5 September 2014
Ideas for Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative
Pennsylvania Avenue has huge potential to become a vibrant urban boulevard reminiscent of European ones. My first impression of it was the stunning location—a thoroughfare at the heart of downtown Washington, DC which connects the President’s iconic home with the Capitol Building two miles East. The wide streets have liberal sidewalk space; Freedom Plaza serves as a platform for events, demonstrations and the exercise of free speech, and it boasts a great view either way you look. However I was surprised to find that the street did not support as much urban life or ambiance as one would expect given its location and historical legacy.
Although each side of the street (especially the North side) has wide sidewalks, I noticed that for the most part, they go unused. There is ample space between the street and the buildings that remains empty and shadowy from dingy building facades. Part of what makes walking down a Parisian or Roman street so enjoyable and entertaining is the close proximity between the bustling people on the sidewalk and those enjoying a meal or coffee at a table outside a sidewalk café. That proximity is an invitation to linger, to recognize someone you might know, to strike up a conversation, stop into a restaurant, or even just notice something or someone that makes you laugh. This type of sidewalk activity blurs the lines between those marching up the street to work and those relaxing. People come in all shapes and sizes, colors, styles of dress and personality quirks. The closer we can bring different people together in a shared space, the more dynamic and interesting the outdoor experience will be.
A second thing I noticed was how shabby the building facades are all along the avenue. At the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania there is the beautiful W hotel, which stands out with its intricate tan and ivory façade. Surrounding the entrance are potted plants and flowers, which make for a charming outdoor eating area—here the proximity between passersby and lingerers is good. Yet right away, things look shabbier east of 14th street all the way down to 6th Ave and the Newseum. For me, these blocks were the biggest eyesores. I noticed a lack of people, a lack of diversity in terms of shops and services, a lack of trees and a lack of color.
My prescription for these blocks between 14th and 6th streets is more green spaces, color, and invitations to linger. While retail draws people to M street in Georgetown, Pennsylvania Avenue could be a hot spot for public art like murals and sculptures, a pocket park, a fountain, a world-class theater, a fantastic public library, and sidewalk cafes with ample outdoor seating, like on the Champs-Elysees. In light of its central and symbolic location as the grandest avenue in the United States, I would love to see it host more of the things that attract people of all classes. I think it’s highly important that the avenue welcomes anyone and everyone, and does not turn into another M street, which remains exclusively the territory of big spenders. Freedom Plaza would be transformed if a portion of the eastern half of it were converted into triangular green space with a fountain and benches surrounding it. The majority of the plaza would stay as is; a flat stone platform suitable for any event, but a splash of green would draw people there to sit and enjoy the open space from a little height, and see the view down the avenue. There would be stately statues of beloved presidents or respectable historic figures that symbolize freedom and democracy, and quotes engraved into the stone. I am not sure how logistically possible this is, but cobble-stoned streets would make for a more old-world ambiance and would replace the overdose of tar and cement that you see when you look down the street toward the Capitol.
Ultimately, I think the Pennsylvania avenue blocks between 14th and 6th streets are dull, monochromatic, and suffer from a misuse of ample space and a lack of eclectic vibrancy enjoyed by so many boulevards in world cities. The NCPC would do well to examine what makes some urban European boulevards so attractive, and emulate some of those ideas.
Pennsylvania Ave observations
Freedom Plaza, too much concrete, lack of color
Rudimentary idea for use of Freedom Plaza: statues, engravings, art, trees, green space, and benches.
Empty and underused sidewalk space between 14th and 6th
15th and Pennsylvania: Attractive façade of the W hotel, great use of sidewalk space