Housing Complex

Columbus Plaza to Finally Get Its Facelift

Not how one should be greeted in a capital city. (Lydia DePillis)

It's fair to say that Columbus Plaza, the sprawling semi-circle in front of Union Station, is the city's most embarrassingly neglected public space. The asphalt has mountainous ruts, bricks are falling out of the pavement, hunks of concrete are still serving as security barriers, pedestrians have worn dirt paths in the grass where there should be sidewalks, and the whole thing is impossible to navigate for anyone other than the tour buses and taxis that careen around it.

The various parties in charge of Columbus Plaza—the National Park Service, Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, and District Department of Transportation—have been working on fixing it since 2004, when they entered into a cooperative agreement to plan and pay for renovations. It's taken seven years to hammer out the details, which you can read all about in the National Capital Planning Commission's review of the proposal from back in 2009. Basically, the interior access road and parking will be removed to create larger green spaces, bike lanes will be added to Massachusetts Avenue, traffic islands will be widened to serve as pedestrian refuges, and the whole thing will be garlanded with security bollards.

And it's all getting rolling right after Labor Day, according to USRC president David Ball, pending final permits from DDOT. An end to our national disgrace is nigh!

Here are some plan sketches:

The bollard design.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    yay on the fixing!

    boo on the overwhelming number of bollards!

    "make no little plans" indeed.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    Honestly, I'm not sure any amount of landscaping (or re-landscaping) is going to make this place pleasant. The ultimate problem is that there's just not much there – the space is too big and there's too little commerce going on. Perhaps if they added some food carts, some benches, and a whole bunch of trees to shade the place it would be nice. But that would go against the monumental "City Beautiful"-style hypertrophic urbanism which eschews commerce as petty and blighting, and cherishes, above all, wide open green space. And god forbid we question the urban planning dogma of L'Enfant McMillan or whoever it is that designed these spaces totally devoid of any human exchange.

    The "City Beautiful"/L'Enfant style is I guess better than the modernist/Corbusian towers-in-a-park stuff, but it's its ideological predecessor, and it's not that much better. Grid it and let's build some damn buildings, I say!

  • Steve S.

    Please fix the fountain, please. Also DDOT should re time the intersection of Delaware Ave and the circle. There are lots of peds crossing toward the Capitol and the don't walk phase lasts too long.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    you know, stephen, people might pay more attention to what you have to say if you weren't so rigid and inflexible with your "build higher everywhere all the time now" statements.

  • Amanda brookefield

    i cant wait until it gets finished it will be marvelous

  • Topher Mathews

    I just hope they incorporate some bike infrastructure. It's rather daunting to ride through there. There's a large (and popular) Bikeshare station on 1st NE, yet it's difficult (and probably illegal) to head west from the station. First you have to go the wrong way back up 1st St. Then you either have to ride completely around the circle clockwise (which, again, is pretty daunting) or you weave your way through the taxi line and over the sidewalk (at least that will finally change with the return of the west access lane).

    Between the Bikestation and Bikeshare, Union Station is a magnet for bikers. But the road network right now is terrible for them. I don't see much improvements in these plans.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    This project isn't needed just to make a nicer space, it's also needed to address the very real transportation circulation problems in that area.

    Plus, the conditions of the existing roadways are horrendous.

    I'd follow your line of reasoning if you were talking about the parking lots, but the Circle is going to remain a public space for the foreseeable future...

  • Hillman

    I don't see any plans to make the taxi stand there any better.

    Looks like these plans call for just one lane for taxis.

    That's what we have now. It results in a VERY slow taxi stand.

    Often I see a hundred or more people standing there waiting for a cab, while the taxi guy slowly waits for a cab to pull up, get the passenger, and slowly leave.

    This is a terrible design.

    Anybody know if they plan to improve this?

    Also, I ditto the comments about the weird bike access in this area.

  • http://ninjamonkey3000.blogspot.com/ mighty

    so wait what is all that stuff inside the station? not commerce?? no!

  • mizage

    Actually this looks pretty good since the road doesn't loop all the way around to force vehicles to exit where they entered. After 9/11 the the ability to exit on 1st NE was removed. Now it looks like a much simpler design where you enter on one side and exit on the other.

    Maybe we can have mass ave re-paved before all this..it's the worst road in the city.

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  • Que

    So where will the countless Metrobuses that stop infront of Union Station go ?

  • Jeff

    I'm looking at the design and I can't see any bike lanes. Unless I'm missing somethign here, to me it is VERY disappointing and almost unbelievably that no bike infrastructure is planned. I can not understand the reasoning the designers used when they omitted bike lanes, given the presence of a large Capitol Bikeshare Portal, and the recently completed 5 million dollar Bike Station facility. This facility has a bike repair shop and is the hub for "Bike n' Roll" the bike rental company which rents dozens of bikes to tourists from the Bike Station. I am a highly experienced rider and I've done 1000+ mile tours but Union Station is incredibly difficult to navigate, even for me. I regularly think about how dangerous leaving Union Station must be for families who are new to urban biking but want to rent a cycle to ride around the mall for a day. Many of these folks may have rented these bikes sight unseen and then have to find their way. Keep in mind the E street bike path connects to Columbus Circle and is one of the only east-west thoroughfares for bikes, yet there is no entrance to this bike path from Union. This failure to consider bikes, seems not be simply "accidental overlook" but more a cultural statement, or a retaliation against that mode of transportation. I can't see how, given all the bicycles/bike infrastructure/bike investment in the immediate area, that the designers simply forgot.

  • Greenbelt

    It was such a shame that when the 2nd street NE area was redeveloped, they chose not to extend a cycletrack up the east side of Union station. They did put in a wide sidewalk, but it's not really suitable for biking (and probably illegal). They also didn't engineer any ambulance or service drop off zones in front of the Kaiser Permanente facility -- really stupid, since the lanes of 2nd street NE are blocked by drop offs all the time, adding to the hazard for cyclists.

    It's probably too late, but the whole 1st street NE and 2nd street NE engineering around Union station should be rethought in my opinion. Union station should be a transit hub for bikes too. But instead, that areas is actually an obstacle for bike commuters coming down the MBT to the mall area federal offices.

    Archictect of the Capitol should also consider removing some permit parking along one side of D street NE and NW to allow for a east-west bike lane/cycletrack, which might help divert some bikes from the terrible Union Station area.