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. 

History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

Zoning


DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

Politics


In November, "concern" won’t cut it for Bowser

Muriel Bowser has won the Democratic nomination for DC mayor. Do you know what she stands for?


Photo by weeviraporn on Flickr.

Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the DC Council, has won what's typically the District's highest-profile race while generally minimizing the amount of discussion on her vision for the city. Sure, she supports better education, jobs, lower crime, affordable housing and a functional government. But every other candidate in the primary backed those things, too.

Bowser was quite adept at citing facts and figures but also showed a real talent for framing issues in a way that sounded good to everyone. She generally praised many ideas in the abstract but remained noncommittal as they became concrete.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Parking


Top 6 reasons a parking garage near 14th and U is a bad idea

Some are pushing for a municipal parking garage on S Street, NW near 14th Street. To break even, such a garage would need to charge $3.51 to $4.33 per hour. What if it didn't have to break even? Should taxpayers subsidize a parking garage here?


Photo by Michael Kappel on Flickr.

Many cities do subsidize parking, often heavily. They often believe, rightly or wrongly, that unless public money contributes to making it easy for people in cars to drive and park in the area cheaply, then businesses won't thrive.

But a publicly-subsdized parking facility is not the answer for the 14th and U corridors. Here are the top 6 reasons this is not the right solution to Logan Circle's and U Street parking.

1. The area is doing great without it.

A presentation touting the garage proposal says that "Cultural and retail uses have led to the vibrant, walkable neighborhood we enjoy. However they also rely on a significant number of visitors to succeed." Does this argument really hold water for the Logan Circle and U Street area?

In his column supporting the concept, Roger Lewis writes that "the neighborhood around 14th and P hums with activity around the clock." In fact, restaurants on 14th Street are mostly full night after night, and the most popular ones have an hours-long wait or a weeks-long line for reservations.

It certainly seems like there is no shortage of people going to the businesses on the 14th and U Street corridors. That's not to say that some people couldn't benefit from adding even more subsidized parking beyond the existing free spaces on residential streets, but it probably wouldn't affect businesses' health or tax revenue for the neighborhood.

Some, like people with disabilities, have a particular claim to need help getting to an area, which is why DC has rightly proposed dedicating some meters for disability parking. For a lot of other folks, it seems this would just be a subsidy to make it cheaper to get to an area that doesn't really need it, and which they can still drive to, for a cost.

2. It won't solve residential parking frustration.

As we discussed in the last part, people will often bypass a pay garage to park on the street when street parking is free. Today, people can park for free on one side of every residential street near 14th and U during evenings and weekends.

So long as that is true, people are going to circle for neighborhood parking. Besides, for almost all destinations along 14th and U, nearby residential blocks are much closer than this garage would be. The bottom line is that adding supply is not going to make local streets clear and easy to park on. The moment they are easy to park on, people will park on them for free!

3. It might not even fill up.

In Columbia Heights, the large DC USA garage continues to go largely empty, even though it costs just $1.50 an hour. Parking remains scarce on many nearby blocks, for exactly the reason above: the street parking is far easier to find and more convenient.

DC would run a serious risk of building an expensive garage and then finding it largely unused.

4. It will have significant downsides to the neighborhood.

A garage would draw a lot more traffic to the area. That traffic would be particularly bad on S Street, but also bad in the rest of the neighborhood. If people didn't park on neighborhood streets, then a lot of traffic from people circling would go away, but there's every reason to believe that this garage wouldn't stop on-street parking.

5. There are much better ways to deal with parking.

It would be technically simple to require that anyone from outside the neighborhood parking here use the pay-by-phone system (or an alternative for those who can't use it) to pay a rate for parking that equalizes supply and demand.

Plus, on-street parking has another advantage: you can park a block or two from your destination, instead of always having to park at 13th and S.

Lewis mentions a shuttle from the parking garage, but there already is a Circulator from the Metro at McPherson Square and from the corner of 14th and U, a block from the U Street station. For those who can't walk from the Metro, the garage might be a little closer, but it would save only at most 2 blocks.

Karina Ricks, of Nelson\Nygaard, said that another approach some cities like Asheville have taken is to set up shared valet parking systems. People can drop their cars off at one or more fixed locations, and valets will park the cars. This would save restaurants from all having to staff their own valets.

Where would the cars go? Perhaps to some of the buildings that have garages but only open them up during the day. The valet provider could reach a deal with these buildings to use the garage at night. And if only valets are parking there, it wouldn't be necessary to staff each garage.

6. There are better uses of land here.

Any proposal to have the city provide cheap land always needs to be weighed against what else could go on the land. Housing would actively bring in tax revenue, as opposed to a parking garage which would burn through money. With public land, the District's policy has been to seek affordable housing, which could help more people of lower incomes live in this booming area.

Plus, existing residents probably would much rather live near residences than a large parking garage. Even if the garage were underground, it would generate a lot of traffic and diminish the value of whatever could go on top, or cut down on the amount of affordable housing that DC could get in a bidding process for the land.

But if someone wants to pay for some land, build a garage which isn't an eyesore or a source of unnecessary noise, or build some parking underneath a new building to sell to the public, that could be okay. But this isn't happening, which is why some nearby businesses are hoping the government will subsidize parking. That's not a good investment.

Parking


Hey reporters: There are good people you can call for stories about parking tickets in addition to just AAA

The city is full of cherry blossoms, and the media full of stories about parking tickets based on AAA Mid-Atlantic press releases. While eating up the juicy statistics AAA gets from FOIA requests, too many reporters also swallow AAA's policy conclusions and don't get other points of view.


Photo by John M on Flickr.

The latest example is a story this morning in the Washington Post about how DC's parking ticket revenue has decreased, thanks to new smartphone apps that help people park legally.

AAA's John Townsend II says the number of tickets in DC is "a phenomenal pace to nearly three times the city's estimated populace of 646,449 persons. That's three parking tickets for every man, woman and child in the city. It's the upshot of high demand for far too few spaces and the confusing signage that bedevils drivers."

Comparing the number of tickets to DC's population is misleading, since DC's daytime population is over one million. And over an entire year, far, far more people than 650,000 come to DC.

I don't really disagree that the signage is confusing and could be a lot better. (Just look at these signs, which a ticket writer even misinterpreted and wrote an erroneous ticket).


Townsend and I would agree this is really confusing. Photos from the 800 block of 17th Street, NW.

But is this "the upshot of ... far too few spaces?"

A lot of people would disagree with that. The District is simply never going to be the kind of city where parking is extremely plentiful and cheap downtown. Some American cities are. Those cities tend to have large swaths of desolate downtown streetscapes in districts that are empty a lot of the time. Those spaces drag down the economic strength of many cities' downtowns.

These "parking craters" can be so bad that that Streetsblog just ran a March Madness-style tournament to choose the worst downtown parking. DC is fortunate to have a thriving, mixed-use downtown without such gaping holes and a lot of transportation choices.

Some people drive and park. That's fine. But it's not physically possible to have a city with all of that activity and also enough space for everyone to bring a car which they park on the street or in a surface lot. This is simple geometry, since the cars are larger than the people. Underground parking isn't cheap, and many people get tickets because they don't want to shell out for the garage.

It's not so easy to capture this in a sound bite as "people are getting tickets! Lots of them, OMG! That's because we need more parking!" But it's more true.

I hate tickets, too

I'm not pro-tickets. I don't think the District should be counting on ticket revenue in its budget and am very happy that tickets are declining. It would be fantastic for technology to help people know how to park legally.

I got a ticket last year when I parked on the street around the corner from my house while we needed someone else to use our parking space. I came back a few days later and found that mere hours after I parked, a nearby building put up those "Emergency No Parking" signs for tree pruning, and the required 72 hours had elapsed. I was just about an hour too late to avoid not only getting a ticket but an extra fee for having my car towed one block away. Aargh!

It would have been terrific to have an app that could know my car location, check it against some open database of temporary and permanent parking restrictions, and notify me when my legal space is going to turn illegal. Maybe one day someone will build that.

Call these people!

Meanwhile, if reporters want to write a story about parking tickets, they should go ahead and cite AAA statistics all they want, but if they're also going to print John Townsend's opinion about how the District needs to revamp its built environment, how about also calling someone else?

Off the top of my head, there's:

  • Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth
  • Marlene Berlin of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council
  • Barbara McCann with the Complete Streets Coalition Correction: McCann has recently moved to US DOT, so she is probably not available for comment on AAA press releases.
  • Neha Bhatt with Smart Growth America
  • For anything about bicycling, Shane Farthing or Greg Billing at WABA
All would be great people to call for anything about parking or photo enforcement or to respond to pretty much any AAA press release, campaign, or gripe of the day.

I'd be happy to send any reporter these folks' phone numbers. Just drop me a line.

Taxis


Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.


Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.

Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular

The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.

For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.

But who defines the priorities and plans?

One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?

Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.

Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.

Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.

It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.

Who decides under Cheh's plan?

A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.

Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?

If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?

If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?

Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."

Here's what you said

A lot of you worried about this issue.

Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."

MLD wrote:

Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenchedDDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priorityDDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?

There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.

Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.
jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."

Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "

BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."

What could work?

A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.

Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).

Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.

This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.

Parking


A municipal parking garage for 14th and U? It would not come cheap

A number of businesses and residents around 14th and U Streets are interested in trying to create a municipal parking garage in a large government-owned parcel on S Street. Is this a good use of the land? What if it cost $4 an hour, or required heavy subsidies from the DC budget?


Image from Bing Maps.

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation now uses the property, 1325 S Street NW, to park vehicles and for other service uses. Proponents of a municipal parking garage suggest an above-ground parking structure lined with retail or residential, or an underground garage with buildings or a park on top.

But those advocating for the garage assert that it would pay for itself. Based on a quick analysis based on numbers from parking experts, it seems likely that such a garage would have to charge $3.50-4.50 per hour just to break even.

Do those supporting this garage idea realize that would be necessary? Or, if a garage would require significant ongoing subsidies to operate, is there a good reason to spend public money on making parking cheaper in the hot Logan Circle and U Street area?


Image from the DC Zoning Map.

A committee of Logan Circle's ANC 2F heard a presentation on the concept in January, as did ANC 1B in March. The concept is getting support as a part of a larger effort to establish a Business Improvement District for the area, and the JBG Companies, which owns a lot of properties nearby, has given $150,000 to help set up the BID.

A lot of the impetus is coming from the Studio Theatre at 14th and P, which, the presentation said, saw "significant reductions in their show subscribers and customer base, largely due to the lack of available public parking."

Arguments for the garage

Recently, many residential blocks in the area got the "red sign" parking restrictions that limit parking on one side of each street to residents with the appropriate ward sticker (1 or 2, depending on where in the area you're talking about). That has made parking easier for residents (or people driving in from places like Mount Pleasant or Georgetown in the same wards) but even scarcer for others.

The presentation to ANC 2F claims that there are not many buildings with "abundant nighttime parking" in the area, and that "case studies of many great urban areas show how centrally-located public parking facilities solve transportation issues and spur economic development (locally, including Clarendon, Bethesda, and Shirlington)."

Architect Roger Lewis praised the idea in a recent column for the Washington Post, where he suggested cities need a "flexible approach" to parking. He said,

Along 14th Street for several blocks north of P, public parking is a scarce and expensive commodity. Moreover, the nearest Red Line and Green Line Metro stations are a half mile or more away, just far enough to be a challenging walk for older folks, for people with disabilities and for parents with very young children in tow. ...

Either the city or a parking garage operator could construct and manage the garage, which would be self-financing. From such a garage, people could comfortably walk or hop on a local shuttle to reach their destinations.

How much would this cost?

Is this a good idea? Certainly parking is often difficult in the area. If one could make parking easier, without any costs or tradeoffs at all, that's not a bad thing. But it's always important to understand the proposal clearly.

There are plenty of arguments to be made about the garage. I will get into most of those in part 2. First, we need to talk about cost. How much would this cost the DC government? How much would people pay to park? Often in these discussions, people make assumptions that turn out not to be true. Let's delve into them.

Lewis suggests a garage would be "self-financing." What does that mean? Does it mean that a private company could afford to buy the land at market price, build a garage, run it, and break even? (Probably not, because if that's true someone would probably have done it).

Does it mean that the city would lease the land for free to the operator, who would then build a garage and maintain it? Or would the city have to pay for a garage which then an operator could maintain?

Many suggestions to build parking (like the National Coalition to Save Our Mall's proposal for the National Mall) assert that garages will pay for themselves, but often without numbers to back up the assertion.

Fortunately, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has some detailed research on the cost of parking structures. Their report estimates that an urban parking garage costs about $18,000 per space to construct, and $600 per space per year to maintain. Karina Ricks of Nelson\Nygaard says DC has higher costs than around the county, so $20,000 would be a better estimate.

If a property pays no taxes, therefore, the annualized cost of construction per space, plus maintenance, is $1,569 to $1,744 at a 6% interest rate. With operating costs, that's $181-195 per space per month. Already, this rivals the cost one would pay for an off-street space in the neighborhood, meaning that the revenue from parking is unlikely to even pay for just constructing and maintaining this garage.

Plus, we haven't even talked about land. This property is about 2 acres. The square to the west, once you get past the commercial area right along 14th, has about 120 townhouses in 5.74 acres. The property assessment database shows that DC assesses the land for each townhouse at $400-500,000, so at an average of $450,000 per townhouse, that's $9.4 million in land value per acre in this area, comparable to what VTPI lists for center cities in most of the country.

For a 4-level parking structure of 130 spaces per level, that's $36,000 more in land costs per space; for a smaller 3-level garage, it would be over $48,000. That adds $263-$351 per month to the parking cost.


Image from the ANC presentation.

Oh, and that's just if the garage is above ground. Move it underground, and your construction cost skyrockets. Ricks says DC construction costs usually run around $60,000, or $5,231 per space. That makes the monthly cost per space about $486 per month with operating costs, even if you ignore the cost of the land entirely. You can do that to some extent because you can still build something else on top of the garage, though that building then becomes more expensive, and having a commercial garage below diminishes the value of whatever can be built there.

The price per hour to break even is...

How much would the garage have to charge per hour to recoup these costs? Ricks said that a very generous estimate would assume the garage averages 70% full each day over an 8-hour peak period of 4 pm to midnight.

This assumes the garage is totally full at the busiest times, like Saturday at 8 pm, tapering off toward the edges with low occupancy on weeknights at 5 or 11 pm. There will be little if any revenue from the daytime in this area, which has few offices except the Reeves Center, which has its own garage.

If Sundays and holidays stay free, that is 270 days per year. With the numbers from above, the garage would have to charge $3.52 to $4.33 per hour just to recoup its costs, whether it is underground or above ground.

You can see all of the math and calculations on this spreadsheet (XLS).


Image from the ANC presentation.

Would people really park in the garage?

So, we've got a parking garage which costs $3.50 or $4 an hour to park in. To go to 14th or U for dinner, that would set you back maybe $10-15. The presentation to ANC 2F CDC suggests that a garage would "relieve parking pressure on nearby streets and reduce circling." That's only true if it is considerably more desirable than parking on the street.

Right now, it's not. At night, it's free to park on the side of the street which isn't reserved for residents of the ward. Lots of people (including myself) circle for long periods of time in Georgetown to find free spaces or cheap metered spaces even though there is pay parking, because the cost is so different.

If this garage has to pay for itself, it would provide some parking, but that probably wouldn't be cheap enough to dissuade people from trying for a street space. We could change the on-street policies to charge more of a market rate there, but then would a garage be necessary?

For those who don't want to circle, there are businesses with valet parking on 14th and U already. Le Diplomate, for instance, has valet parking for $12. It seems that there are options to park if you are willing to pay a market rate, and building a garage wouldn't lower the market rate.

One problem with many of these parking proposals is that they assume, on the cost side, that the garage would make so much revenue to not cost the public anything, but on the other hand they assume that the parking is cheap enough to not cost the public much there either. It can't be both.

Cost isn't the only reason to build or not build a garage. In the next part, we'll look at other arguments for and against the proposal.

Government


DDOT director and chief engineer are leaving

A source in the DC government just passed along the news that District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Terry Bellamy and Chief Engineer Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson are leaving the agency.


Bellamy and Nicholson are the two men in ties. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

We don't yet have information on exactly when they will leave, or where they are going. This is another step in what is likely to be a long string of high-profile departures. Nicholas Majett, head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs which enforces regulations, is also stepping down.

Under Bellamy's leadership, DDOT has not made progress on a lot of important initiativescycletracks, bus priority, residential parking, trails, and much more. Still, will this mean DDOT will achieve even less for the remaining nine months of Mayor Gray's term?

A lot will depend on who Gray picks to run the agency in the interim. He chose former planning director Ellen McCarthy to run the Office of Planning after Harriet Tregoning. McCarthy has had the job before, and knows the lay of the land (literally and figuratively). She did a good job under the Williams administration.

Planning will at the very least keep moving along in a positive way for the rest of 2014, and maybe McCarthy can spearhead some important initiatives that wouldn't have gotten as much attention otherwise or which are more politically palatable in a lame duck administration.

Is there a similar figure for DDOT?

Overall, having the primary on April 1 was a bad idea, and not just because of low turnout, which Gray cited in his concession speech. Despite Gray's statements that he will keep working hard to improve the District for the rest of his term, many of his political appointees are already looking for new jobs.

Government


Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.


Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.

Process

Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Transit


Gray boosts transit in his final budget

In his last budget as mayor of DC, Vincent Gray continued to put funding into the DC Streetcar and also will expand the Circulator.


Likely transit projects in the near future. Map by the author.
Purple: streetcar; red: Circulator; green: Park Service Mall Circulator. Thin lines are running today or under construction. Thick lines represent extensions or new lines being studied.
All routes are approximate and don't include every twist and turn or multiple alternatives.

The capital budget devotes significant money on an ongoing basis to the streetcar. One quarter of all extra revenue above the base estimate for 2015 will go into streetcar construction (assuming future mayors keep it going). Over the next 6 years, that will bring in about $810 million.

DDOT is currently working to finish the H Street-Benning Road line, and planning to extend it east to Minnesota Avenue and west to Georgetown. Another line, which is under study, would go from the Southwest Waterfront to Takoma or Silver Spring, and DDOT is wrapping up a study on how to run a line through Anacostia and over the 11th Street bridge.

The budget also includes operating funds to start running the H Street-Benning Road segment once it is ready.

On buses, Gray has budgeted $56.6 million over 6 years to buy new buses for Circulator extensions:

  • The Rosslyn-Dupont line to U Street and Shaw
  • The Union Station-Georgetown line to the National Cathedral
  • The Union Station-Navy Yard to the Southwest Waterfront
There is $41.2 million to build a new Circulator bus garage, though officials have not decided where the garage would go. $9 million more would pay to refurbush older Circulator buses.

The budget does not, however, include any capital projects to design or build new dedicated bus lanes. This continues DDOT's pattern of indifference toward reducing delays in the city's bus lines.

There is $28 million to clear out the backlog of sidewalk rehabilitations and repairs, and money to fix up more alleys.

While his transportation department has made slow progress on the streetcar and virtually none on speeding up buses, Mayor Gray has shown a sustained commitment to fund transit projects. Will his successor do the same?

Update: It's worth pointing out that the east-west streetcar on K Street will get dedicated lanes for most of the length between Mount Vernon Square and Washington Circle, in the proposed K Street Transitway. Some buses will also be able to use that transitway. However, there are no bus-specific dedicated lane projects, and most designs for the north-south streetcar do not dedicate lanes, though a few do.

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