Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Aimee Custis

Aimee Custis is the Communications Manager at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She's a policy wonk by training and a communicator by profession, but weekends you'll find her at home in Dupont Circle or practicing her other love, wedding photography

Here's where to enjoy Park(ing) Day tomorrow

A 2005 San Francisco idea that's become an annual international event, Park(ing) Day takes over the DC region on Friday, bringing pop-up parklets to curbside parking spaces across the region.

A 2013 Park(ing) Day parklet in Arlington. Photo by the author.

While Park(ing) Day is an all-day event, you're most likely to find a parklet operating between 9 am and 3 pm, so be sure to check it out over your lunch break.

District parklets

DDOT has posted a map of its officially-sanctioned 2015 parklets in the District:

Click for interactive DDOT map of 2015 DC Park(ing) Day locations.

DC has 33 registered parklets this year, and they'll be very diverse, ranging from free 9am coffee at 5th and I NW, to a "doggie beach" in NoMa. The parklet at First Street NE, between M and Patterson will host a table with a blown up map of the neighborhood for people to post comments for DC's Vision Zero Initiative.

Maryland parklets

MNCPPC and MCDOT will host a parklet in Silver Spring, at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue from 9am-4pm, featuring plants, seating, and a game of cornhole.

In Rockville, find a parklet at Rockville Town Center, from 10am-4pm.

Bethesda will be home to two parklets, an outdoor cafe-themed pop-up near the corner of Norfolk and Cordell Avenues, and a "reading room" near the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues.

In Twinbrook, find a parklet with putt-putt and cornhole from 10am-2pm at 5635 Fishers Lane.

Virginia parklets

In Arlington, artists Scott Pennington and Melissa Webb will host a Park(ing) Day space at Courthouse Plaza in conjunction with a the program Art on the ART Bus.

Fairfax County will host a parklet along the entrance drive of the Herrity Building, located at 12055 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax.

Help us crowdsource even more Park(ing) Day info

Know of another planned Park(ing) Day installation we missed? Please share it in the comments. And if you stop by a parklet, snap a photo and put it in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool or tweet it (#parkingday) and tag us (@ggwash). We'll feature images from parklets around the region in a roundup next week.

What is affordable housing? Is it different from housing affordability? Should we care?

Read the comments on almost any of our posts that talk about "affordable housing" and you're likely to get a headache trying to figure out what different people mean by those two little words.

Confused people from Shutterstock.

We asked our contributors what policies and problems come to mind when they think of "affordable housing." We also asked about policies they support or don't support, and why.

They had a LOT to say.

Tracy Loh says that we're not the only ones baffled by this:

This topic came up on my neighborhood listserv recently, and several people on the listserv conflated "affordable housing" with "government-subsidized non-market housing."
To me, there is a circle called "affordable housing," which is housing that can be rented or mortgaged for 30% of the median household income in an area, and contained within that circle is a smaller circle, "subsidized housing," which governments may choose to do for a variety of reasons. But the "affordable housing" circle is much, much bigger than just the "subsidized housing" circle, and includes a huge variety of policies, issues, and people that are not within the "subsidized housing" circle.
Brian McEntree agrees that the term is rhetorically problematic:
Sometimes I wonder how much better discussions around the topic would go if instead of using 'affordable housing,' urbanists talked about 'housing affordability.' I think that way it's clearer that we're talking about the price of housing in a given area and not idea of any particular kind of affordable housing (government subsidized, etc.)
Canaan Merchant also sees a dichotomy between government policies and the market prices most people face, but explained it differently:
I think it's important to note case: Affordable Housing and affordable housing. The former are specific programs that help people live somewhere they wouldn't be able to on their own. The region has come a long way and has a long way to go with its Affordable Housing.

But then there is simply the prices any person may need to pay and whether they can afford them.

The great part is that the two concepts can go hand in hand, and by and large that's what many local governments are doing. There doesn't need to be a disconnect in what people are talking about because we can move on multiple fronts. No one solution is going to work anyway.

Ben Ross chimed in too, not only to agree on the problems with semantics, but to point to why it's important to get it all straight when we're communicating:
We need to emphasize housing affordability as a need for all income levels below the very top. Thinking of affordable housing as something that must be targeted to just the poor is an enormous mistake, both for planning and politics.

From the planning perspective, we want cities to be places for all income levels, not just the very rich and very poor.

Politically, affordable housing as something just for the poor just won't be built. No one will accept it in their own neighborhood. Housing (and urbanism!) will only be politically successful if it's for the majority. You can see this in the political success of social security and the political unpopularity of welfare.

Brent Bolin put a point on Ben's perspective, with a real-world example:
How this is discussed really matters. Section 8 is not inclusionary zoning is not workforce housing is not affordable housing. For too many people, anything not market rate = Section 8 AKA "poor people moving to my neighborhood and my property values going down."

A few years ago Mount Rainier issued a request for proposals to redevelop the city-owned property at the corner of Eastern and Rhode Island Avenues. An extremely reputable non-profit developer proposed a LEED Gold residential building that would have used a variety of tax credit strategies and targeted something like 70-80% of the AMI. In other words, housing for teachers, non-profit workers, young professionals...the kind of people needed in every community but who are struggling to get into ownership in the DC metro area. The developer kept calling it workforce housing (despite my warning them not to) and a lot of supposedly progressive people went BANANAS. The city does have over a thousand units of post-war apartment units, but despite popular perception those are not really a "low income" population anymore either.

For the last 40ish years, Mount Rainier has been a diverse, working class, socially progressive, and artistic community (i.e.: mostly people who aren't rich). We are a tiny piece of the larger DC metro area real estate market, but we are starting to feel the pressure and the population mix of our recent history is starting to change. People in town are talking about "housing affordability" and who is getting priced out, but misunderstanding of this issue makes it very difficult to tackle. (Not that our tiny town could make much of a dent given the broader market, but still.)

Finally, Elina Braave summed up just how much more our contributors had to say on this:
I think what I'm hearing echoing throughout these comments is that there are a a few key challenges to developing affordable housing across the spectrum of incomes (moderate, low, extremely low), including
the negative stigma/public perception of affordable housing and the high cost of construction/land. I think another issue not-mentioned overtly is the shrinking pot of resources at the federal level (for the programs that support the lowest income renters in particular).
Clearly, as Greater Greater Washington takes on more affordable housing issues in the coming months, we've got plenty to talk about.

What does "affordable housing" mean to you, and what are your opinions on it? Can we all agree that "affordable housing" encompasses both "government-subsidized non-market housing," and "housing affordability" in the wider market? Sound off in the comments!

A new highway would improve access to walkable White Flint, but for whom?

The Maryland State Highway Administration wants to build a new highway in White Flint, one of the region's most celebrated transit-oriented redevelopment efforts.

Project map by the author from SHA base map.

White Flint supposedly needs the grade-separated highway to improve access to new developments and the Metro station, bring down congestion, and improve safety. But how well will the project really do these things, and for whom?

The highway in question is Montrose Parkway East, a planned $119m, 1.6 mile divided highway running between Rockville Pike to the west and Viers Mill Road to the east, paralleling the existing Randolph Road, just north of the White Flint Metro station.

Base image from Google Maps.

Montrose Parkway has been on the drawing board in various iterations since it was originally conceived in the 1960's as part of a mostly-mothballed Outer Beltway. After years of controversy, Montrose Parkway West opened in 2010 between Tildenwood Drive and Rockville Pike (MD-355).

The highway would "improve" access, but only for people in cars

In engineering-speak, the project would "improve" access for though-traveling motorists by cutting the number of lights they encounter between Rockville Pike and Viers Mill Road.

But those are the only people whose access would "improve." The project would bring a massive single-point urban interchange (SPUI) to Parklawn Drive. This kind of interchange is the exact opposite of walkable and transit-oriented, which is what's being cultivated elsewhere in White Flint.

Proposed SPUI interchange at Parklawn Drive and the proposed Montrose Parkway East. Diagram from SHA.

According to emails MCDOT (to whom SHA would eventually turn the project over) has exchanged with Friends of White Flint, the agency supports modifying the exact layout of the SPUI to support the community's desire to see a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly solution. That's encouraging. The project proposal also incorporates ten-foot mixed-use path on one side and a five-foot sidewalk on the other.

But any intersection and highway of this scale, regardless of the exact configuration, presents a major challenge to knitting a walkable urban fabric. The large scale of the highway and interchange would create a visual and geographic barrier that would discourage walking across such a long distance to reach destinations on the other side.

SHA built a similar intersection a block west from where the SPUI would be built,at Rockville Pike and Montrose, in 2011. There, missing sidewalks force pedestrians to walk on narrow shoulders and across dirt paths, while the crosswalks that do exist are placed at the foot of high-speed on/off ramps.

Pedestrian conditions at the existing interchange between Rockville Pike and Montrose Parkway. Images from Google Streetview.

Congestion is declining, even without a parkway

SHA project documents estimate that average daily traffic along the existing Randolph Road will reach 42,000 vehicles by 2020, and suggest that the capacity increases the parkway brings would help mitigate that projected congestion.

Leaving aside that it's widely understood that giving roads more capacity just leads to more people driving on them, traffic in the area is currently declining. SHA's own traffic counts for Randolph show that traffic there has decreased by 32% since 2002, falling to 23,052 in 2014.

Graph by the author.

Part of what SHA wants is to improve a railroad crossing

The project's purported safety benefits relate to an existing at-grade rail crossing on Randolph Road.

The new road would divert much of today's existing traffic away from the existing at-grade CSX railway crossing at Randolph Street, to a new above-grade crossing on the Parkway. But it would leave open the existing at-grade railroad crossing at Randolph Street, leaving open the possibility of collisions.

More to the point, an MNCPPC analysis found the number of railroad accidents at the existing intersection was negligible compared to the number of collisions between cars.

The highway mindset is still common

This isn't the first time the State Highway Administration has tried to push through plans for over-engineered roads in White Flint. Last year, the agency provoked an outcry when it sought to widen Old Georgetown Road, backing down only when the County Council threatened to pull funding for the project.

While this gulf between projections and reality may be jarring, it is typical. Transportation and land-use patterns are in the midst of a structural shift, one which many transportation agencies have been unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

The White Flint community supports walkable transit-oriented development, not highways.

Many local residents don't want to see Montrose East move forward. Residents, property owners and elected officials in the White Flint area have consistently supported the area's redevelopment into a walkable, transit-oriented activity center, and are organizing with the help of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Also, Friends of White Flint is organizing an effort to make the project at-grade and walkable.

Montrose East would be a major blow to the walkable, urbanist White Flint vision. Not only would the project extend a physical barrier through the heart of the community, county tax dollars would fund it, at a time when the county cannot afford to advance the Rapid Transit System and is laying off teachers to close a $50m budget gap.

MCDOT's comment period for the project closes this Thursday.

Help us rebrand and relaunch our website with a short survey

Yesterday, we were so excited to share the big news that Greater Greater Washington is growing. We're also (thanks in part to our new resources) starting on a site redesign. Can you help us by taking a very short survey?

Redesign image from Shutterstock.

The last time the site got a major facelift was 2009, and it's high time we got another one. This project will take several months, and we'll be sharing our progress and asking for your feedback at many points along the way.

To kick things off, we're starting by thinking about our brand and logo, a first step to redesigning the site. We hope you will take the survey below. Thanks so much!

A development on Florida Avenue would add affordable housing, but the DC Council is stalling

Around Florida Avenue and 9th Street are large superblocks of mostly-vacant land. Current plans to redevelop one long-debated parcel would bring activity to the area, a grocery store, and substantial new affordable housing—but only if DC Council moves on the project.

Rendering of 965 Florida Ave. NW by MRP Realty.

The project, led by MRP Residential in partnership with The JBG Companies, will include 352 apartments including 106 affordable units, anchored by a ground-floor Whole Foods.

The affordable housing will meet the requirements of a new law passed this spring last fall to increase the city's affordable housing supply. Under the law, when the District sells off public land for new housing development, 30% of that housing must be affordable to "deeply affordable" levels. This is especially important here, since the site is so close to a Metro station and major bus lines.

Accordingly, 106 of the project's 352 apartments (30%) will be permanently affordable for households earning below 50% of the area median income (AMI) and 30% AMI. For example, a two bedroom apartment affordable to a family earning 30% AMI would rent for $722 rather than the market price of more than $3,000.

The project is also slated to incorporate support for a number of job training and local business assistance programs. These will include a Community Grants Program to support local non-profit organizations provide employment training and skill development for DC residents, as well as a Local Retailers Assistance program to provide rent subsidies for nearby small businesses.

The surrounding area. Image from Google Maps.

Community members support the project, but it hasn't moved forward

The DC Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) reached an agreement to sell the land to developers MRP and Ellis Development in 2013, but it was then modified to comply with the new law requiring substantially more affordable housing at deeper levels of affordability.

Despite agreement on the revised plan between the development team and the mayor, the DC Council hasn't yet approved the deal. According to the Washington Business Journal, if they don't move soon, Whole Foods could pull out of the project.

On Thursday night, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, where the project is located, passed a resolution encouraging the council to move the project forward. "965 Florida is critical to continuing the growth in our neighborhood, and meeting the expectations of our neighbors, numerous civic and neighborhood associations, two Mayoral Administrations and their agency offices, and the current and previous Ward-1 Council members," said Commissioner Robb Hudson, who chaired the evening's meeting.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has introduced an emergency resolution aimed at pushing the project ahead. The bill, which is expected to come up for a vote at the DC Council on Tuesday, would both declare the land surplus and approve of its sale.

Bills to declare the parcel surplus and approve the sale to MRP and Ellis Development have been before the Council's Committee of the Whole since May, but haven't been brought up for vote. If the emergency legislation passes Tuesday, the development team's next step will be to take their plans through the review process at the DC Zoning Commission.

Paying for more affordable housing is the sticking point

The sticking point for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) may be the proposed sale price of $1.4 million, given that DC government appraisal has valued the property at $27 million.

Despite the District frequently selling DC land for a nominal price in exchange for public benefits, this proposal seems to have caught the attention of some decision makers. As Rebecca Cooper reported, at a hearing in June, Cheh said, "[It] seems so paltry, compared to the other valuations. I'm trying to find out that the District [is] getting proper value for this property."

But DC is getting more value than just $1.4 million; it's getting substantial affordable housing which it would otherwise pay money for. According to Matt Robinson of MRP Realty, the sale price was reduced thanks to the increased affordable housing components earlier this spring, when Council passed the new law mandating 30% of public land deal projects be deeply affordable. That requirement increased the number of affordable units from 65 to the current 106, and made them even more affordable.

Regardless, given the community's strong support of the project, and the urgent need for additional affordable housing stock close to Metro, advocates say the Council should move the project forward.

"Political battles should not be fought over this well-discussed and well-settled development," said ANC Commissioner Hudson. "It's costs are real, but 965 Florida Ave should not fail just because some on the Council are not comfortable with the unintended consequences of last year's affordable housing legislation—namely moving the price of affordable housing from essentially a line item in the budget and into the land valuation of public parcels up for development—we all must pay for it somewhere."

In advance of Tuesday's expected vote, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting an email-writing campaign to the Council in support of the project.

Summer sunsets in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

National Cathedral. Photo by ep_jhu.

U Street. Photo by Clif Burns.

Rosslyn from the Memorial Bridge. Photo by Joe Flood.

14th St. NW. Photo by Clif Burns.

Dupont Circle. Photo by Miki J.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos! If you haven't checked us out yet, Greater Greater Washington is now on Instagram, so give us a follow!

Prince George's is getting a major new medical center. Will it make it easier to walk around?

Preliminary site plans for an upcoming regional medical center at Largo Town Center Metro station could do more to encourage people to walk around the new complex. Missing key elements of a more pedestrian-friendly design could suppress the site's potential as a new walkable downtown and for Prince George's County.

A mockup of the new medical center. Rendering from Dimensions Healthcare Systems.

Prince George's leaders and residents have high hopes for the new $655 million, 231-bed regional medical center, which continues through its approval process at the Prince George's Planning Board later this month. Officials have called the complex a game changer for Prince George's because it could spark a walkable new downtown for the county at the Largo Town Center Metro station.

With a projected 2,000 workers coming to the site daily, a well-designed new hospital could spur economic development around the Largo Town Center Metro station and create a new walkable downtown area and economic engine for Prince George's.

But preliminary site plan drawings show a wide, high speed road separating the hospital from a redeveloped Boulevard at Capital Centre. The overdesigned road creates a barrier to an inviting, mixed-use, walkable environment.

Image by the author.

A more appropriate street design for transit-oriented development would offer a moderately scaled street that knits the area together. This new road, along with all the new streets, could be designed to allow not only vehicle access, but also help people to walk comfortably, and cross the street to patronize nearby businesses, or walk to and from Metro.

If the hospital is an isolated enclave, it will do little to catalyze economic development in the area and miss the opportunity to use the site's great transit access and mixed use environment.

Friday is Bike to Work Day. Here's where to find a pit stop

Friday is the DC region's 15th annual Bike to Work Day. It's a great opportunity to build a few extra minutes into your commute to stop at one of the nearly-80 commuting "pit stops" on your way to work.

BtWD 2015 pit stops. Click for interactive map.

The pit stops offer refreshments, raffles, and free t-shirts to those who register. Each pit stop has something a little different: elected officials and entertainment will be at some, and some will be open in the afternoon for your commute home.

Bike to Work Day also encompasses commuter convoys, biking buddies, and other resources for first-time riders.

Last year's Bike to Work Day in our region attracted over 14,000 participants. Will you be joining this year? If so, don't forget to snap a photo or two and add them to our Flickr pool.

Topic of the week: Silver Line delays

This week, we learned that Phase II of the Silver Line is now 13 months behind schedule. We asked our contributors what they thought about this, a major delay to the region's largest transit expansion. What's the deal?

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Adam Lind pointed out this delay is likely for the best, long-term:

From what I understand, the 13 months of delay are for all the additional stormwater management that they are volunteering to do, to meet regulations under the new stormwater requirements. While this may cause delay in the short term, it is probably better for the long term impact of the project to the environment.

Matt Johnson drew some connections between the Silver Line delay and infrastruture building as a whole:

Everybody wants something out of the planning process. We all want different things, though. For decades, basically, motorists said, "we want wider roads", and by and large they got it. But now, things have changed. People want other things, too. We want bike lanes. And bus lanes. And transit funding. And sidewalks. And streetscape improvements.

And that's all great. But the environmental community also wants things. One of those things is on-site stormwater retention. Much of this is due to the extreme width of our roads because of decades of widenings to accommodate ever more motor vehicles.

And so when someone says, "we need a new bike lane," the environmental community says, rightly, "that increases the impervious surface. We need to deal with that." But if we insist that it be dealt with on-site, it often means wider roads with wide medians or wide swales that make the road feel wider, which causes drivers to go faster. And makes pedestrians feel smaller, especially when having to cross these roadways. And bus stops have a swale between them and the sidewalk.

Everyone wants a share of the pie. But if the size of the pie is fixed, that means that we have to fight over how large everyone's slice is. The bikes want a slice of the pie. And so do transit users. And pedestrians want a slice of the pie, too. And the environmentalists want a slice. And motorists want six slices.

We have to deal with the environmental consequences of our transportation decisions. Virginia has decided to do that with their new regulations. And it is affecting this project. Maybe you think that's the wrong approach. Maybe you think the environmental community's slice is getting too big at the expense of the Silver Line. But that's irrelevant. Virginia has decided, and it affects the project. Decisions have consequences.

However, MWAA has clearly known about this for months. Why is the public only finding out about it now?

Edward Russell isn't very surprised about the delay, though he agrees that, would have been nice if MWAA had notified the public sooner to the possibility of a delay. I always considered the 2018 opening date a bit ambitious but hoped it would happen.

Compared to the delays we've see with the DC Streetcar and what they see in New York (the LIRR East Side Access project is about a decade behind schedule), I think the Silver Line delay is minimal.

Dan Malouff also agrees:
This sucks, but it happens with complex projects sometimes. It's a sign that officials need to pay attention and make sure things move as smoothly as possible from here out, but it's not necessarily a sign that we need to panic or that there's anything seriously wrong with the project overall.
Payton Chung chimed in to express the thoughts of several contributors:
I always take opening dates on large infrastructure projects with a grain of salt—consider the numerous delays to the original Silver Line, for instance. It eventually happened, of course, and it's doing great.

What might be happening here is that the perfect is becoming the enemy of the good—a relatively straightforward project is seeing its scope balloon to encompass a bunch of other worthy but perhaps unrelated goals, like stormwater management. This scope expansion partially explains why American transit projects cost so much more than those elsewhere.

It's sad that we have come to expect that transit construction projects in America will always be behind schedule and over budget, but that's just the way things are these days.

What do you think about the delays? Par for the course, or reason for concern? Tell us in the comments!

Alexandria has identified locations for its next 16 bikeshare stations

The City of Alexandria might not follow through on plans to add 16 new Capital Bikeshare stations throughout the city this year. But if it does, city staff have identified the general areas the new stations are likely to go.

Capital Bikeshare stations overlaid on crowdsourced demand map (Click to enlarge). Map by the author from City of Alexandria data.

City staff presented the expansion information at the Alexandria's transportation commission's December. (The overlay map above reflects a slightly updated set of locations I received after reaching out to the city this week.)

The locations are based on the city's public crowdsourcing maps, connectivity to transit, proximity to mixed-use activity centers, and whether the location was within .25 mile of an existing station.

Technical considerations like direct sunlight to power the stations, adequate space, flat ground, and utility clearances will be important in choosing the exact site for each station.

The new stations would be primarily to the east, in Old Town, Del Ray, Potomac Yard, and surrounding areas. But three new stations would add to the cluster in Fairlington, and Eisenhower East will recieve a new station as well. Though there's definitely a demand for stations in West End, activity centers, density, and a lack of nearby stations could make it harder for stations in those areas to be successful.

What else do you notice about the locations?

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