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D.C. United stadium design is much improved

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The new design of the Buzzard Point stadium presented at the DC Zoning Commission includes a more promising streetscape, but questions about transportation and pocket parks remain

by Doug Barnes, Tod Lindberg and David Rusk

October's public spat between D.C. United and stadium area developers led by Akridge has resulted in a much better design for the stadium at Buzzard Point. We are on record about being bothered that the stadium wasn't blending as well as it should with its surroundings. We thought some brick accents on various parts of the exterior would help overcome a look that seemed too industrial for a neighborhood about to blossom with new residential and retail development. The latest designs under review at the Zoning Commission last week do indeed have more color than previous renderings. That's moving in the right direction. But the Commission still wants a building with less basic off-white color, less advertising, less of the underside showing and easier public access. Let's look at some of the recent changes.

Re-creation of 1st Street, with sweeping curve flanked by new retail

With the addition of the curved road and retail (see figure 1 below), the stadium will become an attraction not just on game day but year-round. The previous First Street redesign appeared to be little more than an afterthought to appease critics. With PEPCO on one side of 1st Street and a featureless stadium wall on the other, the previous version would have done nothing to make the stadium a vibrant area. The developers were right (even though their attempt to hijack new retail space for themselves was brazen). But the most recent renderings have added a new sweeping First Street with retail built into the east façade of the stadium; this area will blend in well as Buzzard Point develops in the future. At the Zoning Commission meeting on November 28, United indicated that the grassy area opposite the stadium on the east side may also have mixed use retail, making the street even more appealing.

Figure 1: New Retail and First Street

The new plaza: more attractive and functional

The plaza, or the "new lot 8," is a major space in front of the new stadium to welcome fans (figure 2). Once again, this space also awaits the plans for a hotel or other retail development contemplated for just south of the area. On the south side of the plaza, there will eventually be retail development as well. The space will also connect into Potomac Avenue, which in the future is sure to be a majestic promenade populated by shops and restaurants.

Figure 2: New Plaza Design

Meanwhile, the new pocket parks, which resemble blonde wooden benches (figure 3), appear a bit jarring nestled against the stadium. They seem to contain the kernel of a good idea, but they also sacrifice sidewalk space and may become barriers to foot traffic on game day. Commissioner May raised this issue that they might become a magnet for skateboarders or the homeless. The architects admitted that the pocket parks have not received much design attention. They really need to be better thought out.

Figure 3: Pocket Parks

Traffic and parking again?

David and Doug thought we had put this issue to rest when, as two senior citizens, we did our stadium walk in 2014. At that time, City Council members were all asking how people were going to get to Buzzard Point, which Mayor Bowser characterized as strikingly isolated. The video demonstrated just how pleasant a stroll it is from Metro to the future stadium and the voices fell silent--until now! Really, it's flat, it's not far, and it shouldn't take longer than 15 minutes at a very leisurely pace. Of course, provisions have to be in place for those whose mobility is impaired. Drop-off and pickup details will have to be worked out for the handicapped and families with young children. But that would also be true of a stadium halfway closer to Metro.

The issue of parking has come up again, and, oddly, United's consultant Grove/Slade Associates seemed ill-prepared to answer such simple questions as, "How will players get to the stadium?" They also were silent in the face of questions on the redevelopment of South Capitol Street and its impact on traffic. The most critical comments during the Zoning Commission meeting came from the local ANC representative -- though to be fair, he seemed to be airing old grudges with DDOT, while United could do nothing but look on helplessly. It's true, however, that traffic and parking are not trivial issues for such a tight footprint for a stadium.

But seriously? Nationals Park is literally two blocks from the DCU stadium site. The Nats play 81 games a season with as many as 41,000+ fans. So obviously parking for 20-25 soccer games with 20,000 fans is a solvable problem; the venues (confirmed by United at the meeting) just can't host games or other events at the same time. What's more, the planned decentralized parking means dispersal of fans following events becomes easier because they are not concentrated in central lots. By contrast, FedEx Field has plenty of adjacent parking and is a complete horror show after games. Some B&RU commenters recommend buses that drop fans off close to the stadium and water shuttles from various parts of the DMV. We love those ideas.

Also, bicycle infrastructure is going to be improved by DDOT, with separate bike lanes along 2nd Street and Potomac Avenue. The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will eventually run within a block or two of the stadium and can become a major thoroughfare under the Douglass Bridge. The point is that there will be multiple ways to go to and from the stadium. In addition, if the stadium and the neighborhood become more of a destination, people will also come early and stay late in the area.

Several commissioners had strong views on bicycling venues at the proposed stadium. Alas, architects designing bicycle infrastructure often don't ride bicycles. Team representatives seemed surprised at some of the suggestions. It wasn't just them, either: the Chair of the meeting was in disbelief that anyone would even consider riding a bicycle to the stadium. But the recommendation of the commissioners to discuss this issue with DDOT and Washington Area Bicycle Association is a good one. The bicycle program in DDOT is very active, and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association is a first-class advocacy group. Both groups are aware of good ways to accommodate the many people who will bicycle to games.

Observations

Making the most of the stadium's impact on the urban environment at Buzzard Point is in everyone's interest, including soccer fans who may come to the area 20 times a year or more. We have all learned the hard way from the experience of failed "urban renewal" efforts (including in SW) that a vibrant streetscape is critical, and that blank facades and unused "plaza" space can create dead zones people will avoid. In this respect, Avaya Stadium in San Jose, for example, with its blank exterior and industrial feel, is an excellent soccer venue for a tract of land near an airport. But it's no model for a stadium in what should be turning into a vibrant residential and retail neighborhood.

The most recent push for modifications from the stadium owners and architects has dramatically improved the streetscape. The comments by the Zoning Commissioners in their first meeting are more about tinkering at the edges of the plan, but their ideas also are important. They include such features as less signage, fewer views of the underside of the stadium seating area (supported by many B&RU commenters), more use of accent colors (perhaps even brick!), and more details on the car and bicycle parking plans. These are all in the best interest of United, the club's fans, and the surrounding community.

Sitting in silence at times following questions, United and their consultants seemed somewhat unprepared for the comments coming from the Zoning Commission. They have a chance to regroup for the next meeting. The stadium design has come a long way in the last year to better integrate with and serve the "new Buzzard Point." This last regulatory hurdle gives United one more round for promised improvements of the stadium proposal before construction begins.