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How D.C. Is Turning A 'Pedestrian Dead-Zone' Into An Eco-Showcase

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View from National Mall towards the Southwest Waterfront.
Courtesy of NCPC/Image by ZGF Architects
View from National Mall towards the Southwest Waterfront.

You've heard of “The Three Rs,” right? Reducing, reusing and recycling?

Well, a massive project hopes to bring all three to the heart of Washington, just south of the National Mall, by turning 15 blocks in to the “SW Ecodistrict."

Diane Sullivan is a senior urban planner with the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency overseeing the creation of the "SW Ecodistrict." Seventeen federal and local agencies have joined up to get this thing off the ground. And when it does, by the year 2030, you’ll barely recognize the area around L’Enfant Plaza.

From pedestrian dead-zone to eco-showcase

The SW Ecodistrict is bounded by Independence Avenue to the north, 12th Street to the west, Sixth Street to the east, and includes Banneker Park, at the end of L’Enfant Promenade.

That 115-acre area is often seen as a more isolated part of the city, rife with hulking federal office buildings. It’s also been called a “pedestrian dead-zone.” Sullivan says urban renewal is to blame.

“This actually used to look a lot like Capitol Hill, with a lot of row houses here,” she explains. “Those were torn down and in its place we built a lot of the federal office buildings that you see here today. In addition to that, you have the freeway running through it and also the CSX Rail line.”

From Virginia Avenue to Maryland Avenue, 10th Street is envisioned as a linear garden with large trees, extensive landscaping, water features, and bioswales. (Courtesy of NCPC. Image by ZGF Architects)

Sullivan says the SW Ecodistrict will be a “high-performance environmental showcase.” The project could add 4 million square feet of office, residential and cultural space to the area, and yet it will also cut greenhouse gases by half, reduce energy use by nearly half, and lower the consumption of potable water by about 70 percent.

Such a plan may seem counterintuitive, but Sullivan says they know exactly how they’ll build more office space and yet pull off all these grand environmental reductions.

“The plan proposes to take down some of these enormous federal buildings, most notably, the Department of Energy James V. Forrestal Building,” she explains. “In doing so, we can build at a much smaller, pedestrian-friendly scale.

“And those buildings actually will have much more natural light,” she adds. “Therefore [they won’t need] to use so much energy.”

The Ecodistrict also will have “a district energy system,” she explains, which “could provide the heating and cooling for all of the buildings here in a much more sustainable way, in addition to creating energy at the same time through co-generation.”

First steps

One of the first steps in creating the SW Ecodistrict is taking 10th Street and constructing an “urban garden promenade”: basically, a green spine of vegetation connecting the National Mall and the Southwest Waterfront.

Regional commuters will experience an expanded L'Enfant Station that utilizes green infrastructure strategies. (Courtesy of NCPC. Image by ZGF Architects)

Sullivan says so often she sees tourists exit the Smithsonian Castle and look out at L’Enfant Promenade, “and they just don’t know what they’re looking at.

“It is a total Sahara!” she says. “It is hard to be there in the summertime. There are no trees whatsoever and it is quite a large street: 150 feet wide of pure concrete.”

That’s where this urban garden promenade comes in. It will be built in phases, over a period of 10 years.

“It terminates at Banneker Park, which is owned by the National Park Service, in which we hope someday will be a future museum or memorial,” Sullivan explains. “And what’s exciting is we have The Wharf right at Maine Avenue already underway, and you have whispers of the Spy Museum possibly coming to 10th Street.”

Given the many decades it will take to complete the SW Ecodistrict, Sullivan describes the plan as “flexible, but not prescriptive. “Markets can change,” she says. “Conditions change, and we need to adapt to that.”

But she believes “the overall vision for this area is something that everyone has bought in to, and something that I think everyone will strive to achieve.”

She points to the massive, Brutalist Department of Energy building and says, “Can you imagine a new Department of Energy headquarters, showcasing the best renewable energy out there to all of these people who are coming here? Millions of tourists?

“It seems like the perfect place for them to be, if you ask me.”

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