Posts in category Public Spaces
Residential density in DC is increasing at a faster rate than we can create public spaces for new residents to enjoy. Parklets, like those that have been cropping up in San Francisco, could provide much-needed green space while making our neighborhoods more interesting.
When I look out my office window in Shaw, all I see are cranes. Planners and developers tell me that vacant land is almost impossible to find. Mixed-use developments being built in places such as the 14th Street corridor are allowed to cover between 75% and 100% of their lots, leaving few opportunities to create new public spaces.
In order to infuse more life into the city, we need to do more than increase population. DC already has amazing public parks, but what if there could be a more intimate outdoor experience?
What if we had a park for every block?
Two years ago, I spent the summer in San Francisco researching my architecture and real estate development thesis in graduate school at the University of Maryland. I wanted to measure the value of quality of life, and San Francisco was attractive since it's a place of innovation that trickles down from tech to urban design.
That's when I discovered parklets, an extension of the sidewalk that turns on-street parking spaces into privately funded public parks. In 2005, San Francisco architecture firm Rebar installed a temporary park in a single-metered street parking space. This intervention evolved into what is now Park(ing) Day, an annual event in which day-long parklets pop up around the world to generate awareness of the necessity and value of public space. Last year, there were several Park(ing) Day parklets closer to home in the District, Silver Spring and Arlington.
San Francisco's Pavement to Parks Program, which began in 2010, says parklets "repurpose part of the street into a public space for people." Today, there are over 35 parklets in the city and more getting entitled.
Parklets often have seating, plants, bike parking and art. Unlike Park(ing) Day parklets, which are only a placeholder intended to start a dialogue for how we can utilize urban space in new ways, permanent parklets are set on a platform raised about 6 inches above the street. This makes it level with the sidewalk, creating a sense of separation and security from the activity of the street and establishing the parklet as a discrete space.
Though they're often maintained by private businesses, residents or community groups, they're open to the public. They're an affordable way to provide high-quality public open space in areas where land is expensive and hotly contested, especially on commercial corridors.
The Pavement to Parks Program has found that parklets also have economic benefits. "Parklets catalyze vitality and activity in the city's commercial districts ... by encouraging pedestrians to linger," notes San Francisco's Parklet Manual, making them more likely to shop and spend money at local businesses, which helps the city's economy.
You might wonder how a parklet is different from a wide sidewalk, nice landscaping, and a few benches on the street. The difference is all in the context. Extending the sidewalk into the street creates a sense of being in a separate space, the same way that a bay window feels separate from a large, open room.
Just think how much you cherish the bay window in your home, where you can curl up with a cup of coffee and look out the window, listen to the birds and appreciate the street scene. The parklet is essentially the same idea. It's a small, safe green space where people can curl up and rest, or spontaneously interact with friends and neighbors.
Parklets create intimacy in the street, and that's what makes the experience magical. And that's why people keep coming back to them.
Why aren't there permanent parklets in DC? For starters, it's a relatively new concept that not everyone is aware of. As a result, the policy isn't there, and there hasn't been organized demand to put one in place. While San Francisco has found a lot of benefits to parklets, they're hard to measure in dollars.
DC could build just one parklet as a trial, but the policy involved wouldn't make that feasible. For parklets to be successful, the critical mass of a city-wide program needs to be in place. Imagine going to Rock Creek Park and bringing 400 square feet of park space home with you for keeps! A lot of mini-parks would create a noticeable gain in open space. A city-wide program would also allow residents, business owners and policymakers to see different kinds of parklets in action in different contexts.
As DC grows, we will need more places to be outside, to linger, gather, celebrate and rest. Parklets are a great way to provide them. We should follow San Francisco's lead, so mini-parks can start to spring up around the city.
Besides having a useful mode of travel, Capital Bikeshare members report getting more exercise after joining, a survey found. But governments can do more to help low-income communities, where obesity is often greatest, take advantage of Capital Bikeshare.
Graduate students at George Washington University conducted the survey in partnership with Capital Bikeshare officials from DC and Arlington. Officials released it and another general survey of CaBi members this morning. The GWU survey collected responses from 2,830 members and asked about their exercise before and after joining Capital Bikeshare.
Between the before and after time periods, members are more likely to exercise at least 3 hours a week. 53% said they got at least 3 hours a week of exercise before, which rose to 60% after. Also, more members (66%) report having very good or excellent health, compared to 59% at the time they joined.
Also, the report says, "Over 30 percent of respondents indicated they had lost weight since joining, 60 percent reported no change, and 6 percent reported weight gain."
However, most members are not particularly joining for health reasons, but for transportation reasons. The report says that 71% said "get around more easily, faster, shorter time" as a "very important" main reason for joining, versus only 27% saying the same for "exercise, fitness."
How can health benefits go to those who need them most?
Many communities with the greatest health challenges are not taking strong advantage of Capital Bikeshare. Almost 97% of respondents in the survey have a bachelor's degree or higher. Members are predominantly younger, less likely to be poor, and slightly more male than the general population.
Most significantly, only about 3% of respondents were African-American, versus about half of DC and a quarter of the region. Wards 7 and 8, which face obstacles of greater poverty, larger hills, and poor bicycle connections to the rest of the city, have only 0.8% and 0.4% of Capital Bikeshare members, respectively.
This is far from a new issue. Darren Buck wrote a graduate paper about how other North American bike sharing systems are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Today's GWU report suggests Capital Bikeshare pursue sponsorships from health insurance companies and state and local health agencies to fund outreach programs, do further studies on why some communities don't join Capital Bikeshare, and other research.
It would also be interesting to find out more about how the lower usage by lower-income and minority residents corresponds to factors, like geography, which nobody can control. In areas that already enjoy mixed-use growth, like Columbia Heights, are residents from underrepresented groups more likely to join Capital Bikeshare than elsewhere in the city? If so, that could point to ways to make the most impact on health in a shorter period of time and with fewer resources.
Prince George's County's parks department plans to triple the amount of paved trails in the next 25 years. But it's unclear whether the trails will take people where they need to go.
"I read the County's draft Formula 2040 plan for 200 more miles of paved trails," said a senior official of the Maryland Department of Transportation, whose staff makes decisions about which trails get federal and state transportation funding. "Nowhere does the plan seem to mention transportation."
Prince George's County has great parks, largely because they are managed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Although the county government has limited funds for infrastructure, the Commission has the authority to levy a 0.23% property tax for parks and recreation. The trails, however, leave much to be desired.
The county lacks a trail network
Major trails lead out of the District of Columbia in almost every direction: The Mount Vernon Trail to the south, the Custis/W&OD Trail to the west, Capital Crescent to the northwest, and Rock Creek to the north. But there's nothing going east.
I created this map for WABA's oral testimony at M-NCPPC's Fiscal Year 2013 budget hearing to help the commissioners visualize the county's lack of major trails into Washington and how they might cure the problem.
In Prince George's County, most trails are very short. The few longer trails generally lack connections to transit, and they stop just before their destinations. The WB&A Trail starts 2.5 miles from the New Carrollton Metro station and stops at the Patuxent River. The Henson Creek Trail stops across the Beltway from the Branch Avenue Metro Station.
Neither trail has an interim on-road bike route. You just have to turn around. For several years, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) has urged M-NCPPC to extend the WB&A Trail west to the New Carrollton Metro station, but to no avail.
One exception is the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, which runs from College Park to Bladensburg and west to Langley Park. Soon, it will extend south to the Anacostia Trail along the east side of the Anacostia River in DC.
No agency is trying to create a trail network
M-NCPPC's transportation planners have created a master plan for what the ultimate network should be by the year 2100. But no entity is responsible for actually creating it. Certain segments are simply built when convenient.
Several government offices are responsible for some aspect of the bicycle infrastructure in Prince George's. M-NCPPC's Parks Department builds trails in parks. Its Planning Department often requires developers to build trails through new neighborhoods, if a trail appears on the county's master plan. Transportation planners at M-NCPPC occasionally conduct feasibility and preliminary design studies of trails useful for transportation.
The State Highway Administration sometimes builds sidepaths along state highways. Although the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) has not built trails, it is responsible for most of the bicycle network that actually exists: the county roads.
No one coordinates these disparate activities. So rather than a network, the county has a set of standalone trails: Short, disconnected segments through new developments and a few reasonably long trails.
Residents ask for more trails, Parks Department responds
M-NCPPC is revising its master plan for parks and recreation for the first time since 1982, and trails have become a big part of it. In a poll that asked residents which park amenities they use, more residents listed trails than any other M-NCPPC facility.
In response, the Parks Department proposed adding 200 miles of paved trails, along with almost 100 miles in unpaved trails. About 20 percent of its capital budget would be dedicated to trails, according to Chuck Montrie, the park planning supervisor.
The plan emphasizes trails that "connect urban centers and neighborhoods with existing trails facilities; employment centers; Metro stations; historic, environmental, and cultural resources," along with "neighborhood anchors including schools, libraries, and parks."
The County Council is now reviewing the plan. At a hearing last month, WABA enthusiastically endorsed the increased emphasis on trails. WABA also recommends an interim goal of 40 miles by 2020, and connecting trails to designated transit-oriented districts, such as New Carrollton. (I spoke on behalf of WABA.)
Will M-NCPPC take the lead?
The draft plan prioritizes connecting trails to other trails and Metro, but M-NCPPC doesn't always own the land necessary for those connections. So what will have the higher priority: a difficult crossing over the Beltway to a Metro station, or connecting two trails on park property in a low-density area?
Is M-NCPPC proposing to take the lead on creating a trail network designed for both transportation and recreation? Or is it merely saying that if two possible trails on park property are equally challenging, it will build the one that goes somewhere? The plan does not say.
Montrie has indicated that M-NCPPC may be ready to move beyond park boundaries. "Stream valley trails can only take us so far," he recently told a meeting of local advocates. "We are going to have to build other types of trails."
M-NCPPC planners think that this plan might get agencies to start taking responsibility for bicycle transportation. I recently suggested to Fred Shaffer, a transportation planner who also chairs the county bicycle advisory group, that the county seems unwilling to even consider cycle tracks on county roads. "That may change," Shaffer responded. "Parks and DPW&T may soon start working together to achieve the 200-mile goal."
Is M-NCPPC ready?
Every June, the Maryland Bikeways Program solicits proposals from local governments for bike lanes and trails that are useful for transportation. Proposals have the greatest chance for funding if they connect existing trails to rail transit stations or other population centers.
With the new plan's emphasis on trails to Metro, one might expect that M-NCPPC would propose to connect the Henson Creek or WB&A trail across the Beltway to the planned transit districts, which County Executive Rushern Baker hopes can help jump-start the county's economy. But no: The Parks Department intends to seek funds to connect the Henson Creek trail to a recreation center. And its focus is not extending the WB&A trail west to New Carrollton and on to the Anacostia Trail, but east into Anne Arundel County.
Last week the Planning Department started to think about how to extend the WB&A trail west accross the Beltway. But lately its transportation planners have had their hands full with the Purple Line and a new policy requiring developers to build more sidewalks.
Creating functionally useful trails will probably take more staff, and a change in how park planners view their mission.
wrote last week about the DC Sustainable Energy Utility's progress toward helping DC residents and businesses save energy. Here is a less sanguine view.
The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) was created with the best of intentions and much fanfare. Unfortunately, after more than $30 million dollars and nearly 3 years, DC SEU has had trouble even changing light bulbs effectively, and is lagging behind successful programs in other states.
Energy-efficiency programs around the country have successfully demonstrated ways to assure that communities invest in saving energy, but DC ranked only 29th among states in energy-efficiency programs in 2012, according to one recent analysis.
That's not great, since many states in the South and Great Plains have terrible records. The District should be a leader, or at least emulate the best programs from around the nation.
For example, in Massachusetts, utilities work with local banks to provide 0% interest loans for homeowners and businesses for energy efficiency. This addresses a common and fundamental impediment to efficiency investments at scale: poor access to capital. The public sector's upfront incentives to the banks make the 0% loans possible, which then leverages significant investment capital from the private sector.
Virginia offers basic and straightforward rebates for commercial building energy audits. These audits identify where a building is inefficient (from HVAC to lighting to operations) and catalyze efficiency investments. Once a commercial building owner sees a facility's inefficiencies, and has information about what investments could pay for themselves in savings, they often make sustainable improvements without further incentives.
SEU isn't meeting its goals
DC residents and businesses pay a small percentage of their electric and gas bills to support DC SEU. As a result, DC SEU raised $17.5 million this year and will raise $20 million next year.
The Vermont Energy Investment Cooperation, or VEIC, won a competitive bid from the District to operate DC SEU. Their contract has been renewed each year, but so far, VEIC is struggling.
In fiscal year 2012, DC SEU met just 2 of 6 performance benchmarks the District set for things like reducing energy or increasing renewable energy generation. Their goal was to reduce citywide electricity use by 45,000 megawatt-hours, but they only saved 21,000.
DC SEU even fell behind on creating green jobs, which is one of its main goals. The organization hired just 41 people in 2012, well below their goal of 53.
DC SEU claims that it saved DC residents and businesses $2.8 million in annualized energy costs, but it received $14 million in funding last year. For a group intended to be a "market catalyst," this return on investment is disappointing.
It also counts spillover effects from its work, like customers who don't participate in their programs but are still working to reduce their energy use. This method of measurement may be an industry standard, but it doesn't really reflect DC SEU's effectiveness.
Is the SEU trying to do what it takes?
Nor does the organization's FY 2013 First Quarter report acknowledge any of DC SEU's past shortcomings or the need for any improvements. While the report calls for "strategic enhancements to [their] programming," there's little description of anything other DC SEU's existing efforts, like their programs to replace light bulbs and seal heating ducts.
If this is all the District wanted to do to improve energy efficiency, there was no need to create a new organization. It could have given the job to PEPCO and Washington Gas, which are perfectly capable of doing this kind of work. Meanwhile, DC SEU admits that natural gas consumption has actually increased due to their focus on replacing incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs. The new bulbs give off less heat, which means that in the colder months, customers actually use more heating gas to hear their homes and businesses (but save energy in the summer on cooling.)
DC SEU wasn't even trying to balance the modest impact of the lighting upgrades with other programs to reduce heating loads. They spent just $700,000 of the $2 million allocated for natural gas-related programs. Whether this is simply poor management, misplaced priorities, or both, this is clearly not a good sign.
What can be done?
DC SEU needs help. They aren't meeting their goals and they aren't fulfilling their legal obligation to District ratepayers. Meanwhile, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), which manages the organization, has done little oversight. A lot of the relevant staff has turned over at DDOE. Plus, that agency's main expertise is not in "big data" or the economics of financial leverage in the ways necessary to push the SEU toward bolder thinking and better results.
There's already a strong market for compact fluorescents (and an emerging one for the the even newer LED bulbs). The amount of savings from bulbs is small compared to commercial space, which uses a vastly disproportionate share of energy. With incentives to focus on the greatest possible value, the SEU could do more with, for instance, energy audits for commercial space.
Mayor Gray's sustainability plan puts forward an exciting and laudable vision for the District. It would be a shame if DC SEU doesn't play a key role in making it a reality.
Standing inside City Place Mall, it's as if the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring never happened. After multiple attempts to revive the half-empty mall, the answer could be opening it to the street.
Representatives from Annapolis developer Petrie Ross Ventures presented their plans for the 21-year-old mall at the corner of Colesville Road and Fenton Street last night at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board's monthly meeting. They want to create several new entrances to the street while reorganizing the mall's interior to draw larger, upscale retailers. Construction could begin this year and the mall could reopen in 2015.
The mall will also get a new name: Ellsworth Place, building on the success of the revitalized Ellsworth Drive next door. "We think it's time for the name to change and the branding to change to send a signal that things aren't the same as they were for 25 years," said partner Walt Petrie.
Mall will get new entrances, national retailers
Unlike White Flint Mall, which is being redeveloped as an outdoor shopping center, Ellsworth Place will remain an indoor mall. "It wants to be a mall," said Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross. "The retailers who want to be here want a mall experience, just friendlier and more pedestrian-oriented than City Place was."
To that end, Petrie Ross will improve the mall's connections to the surrounding streets, which already have lots of foot traffic. They'll renovate the three existing entrances to draw people in and place new cladding on the mall's newer section, closer to Colesville Road. Signs, lighting and video screens will hang from the existing metal framework that wraps around the building's older portion, originally built as a Hecht's department store in the 1940's.
The developer also plans new entrances on Ellsworth Drive and Colesville Road with escalators leading directly to the mall's upper floors or into a store. Along Fenton Street, there will be a new outdoor dining terrace suspended above the sidewalk to serve a sit-down restaurant. Meanwhile, new signs on the mall's blank rear wall will beckon people standing on the Metro platform two blocks away.
Inside, Petrie Ross will replace the existing 1990's Art Deco decor with "more of an industrial, clean look," said Petrie. The mall will get new lighting, a new elevator and new escalators. They also plan to rearrange the layout to improve circulation and combine smaller stores into larger, "junior anchor" spaces for national retailers.
Petrie said he seeks to bring retailers serving the "moderate and up" crowd, with a focus on entertainment venues, restaurants and clothing stores. Some establishments will stay, like McGinty's Public House, Blue Pearl, and the restaurants facing Ellsworth Drive, along with a "refreshed" Burlington Coat Factory. But the food court, which has just one restaurant, will go away, along Galaxy Billards, which will make way for a new entrance.
Several major chains and one "locally owned, regional chain" restaurant have already signed letters of intent to open here, and Petrie Ross is about to sign a lease with one of them. "You're going to recognize this tenant, and be happy to hear who it is," said Petrie. There was no word on what the new stores would be, but attorney Gus Bauman hinted that one of them might be the arts and crafts store Michaels.
On the fifth floor, a 10-screen movie theatre that's been closed since 2004 will be turned into an entertainment venue with "high-end bowling." Petrie compared it to Lucky Strike. "It's a large venue with a lot of activity that will draw a lot of people," he said.
Concerns about local businesses, historic preservation
After Hecht's closed in 1987, Montgomery County sought a way to bring shoppers back to downtown Silver Spring, but City Place struggled soon after it opened in 1992. When the Downtown Silver Spring complex opened in 2003, the mall had become an afterthought.
As a result, residents were cautiously optimistic about the mall's future. "I'm personally excited about this and I know people want things to go into this building," said Evan Glass, chair of the advisory board. "But this is the fourth iteration y'all have showed us. So why now? Why this?"
Terry Richardson, president of Petrie Ross, said that after years of recession, shoppers are ready to start spending again and retailers want to serve them. "National retailers . . . hit the pause button" in 2008, he said. "But year by year, sales are increasing."
Residents talked about stores they'd like to see in the new mall, like a bookstore or other "third places" where people could hang out without having to spend money. Board member Praj Kasbekar asked if there could be more local businesses in the mall. "Not everyone is looking for another national chain in Silver Spring," she said.
Historic preservation was another concern. The Hecht's wing is a historic landmark, and any changes to the outside will require approval from the county's Historic Preservation Commission.
Bauman called the proposed exterior alterations "modest," saying they won't drastically alter the fašade. Instead of cutting a hole over the new Ellsworth Drive entrance to put a display window there, Petrie Ross will attach a new sign and glass "shadow box" to the exterior. "Without those entrances, tenants will not come here," Bauman added. "This is what tenants tell us will bring them to Silver Spring."
Groundbreaking could happen this year
Representatives from Petrie Ross are already talking to the Montgomery County Planning Department about getting permits. If they get them this fall, Petrie said, construction could start by "the end of the year" and the mall could reopen within 2 years.
There's no word on when work will start on a 9-story, 210,000-square-foot office building above the mall, which was approved with the original project in 1988. The infrastructure needed for the office building is already in place and "we could get the permits tomorrow," said Petrie.
The past failures of City Place shows that malls don't always work in an urban setting. But with over 30,000 people working in downtown Silver Spring and thousands of apartments being built, there's bound to be demand for new places to shop, eat and hang out. The key is making sure that they're not walled off, but connected to the larger urban realm.
Check out this slideshow of renderings of the new Ellsworth Place.
DC's 1941 master plan is available through the Library of Congress. Published just months before Pearl Harbor, the plan is a fascinating look at the future pre-war planners envisioned.
The National Mall extends eastward to the bank of the Anacostia and dominates the plan. "Semi-public buildings," parking garages, and much more highway-like Constitution and Independence Avenues line the new Mall. On the other hand, Southwest retains its historic street grid, and isn't cut off by I-395.
What else jumps out?
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.page/2
- Community stories show the shift to a walkable lifestyle
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Some are pushing to limit sidewalk cycling
- Where is downtown Prince George's County?
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners