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An irregular feature pitching urban ideas big and small

II: The Great Dupont Cover-Up

On a clear day, the Q Street portal to the Dupont Circle Metro station is the most dramatic in the system. The circular opening offers a vast, beckoning slice of blue sky. But Washington isn’t San Diego, and the sky isn’t always blue. It rains and snows here, and winds whip down that wide opening and straight through the unguarded tube of the Dupont station. And all that weather is tough on machinery, which is a principal reason the Q Street Metro escalators are so often out of order.

As fall turns to winter, this is an apt time to consider covering the Q Street entrance. Fortunately, the portal’s unique shape precludes one of the tackily modernistic canopies that have been retrofitted elsewhere in the system. The circular opening requires a different sort of lid, one that can be integrated into a larger structure. Which is fine, since that building could fix several other problems on that block.

Back at end of the 1980s, when Jack Evans was on the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission and still a defender of neighborhoods, Riggs Bank had plans to build an out-of-scale office structure on the parking lot that covers about half that block. (The “square,” which is actually a trapezium, is bounded by Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues NW and 20th and Q Streets.) Then-Mayor Marion Barry came to Dupont and walked, with Evans and other neighborhood residents, on a tour of several sites that were targeted for development. Barry agreed that the development plans were excessive, and the Riggs plan died.

Instead, the bank evicted the shops and restaurants on the 1500 block of Connecticut and converted the space to offices. Dupont activists had prevented a large new office structure but at a cost to street-level vitality. (A retail frontage requirement for major streets in the city would have prevented that misfortune, but the D.C. Council, then as now, is too timid to impose such a provision.)

Riggs is defunct now, and Pittsburgh’s PNC, which took over the bank, probably doesn’t need all that office space. The storefronts should be restored to retail uses, with a bonus to PNC: A new building on the parking lot that would contain any office space the bank needs, as probably leave some additional square footage that PNC could rent. There’s just one problem: That parking lot has to stay.

Parking lots in urban areas are, to put it mildly, an abomination. They’re an inefficient use of space and a breach in visual and actual continuity. But this one is transformed every Sunday into a farmer’s market that’s become an essential swatch of Dupont’s urban fabric. And there doesn’t seem to be any other open space in the neighborhood that could accommodate these market, at least in its full-blown incarnation. (Only a few merchants use the site during wintertime.)

The answer is a complicated structure that requires design and construction finesse, as well as an architectural style that suits both the pre-modernist buildings that neighbor the site and a contemporary function. Or, rather, functions: The new building, cantilevered over the parking lot, would incorporate office space and a mezzanine leading from the entrance on the Massachusetts Avenue side to the northwest corner. There, a transparent cover would overhang the station entrance, protruding like a magnifying glass extended from its leather case. A walkway could lead from the mezzanine to a pathway around the circular cap. (Actually, the cover could be constructed so that people could walk on it, but that might be a little too eerie, for people both on and below the projection.)

Nearby, elevators and escalators (sheltered from the elements, of course) would carry people from Mass Ave. into the new office block, much as they do at the building erected over the Friendship Heights terminal. A direct internal entrance into the new structure could also be constructed from the existing PNC (ex-Riggs) building at the intersection of Dupont Circle and Massachusetts Avenue.

Technical difficulties aside—and I concede that aspects of the proposal as sketched here may simply be unbuildable—the PNC/office/market/Metro project would be expensive. But it doesn’t involve abuse of eminent domain, evicting small businesses, or any of the other demerits of the city’s most aggressive redevelopment schemes. It would shelter the Metro escalators, preserve the farmers’ market, restore retail to that block of Connecticut, and add to the tax base. Plus, it would retain the view from the upward Metro escalators, and create an architectural landmark that might even draw tourist dollars.

Those seem like a sufficient number of benefits to justify bestowing some of the various subsidies the city dispenses to all sorts of dubious projects. And perhaps—given a sufficiently brilliant design—the neighbors might even allow to the new building to rise as high as the Riggs proposal that was spurned almost 20 years ago.

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