On the left: Historic roads, clustered uses. On the right: A more continuous through-road, distributed uses. (Ayers Saint Gross, Architects + Planners)

On first glance, it’s a little difficult to understand the difference between the two alternative plans for the 173-acre St. Elizabeths East redevelopment project in Congress Heights that the city presented to residents last night. They’re both tethered to the same basic skeleton of historic buildings, after all, which limits how creative planners can get with what goes where. But there are two very basic differences that will define how the new neighborhood feels.

The first has to do with transportation. One concept preserves most of the narrow, meandering roads through what used to be a medical campus, accustomed to light traffic. That would limit the amount of cut-through traffic from the Congress Heights Metro station out to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Another concept envisions a continuous boulevard, creating a more unified neighborhood than one with circles connected by little roads.

The second has to do with land use. Should similar enterprises be clustered together, in the form of a mini-education campus or group of office buildings? Or should they be more spread out through the neighborhood and mixed in with residential units? Planners say that there’s enough flexibility with the historic buildings to use them for lots of different things, including neighborhood-serving retail.

The city is acting as master developer for the project and taking it through the various levels of review, which takes the risk out of the process for a private group that might do the actual building. And at the moment, lots of things are still up in the air: Critical features like the number and type of housing units that will be built at the site will be decided based on market conditions closer to the time when shovels might go in the ground. Right now, the ballpark figure is 1,000, which could be either condos or apartments (presuming the Councilmember doesn’t ban them first).

Here’s the full presentation:

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