Posts in category Public Spaces
DC needs to find a place for substantial new housing and jobs in the future, and federal planners now seem to acknowledge that fact. They're willing to create a process, though an exhaustively long one, by which some future growth could exceed the federal height limit.
It's a tiny step forward for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a very cautious federal agency, but actually a significant one. The blanket height limit made it impossible to even consider creating a skyscraper neighborhood somewhere in the city, perhaps like Poplar Point, or even having an occasional, iconic tower amidst lower buildings.
Last night, NCPC staff published an updated recommendation for changing the federal height limit. They've decided to insist on absolutely no change in the original L'Enfant City (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the rivers), but are willing to open a gate to a very long road for taller buildings elsewhere.
To recap, the federal law, which only Congress can change, limits heights of buildings in DC to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, up to a maximum of 90-130 feet depending on the area. Outside downtown and downtown-ish areas like NoMA and the ballpark, local zoning restricts buildings far more, however.
The local zoning can change if the Zoning Commission, a board with 3 local and 2 federal representatives, agrees, but that board can't pierce the blanket federal height limit. Under NCPC's proposal, that could happen, but DC planners would first have to define the taller-building area in an amendment to the official Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document updated every 5 years.
The DC Council, which otherwise has no voice in zoning, would have to approve the plan change, and NCPC, the mostly-federal board with representatives from agencies like the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, would also have to assent. Congress would then have its own chance to overturn the changes if it chose.
But if, and it's a big if, a future plan for some tall buildings somewhere gets enough political support to convince the DC government, the DC Council, and NCPC, it could become a reality.
It's not a bad idea to ask that a taller building area undergo thorough planning and community discussion. Certainly many argue that we should simply have fewer restrictions on buildings. But that isn't a majority view right now. Eventually, however, enough residents may recognize that severe limits on our housing supply push up costs and be willing to explore solutions.
Those solutions could simply entail upzoning many areas around Metro stations and transit corridors (which wouldn't require height limit changes). Or, maybe it means a lot of tall buildings in one small space, like Paris' La Defense. Or each section of the city has an architectural competition for one distinctive and exceptional taller building.
Under this plan, at least we could have that debate. Those alternatives are within the realm of the possible. The city could try to trade extra height for important amenities that residents really want, as Montgomery County is doing with its White Flint plan.
On the other hand, this path certainly means a lot of veto points. And we know that any change engenders strong opposition, almost no matter what the change. It will be mightily difficult to get a plan for taller buildings past all of these boards.
Still, at least NCPC is willing to entertain the notion. The staff recommendation still reserves for NCPC control over any height limit exceptions, but that's a lot different from a Congressional law totally banning it. Which means that if and when DC needs more height, at least there's a way, even if it's a hard way.
One change would make a lot of sense at this point: if the process for allowing greater height involves so many steps of local and federal approvals, it now seems silly to completely exempt the L'Enfant City. There are tradeoffs between growing in the center, where it's already busy but there is more infrastructure, and at the edges, where some people crave economic development but taller buildings would stand out more.
NCPC staff argue that the federal interest is greatest in the L'Enfant City, where most federal land is, and lesser outside. Plus, just outside the L'Enfant City in Arlington there are already tall buildings, so it seems silly to insist on such a strict rule outside in other directions.
But it's still unclear that having buildings low, boxy, and boring A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
Opponents to redeveloping the McMillan Sand Filtration Site often say it'll result in a loss of recreation and park space. But a recent video of the proposed plan by development team Vision McMillan Partners shows a compelling vision of a site with a large park and recreational component.
The newest plan, which the Historic Preservation Review Board called "very tangible and commendable" earlier this month, consolidates the site's green space, and ensures it's available to the whole neighborhood, rather than as piecemeal private yards.
While the fight to get redevelopment moving at the 25-acre site is far from over, winning HPRB approval is one more major hurdle cleared in bringing a 6-acre public park with pool and rec center, dedicated new affordable housing, and rowhouses and apartments to the long-shuttered site.
DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.
To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.
It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.
They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.
But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.
It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.
The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.
Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.
As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.
Hearings on DC's zoning update continue this week with sessions today and Thursday on parking minimums. I'm testifying about the need to reduce or eliminate parking requirements downtown and in transit-accessible areas.
Differences in parking requirements across the US. Image from Graphing Parking.
Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony. My name is Matt Malinowski and I live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Northwest DC. I would like to speak in favor of the proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, and in particular in favor of eliminating parking minimums downtown and minimizing parking requirements elsewhere, especially near frequent transit.
The current off-street parking requirements for general office uses most of downtown, including the C-2-B, C-2-C, C-3-B, C-3-C, and C-4 zones for buildings on lots greater than 10,000 square feet, is 1 parking space for every 1,800 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet. This rule seems very precise, and I am sure that there are parties here tonight who would like to maintain it. But is it right?
Many cities across the United States either have or have had parking minimums, so there seems to be a precedent for maintaining them. But what is interesting is that each city has a different minimum, with Baltimore requiring more and Philadelphia less.
How can each city be right? Or are all the cities, and the idea of parking minimums with it, wrong?
One explanation for the variation is that each city is built differently, and the urban form of each city demands different amounts of parking. Sure enough, even within DC, the minimum parking requirements vary by zone, with less-dense commercial zones like C-1, C-2-A, and C-3-A requiring 1 parking space for every 600 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet.
In effect, crossing the street from one zone to the other has tripled the parking requirement. But has the urban fabric changed so much that three times as many people will now drive to work?
M Street NW forms the boundary between C-2-A and C-2-C zones, drastically altering the parking requirements. Image from the DC Zoning Map.
The current system breaks down not just at the boundaries, but also within zones. In Truxton Circle, there are three schools within a block of each other: the newly rebuilt Dunbar High School, one charter school, and another charter school in planning. According to neighbors, cars are overflowing the parking lot at Dunbar, while the existing Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) has recently built a parking lot for 140 cars overnight, and apparently without any permits.
Meanwhile, the forthcoming Mundo Verde Public Charter School is seeking a variance to give up 36 of its 53 required parking spaces and build gardens in their place. Staff are expected to ride bikes, so there are 20 bike parking spots instead, and the Metro is a 10-minute walk away.
Mundo Verde conceptual site plan showing proposed gardens. Currently, the entire lot is covered by parking.
So even for the same uses in the same location, one-size-fits-all parking requirements do not apply. Rather than develop even finer zone boundaries or zone definitions (an overlay specific to green charter schools?), how about a simpler solution: eliminate or minimize parking requirements wherever possible. That means downtown, in other higher-density zones, and near high-frequency transit.
Rather than perpetuating the current set of arbitrary requirements based on unknowable ratios of drivers to occupants, please focus on what we do know: land in DC is expensive and driving is unsustainable and causes congestion. Eliminating or minimizing parking requirements allows for the market to provide parking to those who truly need it, while making it clear that free parking is not a right, and that DC values its residents and natural environment over its cars.
Next Tuesday, there will be another hearing about parking minimums. Each hearing starts at 6pm at 441 4th Street NW, near Judiciary Square. To sign up to testify or show your support for the zoning update, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's website.
What do you think about my testimony? Please let me know in the comments. I hope to see you at one of the hearings!
Wheaton residents want a new recreation center, but historic preservationists say the current one, where Led Zeppelin allegedly played a show in 1969, should stay. On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board will hold a public hearing about whether to make the Wheaton Youth Center a historic landmark.
County officials are already planning to demolish the Wheaton Youth Center and adjacent Wheaton Regional Library, both on Georgia Avenue a few blocks north of downtown, and replace them with a new, combined facility that would also hold the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, the county's welcome center for immigrants and new residents. The county has set aside $36 million to build the complex, which could open as early as 2016.
Everyone seems to agree that the library, a brown bunker built in 1960 and renovated in 1985, deserves to go. Some feel the same about the youth center, citing its leaky roof, moldy carpeting and broken kitchen appliances. But historic preservationists want to save the Japanese-inspired building, whose concerts with nationally touring bands are the subject of a new documentary. One county planner has proposed a way to build a new building while saving the old one.
Youth center gave Wheaton a music scene
During the 1950's, Montgomery County noticed that local teens were anxious for places to hang out but had nowhere to go. The Park and Planning Commission proposed building "youth centers" across the county where teens could gather and hired renowned local architecture firm Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon to design them, but only two were built, in Bethesda and Wheaton.
The Velours play at the Wheaton Youth Center in the 1960's. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
The Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963 and won an award from the American Institute of Architects for design excellence. Architect Arthur Keyes, who passed away in 2012, said Japanese architecture inspired the youth center, from the curved rooftop to rooms based on the proportions of 3-by-6 foot tatami mats. Fresh and exotic at the time, the design seemed to fit the idealism of its young clients.
And it worked: the Wheaton Youth Center quickly became a cornerstone of the youth scene, first hosting local teen bands, then later nationally-touring musicians like Rod Stewart, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Led Zeppelin, which reportedly played their first US show there in 1969. Those who were around at the time say the youth center's Battle of the Band contests helped bridge the gaps between blue-collar Wheaton kids, who enjoyed R&B and soul music, and white-collar kids in Bethesda who preferred rock-and-roll.
The youth center eventually lost its hold on the music scene. The Recreation Department staff who supported the concerts moved on, and larger, dedicated spaces opened for touring bands to play at, like the Capital Centre in Landover, which opened in 1973.
But Wheaton remained a place where kids came to hear and make music. During the 1990's, the club Phantasmagoria a few blocks away hosted touring bands and anchored the regional ska scene before the county bought and turned it into the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity in 2001. The center moved to Wheaton Regional Library a few years later.
Can we remix the youth center?
It's clear the existing library, youth center and Gilchrist Center aren't meeting the community's needs. Residents are impatient for a new recreation center and library, and County Council President Nancy Navarro says she's worried that historic designation could get in the way.
And architects Grimm + Parker's early designs for a new facility are promising. It brings the building right up to Georgia Avenue, asserting its presence as a significant community institution and gathering place and making it easier for those coming by foot, on bike, or on transit to get there.
Planner John Carter's proposal for saving the youth center while building a new, smaller facility next door. Both images from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
But the current youth center is by no means beyond repair, and there could be a way to save it while giving Wheaton the new recreation center and library people want. In a memo to the Planning Board, county planner John Carter proposes restoring and reusing the youth center as the new Gilchrist Center, while building a new, smaller rec center and library next door.
The result is a sort of "campus" of public buildings with a play area and amphitheatre in the middle, as opposed to having it off to the side as originally proposed. The Gilchrist Center gets its own space instead of being on the second floor of a larger building. Wheaton gets a new rec center and library, while saving a unique part of its architectural and musical identity.
Buildings can be a part of music history
Some downplay the Wheaton Youth Center's significance to music history. The Gazette ran an editorial asking "since when has rock 'n' roll been about bricks and mortar?"
The answer's obvious to anyone who's been to CBGB in New York, which helped spawn punk and New Wave in the 1970's; 924 Gilman in Berkeley, the all-ages space where Green Day got its start; or even the Birchmere in Alexandria, which developed DC's bluegrass scene. Music doesn't happen in a vacuum: it happens in places, with people and scenes and, yes, physical buildings.
There's no shortage of buildings from the 1950's and 1960's in Montgomery County, many of which are past their useful life and were rightfully demolished and replaced, like the old Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, built in 1969. Other buildings, like the Flower Theatre in Long Branch, have lost much of their original features but still have some things worth saving. And a select few have not only the architectural but cultural significance to justify saving them, like the Wheaton Youth Center.
Montgomery County is fortunate enough to have the means to build new, state-of-the-art public buildings, whether with the Wheaton Youth Center in 1963 or its potential replacement today. The community needs a new recreation center and library, but that doesn't mean we should simply wipe the slate clean. Whether or not Led Zeppelin played at the Wheaton Youth Center, there's plenty of merit to save it.
Update: The Planning Board voted to recommend giving the Wheaton Youth Center historic designation.
I started biking in DC to become a moving, breathing part of the city. But Monday morning, while in the center bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th streets, a driver made an illegal U-turn straight into my bike.
I feel compelled to say I was obeying all laws and going the speed limit when I was hit. I catapulted into the side of her car, was jostled off my bike and caught myself with one foot on the ground, which she then ran over with her back tire.
She pulled over to the shoulder and leaned out her window, "Oh my God! I did not SEE you!" At this point, I yelled across all three lanes of traffic, "I WAS IN A BIKE LANE!" I walked my bike up to the crosswalk and onto the sidewalk to meet her on the shoulder of the road. She burst out of the car, apologizing profusely. A police officer who had witnessed the scene from nearby came over.
First, he asked if I was okay. I told him that I thought so, but wasn't quite sure. He said he could call an EMT if I thought I needed one. I said I wasn't sure, so he didn't.
He asked us what happened at which point the woman frantically and apologetically explained she was looking for an address and did not see me when she tried to cross to the other side of the street between intersections. I reminded her again that I was, in fact, in a bike lane. The officer gently informed her that making a U-turn in the middle of the street was illegal.
Why I started bicycling
I picked up a bike to heal heartbreak. I was living in Minneapolis in May of last year when I dusted off my old hybrid bike from middle school, pumped up the tires, bought a helmet, and started to move around the newly thawed city.
My heart mended on a bike and in turn, I fell madly in love with the city around me. Minneapolis is a great city to bike in. There are bike lanes and lakefront trails and drivers who, characteristic of "Minnesota Nice," use archaic lights called turn signals when moving about the streets.
I moved to DC this September and left my bike behind. The first week I took the Metro. Before long, my commute began to wear on my soul and empty my pockets. I realized buying a bike would both allow me to be a moving, breathing part of the city and save me money. I scoured Craigslist until I found the perfect, girly, single speed with turquoise wheels, a bright pink chain and little yellow stars on the spokes.
I now commute ten miles to work each morning and the same distance home. I ride Georgia Ave from Silver Spring where passing drivers tell me to get off the road. I turn off at Aspen Street then follow the sleepy hills of 14th Street south to the bustling obstacle course of Columbia Heights.
Here, I pop over to 11th and ride south in a sea of bikers to Pennsylvania Avenue, the home stretch. I love Penn. The buildings part and the morning sun shines as I head straight towards the Capitol.
The officer shrugged
I could feel and identify the adrenaline pulsing through me. My chest felt light and my hands were shaking. I had a hard time concentrating on what was happening around me. I had never been in an accident with a car and was unsure of the procedure.
I kept looking at the police officer, waiting for him to take action or at least give me options. He nervously stood there, afraid to make eye contact and unsure of what to do next. I didn't know if I should take down her car insurance and license plate information. I didn't know if I should file an accident report or what that meant. I didn't know why he wasn't ticketing her for hazardous driving.
Based on his actions, it didn't seem he knew the answer to these questions either.
Finally, I asked for her information. I took down her name, address, and phone number, then looked at the officer and asked if there was any other information I needed. He shrugged.
Eventually the woman drove off and he waited until I calmed down. I got back on my bike and slowly and cautiously rode down Penn the rest of the way to work.
Biking shouldn't be a risk
When I arrived, I was still shaken. I am a member of WABA's Women & Bicycles community and follow the group on Facebook. I posted about the incident under another post about the poor installation of the Zebras intended to stop illegal U-turns through the bike lane.
The comment thread exploded with outraged lady cyclists who showed me where law enforcement failed to follow through on enforcing laws put in place to protect me. By failing to cite the driver and not follow procedure to report cycling accidents, the officer stripped me of any recourse in case my bike or body ended up more injured than I originally thought.
While I am okay, my bike frame is bent and my front wheel wobbles. As a result of the officer's inaction, the burden of these necessary bicycle repairs now falls on my shoulders.
Biking through the city alongside this cycling community is the best part of living in DC. This accident is bigger than this one incident. It is about all of us, and the risk we take each day. It is about the fear of knowing it could have been so much worse.
I will continue to ride my pretty little single speed through this city, with her bent frame and all.
I demand to do so without the fear that I am risking my life.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) may decide not to remove the service lane on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, even as the agency takes public input on it. Could a temporary closure show how it would work for businesses and pedestrians?
The proposal to remove the service lane, which was built in the 1960's, and restore a wider sidewalk has generated much debate in Cleveland Park. Merchants are concerned about losing business if there are fewer parking spaces, but a recent survey shows that many many more people visit Cleveland Park on foot or transit and would enjoy a wider sidewalk.
Yesterday, Fox 5 reporter Beth Parker tweeted that, according to DDOT spokesperson Reggie Sanders, the agency has ruled out changing the service lane. However, in emails, both DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe and staff for Councilmember Mary Cheh say that the agency hasn't actually made a final decision, It seems as though someone at the agency spoke out of turn, but Sanders' comment suggests that they are likely to indeed decide to do nothing.
This would be a perfect place for DDOT to experiment with a temporary pedestrian space. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have done this to give new public spaces a test run before making them permanent.
DDOT could simply rope off the service lane at each end, preventing drivers from entering, and make small, reversible changes, like paint or movable potted plants, to make it more welcoming. Businesses along the street could use the space for tables and chairs and sidewalk sales. Merchants, residents, and DC officials would be able to see how closing the service lane could make Cleveland Park more exciting and vibrant without any risks.
It is not too late to ask DDOT to try this out. The public comment period on DDOT's study is open until November 13, and tonight's public meeting is still on. The agency will finish the study at the end of the month.
If you would like to share your opinion about the future of the Cleveland Park service lane, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know which of the 4 proposed options for changing the service lane you prefer.
You may also attend the final community meeting tonight from 5 to 8:30 pm at the Cleveland Park Library, located at 3310 Connecticut Avenue NW.
DC's great public spaces work that way because they're surrounding by active and visually interesting things. How can new places become great as well? By making sure they aren't surrounded by blank walls. Murals are a good start.
Like many, I joined the herd that flocked to District Flea, the new flea market from the creators of Brooklyn Flea, on its opening day in September. But by the time I entered the market at 9th Street and Florida Avenue NW, a blank grey wall disrupted my train of thought. The wall belongs to the Floridian, a condo building completed a few years ago.
Have you ever walked in a space and said, "This is wrong?" That's what I did.
After regaining my composure, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and vendors, especially the shop that had two amazing terra cotta pipes for sale. (Hopefully they aren't sold yet.) Thankfully, District Flea will continue until the end of November, and hopefully it will return next summer.
But if District Flea officially makes its home in this lot, something has to be done with this tidal wave of a wall intimidating patrons like me. A mural would be a good way to enliven this space and make it more visually appealing and inviting.
Compare it to Brooklyn Flea, where the historic neighborhood context provides several beautiful vantage points for visitors to enjoy. These buildings may not be part of the market, but they add to its atmosphere and character in a way a blank wall simply doesn't.
Painters have created murals around DC for decades, but they can be hard to find. In Cincinnati, my previous home, it seemed as if every empty wall in the city had art on it.
The District is fortunate enough to have Murals DC, an organization that helps to replace illegal graffiti with artistic works, revitalizing sites within the community while teaching young people the art of aerosol painting. They are responsible for over 30 murals throughout the city, and perhaps could help to create one here.
"A People Without Murals Is A Demuralized People," a mural in Adams Morgan. Photo by art around on Flickr.
I might be crazy for feeling bullied by an inanimate blank wall, but a mural is still worth pursuing. I'm sure District Flea's parking lot is already a likely site for a new apartment building. But until it's forced to move, we should still strive to make this site a better a place to be.
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"
- Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business