Greater Greater Washington

Roads


Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?

Virginia officials have known for years that Metro was coming to Tysons. Yet when the four stations opened, commuters found dreadful and dangerous walking and biking conditions. Why?


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by Ken Archer.

The Fairfax County DOT has been making some progress. There are two crosswalks at the intersection of Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, which FCDOT recently installed. But at the opposite corner, there are no crosswalks. This is where Ken Archer described pedestrians running across nine lanes of traffic without any crosswalk.


The intersection of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. The Tysons Corner Metro station is now on the southwest corner. Image from Google Maps.

According to FCDOT director Tom Besiadny, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will not allow a crosswalk across what is now a double right turn lane. FCDOT has been discussing shrinking it to only a single lane, but that requires negotiating with VDOT, which takes a general stance of suspicion if not outright opposition to any change which slows cars.

In a press release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said these "show the challenges of retrofitting auto-dominated suburbs." It goes beyond just adding a crosswalk; even if FCDOT had one at every corner, there are still curving "slip lanes" for cars to take the turns at high speed. A more urban design would have just a basic square intersection, and with fewer lanes.

Fairfax plans a more comprehensive grid of streets to take some of the traffic volume off of the existing streets, but it will always be a struggle to make intersections smaller or slower versus continuing to design them for maximum car throughput. Even now, VDOT is continuing to widen part of Route 123 further.


Around Tysons Corner station. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to Navid Roshan of The Tysons Corner blog, VDOT also refused a request to lower the 45 mile per hour speed limit on Westpark Drive in a residential neighborhood.

It's not just VDOT, however. Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, pointed out in a comment that many fixes for cyclists were in the Tysons Bicycle Master Plan created in 2011, but which Fairfax County has still not adopted. The plan will go to the county planning commission in October and then the Board of Supervisors.

The original plan called for a first phase of improvements by 2013, most of which are still not done. Those projects were all small, short-term items like adding sharrows and signed bicycle routes, adding enough bike racks at Silver Line stations (which are already almost out of space), and setting up Transportation Demand Management programs with nearby employers.

Roshan created a petition to ask Fairfax and the state of Virginia to prioritize fixing these problems. He points out that all of the improvements together cost less than some of the studies Virginia is doing around adding new ramps to and from the Toll Roadto move cars faster.

They shouldn't ignore traffic, but if Tysons is going to become an urban place, that means building roads that work for all users instead of maybe squeezing in a poor accommodation for pedestrians and/or cyclists as long as it doesn't get in the way of car flow.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission's Tysons Committee will meet tonight from 7-9:30 at the county's (not very transit-accessible) Government Center, 12000 Government Center Drive, Fairfax. The committee will discuss amendments to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan.

As Wright said, the county has been pushing developers to include better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as they develop or redevelop parcels, but people riding the Silver Line now can't wait for development years down the road. Fairfax and VDOT missed chances to make the roads walkable and bikeable before the Silver Line opened, so there is no time to waste to fix these problems urgently.

Development


If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here's what it will look like

The FBI is considering moving its headquarters from downtown Washington to either Greenbelt, Landover, or Springfield. If they pick Greenbelt, here's what the development will look like:


Greenbelt development rendering. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

Under this plan, a new mixed-use transit-oriented development would replace the parking lot at the Greenbelt Metro station. The FBI would occupy the five buildings on the bottom of the rendering, with other offices, apartments, retail, and a hotel taking up the rest.

Greenbelt Metro station is located in the upper left side the rendering, immediately behind the building that looks like a "6" digit tipped on its side. To the right of that building, a central plaza would be the area's main public space, and one of Prince George's most urban spots.


Proposed view from the Greenbelt Metro station. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

The Metro's existing entrance is immediately behind the "6" building. It would be nice if a new Metro entrance would line up directly with the plaza, though it looks more like a short walkway behind the building will connect the station to the plaza.

Since Greenbelt is an end-of-line station, the development replaces all the Metro commuter parking. But instead of surface parking lots, it would go in a new parking garage shown on the far left of the overview rendering, connected to the station with a wide, suburban-style street.

Clustering mixed-use development next to the Metro station and putting the FBI buildings and park-and-rides across the street makes a lot of sense. That layout provides a parking lot for commuters and gives the FBI the space it wants for a buffer without sacrificing the walkability of the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, FBI workers who don't commute via Metro would use the parking garage on the far right, next to the Beltway.

Overall, this looks like a decent plan. There are a lot of less than ideal trade-offs, but given the demands of an end-line station and the FBI, it's not terrible.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Arts


Theaters face drama when trying to operate in residential areas, even with strong neighbor support

When a theater in Dupont Circle tried to get zoning permission to continue operating, the dialogue at the zoning board was worthy perhaps of being its own theatrical play. Let's imagine what that play might be like.


Why was this so hard? Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

DC has a long history of theater groups which perform in people's garages, churches, and the basements of apartment buildings, as last week's Washington City Paper cover story described. A few have permits; many don't. One reason the article didn't get into: zoning.

You can't legally just put on a play in your house in most of DC. The Back Alley Theater is in the basement of a building at 14th and Kennedy Streets which is actually in a commercial zone, but a lot use spaces in houses which are in residential zones. Others use buildings that aren't houses but are in residential areas.

Let's say you want to have some theater in a building in a residential zone. Let's also say that all of the neighbors enthusiastically support the idea, as does the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, so this isn't an issue of who should get their way and who loses out. It's all people versus the text of the law. What happens?

You need a zoning variance, which has specific criteria. You have to prove that there is something unique about this particular property, different from others around it. You also have to prove that that uniqueness creates some financial hardship.

If you're renting space in a church or some similar institutional building, the zoning board could find that it's unique (since it's not just another house) and maybe find that the church really needs the money from the rental. That's what let the Spooky Action Theater keep operating in a church basement at 16th and S in Dupont Circle.

But what if you own the building? You don't financially have to put on theater shows. After all, that's not a lucrative activity. You could just have condos, maybe, and get a lot more money. Are you out of luck?

This was the debate at another recent Dupont zoning case, for the Keegan Theatre on Church Street. The Keegan was putting on shows in a building that had been used as a theater for decades, and originally was the gymnasium for the Holton-Arms School (which had long since moved to Bethesda). Keegan bought the building and are planning an addition (which neighbors also support), so they were going through the permit process.

As they did that, it turned out that a previous owner of the building had gotten a zoning variance, but it turned out that was for "theater education." The permit people were saying that isn't the right one for a theater even though people have been performing there all along anyway, and the Keegan had to go get a new variance.

If the discussion at the zoning board were a play where we invented dialogue which conveys what people actually said but in a more engaging way to the audience, that play might go something like this:

SCENE 1: THE HEARING ROOM AT 441 4TH STREET, 2ND FLOOR. DAY.

Mark Rhea, Keegan Theatre: Hi, so can we please get our variance? Here is a pile of letters from neighbors saying they like us.

Lloyd Jordan, Chairman, Board of Zoning Adjustment: I sympathize with you, but I don't see proof in here that you can't just make more money turning this building into condos. Maybe you should come back in a couple of months during which time you would not be able to move forward on your renovation and would unfortunately have to pay a zoning lawyer a huge pile of money to generate more legal documents.

Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller: This is stupid. Everyone is supportive of this great theater. And it's a nonprofit theater group. Of course they're not going to turn it into condos. Can't we grant their variance?

Jordan: Well, we have laws here and they say you have to prove hardship. I want to give the theater what they want but I have to follow these here laws.

DC Office of Planning's Steve Cochran: If you squint really hard at the zoning order from 1978, you can interpret to say the board found back then that this building isn't usable for condos, so maybe we can just point to that as the evidence we need.

Jordan: We don't normally do that kind of thing, where we go pluck evidence from old cases. But what the hell. Sure, ok. I'm not totally comfortable but I'll go along with this.

Miller: We are trying to change the zoning anyway so this kind of thing isn't so hard. Because it is dumb that we have to have this conversation right here.

Rhea: Hooray! Thank you!

SCENE 2: THE SAME HEARING ROOM, A FEW WEEKS LATER. NIGHT.

Narrator: To understand this part, you need to know there are two zoning boards: the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which decides individual variances like this, and the Zoning Commission, which decides the actual zoning rules and some big projects called PUDs. One member of the Zoning Commission sits on each BZA case on a rotating basis. Miller is on the Zoning Commission and was its representative that day. That's why he's going to be in the next scene, too. OK, enough exposition for now.

Anthony Hood, Chairman, Zoning Commission: OK, let's talk about the Office of Planning's proposal for theaters.

Joel Lawson, DC Office of Planning: Because David Alpert bugged us a lot about this issue and you said you agreed with him, we wrote a new zoning rule saying that it's okay for buildings like churches to rent out their space to theaters. They would still have to go to the BZA, but just for a "special exception," which is more about whether it will harm neighbors than about this financial hardship stuff.

Commissioner Marcie Cohen: I think this is good but you might be missing the point a bit. Besides the renting churches situation, sometimes the theater owns the building. Like the Keegan case.

Lawson: Yeah, I didn't realize you wanted us to write the rule to cover that situation too. Also, for some unexplained reason we excluded denser row house neighborhoods like Dupont in the draft text.

Rob Miller: We meant for you to write it broader to include cases like the Keegan. I was there for that case, and we had to bend over backward to make it come out the right way because a variance is too hard to get, so can you please fix it now?

Lawson: I guess so, sure.

FADE TO BLACK.

Narrator: Will the DC Office of Planning make it easier for theaters to operate in residential neighborhoods or not? Stay tuned for our next episode of the longest-running show on Fourth Street, Tales of the Zoning Update!

If you have any information you want to share about this issue with the Zoning Commission, you can speak up at hearings on September 8-11, submit written testimony using this procedure, or send a signed PDF letter to zcsubmissions@dc.gov. Or just share them in the comments and I'll get anything substantive to the commissioners.

Links


Breakfast links: Hot ideas


Photo by AlbinoFlea on Flickr.
HOT on I-66?: Virginia officials are considering changing the HOV lanes on I-66 to tolled HOT lanes outside the Beltway. But the evidence that these lanes ease traffic and/or raise enough money is mixed at best. (Post)

Transportation showdown: The House and Senate have not yet agreed on how to keep federal transportation money flowing. The Senate plan funds the system to December, while the House plan uses controversial accounting tricks to fund through next May. (Streetsblog)

Save the Hoover?: With the FBI gone, is the Hoover Building worth saving? Maybe it's ugly and street-deadening. Or, Kriston Capps argues, maybe it's beautiful and downtown is doing fine without life on that block. (CityLab)

Consensus on the water: Previous Alexandria waterfront redevelopment plans have been battles, but one developer's plan is receiving widespread support, even from opponents of plans for other areas. (Alexandria Times)

Springfield gets its mall back: The old Springfield Mall, now Springfield Town Center, will reopen this fall. The first phase of development mostly consisted of mall rehabilitation, with the town center project still to come. (Fairfax Times)

Buffered bike lanes are better: A narrower but buffered bike lane is better at keeping cyclists outside the door zone than a wider lane without a buffer. (Streetsblog)

Driver at fault: A driver who hit and killed a cyclist outside Annapolis, on a sunny day with no visibility problems, appealed the four tickets and $2,000 fine she received (after a grand jury rejected more serious charges). A judge found her guilty. (Post)

Background checks discriminate?: WMATA policy bars hiring anyone with two drug possession convictions or one conviction for a "crime of violence." Civil rights groups brought a lawsuit, saying it is "overly broad and unnecessarily punitive." (City Paper)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Public Spaces


How big of a "moat" would the FBI need if it stayed downtown?

The FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) are searching for a site to house a new consolidated FBI headquarters. Though no sites in DC remain in consideration, there are a few who wonder why they don't just reuse the existing Hoover Building site on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by the author.

One of the strong preferences in the GSA's site location criteria is for a 350 foot "security buffer zone" surrounding the new headquarters building. Though this is apparently not an outright requirement, the GSA and FBI have said that they strongly prefer sites that can offer such a buffer.

The image above shows what such a 350 foot buffer zone would look like around the existing Hoover Building footprint.

As you can see, this would seriously impact buildings on almost every block adjacent to the Hoover Building. It would affect the IRS headquarters, the Justice Department, and especially the historic Ford's Theater. It would also have a minor impact on the Navy Memorial.

From a transportation perspective, it would block E Street, 9th Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue, all major streets in the DC core.

A version of this post originally appeared in Just Up the Hill.

Transit


A silver lining in the whichWMATA answers

On Monday, we posted our sixteenth photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took photos of the five new Silver Line stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

We got 46 guesses on this post, and a whopping 43 of you got all five correct. Great work, everyone!


Image 1: Wiehle-Reston East.

The first image is, of course, a view of the Wiehle station from the mezzanine above the tracks. While it has the same superstructure as Tysons Corner and Greensboro stations, this one is unique for being located in the median of the Dulles Toll Road.


Image 2: Tysons Corner.

The second image shows Tysons Corner station. While it has the same roof design as Greensboro and Wiehle, Tysons is distinctive because it's the only one of those stations that has anything below the platform.


Image 3: Spring Hill.

From this view, the station itself could be either McLean or Spring Hill, since those stations are nearly identical. But the context, including the new residential tower to the left, narrows it down to Spring Hill station.


Image 4: Greensboro.

Image 4 is a picture from the platform at Greensboro. There's not much context in this photo. But since the 3 other Tysons stations are high above the streets, and Wiehle Avenue is in the middle of a freeway, this can only be Greensboro. The entrance structure and the pattern on the wall make it clear that it is one of the Silver Line stations.


Image 5: McLean.

The final image was intended to be a little trickier, but it didn't fool you. There's also not much context in this photo, but the windscreen around the exitfare machine makes it clear this is a Silver Line station. And there's a reflection in the screen of a baseball field, which neighbors McLean station.

Congratulations to the winners!

Next Monday, we'll have five more photos for you to identify. Thanks for playing!

Public Spaces


A greener Eastern Market plaza may be on the way

Where today the parks around the Eastern Market Metro are mostly tired expanses of grass with a few trees, the parks soon could contain an expanded library, formal playground, cafe-style tree bosque and several stormwater management features. The roads and sidewalks around the square could also get a better layout.


The Metro entrance, library entry pavilion, and water feature on the southwest parcel. All images from Esocoff & Associates unless otherwise noted.

The $45 million redesign has gone through years of planning and outreach. The project originally started as a Congressional earmark to Barracks Row Main Street, which funded the Capitol Hill Town Square study in 2008 that considered ways to redesign the intersection, including possibly rerouting Pennsylvania Avenue around a square similar to Stanton or Lincoln parks.

Any changes to Pennsylvania Avenue ran into fierce opposition from immediate neighbors. But the project team continued studying ways to redesign the parks and started a new round of public engagement in 2013, this time assuming Pennsylvania stayed where it is.


The plaza now. Image from Bing Maps.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates recently revealed a final design coming out of numerous community meetings and feedback on two concepts from January.

The most dramatic change would be on the southwest parcel with the Metro entrance. A new pavilion would lead to a massive below-ground expansion of the Southeast Library, across the street from the square. A long courtyard and a water feature would connect this pavilion with the Metro.


Staircase for the new pavilion.

The parcel would also get a shaded tree bosque (an urban grove of shade trees similar to the one at New York's Lincoln Center) with a crushed gravel surface, movable furniture, and an open space along the "desire line" path where people most often walk between the Metro station and Barracks Row.


Artist's rendering of the bosque.

A straight pedestrian path along the South Carolina Avenue axis would divide the northeast section, the largest parcel. A fenced-in children's play area and an open lawn would flank it on the each side. The play areas include a landscape with "Anacostia Hills," a "Floodplain," a "Valley," and a "Ridge," and on that landscape, children will find a tree house, water pump, a pair of jungle gyms and a swing set.


The playground and promenade.

The wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue would become a pair of bioswales surrounded by wrought iron fencing. The bioswales will absorb up to 70% of the stormwater runoff from the inside portion of Pennsylvania Avenue during most storms. Meanwhile, the fences prevent pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the block.

The smaller triangular parcels on the southeast and northwest sides would become green space with stormwater management gardens and trees surrounded by an outward facing bench. The southeast parcel would be further expanded by closing D Street in front of the Dunkin' Donuts and adding the land to the park.


Site plan for the smaller triangular parcels.

Around the square, the plan would make changes to street directions and sidewalks to provide better flow and greater pedestrian safety. The segments of D Street along the northeast and southwest edges would reverse to carry traffic away from 8th Street instead of toward it. 8th Street would get a new left turn lane for those turning west onto D Street south of Pennsylvania.

To aid pedestrians, many intersections would get curb bump outs and pedestrian islands. The northbound bus stop on 8th would move south of Pennsylvania, while southbound buses would stop just across the street from that spot, closer to the Metro station.

Building the parks and plazas will cost an estimated $13,500,000, while the expanded and renovated library would cost $22,800,000. With DC management fees, a maintenance endowment and other costs, the project team estimates the whole project would need a budget of a little over $45,000,000.

The team is still accepting comments and will issue a final report in September. Barracks Row Main Street has some money to help pay for development, but from the (somewhat vague) statements from the project team, it appears they would be looking for city funding to help make the project a reality.

Links


Breakfast links: Bye, FBI


Photo by HettieLP on Flickr.
Down to three for the FBI: The GSA narrowed the list of potential FBI sites to three: Greenbelt Metro, the Landover Mall, and Springfield, though Greenbelt still seems most likely. None are in DC; Mayor Gray called that news "kind of a win-win." (WBJ, DCist)

Gun ruling stayed: DC's ban on carrying handguns in public will remain for 90 days, after the District filed to stay a judge's ruling that the ban is unconstitutional. Tommy Wells' office created signs for businesses that don't want guns on their property. (City Paper, Post)

White Oak plan approved: The Montgomery County Council approved the plan for White Oak that clears the way for the "LifeSci Village" town center. The plan also calls for funding BRT on Route 29. (Post)

Silver Line anticipation: While the Silver Line is years away, Loudoun County got a new bus depot near where the Route 606 station will go. A video shows that the Silver Line's opening did not impact rush hour traffic on Monday. (BeyondDC, Post)

Projects that didn't make it: The Silver Line opened after decades of planning, but many other ideas never became reality, like a helicopter from Union Station to Dulles and BWI or a Ponte Vecchio-like bridge on the Southwest Waterfront. (Post)

Ducking debate: Muriel Bowser will not participate in debates until Sept. 18 when she will take part in an American University forum. Ward 4 ANC Commissioner Doug Sloan tried without success to reschedule a debate featuring Bowser. (City Paper)

Benches for Ballston: New benches are coming to Ballston, after the property manager modified planters near the Metro to prevent people from sitting on them. The company said people waiting for the bus were damaging plants. (ArlNow)

And...: Houston will use utility line corridors to create "bicycle interstates." (Streetsblog) ... When brownfield sites are cleaned up, housing values can rise dramatically. (CityLab) ... Michael Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. will end up in the same prison. (City Paper)

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Transit


Ask GGW: Why is there a Metro tunnel in Tysons?

Several years ago, as the Silver line was being planned, there was a debate about whether to build the line underground through Tysons Corner. Eventually, the elevated option was selected, but there's still a tunnel. Reader Dennis McGarry wants to know why.


The tunnel portal. Photo by Dan Malouff.
Why is there a short tunnel on the Silver Line with no underground stops? Why not just build the entire track above ground? It seems like such a huge undertaking with little payback.
There are two short tunnels in Tysons (one for each track). They run about 1700 feet between Tysons Corner station and Greensboro station. The reason they exist is to cut through the highest point in Fairfax County, at 520 feet above sea level.

The tracks through Tysons are already high above the streets, and the climb between McLean and Tysons Corner is noticeable, especially from the front of a westbound train. Because trains are limited in the grade they can ascend, crossing this hill with an elevated viaduct would make the stations at Tysons Corner and McLean obscenely high.

In addition to the engineering and aesthetic challenges that a super-high viaduct would have caused, trying to keep the line elevated would have probably been much more expensive. So it was probably cheaper for the contractor to build these short tunnels than it would have been to keep the line elevated over the hill.

As a result, riders at McLean get a soaring view of the Tysons skyline (and in fact, you can see Bethesda, too), but a few minutes later, they find themselves riding underground, ever so briefly.

Pedestrians


Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices

Tysons now has four Metro stations, but workers trying to get from those stations to nearby offices often have no choice but to cross wide, high-speed roads without any crosswalks.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

I saw several Tysons Corner workers walking across streets with up to 9 lanes of traffic in order to take the Silver Line this morning, due to the continued lack of crosswalks in Tysons. It's a matter of time before a Silver Line rider is struck by a car in Tysons Corner.

At the Tysons Corner station, the entrance north of Route 123 (the side with most of the offices) is on the west side of Tysons Blvd between 123 and Galleria Drive. There's no legal way to walk east on Galleria Drive, because there are no crosswalks on the south or east side of the intersection of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive.


There are no crosswalks from Tysons Corner station for workers walking east along Galleria Drive. Base map from Google Maps.

Many Silver Line riders therefore walked across nine lanes of traffic on Tysons Boulevard.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

My company's office is at 7900 Westpark Drive along with dozens of other tech companies. The main topic of conversation around the office this morning was the safest places to jaywalk to get to the Silver Line.

I've endured the lack of crosswalks in Tysons Corner for years as a pedestrian, but assumed that Fairfax County would add crosswalks before the Silver Line began operation. The county needs to create safe pedestrian pathways immediately, rather than waiting until someone gets hurt or killed.

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