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27 January 2012

Dear Mr. Hoskins:

In its meeting of 19 January, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the master plan and component elements of the proposed redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. The Commission approved the master plan as it applies to phase one of the development as presented, with several comments on the general character of the project which may be addressed through refinement of the master plan and more detailed design of the individual components. The Commission also provided comments on the concept proposals for several of the public spaces and buildings, requesting that these designs be developed and resubmitted for further concept-level review before progressing to a final design submission. The Commission's specific recommendations were as follows:

Master Plan

The Commission members expressed overall strong support for the master plan, which they characterized as thoughtfully and carefully developed. Specifically, they expressed appreciation for the emphasis on place-making and views through the site that is conveyed in the master plan, and they noted their support for the hierarchy of parcels and streets, the accommodation of many modes of circulation, and the significant proportion of public open space within the overall site.

Noting that the project will be a long-term part of the public realm, the Commission members commented that successful urban spaces should be able to evolve with future needs and accommodate spontaneous public use that cannot be wholly anticipated. Therefore, they expressed concern that the prescriptive programming of open space suggested by the master plan could result in an environment that is problematic over the long term. They also cautioned that the design character conveyed in the master plan appears as an uncomfortable decorative application of an industrial aesthetic, suggestive of a fabricated charm that may not convey a sense of authenticity. In general, they commented that the architectural character and graphics are consistently and relentlessly exuberant, ultimately detracting from important features within the development. Commenting that the public spaces as depicted in the master plan appear overly animated, they recommended a more relaxed attitude toward the project's design character. They recommended against the obstruction of major views, either with bridges or buildings (such as in the siting of the Capital Yacht Club), and suggested the consideration of including public art in the design of the open spaces.

Signage and Wayfinding

Consistent with their concerns regarding the master plan, the Commission members commented that the proposed environmental graphics program is in need of further design study. They emphasized that not all components of the built environment need to be labeled with signage to remind visitors of their location, commenting that the most successful wayfinding system may not be immediately noticeable. They suggested rethinking the scale, extent, and character of the graphics in general, finding the proposed designs to be overwrought and overly reminiscent of a themed entertainment park.

Public Spaces

The Commission members provided several general comments on the design of the open spaces in addition to comments on the specific proposals. In their discussion, they supported a range of treatments for these spaces to provide respite from the busy visual character of the overall development, and emphasized the desirability of areas of calmer design to provide contrast with the more flamboyant elements and details within the spaces. The Commission approved the general concept for the public spaces, requesting that each of the open space designs be resubmitted for a revised concept review.

Wharf. The Commission members supported the general elements of the proposed design while recommending further refinements. They supported the proposal to accommodate a combination of pedestrians, cars, and bicycles along the wharf while commenting that this combination will require careful detailing of the design and on-going management of the space. The sixty-foot width of the wharf and proportion of the several parallel zones should be studied more carefully in relation to successful examples of other waterfronts. They supported the proposed use of wood along the water's edge and suggested adding more trees and benches, commenting that the seating should be configured to provide views toward the water. At the proposed transit pier, they questioned the combined ticketing kiosk to serve both transit users and the nearby large music theater, recommending instead that the theater ticketing occur at the theater entrance.

District Pier and Town Square. The Commission members supported the simple and flexible treatment of the projecting pier, but cautioned against the proliferation of elements blocking the view of this central corridor; they cited this proposal as an example of the overly busy visual character of the project, recommending instead the development of a calmer design that could be animated periodically by changing uses and installations. They questioned the appropriateness of the proposed design vocabulary of pylons and gantries and said that the structure should be minimized to avoid blocking views. They also criticized the design and position of the proposed large-scale sign perpendicular to Maine Avenue and suggested the possibility of a more gate-like treatment of the pier entrance with signage at a smaller scale.

7th Street Pier and Park. The Commission members supported the relatively quiet and welcoming treatment of this area, as well as the provision of direct access to the water; they described the proposed design as imaginative, witty, and inventive. However, they cautioned against excessive programming of the pier with permanent design elements, recommending that its design remain flexible to accommodate unanticipated uses.

Waterfront Park. The Commission members expressed concern that the vehicular access road and parking for the emergency-services pier would compromise the basic concept of a waterfront park by separating it from the water; they strongly recommended relocating the access road and parking elsewhere. They also commented that the park appears to be poorly connected with the neighborhood, recommending more ways to enter the park and a greater variety of paths within. Noting that the tree placement appears merely to frame the space, they also recommended that the design be refined using additional trees to shape desirable park areas.

Maine Avenue. The Commission members expressed concern that the width of the street could have the perceived effect of isolating the waterfront development from the rest of the city. They suggested further landscaping of the median with trees to enhance the pedestrian experience.

Building Parcels

The Commission members supported the general configuration and massing of buildings presented for Parcels 2 through 4 and requested that each of these projects be resubmitted individually for further review at the concept level. They provided several general comments on the proposed building designs, in addition to comments on the specific proposals. Overall, they recommended a calmer and more neutral design character, with special design features used sparingly to be noticeable rather than lost within a profusion of strong visual elements. They emphasized that the special character of the waterfront should be established by the architecture and would not result merely from the addition of retail elements such as signs, kiosks, and table umbrellas.

Parcel 2. The Commission members commented that the design is overarticulated, resulting in a perception of numerous architectural fragments rather than a legible overall building design; they recommended instead a quieter and less assertive design approach. Recognizing that the theater entrance would be the appropriate location for greater architectural expression, including the use of signage, they noted that this feature is lost in the current proposal due to the complicated character of the building design. The residential portions of the building could be treated more simply—perhaps as a sequence of buildings—and without the consistent expression of the plinth around the perimeter of the entire parcel.

Parcel 3a. Noting that the proposed use is office space, the Commission members again recommended a calmer design approach. They observed that the proposals for several parcels include a large-scale grid overlaid on the facade and questioned the use of this design element for this building, commenting that the gesture has no particular meaning for the relatively generic space inside. They also commented that the proposed rooftop treatment is highly evocative of leisure, and emphasized that this office structure should be treated as a background building for the more prominent adjacent hotel.

Parcel 3b. The Commission members supported the establishment of a distinctive architectural identity for the hotel but questioned the multiplicity of facade treatments which change character at each corner; they recommended a more unified treatment of the exterior, such as extending the articulation of the plinth more consistently. They questioned the design and scale of the clock tower, rising two stories above the mass of the building, as a problematic and excessive addition to the highly varied architectural expression.

Parcel 4. The Commission members expressed general support for the design due to its relative simplicity and its integrity as a two-part residential building; they expressed particular support for the two-story corner retail treatment which conveys a sense of place and character. They noted that Parcels 3 and 4 provide the opportunity for a more coordinated architectural treatment to frame the space between Maine Avenue and the proposed piazza, suggesting further development of this design potential.

Parcel 5. Although listed in the request for review, the design for this parcel was not presented. The Commission looks forward to review of this design in a future submission.

Capital Yacht Club. The Commission members supported the design of this small building but questioned its siting that would obstruct views from the adjacent open space to the water. They recommended further study of the building's siting in conjunction with the development of the design to avoid the immediate impression of restricting the waterfront from public access.

The Commission members expressed overall enthusiasm for the contribution that this project will make to the city. They look forward to further review of the discrete design components, including more detailed review in accordance with the Shipstead-Luce Act. As always, the staff is available to assist you as the project is developed further.

Sincerely,

/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Secretary

Victor L. Hoskins
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 317
Washington, DC 20004

cc: Shawn Seaman, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront
Stanton Eckstut, Perkins Eastman / EEK
Harriet Tregoning, D.C. Office of Planning

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Last Modified: January 27, 2012