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Pedestrians


Wheaton Plaza owners successfully block pedestrian path, saying it would "bring crime"

All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.


Mall owner Westfield doesn't want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.

The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it's a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it's a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick's Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.

A new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.

Neighbors disagree. "Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby," wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. "Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us."

Current residents and builder embrace walkability

Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct.

That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.


Rendering of new homes at 39UP. Image from OPaL.

Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood's urban, walkable character. In the development's other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall's entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.

"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising," wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. "Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future." He expects the homes to appeal to "empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location."

Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods

But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn't want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. "Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site," wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.

MacKenzie claimed that the path "might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall," causing "a substantial security concern." He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.


Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.

As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.

"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that," wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. "The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property."

As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away

Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall's previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.

But Westfield hasn't given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.

"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection," wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.


The base of Mt. McComas.

Shopping malls aren't as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.

Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.

Public Spaces


Map: A half-mile walk to Metro

PlanItMetro made this cool map showing what's within a 1/2-mile walk from each Metro station. It's easy to see how the street network affects where you can walk.


Map by PlanItMetro.

As contributor Dan Reed points out, the walkshed is bigger in areas with a street grid and short blocks. On the other hand, barriers like highways, rail lines, and superblocks reduce the area you can walk to.

What patterns do you see?

Be sure to check out the full region map for stations outside the core.

Roads


Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?

Virginia officials have known for years that Metro was coming to Tysons. Yet when the four stations opened, commuters found dreadful and dangerous walking and biking conditions. Why?


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by Ken Archer.

The Fairfax County DOT has been making some progress. There are two crosswalks at the intersection of Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, which FCDOT recently installed. But at the opposite corner, there are no crosswalks. This is where Ken Archer described pedestrians running across nine lanes of traffic without any crosswalk.


The intersection of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. The Tysons Corner Metro station is now on the southwest corner. Image from Google Maps.

According to FCDOT director Tom Besiadny, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will not allow a crosswalk across what is now a double right turn lane. FCDOT has been discussing shrinking it to only a single lane, but that requires negotiating with VDOT, which takes a general stance of suspicion if not outright opposition to any change which slows cars.

(Update: Martin Di Caro reports that VDOT has specifically refused to let Fairfax shrink the double right lane until it conducts a six-month study about the traffic impact of the change.)

In a press release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said these "show the challenges of retrofitting auto-dominated suburbs." It goes beyond just adding a crosswalk; even if FCDOT had one at every corner, there are still curving "slip lanes" for cars to take the turns at high speed. A more urban design would have just a basic square intersection, and with fewer lanes.

Fairfax plans a more comprehensive grid of streets to take some of the traffic volume off of the existing streets, but it will always be a struggle to make intersections smaller or slower versus continuing to design them for maximum car throughput. Even now, VDOT is continuing to widen part of Route 123 further.


Around Tysons Corner station. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to Navid Roshan of The Tysons Corner blog, VDOT also refused a request to lower the 45 mile per hour speed limit on Westpark Drive in a residential neighborhood.

It's not just VDOT, however. Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, pointed out in a comment that many fixes for cyclists were in the Tysons Bicycle Master Plan created in 2011, but which Fairfax County has still not adopted. The plan will go to the county planning commission in October and then the Board of Supervisors.

The original plan called for a first phase of improvements by 2013, most of which are still not done. Those projects were all small, short-term items like adding sharrows and signed bicycle routes, adding enough bike racks at Silver Line stations (which are already almost out of space), and setting up Transportation Demand Management programs with nearby employers.

Roshan created a petition to ask Fairfax and the state of Virginia to prioritize fixing these problems. He points out that all of the improvements together cost less than some of the studies Virginia is doing around adding new ramps to and from the Toll Roadto move cars faster.

They shouldn't ignore traffic, but if Tysons is going to become an urban place, that means building roads that work for all users instead of maybe squeezing in a poor accommodation for pedestrians and/or cyclists as long as it doesn't get in the way of car flow.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission's Tysons Committee will meet tonight from 7-9:30 at the county's (not very transit-accessible) Government Center, 12000 Government Center Drive, Fairfax. The committee will discuss amendments to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan.

As Wright said, the county has been pushing developers to include better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as they develop or redevelop parcels, but people riding the Silver Line now can't wait for development years down the road. Fairfax and VDOT missed chances to make the roads walkable and bikeable before the Silver Line opened, so there is no time to waste to fix these problems urgently.

Arts


Theaters face drama when trying to operate in residential areas, even with strong neighbor support

When a theater in Dupont Circle tried to get zoning permission to continue operating, the dialogue at the zoning board was worthy perhaps of being its own theatrical play. Let's imagine what that play might be like.


Why was this so hard? Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

DC has a long history of theater groups which perform in people's garages, churches, and the basements of apartment buildings, as last week's Washington City Paper cover story described. A few have permits; many don't. One reason the article didn't get into: zoning.

You can't legally just put on a play in your house in most of DC. The Back Alley Theater is in the basement of a building at 14th and Kennedy Streets which is actually in a commercial zone, but a lot use spaces in houses which are in residential zones. Others use buildings that aren't houses but are in residential areas.

Let's say you want to have some theater in a building in a residential zone. Let's also say that all of the neighbors enthusiastically support the idea, as does the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, so this isn't an issue of who should get their way and who loses out. It's all people versus the text of the law. What happens?

You need a zoning variance, which has specific criteria. You have to prove that there is something unique about this particular property, different from others around it. You also have to prove that that uniqueness creates some financial hardship.

If you're renting space in a church or some similar institutional building, the zoning board could find that it's unique (since it's not just another house) and maybe find that the church really needs the money from the rental. That's what let the Spooky Action Theater keep operating in a church basement at 16th and S in Dupont Circle.

But what if you own the building? You don't financially have to put on theater shows. After all, that's not a lucrative activity. You could just have condos, maybe, and get a lot more money. Are you out of luck?

This was the debate at another recent Dupont zoning case, for the Keegan Theatre on Church Street. The Keegan was putting on shows in a building that had been used as a theater for decades, and originally was the gymnasium for the Holton-Arms School (which had long since moved to Bethesda). Keegan bought the building and are planning an addition (which neighbors also support), so they were going through the permit process.

As they did that, it turned out that a previous owner of the building had gotten a zoning variance, but it turned out that was for "theater education." The permit people were saying that isn't the right one for a theater even though people have been performing there all along anyway, and the Keegan had to go get a new variance.

If the discussion at the zoning board were a play where we invented dialogue which conveys what people actually said but in a more engaging way to the audience, that play might go something like this:

SCENE 1: THE HEARING ROOM AT 441 4TH STREET, 2ND FLOOR. DAY.

Mark Rhea, Keegan Theatre: Hi, so can we please get our variance? Here is a pile of letters from neighbors saying they like us.

Lloyd Jordan, Chairman, Board of Zoning Adjustment: I sympathize with you, but I don't see proof in here that you can't just make more money turning this building into condos. Maybe you should come back in a couple of months during which time you would not be able to move forward on your renovation and would unfortunately have to pay a zoning lawyer a huge pile of money to generate more legal documents.

Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller: This is stupid. Everyone is supportive of this great theater. And it's a nonprofit theater group. Of course they're not going to turn it into condos. Can't we grant their variance?

Jordan: Well, we have laws here and they say you have to prove hardship. I want to give the theater what they want but I have to follow these here laws.

DC Office of Planning's Steve Cochran: If you squint really hard at the zoning order from 1978, you can interpret to say the board found back then that this building isn't usable for condos, so maybe we can just point to that as the evidence we need.

Jordan: We don't normally do that kind of thing, where we go pluck evidence from old cases. But what the hell. Sure, ok. I'm not totally comfortable but I'll go along with this.

Miller: We are trying to change the zoning anyway so this kind of thing isn't so hard. Because it is dumb that we have to have this conversation right here.

Rhea: Hooray! Thank you!

SCENE 2: THE SAME HEARING ROOM, A FEW WEEKS LATER. NIGHT.

Narrator: To understand this part, you need to know there are two zoning boards: the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which decides individual variances like this, and the Zoning Commission, which decides the actual zoning rules and some big projects called PUDs. One member of the Zoning Commission sits on each BZA case on a rotating basis. Miller is on the Zoning Commission and was its representative that day. That's why he's going to be in the next scene, too. OK, enough exposition for now.

Anthony Hood, Chairman, Zoning Commission: OK, let's talk about the Office of Planning's proposal for theaters.

Joel Lawson, DC Office of Planning: Because David Alpert bugged us a lot about this issue and you said you agreed with him, we wrote a new zoning rule saying that it's okay for buildings like churches to rent out their space to theaters. They would still have to go to the BZA, but just for a "special exception," which is more about whether it will harm neighbors than about this financial hardship stuff.

Commissioner Marcie Cohen: I think this is good but you might be missing the point a bit. Besides the renting churches situation, sometimes the theater owns the building. Like the Keegan case.

Lawson: Yeah, I didn't realize you wanted us to write the rule to cover that situation too. Also, for some unexplained reason we excluded denser row house neighborhoods like Dupont in the draft text.

Rob Miller: We meant for you to write it broader to include cases like the Keegan. I was there for that case, and we had to bend over backward to make it come out the right way because a variance is too hard to get, so can you please fix it now?

Lawson: I guess so, sure.

FADE TO BLACK.

Narrator: Will the DC Office of Planning make it easier for theaters to operate in residential neighborhoods or not? Stay tuned for our next episode of the longest-running show on Fourth Street, Tales of the Zoning Update!

If you have any information you want to share about this issue with the Zoning Commission, you can speak up at hearings on September 8-11, submit written testimony using this procedure, or send a signed PDF letter to zcsubmissions@dc.gov. Or just share them in the comments and I'll get anything substantive to the commissioners.

Public Spaces


How big of a "moat" would the FBI need if it stayed downtown?

The FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) are searching for a site to house a new consolidated FBI headquarters. Though no sites in DC remain in consideration, there are a few who wonder why they don't just reuse the existing Hoover Building site on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by the author.

One of the strong preferences in the GSA's site location criteria is for a 350 foot "security buffer zone" surrounding the new headquarters building. Though this is apparently not an outright requirement, the GSA and FBI have said that they strongly prefer sites that can offer such a buffer.

The image above shows what such a 350 foot buffer zone would look like around the existing Hoover Building footprint.

As you can see, this would seriously impact buildings on almost every block adjacent to the Hoover Building. It would affect the IRS headquarters, the Justice Department, and especially the historic Ford's Theater. It would also have a minor impact on the Navy Memorial.

From a transportation perspective, it would block E Street, 9th Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue, all major streets in the DC core.

A version of this post originally appeared in Just Up the Hill.

Public Spaces


A greener Eastern Market plaza may be on the way

Where today the parks around the Eastern Market Metro are mostly tired expanses of grass with a few trees, the parks soon could contain an expanded library, formal playground, cafe-style tree bosque and several stormwater management features. The roads and sidewalks around the square could also get a better layout.


The Metro entrance, library entry pavilion, and water feature on the southwest parcel. All images from Esocoff & Associates unless otherwise noted.

The $45 million redesign has gone through years of planning and outreach. The project originally started as a Congressional earmark to Barracks Row Main Street, which funded the Capitol Hill Town Square study in 2008 that considered ways to redesign the intersection, including possibly rerouting Pennsylvania Avenue around a square similar to Stanton or Lincoln parks.

Any changes to Pennsylvania Avenue ran into fierce opposition from immediate neighbors. But the project team continued studying ways to redesign the parks and started a new round of public engagement in 2013, this time assuming Pennsylvania stayed where it is.


The plaza now. Image from Bing Maps.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates recently revealed a final design coming out of numerous community meetings and feedback on two concepts from January.

The most dramatic change would be on the southwest parcel with the Metro entrance. A new pavilion would lead to a massive below-ground expansion of the Southeast Library, across the street from the square. A long courtyard and a water feature would connect this pavilion with the Metro.


Staircase for the new pavilion.

The parcel would also get a shaded tree bosque (an urban grove of shade trees similar to the one at New York's Lincoln Center) with a crushed gravel surface, movable furniture, and an open space along the "desire line" path where people most often walk between the Metro station and Barracks Row.


Artist's rendering of the bosque.

A straight pedestrian path along the South Carolina Avenue axis would divide the northeast section, the largest parcel. A fenced-in children's play area and an open lawn would flank it on the each side. The play areas include a landscape with "Anacostia Hills," a "Floodplain," a "Valley," and a "Ridge," and on that landscape, children will find a tree house, water pump, a pair of jungle gyms and a swing set.


The playground and promenade.

The wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue would become a pair of bioswales surrounded by wrought iron fencing. The bioswales will absorb up to 70% of the stormwater runoff from the inside portion of Pennsylvania Avenue during most storms. Meanwhile, the fences prevent pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the block.

The smaller triangular parcels on the southeast and northwest sides would become green space with stormwater management gardens and trees surrounded by an outward facing bench. The southeast parcel would be further expanded by closing D Street in front of the Dunkin' Donuts and adding the land to the park.


Site plan for the smaller triangular parcels.

Around the square, the plan would make changes to street directions and sidewalks to provide better flow and greater pedestrian safety. The segments of D Street along the northeast and southwest edges would reverse to carry traffic away from 8th Street instead of toward it. 8th Street would get a new left turn lane for those turning west onto D Street south of Pennsylvania.

To aid pedestrians, many intersections would get curb bump outs and pedestrian islands. The northbound bus stop on 8th would move south of Pennsylvania, while southbound buses would stop just across the street from that spot, closer to the Metro station.

Building the parks and plazas will cost an estimated $13,500,000, while the expanded and renovated library would cost $22,800,000. With DC management fees, a maintenance endowment and other costs, the project team estimates the whole project would need a budget of a little over $45,000,000.

The team is still accepting comments and will issue a final report in September. Barracks Row Main Street has some money to help pay for development, but from the (somewhat vague) statements from the project team, it appears they would be looking for city funding to help make the project a reality.

Public Spaces


Arlington's Court House parking lot will become a park

Arlington may be a paragon of Smart Growth and sustainable transportation, but if you go to the county offices at Court House, a giant surface parking lot dominates the landscape. That could soon change with recommendations to turn it into a new town green with parking below.


All images from Arlington County.

County planners presented three options last night which incorporated input from a task force and the public. All three options keep most or all of the current parking lot as a new green, with only small amounts of parking at surface level.


Courthouse Square today and the parcels for possible redevelopment.

They mainly differ in minor aspects of the layout. Concept A is oriented more north-south, B diagonal, and C east-west. They all recommend development on the Verizon plaza south of 14th Street, and redeveloping some of the nearby buildings, though with varying options for where to put taller buildings versus shorter ones.

The county would also move office space into one of the new buildings. On Option C, that could include an "iconic wing" at the southern end of the square; in exchange, some of what's now the AMC theater would become open space as part of the plaza, with a small "market shed" near where the theater now stands. The other options would leave all of the current parking lot as open space.


View concept: A   B   C  

County staff emphasized that, as with many of these studies that create a few options, the options simply illustrate various pieces that planners can ultimately mix and match.

They will seek feedback in person and through an online survey to develop a final plan, which they will show to community groups in September and October, the Planning Commission in November, and bring to the County Board in December.

What do you think would be the best design for the square?

Events


Events roundup: Silver Line opens, Rapid Transit happy hour, central public spaces, and more

Years of anticipation have led up to this weekend: The Silver Line will officially open to passenger service. Don't miss a ride on the first train! On Wednesday, drink to rapid transit in Montgomery County or discuss Pennsylvania Avenue or Arlington's Courthouse Square.


Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

And at long last... it's here!: The first Silver Line train taking passengers on the new tracks will leave at noon on Saturday, July 26. Let's ride together! We'll be congregating at the new Wiehle-Reston East station leading up to the noon train.

We had been organizing carpools, but it's not necessary to drive there any more: Fairfax Connector is running shuttle buses all morning from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, so Metro on out to WFC and hop on a bus (or bike, or drive yourself) to get to the opening.

We'll meet at the north entrance to the station. From the Fairfax Connector bus bays, go up the escalators to the glass enclosed area of the plaza. There's a large space here, and we'll have signs to help you find us. See you Saturday!

The future of America's Main Street: Pennsylvania Avenue is a major symbol of our nation's capitol, but poor urban design and aging infrastructure inhibit activity there. The National Capital Planning Commission and other federal agencies are hosting a workshop to kick off a new study for the street. It's Wednesday, July 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500 North.

Rapid transit happy hour: Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Communities for Transit, and Friends of White Flint also on Wednesday, July 23rd at 5:30 pm at Paladar Latin Kitchen (11333 Woodglen Drive, Rockville, 20852) to hear the latest news about the MD 355 corridor and our booth at this year's Agricultural Fair. Did we also mention that Paladar has $5 Mojitos and Margaritas at happy hour? RSVP here.

A new Courthouse Square: Come and get a first look at the future of Courthouse Square. Planners will unveil three draft plans based on input from the public and a working group. See them on (once again) Wednesday, July 23rd at the 1310 N. Courthouse Road Office Building, third floor, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm (Metro: Court House).

Remember Southeast Southwest: Come out of the heat and watch the latest in the Summer in the City Film Series Thursday, July 24th, from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Southwest Library (900 Wesley Place, SW). This week's film, Southwest Remembered, follows the effects of urban renewal in Washington during the 1940s. Southwest was one of the first neighborhoods to undergo this effort, which displaced more than 23,000 residents in the process.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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