Back in the 1950s, the pedestrian arcade was thought of as a civilizing architectural feature—semi-enclosed avenues off the bustle of the sidewalk, vaguely reminiscent of elegant Parisian walks. Encouraged by D.C. zoning regulations, architects incorporated them into office buildings all around downtown Washington, particularly along the grand boulevard of Connecticut Avenue.
In the 1990s, though, the D.C. Building Industry Association started to figure out ways to enliven the retail landscape, and found that arcades were a bummer. New buildings were increasingly building right up to their property lines, leaving arcades that awkwardly butted up against blank walls and created unfriendly, shadowy spaces that no restaurant would want to inhabit. So in 2004, the Zoning Commission decided to eliminate the bonus density incentive for arcades, and allowed property owners to close arcades within the central employment area.
Unfortunately for the American Council on Education, their building at One Dupont Circle falls just outside the boundaries of that zone. They’ve already filled in one arcade, even though it’s technically not allowed: The James Hoban’s restaurant space just south of the circle. But they figured they’d try to see what the Office of Planning could do to extend the fill-in provision for the rest of the building frontage, which would make the currently vacant space much more attractive to prospective tenants.
The Office of Planning agreed, and decided to go even further, recommending that the Zoning Commission allow arcades to be closed all over the city, not just downtown.
“OP reviewed the issue of arcades further and now proposes to change the intent of 2515 from encouraging the creation of open arcades in the downtown area to facilitating the elimination of existing arcades in all zone districts where they are currently allowed,” the agency’s report reads. “Given the District’s experience with arcades since this section was originally adopted, there does not appear to be any reason to continue to support a failed merchandising strategy.”
There was little discussion from the dais at last night’s hearing, except for the typical quibbling from Commissioner Peter May. “I’m not ready to abandon the idea that an arcade can be a good thing,” he said, citing their success in European cities and value for things like covered bike parking. But May ultimately voted in favor, and the measure will just need final approval from the National Capital Planning Commission before any arcade around the city can disappear at will.