Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Retail


These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively

These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.


Storefronts in DC, New York, and Detroit. Image by City Observatory.

These maps are from City Observatory's Storefront Index report, and are part of a series of 51 such maps of the largest US metro areas.

In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.

Here's the DC map in greater detail:


Image by City Observatory.

You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.

Unfortunately the data clearly isn't perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.

Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.

Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.


Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.

Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country's dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.

Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York's streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it's a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.

Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.

Public Spaces


Rosslyn's sidewalks are getting a makeover

Sidewalks are critical parts of where we live. They connect us to restaurants and businesses, make for a safe environment, and foster a sense of community. A plan for Rosslyn's future is focusing on making its sidewalks easier and more pleasant to use.


All images from the Rosslyn BID.

Cities today are focused on sustainability and on developing mixed-use areas, with businesses and residential sharing the same space. Passed in 2015, "Realize Rosslyn" is Arlington County's long-term sector plan to transform the city into a "live-work-shop-play" urban center. To make access by foot, bike, or car easier, one element of the plan is a call for smarter street designs wider sidewalks.

The plan also prioritizes expanded parks and public spaces and better access to public transit, including Metro.

In a separate but connected project, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (BID) launched the Streetscape Elements Master Plan. During the planning process in 2013, the BID collaborated with Arlington County and Ignacio Ciocchini, a New York-based industrial designer, to develop the streetscape initiative that would extend the benefits of the public sector improvements envisioned by the larger plan down to the sidewalk and pedestrian levels.

To do this, the BID carried out a comprehensive look at Rosslyn's sidewalks to determine what was missing and what could help create a unified and active streetscape. The BID also studied examples of other dense urban districts that had successfully transformed their pedestrian environments.

After researching, the BID decided on what to install as part of the streetscape. New benches, newspaper corrals, and planters will improve the pedestrian experience; way-finding signs and a mobile informational kiosk will make it easier for visitors to navigate; bike racks will encourage multimodal transportation; and the mobile curbside parklets will support retail and dining establishments. Many of these elements are mobile, meaning they can be moved to where they'll best support the community at a moment's notice.

Combining form and function, the sidewalk elements also complement the unique identity of the neighborhood and the business and residential development happening all around us. For example, the perforated design used in many of the street elements, including benches and chairs, is unique to Rosslyn and derived from the window lights of prominent buildings on our skyline that were simplified and digitally transferred to form the pattern.


Benches with etchings of the Rosslyn skyline.

Currently, the streetscape project is in a demonstration phase: the public can see many of the elements at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and Oak Street. The hope is to eventually roll out over 600 elements in all of Rosslyn's 17 blocks.

A key aspect of this project was the proactive communication and collaboration between all of the stakeholders, from city planners and policymakers to business leaders and the public. While the Rosslyn BID leads the streetscape initiative, it has received immense support from Arlington County. The BID will use private money to fund the project.

The guiding mantra behind the Rosslyn BID's efforts has been to ensure that all development is people-centric and a reflection of the community's identity. Much like the BID did with the mobile vending zone pilot, the BID will be actively gathering feedback from the community and using that input to guide the next phase of the project as it expands to the rest of Rosslyn.

We hope that everyone who lives or works in Rosslyn—or who visits from DC and elsewhere in northern Virginia—will come and experience our new streetscape elements and let us know what you like, what can be improved upon and what additional steps we can take to build a better Rosslyn.

Transit


Metro's new displays do a better job of sharing info

Metro has installed new passenger information displays at some of its stations. The new signs fix the long-standing problem of showing information about elevator outages at far away stations rather than when the next train will reach the platform.

Metro customers have spotted new passenger information displays at Arlington Cemetery, Ballston, Judiciary Square, and Takoma. Like the older ones the majority of stations still have, the new displays list real-time train arrival information in three lines.

The biggest upside to the new signs is that instead of using the entire screen to slowly cycle through elevator outages, they simply show the info in a scrolling feed across the bottom.

In addition to the stations listed above, Metro's latest Customer Accountability Report says the new displays will go in on the mezzanine level at Smithsonian, Tenleytown, and Ballston by May of this year.

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Public Spaces


Work on the Rock Creek Park Trail will fulfill a long-ago promise

Two complementary projects starting in the near future promise to completely change the bike trails in Rock Creek Park. Both will address trail issues first raised over 20 years ago.


Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The first project will rebuild Beach Drive and 1.5 miles of the 5.9 mile trail that runs alongside it. It will reconfigure the part of the trail that runs through the tunnel that goes under the National Zoo, build a new bridge over Rock Creek, and reshape the trail's intersection with Shoreham Drive. It should start this year, and finish in 2018.

Meanwhile, the District Department of Transportation wants to start a complementary project in the spring of 2017 that will build one new mile of trail within Rock Creek Park and rehabilitate another 3.5 miles of trail.

This project has been a long time coming. It was first publicly announced in October 2005, at which time work was to start in January 2007 and be finished by the end of that year, but since DDOT and the NPS couldn't agree on some details, it's been delayed. But it actually goes back even further: Many of the problems it's hoping to address (along with some the FHWA project will address) were first identified all the way back in 1990, in a National Park Service report called "Paved Trails of the National Capitol Region." That plan is currently being updated.

But at the Bicycle Advisory Council's March Meeting, DDOT's Michael Alvino said the project is moving forward. A rebuilt and expanded Rock Creek Trail promises to make the trail safer and and more useful. Here's a rundown of the specifics:

Rose Park and the P Street Ramp

Rose Park is on the east side of Georgetown, south of P Street and east of 27th. On the east side of the park there is a trail, about 40 feet above the parallel Rock Creek Park Trail (RCPT), called the Rose Park Trail. From M and 28th to P and 25th, that trail will be widened by about one foot, making it about six feet wide.

From the northern end of the Rose Park Trail, a ramp connects P Street to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. Right now, there's a trail connection on the downhill side of that ramp, and there's now a plan to install a second path along the uphill side. This should help cut down on the number of times cyclists need to cross the ramp, and help minimize times those climbing up the hill and others biking down come into conflict. This project will add trails to both sides of the ramp.


Trail at the P Street Ramp. All images from DDOT unless otherwise noted.

The Devil's Chair

The Devil's Chair Bridge just north of Q street requires trail users to make two quick 90 degree turns to cross Rock Creek. While it won't be realigned, it will get a wider curve on the Mt. Zion cemetery side. Also, the fenced in landing on the opposite side will be replaced with a curved approach.


The north landing of the Devil's Chair Bridge.

Trail straightening

DDOT will straighten the trail in several places. One example of what this looks like is below the Calvert Street Bridge, where the trail curve has resulted in a well-worn desire line. Realizing the people have spoken, DDOT will make the desire line the new trail, and the curved portion will be removed.


Straightened Rock Creek Trail beneath Calvert Street.

New access to Harvard Street

Between Cathedral Avenue and Klingle Road, a distance of about a mile, the only trail access point is Zoo Drive, just south of Harvard Street. Zoo Drive gives trail users a roundabout access to Harvard Street, but only when the Zoo is open. The trail project will create new, more direct access to Harvard Street, via a route that is not impacted by Zoo hours. A small trail spur will connect to a crosswalk across Beach Drive. On the other side of Beach, trail users can connect to Harvard Street at Adams Mill Road via a five foot wide ramp. Part of the ramp can be bypassed by a set of stairs with a bicycle runner.


New trail connection to Harvard Street.

Paved desire line north of Tilden

Just north of Tilden, the current trail splits in two. A paved trail connects to the parking lot off Broad Branch Road and a desire line leads to the current crosswalk. DDOT will pave the desire line, connect the two trails and create a new curb ramp at the existing crosswalk across Broad Branch.


Twin trails between Broad Branch and Tilden.

Improved Beach/Blagden/Broad Branch intersection

The double intersection of Beach Drive with Blagden Avenue on one side of Rock Creek and Broad Branch on the other side will be reworked to make it safer for trail users, and to create a better connection to the trail along the south side of Blagden Street.

The new intersection will remove the slip lane from Beach to Blagdon to slow down turning vehicles. Three new crosswalks with curb ramps and new sidewalk on the east side of Beach will connect the RCPT to the trail along Blagden. Another curb ramp will connect the end of the RCPT to Beach.


New Beach Road intersections with Blagden and Broad Branch.

New trail along Piney Branch Parkway

In addition to improving miles of existing trail, DDOT will build about one mile of trail along Piney Branch Parkway. Connecting, via a crosswalk across Beach, to a new section of trail that the FHWA will construct adjacent to Beach Drive, the Piney Branch Trail will climb up to Arkansas Avenue on the north side of Piney Branch Parkway, passing under 16th Street on the way.

Once at Arkansas Avenue, DDOT will extend the trail east to Taylor Street and west to 16th Street.


Piney Branch Trail terminus at Arkansas Avenue.

Klingle Road connection

The current trail spur to Klingle Drive will be removed and a new one will replace it about 10 feet closer to Rock Creek. This will allow DDOT to install two new crosswalks to the sidewalk on the other side of Klingle and use the existing median as a pedestrian refuge. The sidewalk along Klingle will also be improved, connecting to the new FHWA-built section of trail along Beach to the Piney Branch Trail.


Crosswalk to Klingle Road Sidewalk.

As comprehensive as these projects are, and as much of an improvement as they represent, they—and other ongoing or previously completed projects—still don't address all the needs identified in the 1990 Paved Trails report. In fact only one of the four "high priority" projects have been completed. We still need a complete trail between Broad Branch and the Maryland boundary, a re-design of Zoo security "so that the streamside trail can be used 24 hours a day all year", and a trail along Broad Branch (though a plan to install a sidewalk and bike lane is scheduled for construction in 2019).

Since the Klingle Valley Trail is currently underway, there is only one unaddressed medium priority project: using the Lover's Lane path to connect the trail to Massachusetts Avenue.

Finally, the three unaddressed low priority projects are a trail from W Street and 44th to Rock Creek via the Whitehaven Parkway and Dumbarton Oaks Park, rehabilitation of the Oregon Avenue/Bingham Road loop and the addition of a trail along Park Road NW from Beach Road to the Piney Branch Parkway.

Still, this project represents a major step towards the fulfillment of that plan.

Pedestrians


This Annandale park is getting a new foot bridge, after all

In late March, a foot bridge in Annandale disappeared altogether because Fairfax County officials said they couldn't afford to fix or replace it. On Wednesday, however, the county said it will build a new one.


This bridge is gone, but a new one will replace it soon. Photo by Rick Carlstrom.

On March 23, the county removed the bridge, which crosses a tiny stream in Annandale's Broyhill Crest Park, after determining it was in danger of collapsing. At that time, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross told residents that, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority, a replacement bridge would cost $80,000 and there was no money in the budget for a new one.

But in an April 20 email to the Broyhill Crest community, Gross said she and Frank Vajda, the Mason representative on the Park Authority Board, continued to work with Park Authority staff on finding a way to replace the bridge. "Leaving the community bereft of a pedestrian crossing for a long period of time was unacceptable," she said.

"I am happy to report that the Park Authority came through, funding has been identified, and the order for a new fiberglass bridge has been placed," she continued.

A prefabricated bridge should arrive in about four weeks, and the project should be finished in about six.


The trail between Murray Lane and Lockwood Lane where a new pedestrian bridge will be installed. Photo by the author.

"In the meantime," Gross said, "Park Authority maintenance staff will be working at the site to stabilize the stream banks and prepare for installation of bridge foundations prior to the placement of the new bridge."

Gross estimated using park maintenance staff instead of contractors for some of the work will save about $20,000. She can't say what the final cost will be because "we don't know what problems they might run into." The county will still have to hire contractors to install the piers and do some of the stream restoration work, she said.

Local residents who had spoken up about the unsafe bridge for years and urged the county to fix it had been disappointed that the county would simply remove it without any plans for replacing it.

Crossposted from Annandale VA. Also, this post was updated to reflect Penny Gross' comments on costs and savings.

Bicycling


A safer bike ride through Rock Creek Park is on the way

Later this year, work will begin to reconstruct Beach Drive and parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail. The road will get a lot of work that should mitigate the environmental damage it causes, and the trail—in particular, three spots that consistently give cyclists and pedestrians trouble—will get wider.


A cyclist navigates the National Zoo tunnel under Administration Hill. Photo by Jay Mallin on Flickr.

Headed up by the Federal Highway Administration, the project should take between two and three years. It will focus primarily on Beach Drive, a 6.5 mile long road that runs from the Maryland state line to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, rehabilitating nearly a dozen bridges and rebuilding the roadway and adjacent parking lots.

New pavement markers and centerline rumble strips will also go in, along with new steel-backed timber guardrails and better lights and signs.

To mitigate stormwater runoff, stormwater management elements like bioretention ponds and bioswales will go in at strategic points along the road, and workers will stabilize the creek bank with retaining walls.

In addition, DC Water will take the opportunity to add 16 manhole vaults to the Rock Creek Main Interceptor beneath Beach Drive. This will allow DC Water to rehabilitate the interceptor and Beach Drive sewers at a later date without cutting Beach Drive's newly-added asphalt.

Rock Creek Park Trail is a big part of the project

As part of the road rehabilitation, the project will resurface and widen parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail in the sections closest to Beach Drive.

The main section of the Rock Creek Park Trail is a 5.2 mile stretch from Peter's Point along the Potomac River, just south of the Roosevelt Bridge, to Broad Branch Road, near the Forrest Hills neighborhood. Another 0.7 mile long section starts north of there at the intersection of Joyce and Beach Drive and then follows Beach to Bingham Drive.

The FHWA work will focus on a piece of the main section from Shoreham Drive just south of Connecticut Avenue to Bluff Bridge just south of Tilden Street.

Changes to several problem areas along the trail, which users have long said were dangerous, will be a signature of the project.

The tunnel that runs under the National Zoo's administration building is currently an unappealing option for cyclists and pedestrians because there is little space set aside for them, and what is there is totally unprotected. As of now, it's the only option for getting through the park when the trail section that runs through the zoo is closed.

To make it more appealing, the FHWA will narrow the travel lanes inside the tunnel and widen the sidewalk from two feet to five feet, with a new 21 inch tall crash-worthy railing. "Cyclists Must Dismount" signs will also go up.


FHWA will widen the sidewalk through the Zoo tunnel. Image from US DOT.

Just south of the Zoo tunnel, the trail currently crosses Rock Creek on a notoriously narrow five foot wide sidewalk. The FHWA will build a new 11 foot wide, 140 foot long bridge just upstream from the existing zoo tunnel bridge that will serve as the new trail bridge. The existing sidewalk will also remain.


Rendering of the new trail bridge adjacent to the Zoo bridge. Image from US DOT.

Another trouble spot is where the trail crosses Shoreham Drive, the ramp that runs from Beach Drive to Calvert. There, trail users must cross two lanes of fast moving traffic on a diagonal crosswalk without the aid of a traffic-control device.


Shoreham Drive intersection and trail reconfiguration

Already improved once less than 10 years ago to remove the old dual crosswalk configuration, the crosswalk will be straightened to take the shortest path across the road. The crosswalk will also be widened to 12 feet, and include a pedestrian island. The trail just north of there will also be straightened, and the intersection with the trail along Cathedral Avenue will get separate paths for those going north or south.

The trail is getting work in other places too

The FHWA will pour new asphalt, straighten the trail in several places, and widen it to ten feet in most places, eight in others (it's currently between six and seven feet wide in most places).

The FHWA will also construct a new trail, running from Porter Street to Bluff Bridge and connecting to a 0.8 mile long trail that DDOT plans to build later along Piney Branch Parkway from Beach to Arkansas Avenue. All trails will be designed for speeds of 18 mph (designated speeds for bikes mostly have to do with the turning radius and the amount of space at turns).

Delays and completion time

The project, promised since before the adoption of the Park's General Management Plan in 2006, has been delayed again this year. Last year WABA announced that these projects would start in the fall of 2015 and then in December the Park Service said they would start this spring, but since then the proposal due date has slipped from November 5th to March 29th, putting them a little less than five months behind, with a "no earlier than" date of August 2016.

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