Housing Complex

How Many Hoovers Does It Take to Deaden D.C.’s Downtown?

The Herbert C. Hoover Building, soon to be ever so slightly pedestrian-friendlier?

If you're a building in D.C. and your name's Hoover, chances are you're not doing much to enliven the experience of passers-by. Now, one Hoover at a time, the federal government is looking to change that.

Last month, the General Services Administration held a meeting with developers to encourage their ideas for converting the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the imposing FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, into a more engaging mixed-use space, potentially in exchange for a new headquarters in the D.C. area. "I've heard it described as the last undeveloped space on Pennsylvania Avenue," Bill Dowd, the GSA's acting regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service for the capital region, said of the FBI building at the meeting.

But just south of Pennsylvania Avenue, there's another Hoover Building that's also taking up valuable real estate without offering anything to pedestrians. The Herbert C. Hoover Building, which houses the U.S. Department of Commerce and was completed in 1932, takes up the entire block bounded by 14th and 15th streets and Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues NW. From the outside, the high walls of the inward-facing building are broken up only by secure vehicle entrances.

Now, the Washington Business Journal reports, the GSA is contemplating a security overhaul that could make the building more welcoming. On Thursday, the National Capital Planning Commission will consider a GSA proposal to install, in addition to security systems, two reflecting pools on 14th Street, new seating with benches, and a pair of Capital Bikeshare stations.

It's a small step toward a more engaging street experience in the city's downtown core, and also toward historic justice: It seems inappropriate for a street life-deadening building to be named after the man who had people camping out in Hoovervilles.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

  • Mrs. D

    Well, at least the Commerce building is pretty (on the outside), and it does house the aquarium and (under renovation) White House visitor center. I had seen a proposal for the security perimeter that included seating and landscaping, which would open up the sidewalks a bit and make it prettier and more useful, is that what this is? Also, more CaBi downtown is ALWAYS welcome (now if we could just keep the tourists off the sidewalks...).

  • That Guy in DC

    Really--

    Does every single block in DC have to be so freaking exciting for a pedestrian--with a Starbucks on every corner and an Ann Taylor Loft and overpriced restaurant mid-block?

    This is the nation's capital--sometimes walking by a solid federal building is reassuring. And if you are going north or south and don't want to walk by the Hoover building on either 14th or 15th, cross the street (15th) and walk along the east side of the Ellipse--heck, you might even be able to buy a "FBI" t-shirt from one of those wonderful white vans along way.

    (And thanks for the ancient photo--it's always good to look back, to see how things have already changed for the better!)

  • D

    TGinDC is right. I think your photo is at least 20 years old.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    "Does every single block in DC have to be so freaking exciting for a pedestrian--"

    Given the nature of walking, where going out of your way takes lots of time, it would certainly be better if a much higher proportion of blocks were visually appealing from the pedestrian POV. Especially in places where there are lots of pedestrians.

    And no, I do not need ponderous buildings to feel reassured. And how exactly is the Dept of Commerce reassuring - do you wake nights fearing that exports will not be properly promoted?

  • Potowmack

    Frankly, I think this security paranoia has gone too far. Sealing off every federal building is kind of ridiculous. Sure, the White House needs a high level of security. But the headquarters of the Department of Commerce is just an office building. It's no more a target than any other random building in DC.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    How are 'reassuring' buildings and a more inviting streetscape mutually exclusive?

    The damn thing is nearly a quarter mile long.

    One potential idea: open up some of the courtyards to pedestrians, similar to the entrace to the Federal Triangle metro station - allow pedestrians to flow through those spaces.

    The whole Federal Triangle would be more permeable if those courtyards were opened up.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Plenty of proud, dignified, even imperial national capitals are "so freaking exciting for a pedestrian" -- even in their government quarters -- whether Tokyo, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, or Rome. There's absolutely no reason why the two can't happily coexist, or even reinforce one another.

  • OC_DC

    I am sure that excessive security concerns would prevent this but an excellent use of this space would be to move the National Aquarium to a location along the Anacostia. This would allow the aquarium to have more hands-on interpretive displays utilizing our local river and spur development east of the river. The federal government could then sell this prime real estate on 14th Street to a developer to convert into mixed-use offices, creating more vibrancy on a section of 14th Street where there is currently litte, along with generating revenue for the federal government.

  • Mrs. D

    Uh, OC, what are the feds supposed to do with the Commerce employees? It seems a monumental task to find space for 3K people, and building new is out of the question, it seems, unless there's something seriously deficient with the building (i.e., the FBI headquarters, which sounds like it is structurally, space-, and security-deficient).

    The courtyards in the Commerce building that are open on either side are used for parking. Not exactly a pleasant space to wander around. The rest are not accessible because they house building equipment, except for 2: one accessible only to the daycare as a playground and the other from the cafeteria. While I'd agree that there's too much security for most low-risk federal buildings, having passers-by ambling around the halls of Commerce seems like taking it too far. It's not like I can just walk into a PRIVATE office building and wander about. Most of the time I have to sign in, and be buzzed into most individual office suites. Given the age of the building, it wasn't designed to accomodate cordoning off individual spaces while allowing free access to halls and passageways. Basically, you could put up secure doors, but then people would only be able to access the elevators (not even the courtyard that is usable).

    I don't find large federal buildings "reassuring," but why is Commerce a problem and not, say, Agriculture's Whitten building or the IRS building (which has...a post office? And takes up a chunk of both Penn and Constitution) or EPA (two buildings that look like one and take up a block on Constitution) or Labor up by the Hill? It's not an architectural disaster like the FBI, and 99% of the people passing by (outside of Feds) are tourists. What is the draw for others to come down that way, unless they are or would be employed in a building that replaced Commerce? And what benefit would breaking the building, say, in half have? You've got the Reagan Center across the street, so...you could walk between 14th and 15th halfway down and then...you have to go to Penn or Constitution to get around everything else? The old executive office building, Treasury, Commerce, and a handful of other federal buildings are pretty, old buildings that would be hard to reconfigure. So long as there's no pressing need for the agency they house to get new digs (like the FBI), then leave them be.

  • OC_DC

    @Mrs D. -- I wrote, "move the National Aquarium to a location along the Anacostia." I didn't mention moving the Commerce Department employees at all, unless you're inferring they work inside the National Aquarium as well.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @OC_DC

    How do you plan to then "sell this prime real estate" if you're not going to move the people that occupy most of that space?

  • Mrs. D

    Yeah, I gave a detailed accounting of how much space the aquarium consists of (not much), but, apparently, I'm still under moderation. We'll see how this non-offensive comment fares...

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

    Aaron: What's the date on the photo, out of curiosity?

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