Reimagining the Superblock

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Cities around the country have central business districts that are active only during the day. Unwelcoming outside of business hours, these pivotal locations become barriers between neighborhoods, important public spaces, and civic landmarks. State capitals, in particular, often have campuses of government buildings that are poorly integrated into the surrounding city.

Washington, DC faces similar planning challenges with federal office buildings that go dormant at night and on weekends. These “superblocks”—large office buildings of monumental scale—lack the human dimension and street-level activity that would draw people to the area outside business hours. Precincts in the heart of the city—such as Federal Triangle and Southwest Federal Center—hinder movement among key places like the National Mall, the central business district, and the Anacostia waterfront.

Federal Triangle L’Enfant Plaza

Reimagining the Federal Superblock—an offshoot of the Framework Plan—explores how to enliven single-use office districts. The elimination of urban “dead zones” helps create viable connections among city neighborhoods.

“It’s a problem with both supply and demand dimensions,” explains Elizabeth Miller, project manager of the Framework Plan. “Not only do we have to create a supply of stores, restaurants and attractive public spaces, but we have to get enough people patronizing these businesses to sustain them over the long haul.”

Enabling Supply
Congress encourages “the location of commercial, cultural, educational, and recreational facilities and activities within public buildings” through the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976, but it is up to individual agencies to implement the Act. The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s property manager, obtains and prepares space to the specifications of its client agencies. This client-centered model has led to wide discrepancies in federal facility design, perimeter security standards, and allowable commercial uses.

NCPC and GSA sponsored a public discussion in May 2009 to explore ways to encourage federal agencies to make their facilities more publicly accessible and to open up their ground floors to retail and cultural uses. Building security emerged as one of the largest obstacles to circumvent, but the participants were eager to solve the problem.

“Are we willing to live with the assumption that we can’t let people into buildings?” asked Bill Dowd, NCPC’s director of Physical Planning. “We shouldn’t allow security to be an excuse for inaction.”

Creative solutions include a “building wrap” that creates a separate, publicly accessible space around the secured area of the building. It provides a buffer and supports active uses, but does not create the appearance of two separate buildings. Other ideas include reinforcing the retail space within the building envelope and allowing freestanding vendors outside.

“We have examples that work right here in DC,” said David Zaidain, NCPC’s manager of the Federal Superblock project. “The IMF Headquarters has two attractive retail spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue, and the International Trade Center has over 80,000 square feet of space for restaurants, exhibits, and event programming.”

A wider mix of ground-floor uses will have many benefits, including a more attractive work environment for federal employees, more amenities for visitors, and a more vibrant, connected urban environment.

“Our visitors don’t want to be forced to patronize places where everybody around them is a tourist,” said Jane Levy Freundel of DC Cultural Tourism. “Part of the attraction of Washington, believe it or not, is that visitors want to see what the bureaucrats look like.”

The ultimate effect of these initiatives could be quite profound. “I hope that we can get rid of the idea that government is just a ‘bureaucracy behind walls,” said Ms. Miller. “Creating seamless connections between federal buildings and the rest of the city could reshape people’s perceptions of government and their relationship to it.”

Generating Demand
Breaking down agency resistance to public access by solving the security dilemma is only one part of the equation, however. There must be adequate demand—during days, nights, and weekends—to ensure the viability of commercial enterprises and public spaces.

Washington, DC’s federal precincts can benefit from their proximity to the National Mall, which draws 25 million visits each year. However, many never venture past its landmarks and museums into adjacent parts of the city.

“We have a lot of people who are already right here,” said Robert Peck, commissioner of public buildings for GSA, noting that the Federal Triangle has an enormous public art collection, now cordoned off behind security barriers. “But we’re not getting the benefit of this market if people don’t know what’s here.”

Architect Hany Hassan agreed. “It’s not just a matter of adding other uses, but how we add them,” he said. “We need to create more inviting building sites and streetscapes to generate a continuous flow of people throughout the day and evening.”

Creating sufficient around-the-clock demand may require the introduction of housing into and around federal precincts. This land use may be more difficult to integrate into existing development, but it has the greatest potential to change the character of a federal precinct. This goal is consistent with Washington, DC’s Center City Action Agenda, which promotes settlement in the center of the city, especially around public transit nodes, to fuel sustainable economic growth.

“Residential populations make cities work and renew themselves,” Mr. Hassan said. “We really need to push for this kind of far-reaching change.”

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