A Vision for a Greener Chinatown

Originally posted on The Dirt.

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To kick-off ASLA’s year of public service early, ASLA President Tom Tavella, FASLA, Fuss & O’neill, led a process of re-envisioning the many blocks around ASLA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown as a green, livable neighborhood. Using a framework established by D.C.’s government organizations — including the planning office and departments of environment and transportation, along with non-profits like the Downtown Business Improvement District and Anacostia Watershed Society — Tavella and his team of designers created a vision for an inter-connected series of green “complete streets,” with new, safer bicycle lanes and a pedestrian-friendly “festival street,” while also creating a central hub for all the new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA’s door (and below its green roof) right on Eye Street.

Sarah Lewis, an urban planner at Fuss & O’Neill, put the project in its broader context, asking, “what should the neighborhood look like?” Big picture changes to the neighborhood, which is rich with history, will necessarily change the “urban fabric,” but by integrating green, complete streets with true green infrastructure systems, the fabric can only be improved.

In a city “active in urban planning,” the designers sought to leverage all the existing programs and new ones coming next year as well. The city’s complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff. All of these local requirements shaped their concepts.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streets — all of them. For Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O’Neill, the beginning of a new green neighborhood mean tackling all the alleyways running off Eye Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would enable cars to still have access but water to be absorbed into the ground.

Along Eye Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green “festival street” running down 8th street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone (see image above). Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this “B or C street,” which means it doesn’t get that much car traffic, could be designed so pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K street.

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Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian “arboretum,” different materials would be used to designate different realms — those for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O’Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that “streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen.”

Where 8th street meets Eye, new open grates would feature prominently so that “people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn’t rain. This will help educate people about stormwater,” said Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for Eye Street wouldn’t be “lipstick on a pig,” said Ferrero. They could instead represent an “integrated series of events, a system.” Some six additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for “green gutters along the curbs” and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

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On 9th street, creating a new “two-way cycle track,” a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot “physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards,” said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery. The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O’Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were “up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn’t feel safe.”

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Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up two parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, “signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do,” said Tavella.

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According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O’Neill’s concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval and specifications of the many D.C. government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the D.C. planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the D.C. planning office, said, “We’ve tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do.” The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

Image credits: Fuss & O’Neill

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