Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Roads


Make space for bikes on the GW Parkway

The George Washington Parkway was originally just supposed to help tourists get to Mount Vernon, and its keepers' main mission is to preserve natural resources, not maintain roads. Could there be fewer driving lanes and more space for other modes of transportation?


This is the George Washington Memorial Parkway today: four high-speed lanes, no traffic lights, controlled access, and a narrow multiuser trail parallel to the roadway. All of this is next to the Potomac River. All images from the Virginia Bicycling Federation.

The southern section George Washington Memorial Parkway opened to traffic in 1932. Conceived as a means to ease tourist access to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, it morphed throughout the latter part of the 20th century into a motorist commuter route for far-flung suburbanites heading to DC.

Both the road and the adjacent Mount Vernon Trail are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS), whose mission is to "preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources" of the United States. You will not find anywhere in its mission statement that it is to provide fast, convenient commuter routes for the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Average daily traffic (ADT) volumes on the parkway within the last few years have been approximately 16,000 vehicles, a number that isn't huge but certainly lessens the road's original scenic purpose. Birdsong is impossible to hear with the din of SUVs in the background.


Note how close the four lanes of traffic are to the trail on the right. Also, note that no crosswalks are present at this busy intersection. Nor are there any signals to stop traffic for people crossing on foot or by bike.

That ADT number is also well within the 20,000 ADT set as the maximum for the practical implementation of a road diet as decreed by the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). That FHWA maximum is, itself, arbitrarily low based on real-world observations. For example, no significant increase in regional congestion was caused by the 2015 closure of two lanes on the far more heavily used Memorial Bridge just to the north.

Parallel to the four-lane parkway is the Mount Vernon Trail, a winding, narrow multiuser trail. In recent years, this trail has become a major commuter route for people who bike to and from DC. Upwards of 2000 bikes per day hit the trail, despite the trail's narrowness.

People who walk and bike must share this trail, as signs along the road prohibit bicycles from the road. Interestingly, the federal code governing the road's usagedoesn't reference bicycles explicitly. Nor does the code prohibit changes to the amount of space on the roadway given over to motorists.


Bikes are not allowed on the lightly-traveled GW Parkway. Instead, they are forced onto the adjacent Mount Vernon Trail.

Recently, the National Park Service released its National Capital Region Draft Paved Trail Study for comment. The study is an update of the 1990 plan written in an era when bicycling in the US was less of an everyday transportation mode and more of a recreational activity. The plan tends to view the trails in isolation. There's no mention of what mode will get priority when there is conflict, such as when people on bikes or on foot must cross the road for access to trails. It also does not address the feasibility of road diets that would balance out mode space on routes like the southern section of the parkway.

Does it make sense that cars on the southern section (below Alexandria) of the parkway are given four lanes of space while bikes and pedestrians are crammed onto the narrow, winding MVT? Both are major commuter routes, but whereas the MVT is overcrowded at 2000 ADT, the parkway is half-empty at 16,000 ADT. In essence, the trail is under-built, while the road is over-built.

If the draft paved trail plan truly acknowledged the modern and future needs of this particular route, discussion of a road diet on the GW Parkway would be on the table. The road could easily be shrunk to one vehicle lane in each direction with adjacent buffered bike lanes. The MVT could be given over entirely to people who walk, eliminating potentially hazardous bike-pedestrian conflicts.


A road diet on the parkway would leave two lanes for motorists, buffered bike lanes on the remaining space, and leave the Mount Vernon Trail exclusively for use by those on foot.

This is not without precedent. In 2001 the state of New York closed two out of four lanes on the Robert Moses Parkway in the Niagara Falls region. As with the GW Parkway, this highway was controlled access with an eye towards enhancing tourist traffic while providing access to scenic beauty. Instead, it proved to be such a failure in all regards that local advocates didn't stop with a road diet. They pushed through a plan to remove it entirely for at least a two mile stretch. If the state of New York can pull this off, despite actually having a mandate to provide speedy transportation options, why can't the National Park Service?


The Robert Moses Parkway in the Niagara River region was very similar to the George Washington Parkway, until a road diet was implemented. Now a two-mile portion will be removed to allow better river access.

NPS has an opportunity to shift its focus in the National Capital region away from an old-school, road-centric mindset to a more sustainable approach that also recognizes the changing commuter habits of younger generations. If you agree, send the National Park Service your comments via their comment page. You have until May 19th to do so. After that, you may have to wait another quarter-century to get your input to them.

This post originally ran on the Virginia Bicycling Federation's blog.

Public Spaces


Today would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday

Jane Jacobs was born May 4, 1916, 100 years ago today. She left the world in 2006, but in her 89 years of life she revolutionized how we think about cities. Here is what GGWash contributors said about Jane, the patron saint of American urbanism.


Today's Google Doodle honors Jane. Image from Google.

Jane's most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is required reading for anyone interested in the form of cities. It's helped generations of Americans understand what makes places like Georgetown so pleasant, and places like Boston's City Hall so repulsive.

Even 55 years after its publication, urbanists continue to obsess over Death and Life, debating obscure passages like clerics feuding over a religious text.

Ben Ross went straight to the point, then warned of the next great problem afflicting our cities:

Jane Jacobs was a true genius who developed a new paradigm of city planning. Our best city neighborhoods now suffer from the "curse of success" that she foresaw as the consequence of a scarcity of urbanism. How to overcome that scarcity is a problem that she left to us.
Canaan Merchant summarized two big lessons Jane taught him:
Look at what is actually happening rather than relying on what is "supposed" to happen. A city's beauty lies in its people rather than its buildings. Bring the people out and the buildings will take care of themselves.
Former contributor Abigail Zenner focused on how Jane successfully communicated ideas:
She introduced many people to the world of planning and gave us words to describe what we see every day in cities but have a hard time explaining in simple language. She was able to make a case that stirred peoples' hearts.
Nick Finio took a contrarian position, quoting a 1998 critique of Death and Life from UC Berkeley professor Roger Montgomery:
Let's not glorify her too much. Montgomery's critique ends with this zinger: "Taken together, these themes do add up. Anti-government and anti-regulation beliefs, confidence in the existence of a nearly perfect competitive market, inattention to corporate power, denial of social class and race as determinative categories, taken together look mighty like the core belief system of liberatarian conservatism."
But other contributors were quick to jump to Jacobs' defense. They pointed out that while her views may not be a perfect guide to urban issues today, her work helped surface notions that needed to come to the fore, like defending the idea of the city against car-oriented places, and eyes on the street maintaining safety.

Jonathan Krall added:

Just because Jacobs had a healthy mistrust for government and for large projects doesn't mean she was espousing neo-conservatism. I agree with Montgomery that Jacobs' excellent and helpful descriptions of healthy city life and associated planning issues skip over some very challenging social and political issues. However, I disagree with his implication that Jacobs is suggesting her readers should ignore those challenges.
Payton Chung opined on Jacobs' motivations:
Just like any "bible," there are bound to be contrary readings. There's a fine line between libertarianism and anarchism, and I'd argue Jacobs' overall oeuvre points to a mistrust of all large institutions, whether corporate or governmental.
When all was said and done, it may have been Brendan Casey who summed Jane up best:
The force was strong with that one.
What do you think of Jane, and of her impact on cities?

Retail


Chick-fil-A's proposed Van Ness drive-thru is denied

A key review board has denied Chick-fil-A's controversial request for a drive-thru in Van Ness. But it might not have the last word.


An early rendering of the planned Chick-fil-A in Van Ness.

At its meeting on Thursday, April 28th, the five-member Public Space Committee voted unanimously to deny Chick-fil-A a permit to widen an existing curb cut for a drive-thru at 4422 Connecticut Avenue, which is now the site of the Van Ness Burger King.

The committee, which has five members from various DC government agencies, made its decision based on testimony from Chick-fil-A, Van Ness community members and representatives, and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning (OP) staffers. Ryan Westrom of DDOT and OP's Tim Maher recommended against approving the curb cuts, concerned that the increased drive-thru traffic projected by Chick-fil-A would result in more conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.

Chick-fil-A says it'll stop traffic backups, but not persuasively

There is already a drive-thru here for Burger King, but it gets little traffic. A Chick-fil-A would draw much more. To try to prevent traffic backups, the store plans to have three to four employees taking orders on iPads on the north driveway, more employees at another station for taking cash in the back, and another area on the south driveway with a door for more staff to deliver the food. They also mentioned using the rear parking lot for overflow, assuming there would be available spaces.

"What would prevent a back up onto Connecticut Avenue?" they were asked. Chick-fil-A had a ready response: They would hire an off-duty police officer to direct traffic. Matthew Marcou, the chair of the Public Space Committee, raised his eyebrow at this, and quipped, "DDOT can't get any for other projects."

Chick-fil-A also promised to have additional staff on hand to quickly handle orders if a surge in drive-thru business was causing backups. ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham said promises of "self-monitoring" – which Chick-fil-A representatives continued to stress – were not enough. The city had no enforcement mechanism, she testified, if Chick-fil-A did not uphold its agreements.

Community groups and experts oppose the drive-thru

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F voted unanimously in February to oppose Chick-fil-A's drive-thru. Steve Gresham, a member of an ANC committee formed to study Chick-fil-A's application, testified about flaws in the drive-thru system, such as the lanes being too narrow to accommodate employees taking orders. And during peak hours of business, he said, cars could be blocking the sidewalk at either the entrance or exit of the drive-thru more than half of the time.

ANC 3F hired Karina Ricks, a former chair of the Public Space Committee, to consult. She stated in written testimony that the drive-thru did not meet regulatory muster. Ricks also said the drive-thru would create an unsafe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists – conditions that would run counter to DDOT's moveDC, the long-term DC transportation plan, and the goals of Vision Zero to reduce all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District to zero by 2024.

In addition, she said, the city was making substantial investments in Van Ness, in planning and implementation, to create a vibrant, walkable commercial area.

The Chick-fil-A can thrive without a drive-thru

Dipa Mehta, a co-chair of the economic development committee of Van Ness Main Street, presented research showing a safe, walkable environment is a key ingredient to fostering economic development. The car traffic generated by Chick-fil-A would be detrimental to the business climate at Van Ness, she said.

Chick-fil-A has stated in the past that the Van Ness location does not currently generate enough pedestrian traffic to support its business. However, I as a Van Ness Main Street board member testified that Chick-fil-A was underestimating the chain's potential to attract walk-in customers from the immediate area, given the large number of high-rise residential buildings nearby.

Marcou asked Chick-fil-A about pedestrian traffic in Tenleytown, where Chick-fil-A is building a restaurant without a drive-thru. The answer: They had not done a pedestrian count there.

Though comments on Forest Hills Connection articles about Chick-fil-A's plans indicate at least some residents support a drive-thru, the opposition has been more outspoken and organized. A Ward 3 Vision petition opposing the drive-thru collected 366 signatures. In addition, The Northwest Current published an open letter to Mayor Bowser from several signatories, including the owners of Bread Furst and Acacia Bistro, and co-presidents of the Hastings Condo Association, representing the building just north of the site at 4444 Connecticut. They asked for Bowser's support in opposing the drive-thru.

Only one resident testified in support of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. However, he explained that he had business ties to the location. He said similar driveway situations exist in nearby locations – at the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park, at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, and at the Tenleytown CVS – and pedestrians adjusted.

Committee member Reg Bazile cut him off. "Those locations are not similar," he said.

Marcou recommended that Chick-fil-A continue to pursue a Van Ness location, only without the drive-thru element. Chick-fil-A also has the option of going to court. That's what a citizens' group did in 1980, when a Burger King franchisee sought and received permits for the drive-thru in 1980. The court sided with the franchisee.

Van Ness Main Street President Mary Beth Ray said the community would support the restaurant without the drive-thru. "Our research has shown how wildly popular their food is, and we hope [Chick-fil-A's] interest in Van Ness goes beyond the drive thru," Ray said in an email. "Van Ness is open for business."

This originally ran on Forest Hills Connection.

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:

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