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The Plan to Revitalize Van Ness

by Nena Perry-Brown

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Rendering of an improved 4340 Connecticut Avenue. Image courtesy of Streetsense.

As neighborhoods around DC have transformed over the past few decades, Van Ness has remained a staid pass-through along Connecticut Avenue in upper Northwest. Now, a plan is in the works to change that.

With neighborhood businesses and institutions moving out, the Office of Planning (OP) has been collaborating with Van Ness Main Streets and ANC 3F in order to furnish a plan to activate Connecticut Avenue between Albemarle and Tilden Streets NW. On Thursday, OP unveiled the newly-completed Van Ness Commercial District Action Strategy at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).

“The Action Strategy lays out a blueprint for the Commercial District that focuses on creating a new retail identity, making better use of the corridor’s wide sidewalks, embracing leadership in environmental sustainability, and maximizing the opportunities for commercial development,” the plan stated.

The overall strategy presented on Thursday revolves around influencing future development in the neighborhood to ensure active and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and accessible and plentiful retail. Although the focus is not on increasing the number of residences in the area, plans hope to make the stretch along Connecticut Avenue more welcoming to existing residents and passers-by alike.

ANC Commissioner Mary Beth Ray conceded that while the area is now known for “traffic jams and monolithic architecture”, it is ripe for revitalization. The recently-opened UDC Student Center and soon-to-open Park Van Ness mixed-use apartment complex are regarded as catalysts in these efforts.

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Looking south on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness

In the short-term, the revitalization efforts will range from working with Park Van Ness to activate the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and Albemarle Street NW (map) to launching a monthly jazz series at local restaurants. The other two sites which have been identified for restoration are the western Metro entrance plaza and the west side of Connecticut Avenue between Yuma Street and Veazey Terrace. The first is a prime location for public art installations and seating areas, while sidewalks will be widened and landscaped at the latter.

Long-term strategies are more wide-reaching and conceptual, such as the hope of expanding upon the local farmers market and requesting that developers add community retail to their projects as a public benefit. Ultimately, those guiding the revitalization hope to maximize the use and efficiency of public space in the target area. OP’s Ryan Hand shared that their office would be allotting $50,000 of their recently-awarded Kresge Foundation Creative Placemaking Grant to the Van Ness transformation.

While those in attendance on Thursday sat quietly through most of the presentation, they were not shy about voicing their concerns with how or whether the plan would come to fruition. For example, the Action Strategy team identified the impending move-out of Fannie Mae as an opportunity for revitalization, but an audience member pointed out that Fannie Mae is unlikely to do anything with the building for at least three years. Van Ness Main Street’s executive director Theresa Cameron acknowledged this, but suggested that they will explore using the space or the storefront as a pop-up rather than leaving it vacant over the long term.

As comprehensive and carefully-considered as the Action Strategy is, it will take several years and a lot of intensive community involvement to ensure that the plan comes to fruition. For more information on and images of the Van Ness Commercial District Action Strategy, visit the Office of Planning’s website here.

See other articles related to: van ness, udc, office of planning, anc 3f

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/van_ness_commercial_corridor/11142

2 Comments

  1. Eponymous said at 11:44 am on Friday April 22, 2016:

    Density, density, density. People used to go to Van Ness when there was nothing worth going to (at least not in areas considered by people with disposable income to be safe) in the city east of Rock Creek Park. Now that we have so many options in different parts of the city and the region, Van Ness isn’t going to draw people from the suburbs or even from a few neighborhoods away. They need more foot traffic from within the neighborhood, or they need to accept having fewer amenities. Sadly a lot of wealthy homeowners in D.C. don’t seem to understand this.

  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 10:07 am on Saturday April 23, 2016:

    Eponymous tells the demographic story well.  In short, Van Ness is so boring that even its own residents aren’t very interested in it, much less anyone else.  Commuter colleges don’t create much buzz; embassy folks are good for a coffee and occasional meal but little else; commuters wouldn’t stop even if there were a reason.

    The rendering, on the other hand, tells the design story well.  It’s almost all landscaping (such a flowerful neighborhood!) and canopies, with a little street furniture, brick crosswalks, and glowing retail windows thrown in.  Its main achievement is to make the boringness somewhat nicer, especially those large, full trees which obscure the dreadfully bland 4340 Connecticut building.  Its apparent greatest virtue—achievability thanks to modesty of aspiration—is undermined by the reality that, without something exciting, there’s not much reason to slog through the endless complications of approvals, execution, and ongoing maintenance of such design elements.

    Regardless, this design is not something that wouldn’t do much to push revitalization.  For design to have much effect, aspiration is needed.  The new Student Center and Park Van Ness are cited as hoped-for catalysts, yet the bold, interesting designs of those buildings are nowhere to be found in the rendering. 

    The report, predictably, gives lip service “leadership in environmental sustainability.”  What if this became the focus?  Couldn’t one at least imagine 4340 Connecticut, say, covered with vines growing on trellises, with cutouts for the windows in some interesting pattern?  (Perhaps finding a positive use for the huge flat surface by spelling out “Van Ness” in 3-story tall openings.)  Or perhaps the roof elements of new retail canopies and enclosed sidewalk cafes could be architecturally-incorporated photovoltaic panels.  Maybe the wide sidewalks allow for an allee of power-producing windmills—some of those are extremely sculptural, in addition to producing power.  A commercial corridor of serious and visually expressive sustainable design elements would be unique and exciting.  It would certainly catch the attention of the commuters, and perhaps it could spur the imagination of commercial entrepreneurs to do something sufficiently exciting to attract people.

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