Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Architecture


How to sculpt a skyline: Arlington planners rethink Rosslyn

Do skylines matter? Planners in Arlington say they do, and are re-planning Rosslyn to give it a better, more sensible one.


Possible future Rosslyn skyline. All images from Arlington County.

Rosslyn is the most prominent cluster of tall buildings in the Washington region, and with more development coming it's only going to get more substantial. To get Rosslyn right, planners must grapple with how the height and form of such tall buildings affects their surroundings.

Realize Rosslyn will be Arlington's plan to transform Rosslyn from a dense but historically car centric area to a more pedestrian friendly place. Among other things, the plan will delve into how building scale, mass, and views affect aesthetics, light, air, open space, and walkability.


Another scenario for a possible future Rosslyn.

What's at stake?

Existing policy in central Rosslyn is to taper building heights so the tallest buildings are near the center, with shorter ones on the edges. That keeps the greatest building heights closest to the Metro station, and makes for a gradual transition from quieter nearby streets.

But the existing taper policy isn't perfect. The rules aren't specific on how the taper should occur, nor do they prescribe lower densities in areas with shorter buildings.

And then there's the hill.

Rosslyn is on a steep hill, sloping up away from the Potomac. Between the hill and the taper, some buildings may not be able to simultaneously meet their permitted densities while satisfying the taper rules.

In short, two different policies are pushing development in Rosslyn in two different directions.

Meanwhile, existing policies also need to work economically. If new buildings can't go tall enough to make it worthwhile to knock down an older building on the same site, property owners may not redevelop at all.

That may stand in the way of achieving the community's goals for a more walkable, up-to-date Rosslyn. To meet those goals, county planners need to develop better rules to allow them to happen, rather than rules that work against each other and don't work economically.

That means looking strategically at where and how taller buildings might be appropriate.

And of course, it's still more complicated. Skyline planning is a balancing act. Taller buildings still need to comfortably transition to adjacent neighborhoods, and maintain views from the public observation deck atop the future CEB Tower, and minimize shadows. All in addition to the normal things planners have to get right, like sidewalk retail and walkable design.

Three scenarios, next steps

For Rosslyn, planners are developing multiple alternate scenarios looking at the effects of different building masses. There are scenarios for individual sites, and collectively across central Rosslyn.


Three potential development scenarios for the same property.

These images are a sneak peek of preliminary work, but more details will be available to the public when planners present their initial modeling work at a meeting on Tuesday, September 30.

Later this fall, the community will use the modeling work to help formulate specific recommendations for Rosslyn's form and massing.

Roads


How a road in White Flint is like a ski area

White Flint's master plan calls for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road. The Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) is disregarding that plan and says it can only build such a road once traffic declines. That's a backward way to look at changing travel patterns.


Photo by Owen Richard on Flickr.

Would you build safe ski trails only after novice skiers showed up?

People for Bikes uses an excellent ski area metaphor to explain why creating a complete grid of safe walking and cycling infrastructure is so critical. Especially in suburban areas, bicycling and walking most places would be considered a black diamond adventure, not for the faint of heart.

Ski areas design their trails so that the vast majority of people who are not expert skiers can find a safe and easy way all the way to the bottom. No ski area would build only black diamond runs and then announce that it would be happy to create some green circles, but only once there are already a lot of novice skiers on the mountain. The novice skiers only come when there are appropriate trails for them. The same goes for walkers and cyclists.

DC has proven that changes to street designs cause shifts in travel patterns. Its transportation department has invested heavily in a network of new bike lanes and protected cycle tracks in recent years. Just last week, new census figures showed that the number of bike commuters in DC shot up from 2.2% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2013, placing DC second only to Portland.

DC didn't wait to prove that there were a lot of cyclists on a particular road before making it safe for cyclists. Instead, it made cycling more attractive, and the cyclists showed up.


Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Road designs drive change; they don't need to wait for change

The White Flint Sector Plan, which came out of a long planning process, extensive public input, and county council action, clearly calls for a four-lane road with bike lanes, sidewalks, and a shared-use path that's part of a Recreation Loop.

County transportation officials are instead planning road that's eight lanes if you count block-long turn lanes, with no bike lanes and no Recreation Loop path. They say state rules require a wider road in White Flint until traffic levels decline, when they could rebuild the road to match the plan.

The logic of re-building a road twice makes little sense. If this is really a state requirement, then White Flint provides the perfect opportunity to change or get an exception to whatever regulation prevents the safe street design promised to residents.

The goal of the White Flint sector plan is unmistakable. The first sentence reads, "this Sector Plan vision establishes policies for transforming an auto-oriented suburban development pattern into an urban center of residences and businesses where people walk to work, shops and transit."

More specifically, the plan aims to increase the number of residents getting around without a car from 26% to 50%. It should go without saying that the county will never reach those goals if it spends its limited dollars making it more difficult for people to walk and bike.

But MCDOT and the state are focusing first and foremost on moving cars. If land use changes and a better-connected road grid also make car traffic decline, they maybe they will redesign the roads to accommodate those pedestrians.

This is the wrong approach. The road design inherently encourages or discourages people from walking or biking. When people see a brand new, wide open road, they see it's easier to drive and are more likely to do so. When they know there's a wide, safe path all the way to Metro, they are more likely to opt to bike or walk. Conversely, when they have to cross eight lanes of hot pavement only to walk on a dirt path where the sidewalk is missing or there's just a narrow sidewalk next to high speed traffic, they make that choice only if they have to.

As White Flint community leader Ed Reich wrote, "I know that having to cross a road that wide will be a substantial deterrent to going to Pike & Rose, despite the great restaurants and shops starting to open there."

Travel patterns already are changing

While it's a mistake to wait for patterns to shift before making roads safe for non-auto users, the patterns in fact are already shifting anyway.

In the last ten years, Montgomery County added 100,000 residents while driving leveled off and started to decline.


Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't. Graph from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Meanwhile, as more people have begun to move into the White Flint area, Census data shows that already 34% percent of residents in the surrounding census tract are commuting by transit, carpooling, walking, or cycling, and 58% own one or zero cars.

White Flint can transform into a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented area. But to do that, it needs roads that match this vision, rather than ones that hold the vision back.

Transit


If Georgetown had a Metro station, it would be one of the system's busiest

Georgetown didn't get a Metro station when the original system was built, for a variety of reasons. But if it did have one, how would it perform? The short answer: Georgetown would immediately be in the system's top 10 highest stations for boardings in the morning peak.


The relationship between residents near a Metro station and ridership. Image from WMATA and edited by the author.

PlanItMetro recently posted about the relationship between ridership and the number of households within a half-mile of a Metro station. This got us at the Georgetown Business Improvement District wondering how a Georgetown Metro station would perform if the downtown loop proposed in Metro's Momentum plan were built.

Georgetown has 4,187 households within the half-mile radius from Wisconsin and M streets NW, which we will use as the theoretical point for a Metro station entrance for the purpose of this analysis . Simply plotting this number of households on PlanItMetro's trendline provides a good starting point for an estimate, suggesting approximately 2,000 boardings during the AM peak.

But this is just the start. 2,000 boardings per hour is likely a floor estimate, rather than a ceiling. First, let's look at where Georgetown residents work.


Map from the Georgetown BID.

People who live in Georgetown tend to work in a distinct corridor that stretches across from the West End to Penn Quarter. This corridor aligns almost perfectly with the existing Red, Blue, Orange, and Silver lines. If a downtown loop line were completed, residents of Georgetown would have a rapid transit option to reach these locations.


Metro's proposed loop. Image from WMATA.

If Metro access were available, we suspect that more than 2,000 Georgetown residents would use it to reach their place of employment. Just for comparison, 13.9% of Georgetown residents already take Metro to work, which includes people who ride and walk from Dupont, Foggy Bottom, and Rosslyn.

An additional 10.1% of Georgetown residents take a bus ride to work, placing overall transit use at 24%, which is below the District-wide average of just under 40%. With a Metro station in closer proximity to people's homes, we would expect transit ridership among the residential population of Georgetown to match or exceed the District-wide average.

Meanwhile, there are over 18,000 households living within one mile of Wisconsin and M. While we don't know how many of these people would take Metro to work, Georgetown's historic pattern of walkable streets and its dense street grid make it easier and more enjoyable to walk long distances, suggesting that there might also be a considerable number of potential riders in this area. These are all the ingredients for a well-used Metro station.

That's not the end of the story. Unlike some of the stations within the top 10 which are primarily employment centers, Georgetown is as much a commercial and retail destination as it is a residential neighborhood. Workers from within the business improvement district's boundaries come from all over the metropolitan region, and most of them have some degree of access to existing Metrorail stations.


Where workers in Georgetown live. Image from the Georgetown BID.

We would expect a large portion of Georgetown employees to start using Metrorail once it opened there. Likewise, Georgetown is a major destination for both locals and tourists attracted to the retail district, trails, park spaces, and cultural amenities. Between residents who work near Metro, workers who live near Metro, and tourists, students, and day-trippers who frequently come in and out of Georgetown, a Metro station here would instantly place Georgetown in the system's top destinations. That would be the case both during normal weekdays when people travel for work, and on weekends when retail and tourist travel peak.

Some of the busiest existing Metro stations, like Dupont Circle, have a high number of boardings and alightings all day because they're in areas with housing, jobs, retail, and nightlife. Georgetown's theoretical Metro station would perform very well at all hours for both boardings and alightings, making full use of Metro's capacity in both directions.

There are many other positive effects that Metro can bring, but one that could convince city leaders to develop a funding plan is the potential economic windfall. At $41/square foot, Georgetown's office lease rates are about 18% lower than the Downtown average of $50/square foot. Most commercial brokers attribute this discount to the lack of rapid transit options in Georgetown. A Metro loop connecting Georgetown to the regional rapid transit network could increase rents, boosting tax receipts to the city.

Georgetown is already a vibrant regional destination for work, shopping, and tourism, but a lack of rapid transit access prevents it from reaching its full potential. Bringing a Metro station to Georgetown isn't just good for this neighborhood. It would be a boon for the entire region.

Transit


MetroExtra could come to Columbia Pike in Montgomery County

Columbia Pike between Silver Spring and Burtonsville is one of the region's busiest bus corridors, but is prone to delays and crowding. Metro is studying improvements that could make the service faster and more reliable, making it a trial of sorts as Montgomery County considers Bus Rapid Transit for that corridor.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

The Z Metrobus lines, made up of the Z2, Z6, Z8, Z9, Z11, Z13, and Z29, travel between Silver Spring, Burtonsville, and Laurel along Columbia Pike and Colesville Road, also known as Route 29. It is the second-busiest line in Maryland, though 85% of the ridership is in a short segment between the Silver Spring Metro and White Oak.

Metro planners and their consultants presented potential solutions at two public meetings this month, including, additional evening and weekend service and a new, limited-stop MetroExtra route along Route 29. They plan to release their recommendations this November.

Limited-stop service a stepping stone to BRT

Common issues with the Z line include bus bunching and crowded buses, especially outside of rush hour when buses are less frequent. Riders say that some stops are unsafe because of traffic or poor lighting, and that entire neighborhoods are left without service on the weekends, when the Z6 route (which carries over a third of the line's riders) does not run.

As with Metro's other bus corridor studies, planners are considering introducing MetroExtra service along Route 29, with ten stops about every mile apart between the Silver Spring Metro and Castle Boulevard, an area known for growing poverty and long commutes.


Map of potential MetroExtra service on Route 29 from WMATA.

Buses would run every 15 minutes in both directions during rush hour. To free up resources for the new route, Metro would consolidate two existing express lines, the Z9 and Z11. Initially, the route would only run as far as Stewart Lane in White Oak, with an extension to come later as funding permits.

Enhanced limited-stop service will be a welcome change for residents who currently face a 40-plus minute trip just to reach the Metro station. But it could also provide an interesting test of how a Bus Rapid Transit line on Route 29 might work. It's one of 10 corridors in the county's plan, and is slated to be one of the first to get built, along with Route 355. The county's plans include dedicated lanes along the corridor, which would speed up buses by getting them out of traffic.

County officials have long promised that BRT service will add to and not take away from existing Metrobus and Ride On service. Interestingly, proposed MetroExtra service does not include stops in Montgomery's BRT plan at Franklin Avenue and Fairland Road, but adds others in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, where ridership is higher.

More frequent service, new lines

The project team also addressed crowding on the Z6 and Z8 routes, which are local services. The proposed remedies included adding short trips on both lines between Silver Spring and White Oak, and restoring weekend service on the Z6 line.

One of the proposals involved running the Z6 once per hour on weekends, which violates Montgomery County's requirement that a bus must run every 30 minutes, or not at all. Others had it and the Z8 running more frequently, which would be more expensive.

Metro planners are also exploring a new route, the Z10, to connect the Briggs Chaney park and ride with Laurel, addressing rider concerns that they had a hard time getting to shopping areas in Laurel.

Another idea was that the Z2 bus, which runs between Olney and Silver Spring via New Hampshire Avenue, run additional mid-day trips from Olney to White Oak, where riders could switch to other buses. Ridership has dwindled on this line, which carries an average of less than 10 riders per trip north of White Oak.

Minor recommendations included updates to bus stops such as more shelters and signs, schedule adjustments, and placing supervisors at various places along the route to reduce bus bunching.

Can these proposals get funding?

Bus Rapid Transit is a significant part of the White Oak Science Gateway plan, which envisions a town center around the Food and Drug Administration campus there. The plan requires the county to find a funding source for BRT lines on Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue before most of the development can go forward.

But it's unclear where funding for BRT, or even a MetroExtra line, would come from. While WMATA recommended MetroExtra service on the Q and Y lines in Montgomery County, the Maryland legislature has already denied requests to fund them.

Will both of these services be implemented at roughly the same time? Will either one be implemented at all, or will one service try to be all things for all people and fulfill the aims of BRT and the local enhancements Metro is considering? It all depends on how they're funded. The Route 29 corridor is one that Montgomery County is focusing on for economic growth, but it may also be a bellwether for what our transit future will look like in the decades to come.

Roads


Montgomery DOT ignores promises to the community and sabotages the White Flint plan

When the White Flint Sector Plan was adopted in 2010 after years of collaboration between residents, property owners, county officials, and civic leaders, it was hailed as a triumph of responsible, sustainable development. Now, county engineers are poised to undo years of work by pushing through a road design that does not include any of the elements the plan promised the community.


MCDOT's proposed design for Old Georgetown Road would make it even more unfriendly for pedestrians than it is today. Image from Google Maps.

Transforming White Flint into a vibrant, walkable area requires balancing new development, which brings growth and amenities, with the pressure to move through traffic around the area. It does this with a multi-modal transportation network that diffuses traffic across a new street grid, known as the Western Workaround. That will relieve traffic on Rockville Pike while providing safe and attractive ways to get around on foot, bike or transit.

Because these elements are so important to the plan's success, it prescribes specific details including the number of lanes, speed limits, and the location and character of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. For Old Georgetown Road between Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike the plan is unequivocal: it should have four lanes (two in each direction), on-street bike lanes in both directions, sidewalks and a broad shared-use path, which forms part of a sector-wide Recreation Loop.


Planned bike lanes and walking/cycling paths in White Flint. Map from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The County Planning Board and County Council both passed this plan, with all its specifics, and the community overwhelmingly supported it. Despite all this, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) designed a road that has no bike lanes, no shared-use path, and widens the road to one that is effectively eight lanes wide, and has nearly advanced that version of the project to the 70% design stage.

This will create an Old Georgetown Road that is even less safe for bikers and pedestrians than it is today. It also leaves a gaping hole in the Recreation Loop, one of the area's signature planned amenities.

MCDOT splits hairs to excuse a dangerous design

In trying to defend their plan, MCDOT officials argue that their design technically contains only two travel lanes in each direction. The additional lanes, which extend nearly the entire length of the roadway, are "merely turning lanes."

This obfuscation may hold water for traffic engineers, but for anyone unlucky enough to bike or walk along the road, that distinction provides little comfort. Under the MCDOT proposal, a pedestrian must traverse eight lanes of traffic to get across Old Georgetown Road. For cyclists, the lack of dedicated lanes means they must take their chances staying safe among four lanes of traffic.


Comparison of the two cross-sections. Rendering from of Friends of White Flint. Click for larger version showing more of the road.

In reality, the effect of this design will be even more pernicious. By prioritizing driving over everything else, MCDOT will fulfill its own skewed vision for mobility in the county: fewer people will walk, bike or take transit, even though they want to but won't feel safe. They'll, instead, choose to drive for every single trip, adding to congestion and undermining the entire premise of the White Flint Sector Plan redevelopment.

Even more galling, MCDOT has proposed redesigning Old Georgetown Road twice: once now to maximize auto traffic, and again, sometime in the future, to incorporate the elements in the sector plan only if conditions warrant and funding is available.

Drivers struck 454 pedestrians in the county last year. 13 were killed. Just this summer, a pedestrian was killed crossing the Pike down by North Bethesda Market. I frequently receive emails from residents concerned for their safety on and along Old Georgetown Road. These are the stark consequences of MCDOT's "windshield mentality."

With this action, the county government breaks the community's trust

Safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and a Recreation Loop were key elements that helped the plan gain public support. Since the plan passed, White Flint residents have consistently voiced their support for safer bike/pedestrian accommodations.

The Western Workaround is the first of many planned transportation and infrastructure improvements in the White Flint area. If MCDOT is willing to push through a design for this project that so plainly violates the sector plan, how can the public trust the agency will implement any other pieces of the plan faithfully?

The residents and stakeholders of White Flint deserve better. Please join the Friends of White Flint and Coalition for Smarter Growth in calling on County Executive Ike Leggett to uphold the promises made to the community and hold MCDOT accountable.

Development


DC sells valuable land, but loses interest in using it to create affordable housing

Since 2000, the District has generally required that when it sells publicly-owned land, part of the deal include new affordable housing for lower-income residents. But more recently, that commitment has waned. A bill in the DC Council could rejuvenate it by requiring affordable housing in city land development deals.


Design for the winning 5th and I building. Image from the developers.

The trend of weakening the city's commitment to affordable housing reached a new level last May, when the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) picked a proposal to develop a city-owned half acre at 5th & I Streets NW.

While the bidders who proposed housing offered some affordable housing in the new building, the winning proposal by Peebles Corp. and the Walker Group put a hotel, condos, and a dog spa in the Mount Vernon Triangle while offering to build affordable housing somewhere elseperhaps at a site it owns in Anacostia, about 3 miles away.

DC needs affordable housing, and there are good reasons to build it inside developments on public land instead of far away. Mixed-income communities are valuable to a city that wants to be diverse and inclusive. Mixed-income neighborhoods give people of different backgrounds better access to jobs, transit, schools, and other amenities. These communities build opportunity for less affluent people.

Mixed-income neighborhoods also ensure that as central city neighborhoods get more valuable, not just the wealthiest people benefit. They encourage people to interact with neighbors with varying income levels, and help transportation like bicycling or streetcars, which run shorter distances, to not be only services for higher-income people.

While most traditional tools for creating affordable housing add new units in higher-poverty areas, DC's land dispositions and inclusionary zoning policies are creating affordable housing in stronger real estate markets such as Columbia Heights, and even Chevy Chase.

When the DC government sells surplus parcels of public land for private development, it traditionally asks that at least some of the new housing built be affordable. Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty sought and built substantial amounts of affordable housing in city-owned parcels like City Vista at 5th & K Streets NW or the new housing around the Columbia Heights Metro station. Unfortunately, the Gray administration has generally asked for far less affordability in public land deals.

The Peebles/Walker proposal represented yet another step away from the goal of mixed-income communities.

There's still time to revisit this poor decision, and fix the longer-term problem of the city's faltering commitment to affordable housing in public land deals. The DC Council will need to approve the 5th and I deal. Economic Development committee chair Muriel Bowser and her colleagues on the council should reconsider this deal.

And if it approves the pending bill, the council will set a clear policy that future land dispositions need a substantial amount of affordable housing on site. That bill, introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, will require that any deal include 20-30% of its housing at an affordable level for low-income households.

For rental units, that means households earning between 30% and 50% of Area Median Income, or just under $30,000-$50,000 per year for a family of three. Units could be sold to owners earning between 50% and 80% AMI, or just under $50,000-$78,000 per year for a family of three.

The bill, and an action by the council to reject the 5th and I proposal, would restore DC's commitment to affordable housing and not waste the rare opportunities to get a project that promotes mixed-income communities when DC sells off land.

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