Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Ask GGW: Why is there a Metro tunnel in Tysons?

Several years ago, as the Silver line was being planned, there was a debate about whether to build the line underground through Tysons Corner. Eventually, the elevated option was selected, but there's still a tunnel. Reader Dennis McGarry wants to know why.


The tunnel portal. Photo by Dan Malouff.
Why is there a short tunnel on the Silver Line with no underground stops? Why not just build the entire track above ground? It seems like such a huge undertaking with little payback.
There are two short tunnels in Tysons (one for each track). They run about 1700 feet between Tysons Corner station and Greensboro station. The reason they exist is to cut through the highest point in Fairfax County, at 520 feet above sea level.

The tracks through Tysons are already high above the streets, and the climb between McLean and Tysons Corner is noticeable, especially from the front of a westbound train. Because trains are limited in the grade they can ascend, crossing this hill with an elevated viaduct would make the stations at Tysons Corner and McLean obscenely high.

In addition to the engineering and aesthetic challenges that a super-high viaduct would have caused, trying to keep the line elevated would have probably been much more expensive. So it was probably cheaper for the contractor to build these short tunnels than it would have been to keep the line elevated over the hill.

As a result, riders at McLean get a soaring view of the Tysons skyline (and in fact, you can see Bethesda, too), but a few minutes later, they find themselves riding underground, ever so briefly.

Pedestrians


Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices

Tysons now has four Metro stations, but workers trying to get from those stations to nearby offices often have no choice but to cross wide, high-speed roads without any crosswalks.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

I saw several Tysons Corner workers walking across streets with up to 9 lanes of traffic in order to take the Silver Line this morning, due to the continued lack of crosswalks in Tysons. It's a matter of time before a Silver Line rider is struck by a car in Tysons Corner.

At the Tysons Corner station, the entrance north of Route 123 (the side with most of the offices) is on the west side of Tysons Blvd between 123 and Galleria Drive. There's no legal way to walk east on Galleria Drive, because there are no crosswalks on the south or east side of the intersection of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive.


There are no crosswalks from Tysons Corner station for workers walking east along Galleria Drive. Base map from Google Maps.

Many Silver Line riders therefore walked across nine lanes of traffic on Tysons Boulevard.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

My company's office is at 7900 Westpark Drive along with dozens of other tech companies. The main topic of conversation around the office this morning was the safest places to jaywalk to get to the Silver Line.

I've endured the lack of crosswalks in Tysons Corner for years as a pedestrian, but assumed that Fairfax County would add crosswalks before the Silver Line began operation. The county needs to create safe pedestrian pathways immediately, rather than waiting until someone gets hurt or killed.

Development


In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.


All photos by the author unless noted.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it's East County's turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.


LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won't solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.


An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.

That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County's future depends on having a town center

More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.


It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.

Transit


The Silver Line's opening day, in 41 photos

Metro's new Silver Line is officially open and carrying passengers. Enjoy this photo tour of the new line and opening day festivities.


All photos by Dan Malouff, Matt Johnson, and Malcolm Kenton.

Metro's star-studded ribbon-cutting ceremony featured US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and seemingly every other dignitary in Northern Virginia.


Left: Anthony Foxx, Terry McAuliffe, and Sharon Bulova. Right: The ribbon-cutting.

Once the gates at Wiehle station opened, riders rushed in to catch the first train. Cheers erupted as the "doors closing" chime sounded for the first time, and the train sped forward.

The first train took off from Wiehle-Reston East station shortly after noon, and moved east through Tysons on its way to Largo. GGW's troop of partiers exited at East Falls Church to double back and tour each of the five new Silver Line stations individually.

McLean station

The ride between East Falls Church and McLean station offers a champion view of the Tysons skyline, and McLean station itself.

Metro's tracks swoop gracefully into McLean station.

The station is elevated over Capital One Drive, and features an angular starburst-shaped platform canopy. The mezzanine is one level below the tracks. The sidewalk is one level below that.

Construction transforms the landscape outside the station, except a lone ball field.

Looking west, the growing skyline around the Tysons Corner station looms.

Tysons Corner station

Tysons Corner station is situated between Tysons' two gargantuan shopping malls and its tallest buildings (so far). The platform canopy is a futuristic gambrel-like shape.

Tysons Corner station uses the gambrel roof instead of the starburst because the mezzanine is above the tracks, rather than below. That same pattern repeats at other stations along the line. Mezzanine below tracks gets a starburst, while mezzanine above gets a gambrel.

The mezzanine commands an impressive east-facing view.

On the north side, Tysons Boulevard runs perpendicularly under the station. It's so similar to how Colesville Road runs under Silver Spring that it's easy to imagine Tysons Corner one day being just as urban.

On the south side, Chain Bridge Road is a highway that most people will use a bridge to cross.

At sidewalk level below the station, it's reminiscent of Silver Spring.

The south facade includes a prominent public art piece.

Just past Tysons Corner station the Silver Line enters a brief subway tunnel, to pass under the crest of a hill.


Subway portal.

Greensboro station

The next station west is Greensboro, which also uses the gambrel-like roof.

High walls block out noise from car traffic on Leesburg Pike, to either side of the station.

Like all new Silver Line stations, Greensboro sports updated WMATA branding: More colorful signage and silver fixtures, rather than Metro's original 1970s-era brown.

Looking west, there's a great view of Leesburg Pike and the next station, Spring Hill.

Spring Hill station

Spring Hill uses the starburst roof, like McLean.

Spring Hill is the final station in Tysons. From there, it's a five-mile ride through the Fairfax County suburbs to Wiehle-Reston East.

Wiehle-Reston East station

The terminal station feels like a nicer-looking twin of Vienna, set in the median of the Dulles Access Road instead of I-66.

The gambrel-style roof looks great here.

One key difference from Vienna is that Wiehle's commodious mezzanine includes publicly-accessible restrooms. All five new Silver Line stations have them.

South of the station, a pedestrian bridge crosses the Dulles Toll Road and lands in an unassuming bus depot, with office building parking lots beyond.

North of the station, impressive transit-oriented development is already sprouting.

On the north side, the station entrance is set in a plaza atop the roof of a parking garage. The ground floor of the garage is Wiehle's main bus depot, taxi stand, and bike parking room. To access the garage, go through the glass house.

Beyond Wiehle, the Silver Line will eventually extend to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County, but for now it's just a bit of train parking and construction staging. For a tour of the six stations that will make up Silver Line Phase II, check back in 2018.

History


The Metro plan has changed a lot since 1968

Saturday, the Metro system will grow in length by 10% with the Silver Line, first envisioned in the mid-1960s. A lot has changed from the original plans for Metro. Today, DDOT circulated a 1968 map of the planned system.

In the wake of the 1968 riots, DC pushed WMATA to reroute what's now the Green Line through some of the harder-hit neighborhoods. In 1970, the WMATA Board voted to change the "E route" from Massachusetts Avenue and 13th Street and instead run it along 7th Street to Shaw and then 14th Street to Columbia Heights.

The 1970 decision also deleted the "Petworth" station, which would have been at Kansas Avenue and Sherman Circle. The "Georgia Avenue" station would have been under Kansas Avenue at Georgia and Upshur, in the heart of Petworth, but the alignment later shifted south to New Hampshire Avenue.


The blue circle (not on the original map) shows where the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station is today.

In addition to the many station name changes (you won't see Ardmore, Voice of America, or Marine Barracks stations on the map today), there have been a few pretty significant changes to alignments and station locations.

At the time of this map, the line we know today as the Blue Line had a split terminus, with some trains running to Franconia and some trains running to Backlick Road (and a potential future extension to Burke).

In the northwestern part of the region, the Red Line was to stop at Rockville, instead of running all the way to Shady Grove. The northern Green Line was also shorter, including a station between Berwyn Road and Greenbelt Road, instead of further north at I-495, where the current Greenbelt station is.

Along the Orange and Blue lines, there were to be two more common stations, one at Oklahoma Avenue and one at Kenilworth Avenue (River Terrace) before the lines split. The Minnesota Avenue station was not in the plan at the time.

The southern Green Line was the subject of lots of controversy between 1968 and its completion in 2001. There were two competing routes planned, one to Branch Avenue and an alternate route to Rosecroft Raceway. The 1968 map here shows the line going to Branch Avenue via Alabama Avenue.

But later, WMATA settled on using the Rosecroft alignment in DC, via Congress Heights, and the Branch Avenue alignment in Prince George's County. This created in the "jog" along the District line where the Southern Avenue station is located.


Left: 1968 planned alignment. Right: Actual alignment; image by Matt Johnson using Google Maps.

The map also shows potential future extensions in blue. Today's Silver Line is included, though it stays in the median of the Dulles Access Road instead of detouring through Tysons Corner (which was much smaller then; the mall first opened in 1968). Also shown are lines along Columbia Pike in Virginia and extensions to Bowie, Brandywine, Gaithersburg, and Laurel. The extension to Largo was actually built and opened in 2004.

You can view a pannable, zoomable version of the map here.

Zoning


Should adding more housing be illegal even when neighbors support it?

If a property owner wants to divide a row house into multiple units, the neighbors agree, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission does not object, should they be able to?


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

The Office of Planning (OP)'s recent "anti-pop-up" zoning proposal would halt this practice, in an effort to keep row houses as one- or two-family homes and reduce the financial incentive to add on top and in back. But at two members of DC's Zoning Commission were not at all pleased with this proposal.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that the Board of Zoning Adjustment has been granting many variances recently to allow these multi-family conversions, but only whenand becausethe neighbors and ANC endorse the idea. In fact, he said, the BZA has been sometimes having to bend over backward to get such a request to meet the strict variance criteria. But, at least in his thinking, if this is something neighbors support, why shouldn't it be allowed?

OP's Jennifer Steingasser acknowledged that in the recent BZA cases, there has indeed been neighborhood support. Often that's because a property is vacant and crumbling, and neighbors are eager to see someone invest the considerable capital that might be necessary to overhaul it. Small developers have said that the economics only work out to do such substantial work if they can create more units.

Federal representative Michael Turnbull, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, doesn't believe that. He said, "I'm not really convinced by these marketing studies. For every marketing study that says one thing, you can get another marketing study that says, well no. ... So it's a little bit self-serving. I always look askance at these things."

But Miller does not agree. He said,

I think this proposal significantly constrains the ability of our existing housing stock ... and the existing zoning code to accommodate a growing population, including a growing proportion of smaller household sizes. We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change and growth in our city. Cities are dynamic and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn't change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.
In response to much of the pushback OP has already received on its draft, Steingasser has developed some alternative approaches. One, which garnered some praise from the commission, would still allow converting row houses into apartments, but require that units beyond the first and second be below market rate units under DC's inclusionary zoning law.

This would permit more housing, but set some aside for people with lower incomes, perhaps ensuring that these neighborhoods remain mixed-income as they grow more dense. It would be helpful to know more about the economics of these conversions to ensure that property owners would still be able to afford them; otherwise, it's just a ban in another guise.

Miller also asked OP to add another option that would make multifamily conversions a "special exception" instead of a variance. In a special exception, impact on the neighborhood is the main test, rather than uniqueness financial need.

Where's the big picture?

Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that OP should be making any proposal as part of a larger housing strategy instead of as a one-off reaction to public pressure. "I just don't think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I'm worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal]. I personally prefer the alternatives that you have [proposed]. I do believe we must have opportunities that are supported by an ANC and supported by a neighborhood to move ahead with higher density in an R-4 district."

In response to questions about the impact on housing supply, Steingasser repeatedly said that the rules didn't originate out of an analysis about housing; rather, they were an effort to respond to public outcry about pop-ups (including a sudden election-year interest in the issue from councilmember Jim Graham, who later lost his primary).

But this is exactly the problem. OP has now in several cases proposed new limits on zoning which, officials readily acknowledge, arose entirely in response to some requests by some neighbors. OP should certainly listen to neighbor concerns, but needs to also think about the big picture. Miller pointed out that they got feedback on many different issues, like fixing Inclusionary Zoning, and asked, why has OP reacted so quickly to this particular one right now?

Every change, especially one that affects the overall housing supply, has an impact beyond just the immediate neighbors and the people who have specifically met with Steingasser or testified at a hearing. The Office of Planning needs to have a broader idea of how much housing of different types DC has and how much it needs.

A policy that pushes more row houses to be family-sized housing and discourages small apartments in row houses could be a reasonable one, so long as DC also has a bigger plan for how to provide the smaller sized housing that other people want. As UrbanTurf recently discussed, many families would prefer a row house (we certainly did).

Maybe a comprehensive housing supply strategy will conclude that fewer row houses should turn into apartments while more apartments should go on other spots. But at the moment, there are no concrete numbers about the demand and likely supply. There are just handwaving statements about how more units will appear at places like McMillan (maybe not enough, and even fewer if opponents get their way) or that we need more family housing.

The Office of Planning is going to be doing more quantitative housing analysis as it prepares to revise the DC Comprehensive Plan. Steingasser also told the Zoning Commission that OP has more data on row houses and family-sized housing. While this proposal might be a piece of a puzzle, it would make far more sense to propose it as part of a fuller plan to ensure DC has the amount and sizes of housing it needs.

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