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Arts


This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.


A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild Healthcare.gov, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Healthcare.gov. Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.


Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

History


The Red Line could have had amazing views over Rock Creek

Between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park, the Metro Red Line runs in a very deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek. But early plans would have put it inside the bridge that carries Connecticut Avenue across the ravine.


Drawing by Weese & Associates.

The blog Architect of the Capital chronicles the history of many battles between WMATA and the National Park Service. NPS vetoed a track through the structure of Connecticut Avenue's Taft Bridge and another, later plan to actually use the bridge for a station:

A station would not have been a very good idea, as much of the half mile "walkshed" would have been wasted on parts of Rock Creek instead of maximizing the number of residents, businesses, and other destinations near the station.

As Zachary Schrag explains in The Great Society Subway, WMATA ended up using a deep tunnel to get under Rock Creek; that is the reason the Dupont Circle and Woodley Park stations are so deep.

Transit


"Ludicrous" ruling could delay or scuttle the Purple Line

Just four days before Maryland was set to sign a key agreement to build the Purple Line, a federal judge blocked the project, saying declining Metro ridership requires re-studying all of the projections for the light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton (which will not be built or operated by WMATA).


This would destroy the environment, right? Image from the State of Maryland. (Governor Hogan has cut the grass tracks and many trees from the plan to save money, in an ironic turn for Purple Line opponents who supported him.)

The decision, from US District Court judge Richard Leon, says that the federal government "arbitrarily and capriciously" violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by deeming it unnecessary to do another, supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Saving the environment, or protecting an exclusive enclave?

The EIS is the way federal law ensures that public works don't harm the environment, or at the very least, that the government analyze their environmental effect. It's an important way to be sure the environment isn't ignored (and that low-income areas don't bear all the brunt of environmental harm), but it's been widely misused as a way for wealthy communities with lots of legal resources to block projects.

Nobody seriously believes that saving the environment is the goal of the wealthy plaintiffs, most of whom are from the Town of Chevy Chase and who have been fighting the project in the courts and in the political sphere for many years. The Purple Line will run along the edge of the town, in an old railroad right-of-way that is now the unpaved Georgetown Branch Trail and will be part of a forthcoming Capital Crescent Trail extension.

The trail will remain, next to the Purple Line, but in a less forested setting. It will, however, finally connect to Silver Spring, making it usable for far more Montgomery County residents than today. That's not a boon to the few wealthy homeowners who have monopolized this transportation-dedicated land for their own semi-private use.

They have, however, repeatedly cast about for environmental excuses to block the project. For a while, that was the Hays Spring Amphipod, an endangered species of tiny, sightless crustacean found only in Rock Creek in the District. Chevy Chase opponents paid a researcher to try to find evidence of the amphipod near the Purple Line's proposed route in hopes that would stymie the line, but to no avail.

Now, they seem to have hit on an argument that worked at least with one judge: that Metro's woes mean the Purple Line, which will connect four branches of the Metro, won't get as many riders. The EIS uses ridership projections to justify the line, including why it should be light rail as opposed to the "bus rapid transit" that Town of Chevy Chase opponents have pushed for (since a bus wouldn't go through their town). About a quarter of the Purple Line's riders are expected to transfer to or from Metro.


Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Metro is suffering. That doesn't make the Purple Line a bad idea.

Metro ridership has been declining for the last few years thanks in large part to the system's maintenance, safety, and reliability problems. This, the Purple Line opponents argue, calls into question the calculations in the EIS. Leon bought that argument.

The federal government said that Metro ridership isn't sufficiently connected to the Purple Line. Metro won't operate the Purple Line and it uses different technology (light rail versus heavy rail), so there's no reason to believe the Purple Line would have similar maintenance problems. But Leon said Metro's dropping ridership still counts as a "substantial change[] in the proposed action that [is] relevant to environmental concerns" and that dismissing the issue is "arbitrary and capricious" on the agency's part.

This is, as AU Law professor Tony Varona put it, "absurd." Once could as easily, and perhaps more credibly, argue that Metro's struggles will get more people riding the Purple Line as an alternative to Metrorail.

Regardless, the judge is impermissibly substituting his own judgment for experts' when he decided that Metro missteps create a "substantial change." Ben Ross said, "Metro's current problems will have absolutely no impact on a forecast of 2040 ridership made by FTA-approved models. FTA regulations require that the models must be based on COG demographics and the transportation network in the [Constrained Long-Range Plan]." The FTA also argued that Metro should have its problems under control by 2022, and even if the judge thinks otherwise from what he hears at cocktail parties and in the media, that's not a basis for a legal decision.

Finally, even if ridership will drop, the Purple Line will not harm the environment. Quite the contrary, it will move many people from cars to a more efficient, lower-polluting mode of travel, and likely reduce congestion as well. There's no serious argument that this ridership change could harm the environment, and protecting the environment is the purpose of NEPA.

Transit gets held to an unreasonable standard

Sadly, too often, road projects sail through NEPA while transit has to repeatedly justify its value. Some of this is because people used to believe new road projects relieved traffic, and people driving faster pollute less. This is false; instead, new highway capacity induces some driving demand, increasing the total amount of driving and thus pollution.

That hasn't stopped people from (mis)using NEPA and other laws, like California's even tougher CEQA, to block anything that inconveniences drivers. In San Francisco, a judge held up the city's bike plan for four years because bike foes argued that lanes would add to traffic and thus pollution; they similarly tried to stop the city from charging at parking meters on Sundays under a similar chain of reasoning.

Maryland will appeal the ruling, and hopefully the DC Circuit will quickly reverse Judge Leon's ridiculous ruling. The delay will surely cost money; if it's enough to derail the line is yet to be seen, though certainly what the plaintiffs hope.

If the appeals court doesn't smack Leon down rapidly, it seems someone could sue in DC District Court to overturn every single EIS for a road anywhere. After all, it's not just Metro whose ridership projections have fallen; the government has over-estimated the amount of driving nationwide for at least a decade.


Image from Transportation For America.

While flat VMT does counsel against adding or widening highways, it wouldn't mean Leon ought to block every road on this basis. It'd be interesting to see what he'd do if someone tried, though.

History


Check out hidden transportation gems in our region

Just about everyone knows about the Washington Metro and Beltway, but those well-known structures only scratch the surface of interesting infrastructure in our region. Here is a list of some fascinating, but oft-forgotten, pieces of Washingtonia. Each link provides additional information, including pictures:


Photo by tormol on Flickr.

The Capitol Subway: Metrorail isn't the only subway system in Washington. Under Capitol Hill three subway lines emanate like rays out from the Capitol building, carrying Congresspeople and their staff members to and from the various Congressional office buildings.

The first line, to the Russell Building, opened in 1909, with lines going to the Hart, Dirksen, and Rayburn buildings opening between 1960 and 1982. The secret subway isn't really a secret, and although it's not open to the public, visitors can catch a ride if they arrange one with their Congressperson.

The Aqueduct Bridge: Non sequitur though it may be, there was indeed once a bridge that carried boats over the Potomac.

It opened in 1843 and was called the Aqueduct Bridge. It ran from the C&O Canal in Georgetown across the river to Rosslyn, where it met a canal going from there to Alexandria. Canal boats of the day were too fragile to survive the river, so a bridge was needed.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Although the main span of the aqueduct was torn down when the Key Bridge was built in 1923, the old abutments remain on both the DC and Virginia sides. In fact, visitors to Georgetown can walk right up onto the ruins, to be greeted by some of the city's loveliest views.

The Montgomery/Loudoun ferry: Since 1817 there has been ferry service across the Potomac between Montgomery and Loudoun Counties. White's Ferry, as it is currently known, is a floating slab of concrete that runs along a cable connected to both sides of the river. It carries cars, pedestrians and bicyclists commuting between Maryland and Northern Virginia every day of the week.


Photo by chriggy1 on Flickr.

Trolley remnants: Trolleys were once the bread and butter of urban transportation. As whole towns are now built around cars, whole towns were once built around streetcars. Although it's been 49 years since the last trolley rolled down a Washington street, there remains a plenitude of vintage trolley infrastructure.

The most famous cases are the abandoned trolley subway station under Dupont Circle and the trolley tracks visible on P Street in Georgetown, but those examples aren't alone. There are least four old trolley station depots still standing, at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, on Colorado Avenue, on Calvert Street, and on Connecticut Avenue (though that last may have only served buses).


From left to right, the Connecticut Avenue terminal in Chevy Chase,
the 14th & Colorodo NW terminal, the Calvert Street terminal.

Car barns, where trolley vehicles were stored when not in use, remain standing and converted to other purposes in several neighborhoods across the city. Even the light poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge are remnants of trolleys; they're twice as tall as the lights they hold because decades ago they also strung trolley wires.Washington is a fascinating city a long and diverse history. What other little-known pieces of the city can you name?

This post originally ran in 2011, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it with you again!

Architecture


Google Maps gives DC the 3D treatment

For a number of years now, Google Maps has let you check out the buildings and topography of most medium to large cities, and increasingly even smaller towns, in 3D—but not DC. Now, nearly all of the District and parts of Arlington come in three dimensions.


Image from Google Maps.

Initially, Google Maps only showed prominent landmarks in 3D, as models had to be crowded-sourced and created by hand with Google Sketchup, the company's modeling software. Then in 2012, Maps rolled out a way of automating 3D generation through a process known as stereophotogrammetry.

Nearly all of DC is now included in the feature, as well as Rosslyn and National Airport.

Though the automated modeling process isn't perfect, it really makes the city pop when you turn the feature on. To check it out, go to Google Maps, turn on satellite mode, and click the "3D" button in the bottom right. Be sure to rotate the view to get the full experience! Holding the control key will allow you to click-and-drag the camera angle.

Some of my favorite spots to view with the new feature are Woodley Park and the National Cathedral, Columbia Heights, the National Arboretum, and upper Georgia Avenue.


The National Cathedral in 3D.

There has been speculation that the reason DC was excluded from 3D display was for security reasons. The areas that were excluded from rendering seem to confirm that might have been the case: in DC, the areas around the National Mall, the White House, Federal Center SW, and Foggy Bottom are conspicuously absent from the feature.


Image from Google Maps.

While you can now see the Rosslyn skyline from your computer, the rest of Northern Virginia and Maryland haven't been included, though they may be added later.

Let us know what interesting things you find with the 3D feature!

History


An 1886 plan would have built atop Rock Creek

An 1886 Washington Post article outlines a plan to put Rock Creek in a tunnel from about M Street to just north of R Street, fill in the ravine, and create city blocks between Georgetown and Dupont.


Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Proponents estimated it would create 50 "squares" (generally city blocks) of space, for a cost of about $600,000 to $650,000, or about $15-16 million in today's dollars.

By keeping Rock Creek, DC has not only a surface waterway but a number of park spaces on the banks, such as Rose Park. Unfortunately, a different plan ultimately greatly marred the creek: Rock Creek Parkway, which dominates this section of the creek valley.

At any spot, someone trying to enjoy the edge parks or trail has to contend with a large freeway creating most of the noise and taking up much of the ravine floor. National Park Service management practice in this part of Rock Creek prioritizes motor vehicle traffic over any other user. Features in the park, like signs that tell trail users to yield to cars when crossing the on- and off-ramps, further make clear that nature and recreation come last here.

Here is the map from the article:

Tom from Ghosts of DC also posted an excerpt from the story:

"From what I have seen in the papers," said Capt. Symonds, when asked by a POST reporter for his opinion regarding the cost and practicability of the proposed Rock Creek tunnel, "I should consider it a perfectly practicable and feasible scheme, and I should think that the benefits resulting would fully justify the outlay necessary."

"How long would be the tunnel?"

"From the location as described it would require a tunnel about 2,000 feet long with some open cut work at the ends."

"What would be the cost?"

"Its cost would depend largely on the nature of the rock encountered. It would probably be necessary to arch it over throughout its length and if the excavated rock were suitable in quality it could be used for this purpose. In this case I should estimate the cost of the tunnel, with a sufficient water-way for all floods, to be about $250 per lineal foot. This would make the 2,000 feet of tunnel cost $500,000. Another $100,000 would cover all the open work at the ends, and all engineering expenses, etc. If it was found necessary to use brick for arching the cost would be about $50,000 more. This would make the cost from $600,000 to $650,000, which I believe would cover all expenses for the work proper without including any question of right of way. The excavated material would be used for arching in the form of rubble masonry, not in the form of concrete. The bed of the creek could not be used for a dumping ground. It could not be filled up directly with the excavated material, for it would have to be kept open for the passage of water until the tunnel was completed.

"It is not at all improbably," continued Capt. Symonds, "that a sufficient amount of good material would be excavated to arch the creek over from the lower terminus of the tunnel to the outlet of the canal. In this way the improvement could be made more far-reaching and beneficial. The creek would be blotted out of sight from Lyons' Mill to the mouth of the canal. I should think that the best use for the excavated material, beyond that used for curbing the tunnel, would be in building embankments across the valley of the creek connecting the streets of Washington and Georgetown, thus doing away with bridges and uniting the two cities. The spaces between the embankments could gradually be filled in. If properly managed it would be a splendid improvement.

We originally ran this post in 2013, but since the history hasn't changed, we wanted to share it with you again!

Bicycling


Arlington's Fort Myer will soon be much more bike and pedestrian friendly

On August 1st, a long-closed gate at an Arlington military base will re-open for pedestrians and cyclists. The change will make it so you no longer have to take a huge detour to leave that part of the base, meaning travel by walking or riding a bike will be much more appealing.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, pictured in 2012. Image from Mobility Lab/Google Maps.

Located at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBMHH) and known as Henry Gate because the road it sits on becomes Henry Place once it enters the base, the gate is where Arlington Boulevard (US-50) meets North Pershing Drive. The change comes as a result of recommendations from a study by Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation Partners.

Pershing is popular amongst both drivers and cyclists, running east-west through the quiet neighborhoods of Lyon Park, Ashton Heights, and Buckingham. Pershing is scheduled to receive bike improvements in the near future, and the stretch near the intersection with Arlington Boulevard already features bike lanes and a recently-completed mixed-use development called The Shops at Pershing.

On the other side of the fence, the barracks located just behind Henry Gate house hundreds of young soldiers, many of whom do not have easy access to cars and could really put transit, bike, and pedestrian networks to use. Nearby, there's a CaBi station, a Metrobus stop, Zipcars, and the Arlington Boulevard Trail.

However, because Henry Gate has been closed since 9/11 as part of a wave of increased security, the soldiers in these barracks have to live within yards of these amenities without being able to easily reach by any way other than driving. A base resident would have to walk 33 minutes and 1.6 miles out of their way to reach them without a car, utilizing the main gate at 2nd Street South.


Detour that pedestrians and cyclists would have to take to reach The Shops at Pershing due to Henry Gate's closure. Image from Google Maps.

However, that's all about to change thanks to Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation. After surveying 467 residents and people who work at JBMHH, ATP found that 88 percent of the commuting population drives to work alone. Once the surveyors solicited ideas from participants on how to combat this issue, the idea to reopen Henry Gate to pedestrians and cyclists caught on with base officials.

After numerous meetings between Mobility Lab/ATP and JBMHH staff, Henry Gate is finally scheduled to reopen on August 1st. The new access point will only be open to pedestrians and cyclists, giving them a convenient way to access the amenities located directly outside the gate and connecting them to the wider transit network via the Metrobus stop and bike trail.

Additionally, keeping the gate closed to cars will ensure that there won't be any new congestion along Arlington Boulevard or Pershing as a result of this decision. It's an incredibly welcome improvement for bike and pedestrian access to one of the county's most expansive military installations.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, the adjacent Metrobus stop, and newly-improved Arlington Boulevard Trail. Image from Google Maps.

A few other recommendations for improving access to Fort Myer for people who don't drive came of Mobility Lab and ATP's survey. For instance, because the vast majority of work trips to JBMHH are made at the same time, the study recommended making employees more aware of carpooling and vanpooling through a service like Commuter Connections.

Also, in conjunction with the reopening of Henry Gate, the base hopes to create a "geofence"—a set pickup location across the street from the gate—where taxi, Uber, and Lyft drivers can pick up and drop off passengers without having to physically drive onto the base, which is currently seen as an inconvenient option due to heightened security measures.

Improving pedestrian and bike access for the soldiers that live at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is certainly a noble goal. But reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips to JBMHH (and thereby reducing congestion) will not only benefit the base's residents and workers, but also Arlington County as a whole. See Mobility Lab and ATP's full presentation on their JBMHH Transportation Survey here.

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