After several years of intensive study and community planning, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) along with federal and local partners released its new vision for Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., “the nation’s preeminent ceremonial boulevard,” and three concept plans in March. The goal is to transform an overwhelming and underused avenue into a space that “prioritizes people over cars with inviting and inclusive public spaces.” The NCPC argues that with a new design, the 1.2-mile-long avenue could become a “signature outdoor event venue that could attract and support major national and international events.”
According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, the avenue was part of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the District of Columbia and symbolically connects the White House, the executive branch of government, with the U.S. Capitol, the legislative branch. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson designated the avenue the official Presidential inaugural route. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, who complained about the pawn shops, X-rated movie houses, and liquor stores lining the avenue, created the President’s Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, which included landscape architect Dan Kiley, to design a broad ceremonial avenue that would improve the pedestrian experience. In the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation further developed the parks and plazas along the avenue with landscape architecture firm Sasaki, establishing the unifying brown pavers that now define the space.
Today, eight lanes of roadways dominate the avenue, which make crossing the 160-to-400-foot-wide expanse feel like a chore. A central two-way cycle track fit in between vehicle lanes creates an angsty biking experience that requires vigilance about both pedestrians using crosswalks and vehicles on either sides. A 2018 District of Columbia transportation study found that 20 feet of the existing roadway could be allocated for other non-vehicle uses.
Reducing roadways for vehicles creates a slew of opportunities to re-imagine the avenue. NCPC has offered three concepts to “right-size and realign the roadway to increase the amount of usable and flexible public space” and “devote more space for people, bicyclists, and transit and less space for cars.” All three concepts would accommodate the Presidential inaugural parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.
Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, director of physical planning at NCPC and project director of the initiative, said “the three concepts are really distinct themes that enable us to achieve the goals of transforming Pennsylvania Avenue into both a street for people and America’s stage, a venue for national and international events. These concepts are at at 10,000-foot level and explore how to achieve balance between a space that can be enjoyable on a day-to-day basis but also support events.”
The “Urban Capital” concept is a “complete street with spacious sidewalks, central travel and dedicated transit lanes, and a two-way cycle track on the south side of the street.” Of the three options, this is closest to what currently exists, but would enhance the public realm with an improved streetscape and offer a better cycling experience.
Much bolder, the “Linear Green” concept proposes a “curbless car-free urban linear park with a dedicated central transit way flanked by dedicated cycle tracks.” Given research shows that people are drawn to green space, this proposal could perhaps be the most successful in bringing more visitors to the avenue and keeping them there longer. This offers a Dutch-style woonerf avenue, a much safer and welcoming experience for both pedestrians and cyclists.
The third “Civic Stage” concept proposes a “central pedestrian promenade flanked by a dedicated cycle track and shared travel lanes for cars and transit.” Here, a 52-feet-wide central strip in the middle of the avenue would offer pedestrians the broadest views up and down the avenue, but would require them to also navigate two sets of transit, vehicle, and bike lanes on either side. While the central promenade could be used for events or farmers markets, blazing hot DC summers could reduce use of a shade-less walking median.
NCPC also offers concepts for three “urban rooms” that would better connect the avenue to surrounding parks, memorials, museums, and businesses, while providing space for more temporary events.
Prior to the pandemic, more than 160 events were held each year on the avenue, but NCPC argues there could be even more with higher-quality public spaces better supported by retail and amenities, like public restrooms. They argue these urban rooms can help boost the downtown economy of Washington, D.C.
Through the proposals, NCPC offers ways to blur the boundaries between avenue, plaza, and park, creating a more seamless pedestrian experience. The concepts offer multiple reconfigurations of new public space in the many triangles where the avenue meets city streets. All add usable public green space and improve walkability and circulation.
One point of contention has already arisen since the concepts were first released: Since the 1980s, a diverse mix of skateboarders have claimed the otherwise empty, shade-less Freedom Plaza across from Pershing Park. Though their use of the plaza is technically illegal, some argue they enliven an underused space. Many skateboarders travel from out of state to experience Pennsylvania Avenue, bringing a vitality to an otherwise unloved plaza. According to The Washington Post, “generations of skateboarders have traveled to the plaza to connect with other skaters, pull off tricks, and record videos to mark their spot in skateboard lore.”
To preserve Freedom Plaza as a skating mecca, the skateboarders have created an online petition that has received some 11,000 signatures to date. Ensuring space for them in the future on one of America’s most important avenues would send a true message of inclusion.
Miller explained that public comments will shape future concepts and designs, which will then be returned to the public for additional review. More developed ideas may arise from a mix of multiple concepts. While realizing the entire vision could take a decade, NCPC hopes to initiate near-term pilots and programs to test out ideas.