The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Ben Harris

Ben Harris lives in Rockville, where he writes the North Bethesda-focused blog NorthFlintVille. Prior to moving to Montgomery County in 2011, he lived for 5 years in DC's Logan Circle neighborhood, where he served on the ANC 2F Community Development Committee and Arts Overlay Review Committee. From 2007 to 2011, he and his wife maintained the Logan Circle and Shaw-focused blog 14th&You. 

Public Spaces

America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but

Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgrace—fix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconic—but grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvania—most notably the FBI Building—are openly hostile to pedestrians.

The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.


Are Logan Circle's changes wonderful, or something else?

14th Street and Logan Circle have developed into a premier destination in DC, and there is much to celebrate about that. But the neighborhood is also becoming an ever-more-exclusive neighborhood that increasingly feels out of reach for many.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Transformation has raced ahead

The Washington Post wrote this weekend about "Gentrification in Overdrive on 14th Street." What is occurring along 14th Street now, one could scarcely even call "gentrification" any more.

I work just a few blocks west of 14th Street, and venture over there occasionally. Before, I lived there for 5 years, wrote a blog about the area, and was on a first-name basis with many 14th Street business owners. I felt as if I knew every building and block by heart.

What I find is a neighborhood that, in less than two years' time, has transformed to a point where even I barely recognize it.

The admittedly sensitive topic of "gentrification" came up in roundabout ways numerous times during my 14th Street blogging days. Commenters would bemoan the loss of the supposed "character" of old 14th Street with the opening of every new wine bar or high-end furniture store. Escalating housing costs and businesses that were increasingly perceived to cater to a certain demographic (often white, always wealthy) led to a great amount of suspicion. And even many of us who didn't regard every restaurant opening with skepticism, such as myself, still questioned in what direction the neighborhood was headed, and who stood to benefit.

With the skyrocketing real estate prices and the nature of the businesses flooding into the corridor, I now feel that we have an answer to those questions. And if you aren't in a position to afford a $900,000 condo, you probably aren't going to like those answers.

It's better... but is it 'wonderful?'

It's a given that a city needs revenue in order to provide services to its citizens. Inhabited, maintained, tax revenue-generating properties are a positive for the city. And when the businesses that fill properties along commercial corridors succeed, they not only put revenue in the city's coffers, they incite more businesses to open and help to cultivate an energy and vitality that many seek via city living. Ideally, you have a win-win situation: a more bustling, energetic city that is providing more and better-quality services to its residents.

Harriet Tregoning, director of the DC Office of Planning, told the Post, "What is going on on 14th Street is fascinating, anomalous and wonderful for the city." Fascinating, yes. Anomalous, perhaps. Wonderful? Well that depends on who you ask, and who you are.

You won't find many who clamor for the conditions of the "old" 14th Street, or at least not the social ills that plagued it and surrounding streets throughout much of the latter-half of the 20th century. I have family members who lived along the corridor in the mid-80s who can regale you with stories of the drug transactions, prostitution, and other activities that took place just outside their front door.

The corridor was woefully underdeveloped, a victim of the flight out of the city that began in the late 1950s and reached its zenith immediately following the 1968 riots. In that respect, there's little argument that 14th Street is in a better place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

But there is no shortage of people who clamor for a more connected and sustainable neighborhood, one more accessible to a broader array of people where there's a greater likelihood that many of its residents will be able to put down roots and investment in its improvement for the long term.

A significant reason why 14th Street was able to turn around and become a desirable address was the tireless work of many residents who moved there during the 1970s, '80s and '90s—and remained. There were no million-dollar penthouse condos there then, and that was part of its appeal. But at some point the prices started rising, and haven't stopped since.

Stability quickly turns into unaffordability

For many people, there didn't seem to be much of an "in between" stage for 14th Street and Logan Circle. The neighborhood never really seemed to strike that balance between offering stability and a good quality of life with affordability and approachability.

It seemed to vault between two extremes over a relatively short period of time. The change that took place along 14th Street was drastic, and whenever change occurs that quickly, there will be people who were able to "get in" and are largely satisfied, and there will be people who find themselves shut out.

My wife and I found ourselves in the latter category. After living in a one-bedroom Logan Circle apartment for 5 years, we determined that, in addition to needing to provide my wife with a saner commute to her Montgomery County employer, we had tired of running into each other and simply needed more space.

We would have preferred to remain in Logan had we been able to, but aside from a handful of two-bedroom apartments and condos that were approximately the size of (or smaller than) our one-bedroom home, we found ourselves largely priced out of the market. A $600-$700,000 "luxury" condo, with its associated condo fees and taxes, was simply beyond reach.

But my evolving feelings about my old neighborhood don't just come from my own experiences while living there. They're also shaped by what has happened there since we left. The types of businesses that have continued to move into the neighborhood—posh eateries and bars, furniture stores selling $6,000 sofas, boutiques selling $100 pairs of yoga pants—are good at attracting young, moneyed visitors to the neighborhood, but aren't necessarily the kinds of businesses that serve the daily needs of residents. How many times a week, for example, are you going to drop $80 or $100 on dinner? How many $15 cocktails will you consume? How many $2,000 chairs will you purchase?

Beyond the upscale boutiques and restaurants, and the neighborhood's overall shift in commercial character, lies an even greater issue: who is moving here for the long term? I certainly do not mean to suggest that there aren't many fine, committed residents in Logan Circle invested in the long-term betterment of their neighborhood. I know from firsthand experience that there are. But much of the new housing along and around 14th Street and featured in the Post story isn't being built with long-term inhabitance in mind.

Many people can only live in a studio or cramped one-bedroom apartment for so long. Eventually you couple off, have a child, or simply decide you need more room. Where to, then? With, as the Post notes, two bedroom condos in the neighborhood fetching close to $1 million, and houses garnering more, it's safe to assume that many will not remain.

How do you build a community with such a constant revolving door of residents? And what happens if you can't? They are questions Logan Circle residents will need to answer over the coming years and decades.

Trendy destination, yes; good neighborhood?

14th Street is a very popular destination, but as a neighborhood Logan Circle today can feel a bit hollow. Undoubtedly, there are many fun places to go, good drinks to be drunk, and great food to be eaten. It's lively, it's safer, and it's generating a lot of money for the city. "Huzzah!" to all of that.

But before we stamp it with a "wonderful" and seek to determine how we can emulate it in other DC neighborhoods, consider everything that it may not be: Affordable. Approachable. Sustainable. Economically diverse. And then ask yourself what the District would look like if every neighborhood developed along a similar path.

I recently took a stroll along 14th Street, past old haunts like Thaitanic, Great Wall, and Pulp, and past new additions like Be Too, Black Whiskey, Ghibellina, Pearl Dive, and everyone's new favorite French brasserie, Le Diplomate. I felt some nostalgia for the street I walked along so many times, and I marveled at the frantic energy and the rapid pace of change that brought it to this point.

And then I studied the people dining outside at 14th Street's many sidewalk cafes, and I wondered how many of them live in the neighborhood? How many could? How many would make it their home for 10, 20, 30 years? And how many simply view it as a playground of sorts, good for a night out or a stroll, but otherwise not a place they can—or care to—settle in?

Change is inevitable, and there are many things to enjoy about the "new" 14th Street. It's a great destination, and can be a fine place to live. But I'm not sure that everything's wonderful.

A version of this article was posted at North FlintVille.


Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.


Bike lanes and jobs are not mutually exclusive

Bike lanes have lately become a proxy for all things that benefit affluent residents. But juxtaposing bike infrastructure with a program like job training distorts reality, because bicycle infrastructure costs a miniscule amount compared to job programs, and actually helps poor residents gain better access to jobs.

Photo by Tuaussi on Flickr.

Last week, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy took aim at what he characterized as the District's neglect of jobs for impoverished residents at the expense of initiatives he perceives as aimed at those who are more affluent:

This month, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) unveiled an economic development plan that he says will create 100,000 jobs and generate $1 billion in tax revenue over the next five years. But who will get those jobs? D.C. residents hold less than 30 percent of the jobs in the city, and readiness programs tried so far just haven't worked.

But what if the city got as serious about creating jobs as making bike lanes?

The problems of inequality and disparate economic opportunities are very real in DC, where a sizeable portion of the population—largely long-term African-American residents—do not seem to be benefitting from the city's so-called renaissance. Unemployment east of the Anacostia River remains significantly higher than in other parts of the city, and development that has transformed many areas of DC has been slow to reach its more impoverished areas.

Understanding the size and scope of this problem, inquiring why it persists and searching for meaningful solutions are worthy pursuits that all seeking to create a more livable city should support.

However, pitting jobs against programs like bike lanes is divisive, putting a bogeyman that supposedly symbolizes the city's misplaced priorities ahead of real issues. There's little evidence to support the idea that the District is pursuing initiatives such as bike lanes at the expense of jobs and social welfare programs.

Far more money goes into job programs than bike lanes

The District's FY2012 budget allocated $126 million to the Department of Employment Services (DOES). DOES' purview includes programs such as adult workforce programs, transitional employment, local job training and the controversial Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).

Many of these programs fall within the Workforce Development division, which "provides employment-related services for unemployed or underemployed persons so that they can achieve economic security." Workforce Development alone saw more than $55 million in the FY2012 budget.

Meanwhile, the District's Department of Transportation (DDOT) commands a 2012 capital budget of $128.1 million, which covers a vast array of responsibilities relating to the planning, construction and upkeep of the District's roads, bridges, trails and more. Separating out the amount spent specifically on bike-related infrastructure is practically impossible, and DDOT did not reply to an inquiry about these figures by publication time. However, some information is available.

DDOT's budget allocates $5.17 million "Mass Transit," which includes funds for programs such as bike sharing, car sharing and planning other alternative transportation options, while an additional $5 million is dedicated to planning and policy, which include pedestrian and bicycle programs and designing bicycle infrastructure.

Combined, this roughly $10.2 million, which constitutes expenses on far more than simply bike-related programs, comprises approximately 8% of DDOT's budget. (It would also represent a similar percentage of DOES' budget, and less than 1/5th of the amount spent on Workforce Development.)

The actual construction cost for bike routes and lanes throughout the District is minuscule, according to the District's Bicycle Master Plan. This is because DDOT constructs most bike lanes or routes as part of larger streetscape and repaving projects, which minimizes bicycle-specific costs.

According to the master plan, the total cost of construction and signage of all new bike routes and lanes between 2005-2015, which encompasses well over 100 miles of routes and lanes both east and west of the Anacostia, is only $420,000.

By contrast, the District budgeted $1.57 million in 2012 alone on reduced WMATA bus fares for impoverished residents east of the Anacostia. In other words, as a portion of DC's overall $9 billion budget, costs assignable specifically to biking and bike-related infrastructure make about as much of a dent in the District's budget as the cost of refreshments served at Council meetings. (OK, perhaps that's a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.)

One may argue that what the District is investing into job training and placement services for its more poverty-stricken communities is insufficient, and that it needs to make a greater effort to ensure that District residents can find work at many of the businesses moving into the city.

Or, perhaps one might ask why, with hundreds of millions of dollars having gone to DOES in recent years, the unemployment rate remains so stubbornly high? (Unemployment was 26% in Ward 8 in 2011, nearly twice as high as the highest ward west of the Anacostia (Ward 5) and 13 times greater than the District's most affluent ward, Ward 3.)

But these aren't the types of questions Milloy raises. He implies that poverty and income inequality remain persistent throughout the District in part because the local government is fixated on initiatives such as bike lanes that are supposedly focused on affluent residents at the expense of jobs programs for its needier residents. "Jobs, not bike lanes," he says.

Jobs and bike lanes are not mutually exclusive

Robust and well-funded job training and placement assistance programs are not incongruous with progressive transportation options such as bike lanes, streetcars, subways and buses. In fact, one might argue, the two actually go hand in hand. As the District's roads become more choked with traffic, and as the price of gasoline and the overall cost of car ownership continue to rise, developing more cost-efficient transportation options is a tremendously sensible policy.

For example, with its annual membership fee of $75 and stations throughout the city—including more than a dozen east of the Anacostia—Capital Bikeshare is a very cost-effective method of navigating the city. It's also environmentally friendly and physically beneficial.

The growing presence of bike lanes and routes, including many miles east of the Anacostia, along with bike parking options throughout the city, make commuting to and from one's place of employment on two wheels an attractive and convenient option.

Rather than question why the city is devoting any resources to bike lane construction, a better question would be why the city's existing job training and placement programs are ineffectual. And rather than perpetuating the fallacy that the District has to choose between these two, all residents should support a city that has both smarter, sustainable transportation options and innovative and effective job training and placement options at the same time.

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