the Smithsonian Museum at the National Mall will be redesigned as a “magnet,” attracting visitors further in. Now, visitors must pass under a building only to be confronted with a seemingly endless expanse totally absent of trees. As Otto Condon, the lead architect with ZGF, explained, the magnet will draw visitors in with “tactical urbanism” strategies, making “the entry more like a gateway.” There could be a variety of water features, with lush nature in view.

As visitors are drawn in, they will come across a green street, then a “cultural node,” followed by another green street, an urban plaza, a third green street, followed by Banneker Park, the “prospect to look out over the river.” Benjamin Banneker Park is a protected landmark designed by famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley. This segment of L’Enfant Promenade is managed by the National Park Service. It will not likely change although a cultural landscape report now in progress may lead to a much-needed restoration.

Green streets will be “urban garden promenades.” Condon and Sullivan said the “rhythm of the trees” will set the tone, providing shade as well. They are planning on adding hundreds if not thousands of trees along the stretch, which is perhaps the most exciting part of the new design.

These linear gardens will be asymmetric, with trees grouped on the south side of the street for more sun exposure amid the tall buildings.

As visitors approach the end-point, Benjamin Banneker park and the stairs to the waterfront, “there will be an organic, less formal feel.”

bannekerAt first, it may seem odd that some segments of L’Enfant Plaza will be jam-packed with trees, while others will be open spaces, but there is a logic to this. Sullivan said “we can’t maximize the tree canopy throughout because some parts of 10th street are a bridge.” Where there is soil underneath, larger trees can be planted. In the bridge areas, it will be trickier to plant anything more than smaller trees grouped together and plants.

Beneath the bridges, NCPC proposes adding gigantic cisterns to catch rainwater for reuse in the landscape. They are looking at adding 500 – 700,000-gallon tanks, which are the same size as the ones added under the National Mall. These will help ensure 10th street reaches the Eco-district’s ambitious new stormwater management targets.

The 150-foot-wide right-of-way will stay the same but be broken up differently. The central median, where much of the vegetation and water features will go, will expand to 52-feet-wide, while the road will be 40 feet-wide and there will be new 10-feet-wide bike lanes. It’s a scary place to bike now, so that will be a needed improvement, if the bike lanes are protected from cars.

The urban plaza zone will be programmed as a “festival zone,” designed to “create energy to pull people in,” said Condon.

Finally, at Banneker Park, with its protected central fountain and space, there will be a new staircase that winds its way around the monument down to the waterfront. The handicapped-accessible pathway will be flanked with green walls, and meander through terraces, “providing a gradual transition.” Condon said the new path design had a “sympathetic curve,” which will offer views of a new sculpture garden.

Once visitors make it down the waterfront level, there will be a new 100-foot-wide corridor moving pedestrians from Banneker across the highway to the new mixed-use area coming in by developer PN Hoffman.

Sullivan explained that all of this will happen in phases over many years, even a decade or more. But as Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, a landscape architect who is head of the physical planning division at NCPC noted, there will be a set of interim connections made to make the path from Banneker to the waterfront less onerous and dangerous.

While NCPC has not announced any budget numbers for this project, it’s clear that redesigning L’Enfant Plaza to be a well-trafficked, people-friendly, green space will be a costly, monumental effort of landscape architecture. These early concepts are an incredible improvement on what’s there now. But, it’s not clear whether NCPC and its designers can succeed in making this place, which has so many challenges, a real people-friendly place and true connector to the waterfront.

Even if Benjamin Banneker park is restored so the fountain actually works, the terminus needs to be redesigned to serve as a draw. There must be more to emphasize the role of this remarkable figure in African American and D.C. history. There’s early discussion of a large statue or museum along the plaza but nothing definite. Currently, there are some inadequate signs.

Making the Banneker park area exciting will be doubly hard because a number of large residential buildings are coming in at Washington Channel, largely destroying the views from Banneker. There may no longer be a grand prospect worth the hike. This is a real concern, as this is the pay-off now for hiking the plaza.

The conceptual designs are at a very early stage, but, as of now, NCPC offers no concrete plans for adding cafes or restaurants further in on 10th street, which will also be critical to drawing people further along the half-mile-long concourse all the way to the channel. While a more inviting stretch filled with trees, plants, and water will help immeasurably in attracting people, are they enough? Some great new cafes or restaurants along the route could really help people make the connections.

Explore NCPC’s design concepts and offer your comments by December 31.

Image credits: NCPC

One thought on “Can L’Enfant Plaza Become a Place for People?

  1. Alisa Rose Sidlitz 12/26/2013 / 2:35 pm

    Great to know about this!
    Vast improvement over the current scenario, however, it’s still WAY too linear overall.
    When peaceful, Nature moves in curves, and more peaceful Nature, visually and energetically, is what we all need to feel safe, to be “magnetized”, engaged and drawn forward.

    The potential of “thousands of trees” is exciting, and a variety of water features would be lovely…but, no, “more inviting”, relative to how things are now, is not enough.

    The inclusion of more ‘soft scape’, with some billowing, flowering, bird and butterfly attracting plantings would really make a positive difference.
    I notice also, that there are still far too extensive expanses of what appear to be impervious surfaces.

    How incredibly exciting it would be if this important public space could be a demonstration of Ecological, Biophilic Design – truly getting back to Nature.

    Alisa Rose
    Loving Gardens Designs
    “Creating Sanctuary for Birds, Butterflies & People”

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