A New Vision for Pennsylvania Avenue

aerial penn ave
Pennsylvania Avenue today / National Capital Planning Commission

Pennsylvania Avenue has one of the nation’s most famous addresses – The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It forms a physical and symbolic connection between that address, which represents the president and the executive branch, and the people, represented by the U.S. Capitol building. But beyond this, what is the role of the avenue for both the District and nation in the 21st century? What does the avenue say to the rest of the nation and the world?

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) wanted participants to answer these questions at its first public workshop on the Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative. In partnership with the General Services Administration and the National Park Service, the initiative will “develop a vision for how the avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city.”

The workshop began with opening remarks from Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, NCPC. Miller noted the avenue’s dual role as not only a national symbol but also a place where people visit, work, and live. Recognizing and celebrating this dual role is one of the challenges the initiative faces as it crafts a vision to guide the next thirty to forty years.

Sarah Moulton at NCPC then presented some history. In particular, she noted the accomplishments of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), which helped turn the avenue around, after its post-WWII decline. PADC was dissolved in 1996.

1962 street car line
1962 was the final year street cars ran up and down Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

Without a single voice advocating for the avenue, the street today is in a bit of a slump, showing wear and tear from increased use. It’s aging infrastructure. Its deterioration may have arisen out of the jurisdictional challenges stemming from the multiple agencies responsible for planning, designing, and maintaining various areas along the avenue.

Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue
Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

But change along the avenue is already underway, for good or bad. The old post office is being redeveloped as a Trump conference center and hotel; the FBI is looking into possible relocation; private redevelopment is in the works for E Street; and efforts are underway to redesign historic Pershing Park as a new national WWI memorial.

Following the presentation, participants were invited to visit stations around the room, which included a gallery of posters showing comparably prominent streets in capital cities around the world. Some stations sought participants’ feedback on their visions for the future.

For example, one poster asked, “What is the role of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2040?” Responses included:

  • “The city – one great public space; iconic, walkable, wayfinding (take that tourists!)”
  • “An iconic image of Main Street USA – people, interactivity, heritage”
  • “Should be the horizontal guidepost to the Washington Monument’s vertical”
public workshop big and little ideas
Ideas from the public workshop / National Capital Planning Commission

The initiative intends to address four central issues: operations and maintenance; governance; program and animation; and planning, design, and economic health. This last issue encompasses everything from security for federal buildings to sustainable design practices, from safe transportation routes to the needs of the residential community. At the heart of all of this is ensuring economic vitality, said Moulton.

NCPC is starting a robust public outreach effort, with this initial public workshop just the beginning. To submit your thoughts, e-mail NCPC at PennAve@ncpc.gov; visit their website; or  tweet with the hashtag #MyPennAve.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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