For a recent assignment for a class in urban design I am taking, I analyzed a block in downtown Washington, D.C. The block is located at Mount Vernon Square, bounded by New York Avenue NW, 7th Street NW, and L Street NW. The block is part of the original L’Enfant plan, square 0450 in modern records. It has an assessed value for 2008 of over $93 million. I have uploaded the owners and assessments of all of the properties in the block from the city’s assessment database. What follows is a detailed analysis of the block’s shape and use.
To the south is Washington’s downtown, a commercial district with tall buildings set on larger lots. Historically few people live in this area. To the north and northwest are residential neighborhoods composed of 2 and 3 story row homes. To the east, New York Avenue and the railroad right-of-way leading to Union Station have historically been major transportation arteries into the city. Immediately adjacent the block is two large institutional buildings. A wedge-shaped corner of the block fronts the northeast corner of Mount Vernon Square, the location of the city’s 1903 Carnegie Library. The block is also across 7th Street from the Washington Convention Center, which opened in 2003. This context influences both the design and function of the block.
The odd mix of uses seen today are in fact consistent with the history of the site. Located between industrial, residential, and commercial zones in the city it is the natural place for furniture, hardware, and small warehouses. Indeed, today the block contains a furniture store, warehouses, and an art gallery called “Warehouse.” Located near major transportation routes and the busy downtown the block has been the site of liveries and carriage and car storage and repair since at least 1880. Lastly, located near instutional uses that draw visitors (first the library, now the convention center) the block has always contained small shops and today even bars. It is this unique context of both the block and specifically the wedge-shaped building at the corner that have made it attractive to political candidates looking for a high profile yet neutral headquarters for their campaigns.
Here is a brief analysis of the historical development of the block, using Sanborn maps.
I was able to find two photos of the block in the Library of Congress’s online image library. This photo from 1927 shows the livery that creates an uninterrupted facade on New York Avenue. The hardware stores in the foreground are on land now occupied by a parking lot and billboard. The women standing to the left of the truck appear to be waiting for a streetcar.
This aerial from 1992 shows the large parking lot that existed across the street from the early 1970s until the Convention Center was constructed. Both 7th and 9th Streets sustained heavy damage during the 1968 civil disturbance, and the city used eminent domain to acquire this property.
Each side of the block has a distinct set of uses and physical form.
The northern edge of the block bounded by L Street NW contains a series of buildings of fairly uniform height. Some are abandoned and others are being used as warehouses, and some it is difficult to evaluate their use. The sidewalk is very wide and few trees exist. At the far northeastern corner is a 1-story building occupied by an Eritrean cultural organization. The western edge contains one abandoned structure, one building used for storage, and a parking lot.
The southern edge, along New York Avenue, contains a range of uses. The block contains parking, a restaurant, two nightclubs, an auto repair shop, and a vacant building. The three parking lots are interspersed between taller buildings. According to the historical maps these lots were used for parking as early as 1959, and before that used as livery stables for horses.
The western edge, fronting 7th street, presents the most uniform façade of buildings, ranging from 2 to 4 stories. Although the most northern half are entirely boarded up and vacant, this block also includes a furniture store, small offices, and art gallery and café. It has the highest pedestrian traffic and the width of the sidewalk, street trees, storefront scale, and even the Convention Center across the street make the space feel enclosed and welcoming to the pedestrian.
The structure at the corner of 7th Street and New York Avenue works to define both the form and character of the rest of the block. The sharp corner and tall vertical façade responds to the convention center and Carnegie Library directly, and the downtown district indirectly, and defines the form of the entire block. The roofline projects a hypothetical line down each block, unifying the varied sizes and gaps present to provide the illusion of solidity. The structure also responds to the pedestrian character of the street and the neighborhoods to the north. The prominent door and “bumped out” display windows strongly defines a pedestrian zone at the sidewalk level, inviting passersby to look in.