Everyone has an opinion on architecture, what’s yours?
By Spencer Lepler
To call The Promenade at L’Enfant Plaza a mall is insulting to such high class institutions as Crystal City Mall and the former SW Waterfront Mall. This pseudo-subterranean plaza is little more than an access corridor filled with federal works rushing between federal buildings, a hotel and the metro.
The architecture might have once been somewhat pleasant, with its gleaming metal band running above the storefronts and decorative marble floors throughout. This was obviously a step up from the white featureless corridors of most government office buildings.
Now the Promenade is just depressing and foreboding; the low ceilings create a dark cramped space which is only opened up in one of the two areas of any architectural interest inside the whole complex, the pyramid (pictured). This large glass skylight is the only place where natural light is brought into the system save for the exterior exits and as such it is one of the few places people linger.
Yet this is a missed opportunity…
Instead of providing benches and tables for patrons to sit, eat and socialize, there is a series of abstracted cubes which are arranges so that they provide just enough space for one person to sit and not be engaged with their neighbors. The other element of architectural interest may have very well been an accident; there is a structural bracing element underneath the hotel which has been converted into a display case. This sudden separation of the corridor into two small walkways separated by a glass wall is surprisingly pleasant.
As far as commercial opportunities go, they are rare. Many of the storefronts are papered over and of those that have tenants at least two had store closing specials advertised. It could be argued that the main anchors to this plaza are Dress Barn, Radio Shack and a United States Post Office branch, which is quite possibly the only time any of these stores has served as anchors. The only nonfood establishment that I saw with a significant amount of customers when I was there around noon on a Thursday was the newsstand outside the metro entrance where Powerball tickets are sold. There was a queue here 10 persons deep.
There is one area where The Promenade is definitely vibrant; lunch only fast food joints. There are a sea of pay by the pound buffet line, a McDonald’s, an Au Bon Pain and a coffee shop. Amongst the multitudes of closed storefronts there appears to have at one time been a Chinese restaurant, but it apparently could not compete with the fast food options. What disturbed me the most was that while each of the buffet lines looked essentially the same, with piles of sticky greasy food of undeterminable ethnic origin all for the low price of $5.95 per lb., they were incredibly busy. In contrast, the newly renovated clean, light and airy Department of Energy cafeteria, which is open to the public and has a series of very attractive buffet lines and to order stations, is not more than a block and a half away and most likely workable into these patrons schedules.
I am really tempted to say that The Promenade at L’Enfant Plaza is beyond hope, but I do have hope. As the often repeated adage goes “start with what you know” and The Promenade at L’Enfant Plaza knows that its a popular destination for the office lunch crowd. With that in mind, The Promenade should rebrand themselves as the downtown Southwest destination for lunch on the go. This would need a renovation which makes the place more inviting by bringing in more natural light, improving the perceived proportions of the space, providing some public space where patrons could socialize while eating their lunch and introducing some green plants. In addition, this space seems ripe for the possibility of a small greengrocer and purveyor of packaged meals, something like a Dean and Deluca or Balducci’s. The crowds that flock here for lunch could use a store like this to shop for groceries and a ready made dinner before heading to the Metro for their afternoon commute. In addition, this could provide an easy to access grocery store for the guests in the hotel above. While it may never be a mall, with some careful planning and aggressive rebranding I really believe that The Promenade at L’Enfant Plaza could be a successful food court and upscale corner store.
Spencer Lepler is an architectural designer nearing the end of the architecture licensing process who has lived in Northern Virginia since 2005. He posts on here and on a semi-regular basis to his blog – selophane.com; he can also be found as a contributing writer on greatergreaterwashington.org. In addition to writing he has a design studio with fellow DC area designer Andrew Merlo – studioSML.com and is on the executive board of Dominion Stage. You can follow him on twitter @selophane and @studioSML.