Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Hired to redesign a street, children make magic

This video shows the magic that happened when school children in Quebec got a chance to reimagine a street, as part of a school project. They cut space for cars and added land to play games and grow gardens, making the street a better public space.

If you're like me and don't speak French (big thanks to contributor Agnes Artemel for her help!), here's a translation: The video is called "Student planners." In re-creating the street, the students made it amenable to more modes of transportation and narrowed the part for vehicles. They also brought the speed limit down to 12 km/hr and built space to play games and grow gardens.

It's inspiring to see that intuitively, these kids designed a public space to accommodate all kinds of needs.

Topic of the Week: Is the term "Smart Growth" out?

"Smart Growth" is the idea that cities and regions should focus on growing in existing communities and near transit rather than in rural or fringe area. A colleague recently said he doesn't hear the term as much as he used to, and wondered why that might be.


Photo by pderby on Flickr.

Perhaps Smart Growth's proponents worry that people who get nervous about change will bristle at the term, so they talk about its tenets—walkable communities, transportation choices, the preservation of open space, etc—without actually saying the words.

Stepping further back, it could be that a lot of people don't know that Smart Growth comprises these elements, so it makes more sense to talk about them specifically.

Greater Greater Washington contributors added their thoughts as well.

Dan Reed said:

I consciously stopped using the phrase "Smart Growth," as well as "New Urbanism," because I felt the two were used and misused way too much. I agree that it makes more sense to talk about specific aspects of each, as it may be easier to find common ground with people on one issue (and build support for it) than to ask people to commit to an entire "agenda," at least right off the bat.
Agnes Artemel explained what she hears when people discuss these issues in Alexandria:
In Alexandria, no one talks about Smart Growth, although many support the underlying principles. The term has been replaced by euphemisms or subset terminology, like "walkable community," "complete streets," "density around transit," and the overused "live, work, and play." "Growth" is a fear factor word, even when tempered with "smart."
Payton Chung followed up on Dan Reed's mention of "New Urbanism":
There's been chatter within the Congress for the New Urbanism about whether it's worth dropping the "new," or even just declaring victory and disbanding. That was originally a wordsmith's attempt at reclaiming language—in the dark days of the 1990s "urban" was used as a racist, classist code word. Since then, that meaning has fallen away, and the architects behind CNU have been successful at pushing the French-derived "urbanism" into the American vernacular. Both Smart Growth and New Urbanism have declined as search terms since the mid-2000s.
Ben Ross also mentioned the word urbanism.
I hear "urbanism" in place of Smart Growth. It's a slight change of focus, from choosing where we grow to making the places where we now grow differently, but mostly just a change of language.
Canaan Merchant explained that he thinks that the term needs refining.
I prefer having a strict definition for Smart Growth (note the uppercase) and having a specific list of criteria for something to be Smart Growth. That helps prevent the term from being coopted as just a marketing buzzword (though I've seen people try) or a general term that says "any type of development I like is Smart Growth, even if what I like is actually sprawl or auto-centric."
Alex Posorske, the Coalition for Smarter Growth's managing director, explained why he thinks the term is as important as ever (he did, of course, admit that the term being part of his organization's name might make him at least slightly biased!):
I still think it's a great term. It encompasses a wide range of what we do: pro-transit, anti-sprawl, advocate for transit-oriented development, affordable housing, transportation spending priorities, etc. Other terms, like urbanism, don't quite manage to take everything in.

There's something to be said for finding common ground issue by issue. But from a regional movement perspective, there's also something to be said for simplified communication to ease outreach to the people who support what the term encompasses. Smart Growth isn't the clearest term ever—it can still take some explaining—but at only two words, it's a great start.

Cheryl Cort, the Coalition for Smarter Growth's policy director, added more background:
Smart Growth is a shorthand term that can be useful, but when I'm persuading someone to embrace policies that create a more walkable, inclusive and sustainable place, I don't use it. Any shorthand term can be abused and co-opted. Another example is "sustainable" which has regained its popularity after some years out of favor.

In the 1990s, professional planners used to talk about "growth management." People who thought of themselves as environmentalists, or just opposed a development often were "no growth" or "slow growthers."

Maryland Governor Glendening came along with a more qualitative approach to growth: we want growth, but it needs to be the right kind, in the right place. Or, in other words, Smart Growth.

What do you think? Do you think we should keep using the term Smart Growth? Does it accurately describe the ideas it's supposed to represent? Let us know in the comments.

If you have a burning question to ask or a topic we should discuss, send an email to ask@ggwash.org!

2.5 minutes of extra walking is not nothing

This week's Walkblock of the Week highlighted the closed sidewalk at Connecticut and Yuma, NW. To get to the Franklin Montessori School from the Van Ness Metro, people have to walk past the school, to Albemarle Stret, and double back. Is this a big deal?


The walk from Van Ness Metro to Franklin Montessori with the sidewalk closed (left) and open (right). Images from Gmap Pedometer using Google Maps.

It's .29 miles versus .21 miles. That's 39% more walk from the Metro, a significant jump. On the other hand, it's only an additional .08 miles plus crossing Connecticut.

Some commenters think it's making a mountain out of a molehill to talk about this. "Notabigdeal" wrote, "Wait, they have to walk .08 miles farther? The humanity!" And "seriously" said:

Wow you must have a great life when you consider this to be "a significant additional inconvenience."

People, get a grip. So you have to cross the street. I live in the area, I do it all the time. Would I prefer not to cross the street? Sure. But do I give it a second thought afterwards? NO! How entitled do you have to feel to be outraged by having to walk an extra .08 miles? I mean come on.

It's 2.5 extra minutes and 1-2 major crossings

At an average walking speed of 3.1 mph, it takes 1.5 extra minutes to walk that distance (longer for kids who walk slowly, of course). Let's assume an extra 1 minute wait for the light and you have added 2.5 minutes to the trip.

That may not sound like much, but twice a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year is about 17 hours a year of extra time, per person. Crossing Connecticut Avenue one or two times each way is also not nothing. Crosswalks on six-lane streets like Connecticut are common places for pedestrians to get hit, especially seniors and children, and while we all live with this risk, increasing it isn't something to do lightly.

Would drivers stand for a delay like that?

More importantly, these commenters' reactions highlight how we tend to think about inconveniencing pedestrians versus drivers. Would drivers stand for having their commute lengthened by 2.5 minutes each way?

We got to see such a case recently when DC put in (and then removed) a median on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. The traffic count data said that drivers' trips lengthened by 1-2 minutes. But drivers, including Councilmember Jack Evans, who drives on Wisconsin to and from his kids' school, screamed bloody murder.

Evans insisted that the delay was more than 1-2 minutes. But 1-2 minutes can feel like a lot when you're stuck in traffic. How do you feel if you're waiting at a light, it turns green, and you can't make it through because of traffic, or maybe someone turning that blocks the way? That's a delay of about a minute, and it can be very infuriating.

Traffic engineering standards even agree: If the average car is delayed 1 minute and 20 seconds at an intersection, vehicular Level of Service, the measure for how well traffic flows, would be a failing F. In other words, traffic engineering considers it totally unacceptable to add that level of delay.

Or if you commute by car, try this experiment: Pick a spot along the route (if you use Connecticut Avenue, it could be this area). Every time you get there, stop the car and wait 2.5 minutes. I know I wouldn't want to have to keep doing that.

Maybe closing a the sidewalk was right in this case since it's such a busy street. Maybe not. But DDOT doesn't even habitually compute how much delay a closure will cause pedestrians, while it's mandatory before closing any lanes to traffic. To at least weigh the impacts quantitatively would be a good start.

Restore the sidewalk now

One thing is for sure: This sidewalk ought not stay closed for much longer.

DDOT's George Branyan said that in initial applications for the permit, the developer's representatives promised that once the vault (the area under the sidewalk) is built, they would put a top on and create a pedestrian path. They estimated that would happen by about December 2014.

It's past that time now, and the building's structure is above the street level. Branyan said permit officials will be talking again with the construction team to find out when there can be a new sidewalk.

Crews sometimes want to keep the sidewalk closed longer than absolutely necessary because it's more convenient to be able to pull up construction trucks to the site and not worry about pedestrians. That, for sure, is not a good reason to keep a sidewalk closed, and when sidewalks do have to close, it's important for DDOT to push to reopen them as early as possible.

Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

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

Long Branch is primed for revitalization, but it needs the Purple Line to make it happen

For some neighborhoods, the Purple Line is more than a transit line. Without the Purple Line, revitalization might not happen in Long Branch, on the border of Silver Spring and Takoma Park.


The location of Long Branch. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

Long Branch has long been an immigrant hub. Tens of thousands of people from Central America, West Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere have moved to the area in recent years, attracted by low-cost housing and economic opportunity. Nearby Langley Park is widely known as Maryland's International Corridor.

But the neighborhood is also isolated from opportunities in the larger DC area. While it's a mile away from the revitalized downtown Silver Spring, Long Branch continues to struggle with crime, disinvestment, and a lack of economic opportunities.

Laying the groundwork for a new Long Branch

Attempts to give Long Branch new life have come in fits and starts. In 2002, the Long Branch Task Force began planning for how to bring down street crime and code violations in rental housing, both of which had become rampant. Two housing organizations with close ties to county government renovated hundreds of units nearby, preserving affordability for qualifying residents and providing resident services such as after-school programs.

But there's been little momentum in Long Branch's commercial core, centered on what planners refer to as Long Branch's "superblock," centered on Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road. While Flower Avenue is a lively, walkable street that already attracts people, Piney Branch is a commercial strip designed for heavy car traffic, with oversized lanes and retail parking lots that doesn't match Flower Avenue's forward thinking.

Commercial landowners who have failed to invest in their properties over the years would see increasing land values with two Purple Line stations, at Piney Branch and Arliss Street and at Piney Branch and University Boulevard. With Purple Line trains passing down the center of Piney Branch Road, they'll finally have an incentive to remake the area as a more walkable urban place.


Arliss Street will get a Purple Line station (if the line is built). Photo from Google Maps.

To attract and shape redevelopment, Montgomery County passed the Long Branch Sector Plan last year. A theme of the county's planning approach is a "road diet," redesigning Piney Branch Road with a median and wider sidewalks to create a safer pedestrian environment. As a light rail line that runs in the street, the Purple Line can build on existing neighborhood connectivity and not create new impediments.

The plan also creates a "commercial revitalization overlay zone" for most of the town center. This is one of the new overlay zones in a revised 2014 zoning code designed to encourage higher-density, mixed-use development in many locations around the county where high volume transit exists or is planned.

Meanwhile, the City of Takoma Park is leading the Flower Avenue Green Street project, which will make this walkable street even better with traffic calming features, improved sidewalks and advanced stormwater management.

Long Branch needs the Purple Line to stay on the right track

The Purple Line's two stations in Long Branch will solidify the groundwork that the county has laid there. Long Branch is already a transit-dependent community; ridership on the area's eight existing bus routes is significantly higher among Long Branch residents than elsewhere, and household car ownership is sharply lower than other suburban areas.

The Purple Line would put important job centers like Silver Spring, College Park, and Bethesda a short train ride away, instead of a long and inconvenient bus trip as it is today. It will also makes Long Branch more attractive to investors, meaning residents will get the amenities they need and that Long Branch will become a more pedestrian-friendly urban district, which is what the county wants.

The effect the Purple Line will have on Long Branch is also important at the state level, as Maryland has started to recognize that transit that links inner-Beltway communities is a must if we are to avoid suburban sprawl.

However, new Governor Larry Hogan could stop this project altogether, and his intentions aren't clear yet. Much is at stake for Long Branch and other neighborhoods along the International Corridor as they wait to see if the new governor takes the logical next step to overcome blight and unlock economic opportunities for residents.

Walkblock of the Week #2: Connecticut and Yuma NW

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

On Connecticut Avenue just north of the Van Ness Metro, a two block-long construction site blocks the sidewalk and stops students and teachers from taking a direct route to school.


A "means of last resort" for people on foot but not for those in cars.

The new Park Van Ness building will add apartments and retail along the east side of Connecticut Avenue. The construction spans nearly two blocks, from Wyndam Place to Yuma Street to Albemarle.

Right next door, to the north, is the Franklin Montessori School. Because of the construction, students and teachers coming from the Metro have to walk to Albemarle, cross the street, then double back to get to the school. This makes the school significantly farther from the Metro than normal.

Despite signs, some people don't expect such a major walking route to be closed, and they end up walking next to traffic. Construction is supposed to continue for another year. Meanwhile, all the car lanes, including space that doubles as parking and rush-hour travel lanes, are still open.


The red line on the map shows the closed sidewalk on Connecticut Ave NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk.

George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that the site is very complicated because of its steep slopes that move away from the road, which required the sidewalk to be closed longer than at other sites. When I asked about closing a car lane, Branyan said the agency did not consider this option feasible because Connecticut Avenue gets so much traffic (both curbside parking lanes become travel lanes during rush hours). Branyan also stressed that DDOT worked with the community and ANC representatives to modify construction closure plans, and the sidewalk is expected to reopen "later this spring."

The closure, then, falls into DDOT's "means of last resort" category, meaning the agency feels that all options for keeping the sidewalk open were impractical. Branyan also clarified that the "means of last resort" category also includes the closure at 16th and I Streets discussed last week. However, "means of last resort" means very little when DDOT uses it so liberally, especially for construction on major roadways, which often have the highest numbers of people in cars but also the highest numbers of people walking.

DDOT is far too quick to make excuses for closing sidewalks instead of finding ways to keep them open. Reversing those priorities will make DC an even better place to walk by making it clear that people walking are a priority.


People in cars move as normal, while those on foot must detour or walk in the street. Photo by the author.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The city has closed car lanes for walking around construction areas at other times. This recent construction project on 5th Street NW took one lane from cars and used it for people walking. Clearly, DDOT has the technical ability, the creativity, and the political support to keep pathways open when it's a priority.


DDOT provides good accommodation for walking here at 5th St NW, just south of K. Photo from Google Street View.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

Even more development may come to North Capitol Street. Will transportation be ready?

A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?


The Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington. Image from AFRH.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers' Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.

The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.


Possible layout of future buildings, from the 2008 master plan.

The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.

What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?

This isn't the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home's land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what's now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center.

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National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.

That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers' Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.

Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It's the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.

In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.



The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the "parkway/memorial," the "circle," the "four corners."

It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.

On the other hand, if there's at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH's property and the intersection.

While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University's land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.

How can people get here?

Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.

The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan


Possible future roads. Image from the 2008 master plan.

These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.

If that doesn't happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

DC doesn't have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what's being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.

Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it's time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.

A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.

Will governments be ready?

This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:

We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. ... We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. ... With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that "the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment," but added, "While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study."

GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is "starting the consultant selection process," so it's still in the early stages as well.

Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program.​ The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we'll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today's cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.
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