Dear Mr. Trueblood:
In its meeting of 21 February, the Commission of Fine Arts was pleased to hear two information presentations by Chris Shaheen of the D.C. Office of Planning’s Public Space Program on the history and regulation of public space in the District of Columbia, including research into the design and evolution of the Permanent System of Highways (the “Highway Plan”) and the development of regulations for building projections into public space since the 1870s.
The Commission members commended the presentation on the origins of the Highway Plan and its development by the office of preeminent nineteenth-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, which they found highly informative. They suggested that, in addition to the English picturesque design character most commonly identified with the work of the firm, further research could include investigation of the French picturesque precedents that influenced Olmsted’s earlier design of the Capitol Grounds. They observed that the Olmsted firm was exceptionally versatile in form-making, and that the firm’s familiarity with French urban geometries, being applied to the city’s extended L’Enfant Plan street grid, may have informed the spirit of the Highway Plan.
The Commission members also expressed appreciation for the opportunity to hear about the history of the regulation, design, and review of projections into public space in the District, noting that the information provided will be useful in the design review work of the Commission. They observed that the challenge of creating regulations for development in Washington—with its long-established context of prominent institutional buildings set against a background of urban fabric—lies in finding a delicate balance between anticipating how these regulations can be applied to produce sustainable and innovative buildings without resulting in formulaic volumetric expressions of the regulations. They encouraged the effort to promote sculptural facade design with projections into public space, noting that guidelines could also recommend the use of texture, variety, and ornament within the plane of the building facade where the development pro forma does not support public space projections. They welcomed the tools created by the Office of Planning to enable other agencies to be more effective arbiters of good design, and they supported continued collaboration with architects and developers to test and improve the regulations. They also recommended rigorous parametric and economic testing of the regulations to assure that they have the desired effect—with consideration of criteria for solar orientation and other environmental conditions, as well as the cost parameters for the modulation of the building footprint and facade.
The Commission commends the new research and initiatives for District public space and reaffirms its longstanding partnership with the D.C. Government in promoting design excellence in Washington.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Andrew Trueblood, Interim Director
D.C. Office of Planning
1100 4th Street, SW, Suite E650
Washington, DC 20024
cc: Chris Shaheen, D.C. Office of Planning