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Planners Reimagine Pennsylvania Avenue With Fewer Cars, More Pedestrians And Events

A cultural festival along the entire Pennsylvania Avenue for the “Civic Stage” vision outlined by NCPC.

The National Capital Planning Commission reviewed plans Wednesday to reimagine Pennsylvania Avenue as a more pedestrian-friendly gathering space.

Marketing the mile-long section of road running between the White House and the U.S. Capitol as an "an extraordinary national special event destination," the plans are designed to bring more pedestrians, event space and other amenities to the corridor and spark a vibrant next chapter for the southern portion of Downtown D.C.

Commissioner Mina Wright, who represents the General Services Administration, said the seven-year process to develop the vision presented today was "fortuitous" in light of the city and federal government's plans to reinvent downtown following the coronavirus pandemic.

"There are challenges ... we all are living with, particularly at GSA and the District, of how to get people back into the city," Wright said. 

Wright also encouraged the creation of a permanent role overseeing Pennsylvania Avenue to unite the views of various government stakeholders and shepherd the execution of a new planning document that the commission hopes to complete soon.

"I would urge that we start thinking hard about who's going to take this ball and run with it into the distant future, because it will take a long time to accomplish whatever final iteration emerges from this process," Wright said.

The current plan for Pennsylvania Avenue is 48 years old, according to the commission.

The commission was presented with three visions for the road. One proposal would entirely close off the avenue to car traffic between the White House and Capitol, while allowing buses and bicyclists to use the road. The other two would restrict car traffic for special events and make other changes to improve pedestrian accessibility. 

The Linear Green concept for Pennsylvania Avenue would be car free, and it uses the surplus roadway to transform the sidewalk area into a curbless pedestrian park, with transit and bike lanes in the center.

Other proposed changes include creating a Constitution Avenue tunnel where that street intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue. Another proposal would permanently close the section of road separating the Archives and Navy Memorial, and another would improve pedestrian access between the Wilson Building and Freedom Plaza.

The plan also identifies three areas that are ripe to close off either permanently or part time to car traffic to facilitate more events: the Western End, which includes Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park; the Market Square, which includes the National Archives and Navy Memorial; and the Eastern End, which is centered around Constitution Avenue, Fourth Street and John Marshall Park.

NCPC, which includes commissioners representing multiple federal agencies and the D.C. government, will be able to mix and match elements of the three different visions for the future of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The eventual winner will likely include a reduction in space for cars. The commission determined there are roughly 20 feet, or two lanes, of roadway that could be eliminated to make space for transit, bikes or pedestrians.

Anita Cozart, D.C.'s interim director of the Office of Planning, said District residents have a "community of memories" from recent public events that have closed the street, including protests and the Nationals' World Series celebration.

She said increasing event space along the street would allow for more experiences and, importantly, more tax revenue through event permits and retail tenants.

"[The redevelopment] is just so critical when it comes to our downtown economic recovery work," Cozart said.

An overview of Pennsylvania Avenue as it could be used during a cultural festival along the entire street, with three “urban rooms” marked as programmed space.

There are other looming changes to the Avenue that have the potential to change foot traffic. Chief among them is the renovation of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building, which has been a political football across three administrations.

During President Barack Obama's administration, the agency, in conjunction with the GSA, made plans to consolidate its operations into a new suburban facility in Maryland or Virginia. The Hoover building would then be demolished, making way for a mixed-use project that could generate tax revenue for Washington, D.C.

But during the Trump administration, those plans were walked back, and Republicans pushed for language in pandemic recovery legislation that would allow the FBI to tear down its current, aging building and redevelop in place.

The current status of the FBI's move is unclear, though GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan told lawmakers in November that she was in conversations with FBI officials about potentially rebooting its move to the suburbs.

The FBI building sits one block from the Trump International Hotel, which Democrats allege was a key reason Trump's administration opposed the Hoover building's redevelopment.

The hotel is going through a change of its own: A Florida group agreed to buy the hotel rights for the site leased from the federal government for $375M. Those plans would turn the hotel into a Waldorf Astoria, which experts say may improve business and foot traffic at the Pennsylvania Avenue hotel.