Transformation of an urban corridor

January 2013 » Features » PROJECT CASE STUDY
An infrastructure rehabilitation project leads to community building.
Oliver Boehm, RLA, LEED-AP
Streetcar platforms extend the sidewalk into the roadway, creating comfortable pedestrian open spaces.

H Street NE started to decline after World War II as much of the District of Columbia's population moved to the suburbs and the corridor became a popular urban commuter roadway. The devastation of the 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a further setback. Empty storefronts, derelict buildings, and vacant properties filled the landscape along the one-mile corridor from Union Station to Maryland Avenue.

Project
Rehabilitation of the H Street NE Corridor, Washington, D.C.

Designer

Volkert Inc.

Project summary
Streetscape design transforms a six-lane commuter thoroughfare into an active, multi-modal corridor supporting mass transit and encouraging private investment.

Lack of maintenance, single-focused roadway repairs, and patchwork sidewalks created dangerous conditions and an unattractive public realm where crime and loitering were common. Transit use and pedestrian travel was unsafe, ineffective, and unattractive. This included dangerous roadway crossings, lonely bus stops, and confusing signage. Narrow sidewalks provided little space for pedestrians to do anything but walk quickly and avoid interaction.

In 2007, the District Department of Transportation entrusted Volkert to design the rehabilitation of the corridor and transform the six-lane commuter thoroughfare into an active, multi-modal corridor supporting mass transit with dedicated parking lanes and an enhanced pedestrian experience. Five years later, the completion of the project has created a multi-modal experience that encourages people to walk and access reliable transportation, while also providing restaurants and retail stores an attractive environment to expand business activities outdoors.

Before rehabilitation (circa 2007), empty storefronts, derelict buildings, and vacant properties lined H Street NE.
After rehabilitation (fall, 2012), sidewalks have been widened and are better defined, making the public realm a much friendlier experience.

The Rehabilitation of the H Street NE Corridor was part of the District's Great Streets Initiative – a multi-agency effort that sought to transform under-invested corridors into successful neighborhoods, using public action to leverage private investment. On H Street NE, the plan envisioned three segments along the corridor to evolve with their own distinct character:

  • large western parcels near Union Station would attract mixed-use developments;
  • smaller developments around 8th Street NE would enhance the area's downtown character; and
  • developments in the eastern part of the corridor would embrace and enhance the area's existing arts and entertainment culture.

The streetscape design had to respond to the unique conditions of the corridor, including many vacant parcels of land and derelict buildings interspersed with established businesses and community services. Early signs of the changing landscape, such as the opening of a few pioneer restaurants and art studios, supported the belief that public investment in the corridor would help transform H Street NE into a vibrant community. The streetscape design would become a vital part of the community's urban fabric. Unsafe and unattractive conditions caused by decaying properties had to be overcome with a strong streetscape design that directed attention on itself, yet was adaptable enough to support the transformation of the corridor's private properties.

The return of the streetcar to the District of Columbia is expected to make travel much easier for residents, workers, and visitors. The planning process for the streetcar network included H Street NE as a critical segment that will connect the communities east of the Anacostia to the downtown area. The streetcar will complement the existing transit options and will be a tremendous benefit to the H Street NE community. Streetcar transfer points are strategically located at three intersections along the corridor. These locations were designed as outdoor gathering spaces that extend the sidewalk toward the roadway, increasing the pedestrian area and adding enhancements to the public realm. These sidewalk extensions also act as traffic calming devices that help define parallel parking lanes, shorten the length of crosswalks, and reduce vehicular speed throughout the corridor.

Bus lines crossing H Street NE are some of the busiest in Washington, D.C. Improving the public realm to support this service was critical for the success of the project. The public engagement process revealed a strong desire to improve accessibility and connectivity from transit stops to the corridor's businesses, as well as a need to strengthen the physical connection between the connecting side streets and H Street NE. The streetscape design uses connecting streets as welcoming transition zones and the transit stops as pedestrian starting points to "third place" destinations. The community expressed a strong interest in supporting the creation of local gathering areas where informal social interaction could take place.

The team adopted the term "third places" to describe the type of destination the community desired. These are places that are frequently visited by locals, such as barbershops, hardware stores, or cafes. Third places can be any gathering place that encourages civic life and complements the home environment (first place) and the workplace (second place). The streetscape design supports these social surroundings and stimulates casual strolling that leads to socializing and consumer spending, which in turn strengthens the local economy, civic engagement, and a strong sense of identity.

Architectural features and the composition of streetscape elements complement the character of the urban fabric. The streetscape design carefully balances these components to accommodate the three principles of sustainability: economic, cultural, and environmental sustainability.

The streetscape composition was redefined in the new design of H Street NE.

Economic sustainability – Life along the corridor and in the nearby neighborhoods has been transformed as new businesses have moved in and existing businesses adjust to the changing economic conditions of the area. Restaurants now open their doors to the sidewalks and provide outdoor seating, instead of greeting patrons with security bars and locked-up merchandise. Economic sustainability is currently balancing the appetite and expectations of a new population with that of the established community. A much friendlier environment supports a better quality of life, property values increase, services improve, and a sense of place is preserved

Cultural sustainability – The design respects the corridor's past with its many unique architectural features, while supporting the current evolution of cultural establishments in the area. Public art, wayfinding signage, and historically sensitive sidewalk treatments complement the corridor's urban fabric and its sense of identity. The success of the corridor's cultural sustainability will be based on how well future development can balance the eclectic nature of the H Street NE community and the historic character of the corridor.

Environmental sustainability – Healthy urban trees promote a sense of safety, good health, and tranquility. A continuous row of trees also helps define the street edge and acts as a visual buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway. The tree planting bed design for H Street NE increases soil volume for trees and allows stormwater to infiltrate into the soil layer. These conditions will help trees reach a significant size and have a greater physical and psychological impact on the community. The presence of healthy trees fosters environmental sustainability, especially in the urban environment where children typically lack the resources to connect with nature.

Today, H Street NE has the comforts and the vibrancy envisioned during the planning and design process. Its public realm fosters the kind of community spirit essential for urban populations to bond, and provides the infrastructure for civic events to take place. It is designed as a linear multi purpose space able to successfully support transportation services and community engagement.

"The return of the streetcar to the District of Columbia is expected to make travel much easier for residents, workers, and visitors. The planning process for the streetcar network included H Street NE as a critical segment that will connect the communities east of Anacostia to the downtown area."

Oliver Boehm, RLA, LEED-AP, is the manager of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Volkert Inc., a national multidisciplinary design firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va. His experience includes projects ranging from small detail-oriented ones to large public works which seek to modernize infrastructure while also providing improvements to the physical environment. He can be contacted at oliver.boehm@volkert.com.


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