Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Public Spaces


Great park, no tables... so bring your own

There are great food trucks around DC's downtown squares, but to eat in the squares you have to sit on the grass or on a bench, which makes socializing difficult. Jacob Mason saw some people at Farragut Square who have an innovative solution: they brought their own table.


Photo by Jacob Mason.

Mason, who tweets for the new pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, said that this group works in a nearby building. One of them decided to buy it after he ruined three pairs of pants from sitting on wet grass. The group collectively carries the table to the park to eat lunch.

Parks that host a lot of office lunch workers in other cities, like Bryant Park in Midtown New York, have more tables and moveable chairs. Even across the Potomac River in Arlington, tables and chairs are common.

But DC's downtown squares, which the National Park Service manages, don't have them. (Update: The Golden Triangle BID does put them in the park on Fridays.) Franklin Square could get a few under proposed redesigns (the "Edge" is the most likely design), but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, the do-it-yourself version works pretty well, if your office is organized enough. Everyone else can sit on the grass.

Roads


The war on Dana Milbank's car

"DC doesn't deserve self-rule until it... lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws." That's the message from the Washington Post's columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruptionmost recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal giftsmany say the District doesn't deserve autonomy because there's a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today's Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he's broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a "startling abuse of power," an "appalling overreach," and "like a banana republic."

The column is also a new low in the tired "war on cars" meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region's local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they're being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don't attack all enforcement

That's not to say DC's camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District's Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn't tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn't happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren't, they shouldn't give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn't saying he's been the victim of any of these errors. He's not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperlyand if true, that's also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, "The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected."

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they're going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people's behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn't a real safety issue. WTOP's Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren't that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA's John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. "Complete cessation of movement" is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it's hard to draw a line other than "actually stopping" that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it's only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you're going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, "I didn't see him" is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren't necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they've been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There's always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn't dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They'll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it's not their fault. They'll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn't deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is "like the Soviet East" because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central governmentwait, what?

What's that about statehood?

But Milbank's statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn't pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one's own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It's not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it's that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it's more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the Districtso they don't have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.

Politics


David Catania's platform supports Metro, streetcars, bus lanes, bike lanes, transit-oriented development, and more

Mayoral candidate David Catania released a 66-page platform today, chock full of positions on issues from education to jobs to seniors. It includes strong statements on transportation and the environment.


Catania at a DC Council hearing.

Here are a few key quotes from the platform:

Metro: To ensure that Metro Momentum becomes a reality, the entire region will need to prioritize the plan's funding. As Mayor, David will ensure that the District leads the effort with our regional and federal partners to create a dedicated funding mechanism for this vital investment in our collective future.

Streetcars: David will seek to build both the East-West and the North-South [DC streetcar] lines, believing that the system must be sufficiently expansive in order to serve as anything more than a novelty or tourist attraction.

Bus lanes: David will work with community members, bus riders, and transit agencies to increase capacity and implement priority bus lanes on major arterial roadways and key transit corridors.

Bicycle infrastructure: David will expand bicycle infrastructure to all areas of the city, particularly in communities east of the Anacostia River that have yet to see such investments. This expansion can take place in a way that does not displace other forms of transportation. Many District streets are particularly well positioned for installation of protected bike lanes while maintaining sufficient car parking and driving capacity. David will also support the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare.

Traffic cameras: There is little doubt that speed and red light cameras have contributed to the overall safety of our streets. However, in some cases the deployment of these cameras raises questions about whether the intent is purely to improve street safety or if the real motivation is to raise additional revenue through ticketing and citations. As Mayor, David will demand that the proper analysis is conducted to ensure that these devices are being used to target locations with street and pedestrian safety concernsnot simply as a means to raise revenue!

Vision Zero: David will pursue a street safety agenda in line with the Vision Zero Initiative. ... Vision Zero calls for the total elimination of traffic deathspedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle passengerthrough innovative street design, enhanced traffic management technologies, and education campaigns.

Transit-oriented development: The District's density is one of its greatest economic competitive advantages. Recent studies have found a clear connection between the higher concentration of residents and greater economic output. As Mayor, David will harness this economic potential in a way that creates healthy and livable urban communities, by focusing development around transportation hubs including Metro stations, bus lines, protected bike lane infrastructure, and Streetcar corridors.


Speck. Image from the Catania platform.
A lot of this reads like something a smart growth and sustainable transportation advocate might write. Maybe that's not such a surprise, as the section starts out with a big picture of Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City and a local smart growth champion. Jeff and Alice Speck are strong supporters of Catania, and probably suggested a few ideas.

There is a lot about the environment as well in that section, such as LEED buildings, tree canopy, and water quality, as well as on many more topics in the full document. What do you agree or disagree with in the platform?

Public Spaces


Four beautiful designs for an 11th Street Bridge park

Four teams competing to design an 11th Street Bridge park over the Anacostia have released stunning images of their designs.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

The 11th Street Bridge Park idea arose during the construction for new bridges. The old bridge was taken down, but pylons in the river remained. What about making it into a park? Scott Kratz, then vice-president for education at the National Building Museum, carried this idea forward, built support, and raised money for this design competition.

The finalist teams OMA / OLIN, Balmori Associates / Cooper Robertson & Partners, Stoss Landscape Urbanism / H&oum;weler + Yoon Architecture, and Wallace Roberts Todd / NEXT Architects all designed a combination of active recreation and passive landscaped areas stretching alongside the local bridge from one bank of the Anacostia to the other.

Making a park work here won't be easy. This isn't an area where people are walking on foot already, and it's not that close to many residents or jobs. That means it will have to be a destination people explicitly travel to.

There will need to be a good way to get there, too. There's no Metro station right near either end (Navy Yard is not so far but not so close), and the streetcar planned to cross the river, which could stop along the route, faces an uncertain funding picture. (Tiny ferries, maybe?)

This piece of the above image illustrates the challenge very starkly:

This is the east side of the bridge. The closest buildings are in the lower right. The bridge starts in the upper left. In between is the ultimate pride and joy of a generation of DDOT engineers.

However, the Anacostia absolutely should become a destination. There are now some attractions along its banks that didn't exist recently. More will come. And over time, the river itself can evolve into a place instead of a barrier. This bridge park could be a big piece of that.


Image from OLIN + OMA.

OLIN + OMA envision a series of trapezoidal spaces with elevated or angled roofs creating vertical variation. Each piece would serve a different purpose, including a playground, interactive art, amphitheater, plaza, urban agriculture, picnic garden, and so forth.

Image from OLIN + OMA.

This design shows the park brimming with activity. One question is, would it also work at times when the park isn't busy, or would the many drops and rises make it feel dangerous when quiet?

Balmori + Cooper Robinson's design has fewer, more open spaces with a curvilinear feel. There is a lot of greenery with canopies for shade. A large, wavy spine rises above the park, evoking the symbolism of a bridge and the idea of connecting both sides of the river in a "thread" (linking is a major theme in most designs, not surprisingly).


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

An "aperture" through the surface lets people look down into the water below.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

This feels like a very calming space that evokes nature. Is that ideal, or is that redundant next to the very large Anacostia Park along the east bank? It also seems to connect the bridge more closely to the west side of the river, which is at once logical (because there isn't the same massive freeway barrier on the west side, but there is a big park already) but also less connecting.


Image from Balmori Associates + Cooper, Robinson & Partners.

The team of Stoss and Höweler + Yoon Architecture use a boat motif to link up a series of angular modules that can variously become a plaza, farmers' market, art exhibition, street theater, and more, flanked by two buildings that can serve as a cafe and education center (two elements the design competition asked all teams to include).


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

Flexibility could be useful for the bridge park to add amenities as the surrounding areas grow and when, in the future, residents from more-distant neighborhoods or even tourists might regularly be coming to the banks of the Anacostia on a nice day.

This design puts less on the bridge itself and more activity over the east bank of the Anacostia, between the riverbank and the freeway.


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

Besides the two buildings, most of the bridge is, like New York's High Line, linear space that feels like somewhere to walk. This can work if a lot of people want to actually come and walk here (the High Line is in the middle of a massively dense area).


Image from Stoss / Höweler + Yoon Architecture.

The design from Wallace Roberts Todd + NEXT Architects unifies the bridge with a large wire-frame canopy that can integrate with each of the activities along the bridge, like a decorative roof for an amphitheater and a climbing structure in a playground.



Images from WRT + NEXT.

This design also puts a lot of activity on the bridge through a series of sections. It seems to have the most focus on physical activity and play, and seem most similar to the initial rough concepts the park team put out before the competition.

What elements do you think would work best or not work so well from these designs? You can access the large PDFs here.

You can see the design boards in person at THEARC Gallery, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, from September 14 to October 11, at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE) and the District Architecture Center downtown (421 7th Street NW) from September 24 to October 11. The teams will present to a jury and answer questions on September 29 and 30 at THEARC, which the public can also watch.

Roads


When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

Roads


A traffic engineer and a planner both study a closed freeway segment. Their conclusions are wildly different.

Let's say you have a closed piece of freeway along your waterfront. What should you do with it? Ask many traditional traffic engineers, and they'll likely answer with some variant of "build a lot of car lanes, maybe with some path for walkers and cyclists if there's room." Ask an urban planner, meanwhile, and the answer could be a more nuanced mix of buildings, parks, roads, or other pieces of a city.

Just look at what traffic engineers versus planners came up with for the piece of DC's Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle:


Four-lane road with parking and overpasses. Image from DDOT.


Concept extending DC's street grid into the freeway. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Advocates of "urbanism" or "livable streets" or "smart growth" often deride the "traffic engineer mindset." This is the attitude of some (but not all) engineers who primarily build and maintain roads. These folks tend to hold an ingrained assumption that more roadway lanes are basically the answer to any mobility problem.

Meanwhile, graduates of most planning schools today will bring a wide variety of tools to the table. They'll often look not just at how to move vehicles or even people, but whether more motion is really the best way to use some land. If people are encountering more traffic to get to jobs, one solution is to build a big transportation facility, but another approach is to create more opportunities for the people to live near the jobs, or to put the jobs near the people.

For one of the starkest illustrations of this "lane engineer" versus planner mindset dichotomy, look at the Southeast Boulevard studies in DC. There used to be a freeway running along the edge of eastern Capitol Hill to Barney Circle. Long ago, plans called for it to connect to a new bridge over the Anacostiathe Barney Circle Freeway, and part of an "inner loop" of freeways around downtown. That would have been a very damaging plan for both DC's environment and its congestion.

DDOT's study thinks very narrowly

In 2005, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) came up with a somewhat better scheme, to essentially widen the 11th Street Bridge by building a new parallel local bridge and convert the freeway segment from a four-lane freeway to a four-lane urban boulevard.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT's options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.


Map of Concept 2. Images from DDOT.


Concept 2.


Concept 4A.

Planners think more creatively

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT's analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells' urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP's options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:


Concept C2. Images from the DC Office of Planning.

Or just extend the street grid right through the site with new townhouses like the old ones:


Concept A2.

Or a new avenue fronted by larger buildings:


Concept A1.

Or a hybrid:


Concept B1.

Why 4 lanes?

But even OP's study assumed that there need to be 4 lanes of traffic, as that's what DDOT insists on. OP's presentation points out that 4 lanes of traffic can be a part of residential boulevards, like New Hampshire Avenue in Petworth or East Capitol Street near Lincoln Park. However, these roads still feel much wider than others. Drivers tend to move faster here, often too fast to safely mix with other neighborhood users. New Hampshire Avenue north of Dupont, in contrast, is just one lane each way.

So why do there need to be 4 lanes of traffic? DC just effectively widened the 11th Street Bridge, adding car capacity there. Can't there be a reduction on an adjacent street? More than that, there haven't been any lanes for years now. It seems that a traffic pattern with zero lanes works fine.

If there's new development, it would need a road and some lanes to get to it, but to say we need 4 because we already had 4 is circular reasoning without logic, unless you assume that more lanes are always better, and any lane once built must always remain to eternity. That's the ingrained belief of many traditional traffic engineers, and it's the answer I got from Ravindra Ganvir, DDOT's deputy chief engineer, when I asked in February of 2013:

The constrained long range plan (CLRP) traffic model is assigning traffic volumes that would exceed the capacity of a two-lane facility and is showing Southeast Boulevard as a four-lane arterial facility.
Traffic models "show" traffic on a link that varies depending on what kind of link you have built, so to say that the model shows a four-lane boulevard worth of traffic when you have a freeway or boulevard in the plan is again circular. Or, as one contributor wryly paraphrased, "We are building a big road because we need a big road because there was a big road there before."

DDOT needs to re-examine its reflexive assumption that 4 lanes is the only possibility. Regardless, this area now stands a good chance of becoming an excellent urban place now that people who think about spaces broadly and creatively got involved.

Transit


If the new Metro map used thin lines and a more contemporary design, this is what it might look like

Designer Cameron Booth won our 2011 contest to redesign the Metro map. Now, he's revised that design to show the Silver Line opened and reflect station name changes since then.


Map reposted with permission from Cameron Booth.

Metro didn't adopt Booth's design, but jury members (which included WMATA's Barbara Richardson as well as people from outside the agency) did like the way he replaced the old "boxy Volvo" parking symbols with a P (though Metro's new map uses a different P icon). And Booth put 90-degree turns on the southern Green Line, which the real map now sports as well.

You can view a large version on Flickr here.

Meta


We're going to the beach!

Washington slows down in August. A lot of people take vacations. Legislatures generally don't meet. Local boards don't have hearings. Government agencies avoid scheduling public meetings or proposing plans. Therefore, Greater Greater Washington is going to take it easy for the month of August.


Bike on the beach image from Shutterstock.

We'll still do Breakfast Links so you can discuss the news of the day. And we'll have a few posts, but fewer on most days. Because Greater Greater Washington runs on a volunteer corps of contributors and editors, we'll probably have 1-2 posts besides links as opposed to our usual 3-5.

If something is going on in your community, please continue to consider sending us a post! If you're interested in writing, check out our contributor guidelines and get in touch at info@ggwash.org. Have a great summer!

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.

(Update: Martin Di Caro reports that VDOT has specifically refused to let Fairfax shrink the double right lane until it conducts a six-month study about the traffic impact of the change.)

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.

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.

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