Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Case Study 5.5: Conclusion

Today I conclude my look at Washington, D.C. I think we've seen the very best of the city in my posts, a city which is full of history, beauty, and fantastic residential architecture. It's just a shame the commercial and business districts don't quite match up, because these areas, popular with tourists, are what many people see. I'm sure DC would be at the top of many architecture lists if the residential areas were more well known. As the wealthiest metro area in the nation, per capita, it should come as no surprise that the city supports such a large number of exceptional neighborhoods. 

In this concluding post I'm featuring a few neighborhoods which have a limited number of nice streetscapes, but still worth showing. They may be perfectly nice, but are perhaps not historical enough, not large enough, or don't have enough nice streets to warrant an entire case study. 

This is Kalorama, which is just west of Dupont Circle. The eastern border is essentially an extension of Dupont Circle and indistinguishable, but go inwards a block and it starts to look very suburban. Sometimes it's split into Kalorama Triangle and Sheridan-Kalorama, according to Wikipedia, but Google Maps and some real estate sites also call parts Kalorama Heights. All a bit confusing, so I'm not distinguishing between them in my images. There are still several embassies but mostly it's large homes, some historical townhomes, and some McMansions. In general a pretty conservative neighborhood, but also the city's most affluent, due to the concentration of large single-family homes. 
Next is Adams Morgan, northeast of Kalorama, and significantly less upscale. It's an area popular with young professionals, dominated mostly by apartment buildings and townhomes subdivided into apartments. It's widely considered as the city's best nightlife destination, hence the popularity among the aforementioned young professionals. 
Lanier Heights, a small pocket of a neighborhood north of Adams Morgan, is just a few streets.
Mount Pleasant, north of Lanier Heights, is a large neighborhood with some 10,000 people. Mostly developed between 1900-1925, it was the city's first streetcar suburb. Like much of the city, it experienced white flight in the 60's and didn't being to recover until the late 80's. While never an affluent area, it has been home to Senators in the past, and there are still some large homes, especially along Park Road. Certainly compared to more centrally located neighborhoods, one can buy a significantly larger home with a larger yard for much less money, while still being just minutes away from urban amenities. 
And finally, Foggy Bottom, which is just about the most centrally located of any neighborhood in DC. There are really only a few residential streets, the others taken up by George Washington University and institutions like the World Bank, IMF, Red Cross, Watergate, and the list goes on. There are also quite a few apartment buildings along the river, many with multimillion dollar units. 
I hope you've enjoyed my DC case study. Away from downtown and the political circus, it's a wonderful city which offers a great quality of life to its residents and plenty to do. I've heard the social scene is a bit staid, but that's to be expected from a city with a rather singular business: politics. All in all, DC is a capital the country can be proud of. I'm sure more than a few foreign dignitaries are impressed upon their arrival and immersion into daily life. 

Which is not to say that there isn't a lot which could be improved, with public transit a particular priority. The Metro is admirable, but it serves just a few corridors, with much of the city serviced only by buses. The city shot itself in the foot when they dismantled the streetcar system and will now have to spend many millions to reinstate just a fraction of it. Whether there's the will or the funds to completely rebuild the original system is debatable. 

Another challenge is how the city will fare with its relationship to the its suburbs and other growing urban areas like Tysons Corner, Virginia. The city itself may have several walkable communities like the ones featured here, but let's not forget that the vast majority of workers in the city commute, sometimes vast distances, from the sprawl enveloped around the city. Any improvements within the District's limits are a drop in the ocean compared to the challenge of improving the suburbs. And it has be said, it's disappointing to see so many of DC's political elite holed up in gated communities in McLean, VA, representative of the worst possible class divide and social problems the country is facing. How can we expect the average American to give up their car and hour long commute, and live in harmony with each other, when not even our elected leaders strive to do so? Political leaders first and foremost should embrace a lifestyle inclusive of their fellow citizens, not hide behind walls. I think it violates the spirit of public service to live in a private community. But maybe that's just me.

The bottom line is that Washington, D.C. has unparalleled quality urban neighborhoods with a finely balanced character developed over hundreds of years. Recently there's been a lot of talk about raising the city's building height limits, but I'm strongly opposed to this. I think such a move would risk ruining the very qualities which make DC so special, and so unique among American cities. I had a discussion with a friend about this, and I think a lot of the complaints should actually be focused on the street level, not the sky. Many of the downtown area streets are not boring or constrained because of a lack of tall buildings, but rather from a dearth of street life culture. There's definitely a lack of cafe's, and far too many institutional buildings with blank facades, which just kills street life. Cities should never prioritize their skyline over street levels, and residents shouldn't let themselves be pulled in to this common cop out  Alarmingly, DC has also put up hundreds of barriers and other obstacles for the sake of security, but this has had the effect of further constraining street culture. To read more about this, see Kaid Benfield's post here. Recently he has also posted a very convincing argument for the building height limits, which I highly recommend reading. 

Although not in DC itself, the nearby city of Alexandria, VA is also worth taking a look at, especially the Old Town neighborhood. Here's a photo link. 

If you missed any of the individual case studies, be sure to visit the introductory post for links to each. There are also links to my previous posts on the navigation bar on the right, under BROWSE, including my prior case studies like San Francisco and Boston. 

Thanks for reading. I'm uncertain what my next case study will be. I'm considering Charleston or Savannah, depending on the quality of Street View or Streetside images I find. I've also considered Seattle or Portland, depending on the quality and quantity of urban neighborhoods. I'll look into it, but suggestions are welcome.