Greater Greater Washington

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Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Is Sheridan Station a sign of change east of the river, or more of the same?

An entirely new neighborhood is rising just a minute's walk from the Anacostia Metro station. Nearly two dozen townhomes and apartments have sprouted at Sheridan Station, where public housing will become a mixed-income community. But will it be an economic catalyst for the community, or a new face for the area's existing struggles?


A view of Sheridan Station rising from the hillside across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Photos by the author.

When it first broke ground more than 4 years ago, Sheridan Station was supposed to have 344 units, equally split between market-rate homes for sale and rentals for low-income households. But in the fall of 2012, developer William C. Smith asked to reduce the ratio of for-sale homes to 25%, arguing that potential buyers would have trouble securing mortgages.

Today, 327 homes are planned for Sheridan Station, just 80 of which will be for sale with the rest for rent. Of the remaining 247 units, 200 will be affordable, and 100 are set aside for households on the public housing waiting list. Priority will go to residents of Sheridan Terrace, which used to occupy the site, and Barry Farm next door, which will be redeveloped in 2016.

New residents are hopeful, but anxious

James grew up in the neighborhood and lived in Sheridan Terrace, the public housing complex that predates Sheridan Station, in the 1980s. The units were falling apart. "I came home one day from work and the ceiling was on the floor," he said. Hazardous building conditions and street crime precipitated the departure of hundreds of families.


James, a resident of Sheridan Station, has been watching the quick rise of an entirely new neighborhood yards from the Anacostia Metro station. Photos by the author.

I ran into James, who is wheelchair-bound, while recently surveying Sheridan Road. When housing became available in the first phase of Sheridan Station, he was able to secure a unit due to his sister's network.

"I've been coming out here everyday just to watch," James said. "It's about time they started. They never said why it took so long to begin. They blamed the weather. People began putting pressure on them and asking questions. There's more demand for housing than there is supply. This looks like it is decent housing." He pointed out a building and said once completed he would be moving to the first floor.

Market-rate homeowners are excited about the development too. Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant, saw the signage for Sheridan Station on Suitland Parkway while commuting from Upper Marlboro. "When I decided to purchase a home, I looked at various neighborhoods but the rapid rise in prices in more 'trendy' neighborhoods priced me out," he says. Sheridan Station won him over with the proximity to Metro and the views of downtown DC.

"After moving in, I switched from driving to work to taking the Metro," he says. "The commute has been a big quality of life upgrade for me."


Townhomes line Pomeroy Road SE as part of the Sheridan Station development.

Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says he loves the "great urban neighborhood vibe and look" of the street where his new home is. "We are a microcosm of the city, young, less young, professional, artistic, black, white, Hispanic, foreign-born, single, couples, inter-racial," he says. Miller looks forward to the area becoming more walkable and getting a grocery store.

But there's been some tension between new residents and those who already lived in the area. Miller says kids have smashed his house windows three times, while neighbors have had their cars vandalized. "These incidents of vandalism can be attributed to some of the tension that existing members of the community feel towards the new development," says Tuggle.

Is this a sign of change, or more of the same?

Sheridan Station serves as a preview of future development east of the river, from the reconstruction of Barry Farm to Skyland Town Center, the 11th Street Bridge Park, and Saint Elizabeths East Campus. But in contrast to the splashy opening of Sheridan's first phase, the groundbreaking and construction of Sheridan's second and third phases have gone on quietly. At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Gray highlighted his outgoing administration's commitment to developing affordable housing, but did not mention Sheridan Station.


An elevated view of the 1st phase of Sheridan Station from Suitland Parkway.

William C. Smith's uneven promotion of for-sale units led homeowners to speculate that the development's initial goals would never happen. "I had to look for Sheridan Station; it didn't look for me," says Tuggle, noting that he'd received ads for other new developments in the area, like Arts District Hyattsville and Dakota Crossing.

He and other homeowners only found out recently there were only 20 homes for sale in the development's last phase, with the rest being rentals. "[My neighbors] had advised friends and associates that there would be a lot more opportunities to buy in the last phase," he says.

Furthermore, many public housing tenants I've spoken with express a fear that when the new buildings are filled with disparate families from various public housing developments, long-standing feuds, similar to the Hatfields and McCoys, may erupt.

Although private investment has hesitated to cross the Anacostia River, long-term residents point to developments like this, as well as the new schools and recreation centers that have been built recently, as infallible evidence of "the Plan," which seeks to make the area attractive to a new demographic who will displace them. But Sheridan Station and its inability to deliver a mixed-income neighborhood as first promised illustrates the tenuousness of the "new Ward 8," as Councilmember Marion Barry calls it.

The need for tenant and workforce housing in Ward 8 is overwhelming. Despite Sheridan Station's success in attracting affluent professionals, the continued concentration and retrenchment of disadvantaged people in this area has the potential to suppress the economy of communities east of the river for yet another generation.

Many Silver Line riders make a long trek from Metro's eastern branches

Fifteen percent of commuters who take Metro's Silver Line to Tysons Corner or Wiehle Avenue come from east of the Anacostia River in DC or Prince George's County. These long commutes result from a growth pattern that puts jobs in far-flung western suburbs and affordable housing in the east. They're part of the price our region pays for sprawl.


Wiehle Avenue station. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Data released last week from Metro shows that 150 of the 983 morning rush hour riders arriving daily at Wiehle Avenue come from the system's easternmost stations. With 126 out of 827 passengers coming from the same area, the new Tysons station has similar numbers. The percentage is even higher at Spring Hill station.

These numbers are particularly noteworthy because only 20% of Metro's morning riders come from east of the Anacostia or Prince George's in the first place.

Silver Line stationAM peak riders
from EOTR/PG
Total AM
peak riders
Percentage
McLean383879%
Tysons Corner12682715%
Spring Hill8440620%
Greensboro343848%
Wiehle Ave15098315%
Total432298714%
Click on a column header to sort.

Some of those arriving at Wiehle Avenue are no doubt well-off homeowners who chose long commutes in order to live near Chesapeake Bay. After years of long car treks around the crowded Beltway, they might well prefer to park at New Carrollton or Largo and take a train trip of 70 minutes or more.

But the most common motivation for Silver Line riders from the east side is surely economic necessity, as most board at stations that draw riders from less affluent neighborhoods nearby.

Going from New Carrollton or Addison Road to Reston is a tough commute no matter how one travels, and if you have to wait for the bus at one or both ends, it's brutal. These ridership figures are a reminder of how painful it is when low wages meet land use policies that separate jobs from affordable housing.

Finally, DC's zoning update steps forward

After a debate that has stretched for seven years, reforms for lower parking requirements near transit, basement apartments, and corner grocery stores are actually close to becoming reality in DC.


Photo by Lachlan Hardy on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning's proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP's recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that's otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

If you're interested in the wonky details, below are many of the specifics about what is changing in DC's zoning.

What happened with accessory apartments

Tuesday night, the commission debated whether to allow accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes in low-density areas. Currently, higher-density residential zones allow two or more units in a single building (like a rowhouse), but low density zones (including some row house areas like Georgetown) allow only one unit except for an antiquated domestic worker provision.

While Chairman Anthony Hood tried to only permit accessory apartments if the owner goes through a special exception hearing, the rest of the commissioners voted to allow homeowners to have one accessory unit inside their home as a matter of right.

However, when it came to garages or carriage houses, the commission didn't question the recent OP revision to only allow accessory units there after a special exception hearing. They adopted that rule with no discussion.

The commissioners did ease restrictions on the lot size and home size required to qualify for an accessory unit. They removed a minimum lot size rule altogether and shrank the required house size from a large 2,000 square feet to a more modest 1,200 square feet in R-2 and R-3 zones. They also removed a combined six-person cap on the total number of people in the primary residence and accessory apartment; instead, they will simply limit the number of people in the accessory apartment to three.

What happened with corner stores

The Zoning Commission approved a proposal to make some corner stores legal in medium-density residential zones for the first time since the city adopted its 1958 zoning code. Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that corner stores were an important way to help seniors have easy access to daily needs.

However, through the years, the list of rules for what stores are allowable got longer and longer. What the Zoning Commission finally approved was only allowing small grocery stores as a matter of right if they devote a certain area devoted to perishable foods like dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, and food that must be prepared at home. Beer and wine sales can't exceed 15% of the floor area and requires a special exception hearing.

While these stringent rules will mean that few new corner grocery stores will sprout up, it is likely to inspire a few small entrepreneurs to open up small groceries. Beyond the small grocery stores that would qualify as matter of right, the rule would also allow other types of stores if they go through a special exception process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

What's happening with parking

The commission agreed to reduce required parking by 50% for developments near transit (½ mile from Metro or ¼ mile from streetcar or bus priority corridor). In doing so, the Zoning Commission rebuffed the Office of Planning's recent proposal to exclude bus priority corridors from the list of transit services that would qualify.

The commission also inserted one significant change that hadn't been part of the earlier proposals: Developments that take advantage of the 50% reduction would also be ineligible for residential parking permits (RPP).

Current housing developments tend to contain one space for each two or three units voluntarily. The new rule will require just under three for developments away from transti (technically, one per three units after the first four). Cutting that in half means a minimum of one per six units near transit, clearly below market demand.

In effect, therefore, most developments will still park above the minimum, and allows the market to decide what is appropriate rather than forcing most buildings to build more. At easily $50,000 per parking space, this is an important way to make housing less expensive to build.

The commission did adopt OP's suggestion to exclude the West End neighborhood from the Downtown zone that requires no parking, but seemed to support for removing requirements from downtown. However, Chairman Anthony Hood expressed skepticism toward any proposal that removed parking mandates entirely. The commission will consider the downtown zones tonight.

Commissioners also agreed to require one space for each single family home but waive that if no alley access is available. This is a fair compromise that will protect continuous sidewalks and not force curb cuts and driveways on a rowhouse block.

If a property owner feels it's impractical to provide the required parking, it will also be easier to get an exception. The owner will now only need a "special exception" rather than the much more stringent "variance" standard that applies today. Either way, however, asking for a reduction requires a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which costs time and money.

The new special exception rule will allow the board to reduce parking requirements by considering the lack of demand, proximity to transit, or, in a provision added by Commissioner Marcie Cohen, the affordability of the housing. Any special exception would also require a Transportation Demand Management Plan, or traffic and parking demand reduction plan, which DDOT would need to approve.

Buildings can also share parking or put parking off-site to meet the parking requirements. If a project proposes building more than twice the minimum required for a building where the minimum is 20 spaces or more, the developer will have to add amenities like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, or green roofs.

The commission will deliberate on the last few items tonight. After that, officials will create a new draft of the zoning code for one more round of public comment.

How fast housing in DC is growing unaffordable, in 3 charts

Everyone not living under a rock knows that DC is booming with huge demand for people to live here. It's also a well-accepted fact that this trend is squeezing out the poorer residents. A new report from the Urban Institute graphs just how strong this effect is.

For renters, the amount of available housing that costs $1,000 a month or more has increased, while housing at lower price points has shrunk.

Here's another graph showing how for all housing sizes, the available inventory of rental units except for the already-scarce 3-bedrooms has shrunk for all lower-income categories.

Single-family homes shot up in price before the recession, somewhat sooner in the wealthiest wards, 2 and 3, and slightly after that in other wards. Housing east of the Anacostia has fallen since 2009. In 4 and 5, it fell but then recovered, while in the rest of the city it stayed stable even through the recession, when housing prices collapsed most everywhere else in the nation.

As the report says, a lot of this change comes from new residents who are primarily younger (67% are 18-34 years old), highly education (65% have bachelor's or graduate degrees), and made more money. New residents were more likely not to have children than existing residents.

Given that new people are coming into the city, it's understandable that some see the new residents as a threat and don't want changes, like allowing car-free buildings or accessory apartments, that can accommodate them. But it's a mistake to see new residents as an enemy, since they are going to come in regardless, and will be able to outbid many existing residents for housing.

The question is how to build a city that can welcome new residents of all income levels while also continuing to serve existing ones. But how?

It's not that DC isn't building a lot of housing. Is it enough? Supporters of a housing supply-focused approach say the city just needs to make sure it's building even more housing to keep up with demand. If you build so much higher-end housing to saturate that market, then lower-end housing won't rise in price.

Alternatively, skeptics of this approach worry it's not possible to build enough housing, and perhaps there's an induced demand effect where more new housing just makes the city even more attractive. Therefore, it may also be necessary to establish and strengthen programs that guarantee a segment of new and existing housing remain affordable.

But even those programs have a limit on how much money the city can put in and how many units they can create amid this rapid run-up in price. So far, we don't seem to have a good answer. Nobody wants a city that's so undesirable people stop wanting to live here, but neither do we want one that's off-limits to anyone with a lower income.

White Flint is at a crossroads, and traffic engineers should follow the path the community chose

Montgomery County leaders and residents have worked for years to re-plan White Flint as a pedestrian-friendly urban place. Now that redevelopment is finally beginning, county traffic engineers insist on suburban-style road designs rather than complete streets. In this letter to the editor, County Councilmember Roger Berliner demands the Department of Transportation honor the community's urban plans.

Our county is at a crossroads. Literally and metaphorically. There has been a long-running battle over how many lanes of traffic should be built on the portion of Old Georgetown Road that runs in front of the new Pike & Rose development just west of 355 and one block from Metro.

On a certain level, you kind of shrug and say, really, is this so terribly important? And the answer is a most definitive YES.


Old Georgetown Road and Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Indeed, for many of us, this fight over the number of lanes is about the future direction of our county. It is about honoring the hard work our Planning Board and County Council put into transforming a classic suburban strip mall into the new White Flint, a huge boon to our residents. It is about old school transportation thinking versus new school.

It is about making multimodal transportation optionswalking, biking, transit and drivingattractive, rather than just maximizing the throughput of cars. It is about placemaking, about being "context sensitive," about supporting the experience of consumers enjoying the amenities of one of the hottest new developments in the region.

It is a fight that has been going on for years, most of the time under the surface, and occasionally, as now, boiling over into the public domainwhere it belongs.

And here is what it isn't about. It isn't about the developer, Federal Realty, who had the confidence from the beginning to be the first real mover in White Flint, investing hundreds of millions of dollars, and producing what everyone acknowledges to be a top-of-the-line mixed-use project, and who most definitely has skin in the game. And it isn't about the Friends of White Flint, who have been vigilant and valiant guardians of the vision our planners and Council have held for White Flint.

Our vision of this portion of White Flint is unambiguous. It is to reflect the best of transit-oriented development and the new urbanism. Bike lanes and shared use paths were part of the plan. And the plans being developed by the Executive Branch would eliminate them in order to facilitate eight lanes of traffic. That is not the plan or the vision we worked so hard to adopt.

So why is the vision at risk? The threat of worse traffic. Using old-school and debunked methodologies, assumptions at odds with reality, and not reflecting the use of the new street grid, these engineers maintain that intersections will fail. And if you use the new methodologies, more realistic assumptions, and disperse cars throughout the new grid that is to be created, the intersections don't fail.

Our planners and council understood the traffic implications of this plan. And that is why our council insisted on advancing the construction of Hoya Street, the four lane street that will connect southbound 355 with Old Georgetown at Executive Blvd. It is a much better route for those traveling north or south via Old Georgetown. With that option available and the new grid of streets we are creating, we don't need to sacrifice bike lanes, pedestrian facilities or the new urbanism experience we are trying to create.

County officials say our hands are tied by the state who will insist on eight lanes on their state road. State officials, as recently as last week, told me that they are following the county's lead. And so our county must lead. Strongly. And regrettably, none of the people who have been involved in this struggle from the beginning believe we have fulfilled that fundamental responsibility.

The County Executive, in response to the hundreds of community members who have written expressing their alarm over the threat to our vision of White Flint, framed the issue as "not if, but when" we are able to realize our vision. The traffic engineers of course argue for eight lanes for now and reduce it later if conditions permit. The rest of us want that scenario reversedget it right the first time.

We can always add more lanes at a later date, but if we don't build the bike lanes and shared use paths at the onset, we will undermine both our ability to meet our own non-auto mode-share goals in this area and our vision of White Flint.

I have been in the midst of this struggle from the beginning as the district council&why;member, chair of our transportation committee, and active member during our consideration and passage of the White Flint Sector Plan. I, for one, am not about to go quietly into the night on this fight. It is way too important. And make no mistake about ita lot is riding on whether we realize our collective vision of the future of White Flint and our county.

Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, several weeks ago I put down a deposit on one of the apartments in the Pike & Rose development.

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