Since February, when Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her plan to close D.C. General and replace it with seven neighborhood shelters for homeless families, criticism of the proposal has risen to a steady drumbeat. Opponents have launched websites attacking the administration for a lack of transparency and, in Ward 3, staged a walkout of a public meeting. Their main objections are the project?s $660 million price tag; an accelerated decision-making process with little public outreach; and the fact that developers who donated to Bowser?s campaign stand to make a lot of money from city leases, while the District won?t own most of the buildings or the land they sit on.
These are serious, legitimate concerns that the city has not yet adequately addressed. It?s easy to see why, when D.C. officials held meetings to discuss the design of the shelters, some residents felt they were being steamrolled into talking about shrubbery and fences as their more pressing questions were ignored.
But it?s still worth looking closely at the designs presented for the shelters in Ward 1 and Wards 3 through 8. These would be permanent and, yes, pricey additions to the city?s building stock, affecting neighborhoods around the District. And they will be temporary homes for some of D.C.?s most vulnerable residents. Can they avoid replicating the miserable (and allegedly dangerous) conditions of D.C. General?
All of the new shelters must conform to the city?s strict set of functional requirements. Designers have to provide private bathrooms for at least 10 percent of rooms (although advocates have called for more). The majority of residents will use lockable family bathrooms, with a current ratio of one bathroom per two families?better than the one per five families required by law, and certainly better than the communal bathrooms of D.C. General. Shelters will have computer labs, offices and support areas for social services, and warming kitchens for heating up food. The city will offer residents three meals a day, cooked off-site.
Family rooms will have two to five beds plus mini fridges. Most will measure about 300 square feet, the size of a small studio apartment.
Overall, the designs?all by local architecture firms?suggest environments where families could get back on their feet with dignity, provided they are well managed and not too crowded. A few of the shelters (in Wards 3, 7, and 8) may even have above-average aesthetics. But there?s still considerable variation between the designs, especially when it comes to common and play areas.
In some shelters, kids will have more room to play and more suitable places to do their homework than in others. The convenience of the bathroom will depend on a family?s shelter assignment and unit. Some of the facilities will slot into dense urban fabric (Ward 1) while others will stand behind fences or walls on self-contained lots (Ward 5, Ward 8). In each, ensuring residents? safety without succumbing to a fortress mentality will be crucial, but the balance will no doubt differ from shelter to shelter.
That?s assuming, of course, that these designs actually get built. The D.C. Council has not put the plan on any kind of fast track. So far, Bowser has not been receptive to site changes, and whether she?ll bend on the Ward 5 site or entertain major changes to any of the designs isn?t clear.
Below is a summary of each design, with some thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses (caveat: the designs are not final, and you can only tell so much from a few renderings and floor plans).
2105 10th St. NW
Architect: To be determined.
According to the D.C. Department of General Services, an architect has not yet been hired for this project. ?The builder will select the [architect/engineer] once the design build team is on board,? a spokesperson writes in an email. The plans released to the public were produced by Cunningham | Quill Architects, the firm designing the shelter in Ward 7. As recently as March 28, though, the intended architect was apparently DLR Group / Sorg; architect Suman Sorg owns the site, which she had previously hoped to convert into condos and an office for her design firm (which merged with DLR Group last year).
Placeholder or not, this design is the only one that features full apartments (two- and three-bedroom units, with kitchens and bathrooms) rather than single-room family units. That?s because the Ward 1 shelter is replacing an apartment facility on Spring Road NW; the city is required by law to provide a certain number of apartment-style units for homeless families. Plans show a new six-story structure joined to the historic church at 10th and V streets, with a play area on the new building?s roof.
2619 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Architect: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture
The design for this shelter (for 38 families) resembles a tight cluster of houses, with interlocking high-pitched roofs and an irregular pattern of windows on the exterior. The rectangular plan wraps three- and four-bed units and common rooms around a generous courtyard.
The exaggerated gables and staggered windows are more high-design than is customary in D.C. and won?t be to everyone?s taste. But the domestic style and scale of the architecture may help the shelter blend in with the neighborhood?s single-family homes. The plan takes advantage of topography by tucking the computer lab and an exam room below grade at the top of a sloping site, so that other ground-level spaces can get daylight through high strip windows. There are large play areas on two levels.
5505 5th St. NW
Architect: PGN Architects
In Ward 4, a five-story former medical office building at 5th and Kennedy will become a shelter. It will be expanded at the back, spruced up on the outside, and given a U-shaped recreation area with a playground and a basketball court.
The planned common areas do not look spacious. The main one is in the cellar, and on floors 3 and 5, the city may choose to swap the lounge for an extra unit. With 49 families (i.e., at least 100 people) in residence, a great room that seats 30 and three lounges that sit several people each may feel cramped.
An architect who lives in Ward 4, Lesley Golenor, has other concerns, which she outlined in a letter to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Brenda Donald. Golenor worries that the metal panels on the exterior may not be durable, that the fencing won?t stand up to bouncing balls and graffiti, and that the site design is ?underdeveloped.?
2266 25th Place NE
Architect: GTM Architects
A warehouse on 25th Place NE near Bladensburg Road will be converted into a large shelter with a second-story addition, and reclad in metal and fiber-cement panels, under the current plan. There will be an on-site health clinic. The shelter will have a green roof, a small interior courtyard, and three play areas and a basketball court outside.
Neighbors and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie have sharply criticized the location?it?s close to a Metrobus depot, auto-body shops, and a strip club. Most of the building?s 50 units (a few containing five beds) are planned for the second story, meaning that 100 or so people will share this floor and its small lounge. A separate homework lounge is a plus, but tiny play areas placed hard against the fence are a real drawback. The large dining room could feel institutional.
700 Delaware Ave. SW
Architect: Soto Architects
This L-shaped building, with seven stories on one wing and five on another, will fit around the church that houses the Blind Whino arts space.
The glass-walled tower at the southeast corner will contain a stack of study rooms, which ought to receive plenty of daylight. Perhaps as a result of the L configuration, the arrangement of bathrooms seems awkward?some presumably will be located quite far from the families that use them. This is problematic because a parent going to the bathroom or taking a small child there would have to leave other children unattended. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recommends clear sightlines between every family unit and its bathroom.
D.C. shelter residents surveyed by the Legal Clinic last year overwhelmingly said that private bathrooms were a priority for their safety and wellbeing. (They were split on the importance of full kitchens and separate rooms for parents and kids.) But bathrooms, with their plumbing and fixtures, add considerably to a building?s cost and take up space that could be used for beds.
Dedicated play space at this shelter is scant, although it sits right next to Randall Playground.
5004 D St. SE
Architect: Cunningham | Quill Architects
The shelter on D and 50th streets SE will have four stories and 35 units, and the designers suggest exterior options of striped or multicolored brick (with or without green walls of trailing plants) or cement panels.
Maybe because the site poses fewer challenges, this plan is one of the most rational of the bunch, with clearly demarcated family and social zones and a good arrangement of bathrooms vis-a-vis the units. The dining room on the ground floor, with large windows on two sides, should be inviting. The architects propose some nice touches like the green walls and a gabion wall (stones in wire mesh) in lieu of a fence, but these could be dropped or value-engineered away.
6th and Chesapeake streets SE
Architect: DLR Group / Sorg
This site off 6th Street SE will have more green space than any of the others: mostly gardens (including a rain garden), plus a playground at the back. Stacks of three- and four-bed units would be offset for a Jengatecture effect. Sorg leads the DLR Group?s D.C. studio.
The Ward 8 design is one of the most contemporary in style. The ample gardens would need to be well lit and monitored for security.