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Residential density in DC is increasing at a faster rate than we can create public spaces for new residents to enjoy. Parklets, like those that have been cropping up in San Francisco, could provide much-needed green space while making our neighborhoods more interesting.
When I look out my office window in Shaw, all I see are cranes. Planners and developers tell me that vacant land is almost impossible to find. Mixed-use developments being built in places such as the 14th Street corridor are allowed to cover between 75% and 100% of their lots, leaving few opportunities to create new public spaces.
In order to infuse more life into the city, we need to do more than increase population. DC already has amazing public parks, but what if there could be a more intimate outdoor experience?
What if we had a park for every block?
Two years ago, I spent the summer in San Francisco researching my architecture and real estate development thesis in graduate school at the University of Maryland. I wanted to measure the value of quality of life, and San Francisco was attractive since it's a place of innovation that trickles down from tech to urban design.
That's when I discovered parklets, an extension of the sidewalk that turns on-street parking spaces into privately funded public parks. In 2005, San Francisco architecture firm Rebar installed a temporary park in a single-metered street parking space. This intervention evolved into what is now Park(ing) Day, an annual event in which day-long parklets pop up around the world to generate awareness of the necessity and value of public space. Last year, there were several Park(ing) Day parklets closer to home in the District, Silver Spring and Arlington.
San Francisco's Pavement to Parks Program, which began in 2010, says parklets "repurpose part of the street into a public space for people." Today, there are over 35 parklets in the city and more getting entitled.
Parklets often have seating, plants, bike parking and art. Unlike Park(ing) Day parklets, which are only a placeholder intended to start a dialogue for how we can utilize urban space in new ways, permanent parklets are set on a platform raised about 6 inches above the street. This makes it level with the sidewalk, creating a sense of separation and security from the activity of the street and establishing the parklet as a discrete space.
Though they're often maintained by private businesses, residents or community groups, they're open to the public. They're an affordable way to provide high-quality public open space in areas where land is expensive and hotly contested, especially on commercial corridors.
The Pavement to Parks Program has found that parklets also have economic benefits. "Parklets catalyze vitality and activity in the city's commercial districts ... by encouraging pedestrians to linger," notes San Francisco's Parklet Manual, making them more likely to shop and spend money at local businesses, which helps the city's economy.
You might wonder how a parklet is different from a wide sidewalk, nice landscaping, and a few benches on the street. The difference is all in the context. Extending the sidewalk into the street creates a sense of being in a separate space, the same way that a bay window feels separate from a large, open room.
Just think how much you cherish the bay window in your home, where you can curl up with a cup of coffee and look out the window, listen to the birds and appreciate the street scene. The parklet is essentially the same idea. It's a small, safe green space where people can curl up and rest, or spontaneously interact with friends and neighbors.
Parklets create intimacy in the street, and that's what makes the experience magical. And that's why people keep coming back to them.
Why aren't there permanent parklets in DC? For starters, it's a relatively new concept that not everyone is aware of. As a result, the policy isn't there, and there hasn't been organized demand to put one in place. While San Francisco has found a lot of benefits to parklets, they're hard to measure in dollars.
DC could build just one parklet as a trial, but the policy involved wouldn't make that feasible. For parklets to be successful, the critical mass of a city-wide program needs to be in place. Imagine going to Rock Creek Park and bringing 400 square feet of park space home with you for keeps! A lot of mini-parks would create a noticeable gain in open space. A city-wide program would also allow residents, business owners and policymakers to see different kinds of parklets in action in different contexts.
As DC grows, we will need more places to be outside, to linger, gather, celebrate and rest. Parklets are a great way to provide them. We should follow San Francisco's lead, so mini-parks can start to spring up around the city.
WMATA has a new set of 2 drafts for its map including the Silver Line, and has listened to several suggestions we made in the last round.
First, they added green space along the Anacostia, as I suggested last time. They also reversed the Orange and Silver Lines so that Silver crosses Orange by East Falls Church instead of Stadium-Armory, something several of you recommended. I think that looks good, though the West Falls Church station dot looks uncomfortably close to the Silver Line now; maybe it can move just a tad west?
The main question is still how to handle stations where 3 lines run parallel. They've made the "pill" station symbols in one option wider; last time, the pills were thinner thatn the station circles, making them look less unified. Now, the pills are wider but also shorter.
Meanwhile, the option of adding "whiskers" to the station symbols got a variant. Instead of black whiskers, they're white. This actually evokes a little of Cameron Booth's approach in his contest-winning map, where he just delineated each station with a short gap in each line. I was a strong proponent of the pill option before, but actually this white whisker alternative is growing on me. What do you think?
In addition, designer Lance Wyman and the WMATA team made the Silver Line darker and lightened the Beltway and jurisdiction borders (something else readers suggested); noted in text that the map is not to scale (sure, whatever), added the police phone number (reasonable), and made the lines even a little thinner.
What do you think?
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
New residents of the District are sometimes discouraged from taking part in local politics. However, it's in everyone's interest for more people to get involved, even if they're only here for a short time.
I've had the pleasure of living in DC over the past four years as a student at Georgetown, and I enjoy being involved in the civic life of this great city. Nevertheless, in my work organizing college students through DC Students Speak, I've found that new residents are often marginalized as carpetbaggers who do not understand the issues facing the city.
At a DC Council candidate forum hosted by GGW in 2011, many candidates boasted about being "native Washingtonians," making them more qualified than others for higher office. I can't tell you how many times local political figures told me that college students don't have a right to be involved because we are relatively transient and have not lived in the District long enough.
These arguments bolster the credentials of long-term residents and question the legitimacy of newcomers' opinions. That's a problem considering how many people move to the District each year.
After decades of population loss, the District is adding new residents again. Today, it has about 630,000 people. It's foreseeable that it could go back to its 1950's-era peak of 800,000 residents as more people move here. It's essential that these new Washingtonians are encouraged to get involved in local politics.
The city benefits when relatively transient residents are involved in local politics. As a student organizer, I found time and time again that politicians ignored students' concerns. They didn't know what students wanted because my peers weren't engaged, so they couldn't help them. Moreover, residents from other places can make DC even more dynamic by helping to infuse the city with new and cutting-edge ideas.
Some residents don't have plans to stay here for a long time, like students or young professionals. We shouldn't hold it against them; rather, we should also encourage them to get involved while they're in town. I only got to live here for four years, but during that time I took part in my community through everything from DC Students Speak to tutoring in Petworth.
The only way that DC can truly become a great city is through engaging all members of the community, so they're interested and willing to care about where they live and give back to them in return. In the end, it's in the best interests of all District of Columbia residents to have a more involved citizenry.
We need to move beyond the tired rhetoric of who is or is not a "real Washingtonian." The way to build an even more dynamic District of Columbia by embracing everyone and encouraging them to join our community. After all, if they feel welcome, they might stick around.
The city routinely bids public land out to private companies. Instead of money, the city demands amenities like affordable housing, workforce development, or a library. Sometimes, these deals work well. Sometimes, they're just a bad deal, or developers renege on promises.
WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Julie Patel have been delving into this issue in a series this week. Their Tuesday and Wednesday installments look at the ways public land deals and subsidies can go wrong.
Their week-long series frames the issue around the inappropriate influence of money in politics. If campaign donors get a leg up in the competition for deals, that is a serious problem, and good for Madden and Patel for giving it attention. However, campaign cash is only one of several possible reasons these deals can turn out bad. At the same time, they can also bring valuable benefits as well.
Land deals aren't just a giveaway
The Tuesday headline was "Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals." The lede talks about 5 projects that went to Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. "The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million. The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88."
Sounds like a massive handout! Where can I get a few acres for a buck? But later, Madden explains that it's not quite so simple. The deals come with big strings. In particular, they often have to build affordable housing.
Certainly there's some profit in these deals, and if that profit goes to the biggest donors, that's a big problem. However, Donatelli's profit isn't anywhere close to the $17,499,912 that the intro might lead people to believe.
Madden gives a table of the top 5 land deals:
|Project||Payment to DC||Value of land||Contributions|
by dev. team
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||$194,045.00|
|West End (Library & Fire Station)||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||$127,295.00|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||$123,646.00|
|Minnesota-Benning (Phase 2)||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||$122,076.00
This table isn't really, complete, however, without factoring in what the development teams have to spend on the public amenities that go into the buildings.
|Project||Pmt. to DC||Value of land||Public amenities|
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||20% affordable housing|
C Street & plaza
|West End||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||New library, fire station|
|The Wharf||$1.00||$95,000,000.00||15% affordable housing|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||(can't find this)|
|Minnesota-Benning||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||100% affordable housing|
What makes a good deal?
Figuring out how much those public amenities are worth, however, is the tricky part, and whether the government is getting a good deal. People often disagree about how much affordable housing is fair. In the West End, DC is giving Eastbanc two parcels, which now contain a library and fire station. Eastbanc can build housing, but has to also build a new library and fire station.
Eastbanc is also building 52 units of affordable housing with an additional $7 million subsidy from the city. DC's zoning commission then let Eastbanc out of the Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing requirement on one of the two parcels, after the developer and officials argued that the value the city is getting from the new library and fire station uses up all the value of the property.
Cheryl Cort thinks that despite the IZ exception, this is probably the best deal we can get. A library advocacy group Ralph Nader founded, the DC Library Renaissance Project is suing to stop the project, arguing that DC should have held out for more affordable housing. Many neighbors want the library, already and think the Nader group is going too far. There's no definitive way to know who's right.
Under the current leadership of DMPED's Victor Hoskins, the city has been seeking less affordable housing from its public land deals, and more direct revenues.
Sometimes public officials don't push for important amenities
DC economic development officials are often quite eager to get a deal done, even at the cost of important amenities. At Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, a DDOT plan for the area recommended a new road connection to expand the grid around Minnesota Avenue Metro and a highly congested intersection.
One of the two bidders included the connection, while the winner, Donatelli, did not. Representatives of Mayor Fenty's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) then joined Donatelli in lobbying against the concept or even reserving the right of way for a future street. Maybe it was too expensive or difficult, or maybe it was an important amenity that officials just didn't bother to push for.
Madden and Patel discusses some other problems with public land development deals like this. A law requires the developers to hire small and minority-owned businesses. Sometimes they don't. (Other times, those companies are just shells that give a payout to owners while a larger firm actually does the work.)
A WAMU investigation of 110 D.C. developments that received $1.7 billion in subsidies found:The series has an overarching thesis that much of this comes about because the developers are dishing out campaign cash. That certainly may be part of it, but it's not the only reason. Plus, Aaron Wiener plotted donations against the size of deals and found only a weak correlation.
- Flaws with benefits pledged for about half
- A third missed requirements on hiring local businesses, or the city didn't have paperwork for them
- Another 15 percent downsized or delayed benefits, costing the city millions in lost revenue and others arguably didn't need the subsidy in the first place
- Less than 5 percent of the subsidies approved were for the city's poorest areas, wards 7 and 8.
Cash probably does have an effect. So do other factors. Sometimes economic development officials or politicians just want to get the deal done because a ribbon-cutting is appealing while a project sitting unfinished is a hassle.
Public land deals, though often bungled, are still necessary
Madden says, "Activists and even some council members have asked why the city just doesn't hold a public auction for these properties and award them to the highest bidder." That's an option, but then there would be no amenities. Where would the new library go? Making it part of a larger mixed-use project is probably the best way to use the land, since a library doesn't need to take up an entire building. Wouldn't we be better off with a broader mix of uses that maximize the value of this site?
DC could just rent space in an office building for a library, perhaps, but is that space going to be well-suited for a library and in the right location? Plus, that would mean library rent goes up as neighborhoods become more desirable, creating a risk that future budget cuts imperil libraries entirely instead of just shortening their hours. Meanwhile, there's definitely no spec building out there that can fit a fire station.
Others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, feel that public land should never go to private uses. She'd like DC to keep all of the publicly-owned land for schools, libraries, and so on. Many other activists also view any public-private partnership deals with suspicion, and don't want a private company building a library.
These public-private deals, imperfect as they are, seem to be a compromise between these two views. The public gets something for its land, but the land can also accommodate housing and offices when the public doesn't need every square foot for public use.
Still, it's important that public officials push to get the best deal for the city, and ensure that winning bidders keep the promises that helped them win bids in the first place. When officials don't, sometimes it's because of campaign cash, but there can be many other reasons as well, which are just as important to combat.
Besides having a useful mode of travel, Capital Bikeshare members report getting more exercise after joining, a survey found. But governments can do more to help low-income communities, where obesity is often greatest, take advantage of Capital Bikeshare.
Graduate students at George Washington University conducted the survey in partnership with Capital Bikeshare officials from DC and Arlington. Officials released it and another general survey of CaBi members this morning. The GWU survey collected responses from 2,830 members and asked about their exercise before and after joining Capital Bikeshare.
Between the before and after time periods, members are more likely to exercise at least 3 hours a week. 53% said they got at least 3 hours a week of exercise before, which rose to 60% after. Also, more members (66%) report having very good or excellent health, compared to 59% at the time they joined.
Also, the report says, "Over 30 percent of respondents indicated they had lost weight since joining, 60 percent reported no change, and 6 percent reported weight gain."
However, most members are not particularly joining for health reasons, but for transportation reasons. The report says that 71% said "get around more easily, faster, shorter time" as a "very important" main reason for joining, versus only 27% saying the same for "exercise, fitness."
How can health benefits go to those who need them most?
Many communities with the greatest health challenges are not taking strong advantage of Capital Bikeshare. Almost 97% of respondents in the survey have a bachelor's degree or higher. Members are predominantly younger, less likely to be poor, and slightly more male than the general population.
Most significantly, only about 3% of respondents were African-American, versus about half of DC and a quarter of the region. Wards 7 and 8, which face obstacles of greater poverty, larger hills, and poor bicycle connections to the rest of the city, have only 0.8% and 0.4% of Capital Bikeshare members, respectively.
This is far from a new issue. Darren Buck wrote a graduate paper about how other North American bike sharing systems are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Today's GWU report suggests Capital Bikeshare pursue sponsorships from health insurance companies and state and local health agencies to fund outreach programs, do further studies on why some communities don't join Capital Bikeshare, and other research.
It would also be interesting to find out more about how the lower usage by lower-income and minority residents corresponds to factors, like geography, which nobody can control. In areas that already enjoy mixed-use growth, like Columbia Heights, are residents from underrepresented groups more likely to join Capital Bikeshare than elsewhere in the city? If so, that could point to ways to make the most impact on health in a shorter period of time and with fewer resources.
Arlington Memorial Bridge opened in 1932, amidst the very depths of the Great Depression. It was a major event in Washington, which drew President Herbert Hoover, the first lady, and the vice president.
This vintage newsreel illustrates the excitement. The newsman is particularly enthusiastic that the bridge is wide enough for "4 cars to pass abreast."
By the way, did you know the bridge doesn't actually go to Arlington? Both sides are totally within the District of Columbia.
It's a common misconception that the boundary between DC and Virginia is the middle of the Potomac. But in fact, the entire river is part of the District. If you are standing on the Virginia shore and step one foot into the river, you have technically crossed into DC.
The Memorial Bridge technically connects mainland DC and Columbia Island. The island is best known for the traffic circle on the far side of the bridge, often-confusing ramps on and off the George Washington Parkway, unsafe pedestrian/bicycle crossings, and Park Police who yell at drivers when they stop for pedestrians.
Since Columbia Island is fully within DC, so is the Memorial Bridge. The actual Virginia boundary is along the much-shorter Esplanade Bridge, between Columbia Island and the Virginia mainland. This also means the GW Parkway and Mount Vernon Trail are partially within DC, since they run through Columbia Island.
Periodic protest organizer Adam Kokesh might benefit from consulting this map. He's trying to lead a July 4th march with guns on DC, but since DC prohibits carrying guns around, including loaded ones, he's now planning to march on the Memorial Bridge up to the District line and meet police there. He might have a hard time, since the District line doesn't cross the Memorial Bridge.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- Parklets give every block a little park
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
by K. Piscedelli on Parklets give every block a little park
by Green Eyeshade on DC Council makes major policy changes overnight