Multidisciplinary conference focuses on the rebirth of Washington, DC's NoMa district

News
April 17, 2009

The convergence of planning, real estate, architecture, and art was on display during the recent “Point/Line/Plane — Transit-Oriented Development in the Nation’s Capital” conference hosted by Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning and the Program in Real Estate. The two-day event examined current development and revitalization ventures in the North of Massachusetts Avenue district (NoMa) in Washington, DC. The conference marked the fourth annual installment in the Case Studies in Urban Development series (CUSD).

Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning said, “This conference, and the Case Studies series as a whole, is particularly significant because it is one of the few events that deliberately and systematically refuses to conform to the disciplinary boundaries of our college.”

The conference also served as the culmination of the half-semester course Urban Redevelopment jointly taught by Senior Lecturer Brad Olson of Real Estate and Associate Professor Rolf Pendall of City and Regional Planning.

Located just north of Union Station, NoMa is a 35-block neighborhood undergoing a transformation from an industrial area to one of mixed-use. The NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) hopes the neighborhood will provide over 20-million square feet of commercial and residential space. At least 20 of the planned buildings are intended to be LEED certified.

Speakers at the conference included Harriet Tregoning, director of Washington, DC’s Office of Planning; James Curtis, managing partner of Bristol Group; Liz Price, president of NoMa BID; Rustom Cowasjee, managing director of design and construction for Tishman Speyer’s Washington, DC office; Mark Sexton, founding partner of Krueck & Sexton Architects; and artist David Batchelor.

Michael Sorkin, distinguished professor of architecture and director of the graduate program in urban design at the City College of New York delivered the keynote address entitled Eutopia, DC.

“It is up to us to try to get ahead of the curve in imagining the panoply of better places that respond to the economic, political, and environmental crises that are so much with us in terms of the city,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin discussed sustainability in urban planning and outlined his “eleven principles for a Eutopian urban city” which he said are relevant to the NoMa project.

“[NoMa] seems to have, at least in Washington terms, a critical density,” Sorkin said. “It looks, in the sketches I have seen, dense enough to qualify as a pressure cooker of urbanity to generate enough variety of trips and accidents to begin to create those qualities of the good city.”

Willing to criticize the project, too, Sorkin noted NoMa’s relative lack of green and recreational spaces, as well as an absence of schools, cultural facilities, and low-cost housing.

Shannon Stone, a graduating master of regional planning student said, “Sorkin provided an energetic, colorful opening to the weekend that stimulated people to think big about urban revitalization. There are still so many communities in the U.S. that have never recovered from the disinvestment and social conflicts of the past half century. Sorkin inspired us to think of how design could bring new hope to these urban areas whose revitalization is so important to our environmental sustainability.”

Later sessions explored more closely the issues surrounding NoMa including the partnerships between developers, architects, and artists.

Rustom Cowasjee (B.Arch. ’80), managing director of design and construction for Tishman Speyer, discussed the challenges of floor-area ratio when planning a complex. “The whole exercise is how do you do good architecture in DC and actually get 1.0 F.A.R.,” he said. “There is not much room to play with.”

Mark Sexton, founding partner of Krueck & Sexton Architects, explained how his firm, along with Tishman Speyer, arrived at their design for the buildings. Considerations such as Washington, DC’s building height limitations, construction timetables, the desirability of capturing as much natural light and sense of open space as possible while reducing the “floor to ceiling glass clutter syndrome,” all factored into the final design of two facing buildings that contour first toward then away from each other.

“We were very interested in making it a sustainable building,” Sexton said. “As the months went on the building went from zero sustainability to [LEED] certified, to [LEED] silver, and now to [LEED] gold certified.”

David Batchelor, a London-based artist and writer, spoke about site-specific art, providing a context for his work with Tishman Speyer: “I have made art for public spaces of one kind or another, but I wouldn’t call what I do as public art. I make art that sometimes finds its place in a public space.”

A slideshow of Batchelor’s past installations demonstrated his use of industrial debris and recycled materials, such as dollies and light boxes, as well as vibrant color to “draw attention to things we often overlook, in the city in particular.”

Batchelor proposed for Tishman Speyer lobby “two totems of colored illuminated light boxes,” one 12-feet high the other 25-feet high, both floor-to-ceiling. “For me it seemed really important that the work look out the building and across the street.” “My building is very neutral,” said Sexton. “All of a sudden to have him put color into it that’s changing and reflecting…it’s a marvelous move.”

The CSUD series is made possible with support from Matt Witte (B.Arch. ’79).

By Michael Paul Simons