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Last night, the Office of Planning and its consultants presented their concept plan for the redevelopment of the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood, a vaguely-defined region that exists at the intersection of Chinatown, Shaw, Logan Circle, and the downtown core. Their ideas illuminated just how far the area is falling short of its potential.

To get what I mean, imagine how the space is used right now. The old Carnegie Library, currently leased by the Washington Historical Society, sits in the middle of the square as if it were surrounded by a moat. The grass is unoccupied and unfriendly; the surrounding streets are too-wide speedways, with no easy way to cross. There’s not not much surrounding the square that would keep people around, like shops and cafes. The “bowtie” triangle parks to the east and west are used as parking lots and  through-ways. Eighth Street, which begins south of the square, is a car-free street that should be filled with activity, but feels more like a no-mans-land between two completely disorienting buildings.

Matt Bell of EEK—yes, the same firm handling the Southwest Waterfront and McMillan—laid out a few fixes that seem so eminently logical it’s hard to understand why they weren’t implemented years ago. Herewith, a list:

  • Create a sense of depth in the square by adding stepped elevations, including a parterre outside the Library for outdoor, fair-weather museum space.
  • Install two new cafes on the northern corners of the square, for conventioneers to come eat lunch outside, and potentially a “destination restaurant” in the Library’s west wing.
  • Create prominent mid-block crosswalks from the Convention Center doors through to 8th Street. Possibly also make the streets around the square—other than the cycle track—into cobblestones.
  • Widen sidewalks on 7th and 9th Streets up to M or N Streets.
  • Make the Convention Center itself a truly public space. Now, people don’t feel like they are welcome there except on official convention business (the security guard standing at the top of the stairs doesn’t help). Bringing in rotating public art exhibitions—or even a satellite library?—would help create a feedback loop between the square and the huge glass building currently occupied mostly by people with name badges.
  • Along those lines, make the corner of the Convention Center on 9th and Massachusetts into a cafe—it’s a large corner, and there’s no reason not to have chairs and cafe tables.
  • Make the square into a multi-modal transportation hub. Streetcars will eventually make their way to K Street, and the question is: How to route them most efficiently with a cycle track, parking lane, and driving lane? One option would make all traffic run in one direction around the square, like it were a circle, which would allow for the expansion of the square itself. Greater Greater Washington goes into more depth on this.

All of these, of course, are just ideas. They will require a dedicated stream of money and the agreement of multiple entities, most dauntingly the National Park Service, which has been very conservative about the use of its land in the District (food vending isn’t allowed in National Parks outside the auspices of official concessionaires, which doesn’t bode well for those outdoor cafes). The surrounding property owners, however, are reportedly excited about the plan: Patricia Zingsheim, the Office of Planning’s project manager, said the owners of the buildings around 8th Street were so excited about the proposal for their space that they might be willing to fund it themselves. “This is the first time I went to a meeting like this where we were rolling out a big idea where they didn’t say, how much money wold the district put into it?” Zingsheim said.

The first step to getting it done: Create a management entity composed of the various public and private stakeholders that can push the process forward. The model is Bryant Park in New York City, which established a business improvement district with taxation powers and completely re-did the area in the early 1990s. Now, that space is a midtown oasis, and the Bryant Park Corporation brings in nearly $8 million a year in revenue from restaurant rents and park usage fees.

The streetcar route is envisioned as an extension of the H Street line, so as far as long-range planning, it’s not too far off. In the mean time, work could start on making Mt. Vernon Square a valuable public space.