Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

DDOT director Brown stands up to opposition to mini-circles

Permanent traffic circles will go in at two intersections in American University Park despite a last-ditch effort by some residents to block them. Transportation chief Matt Brown personally got involved to keep the project going.


Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

On Friday, November 14th, DDOT Traffic Systems Maintenance Manager James Cheeks asked American University, who had agreed to pay for the circles, to delay the construction until there could be another community meeting. Residents, who had already endured a number of meetings on this topic, were surprised at the sudden shift from DDOT at the eleventh hour.

But in an email Monday night, Director Matt Brown said DDOT had collected enough public input and heard enough discussion to move forward with the circles. Installation should start today.

Simply put, we believe that these mini-circles are an appropriate way to improve safety. That said, we will continue to work with American University, MPD, and you to monitor these locations after installation. DDOT will also reach out to neighbors near the southern mini-circle, where we have heard specific concerns about operations, to discuss how we've addressed those in the final design. We are committed to making these mini-circles valued elements of the community.

For these reasons, I am asking American University to proceed with construction. Once again thank you for contacting me with your comments and concerns. I know that this action will not please everyone, but I am confident that safety will be improved.

Why Cheeks asked American University to hold off or who asked for another hearing in the first place remains vague.

"The reason for the delay and how it came about is unclear," wrote Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E commissioner Sam Serebin, who represents the area. "This project has certainly not suffered from too little process (anyone who suggests as much just hasn't been paying attention) and the ANC still supports the project."


The current, temporary circles.

One possibility, though, is 3E chair Matthew Frumin, who was the target of the opponents' petition. Though he himself supports the circles, Frumin a message to Cheeks, Brown, DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe, and Councilmember Mary Cheh at 3:15 pm on Friday afternoon asking for another community meeting. Cheeks' request for a delay came just three hours later. Meanwhile, Cheh's office reiterated her support for the circles.

In multiple emails to DDOT and councilmember Mary Cheh, other 3E commissioners made it clear that Frumin had taken his action without first discussing the issue with the entire commission.

Director Brown deserves praise for standing up for this project despite efforts to delay it further. There has been enough public input; city agencies need to decide when they've heard all of the substantive arguments about a project and then be willing to move forward. AU Park residents will enjoy safer streets because Brown took action.

Mini-circles calm traffic in AU Park but stir opposition

For a year now, drivers and cyclists on 42nd Street NW encountered a traffic calming device that's new to DC: Small traffic circles made out of plastic pylons. Permanent versions will soon replace them. But not all neighbors are pleased.

42nd Street is a popular route through American University Park. It offers a way to reach homes, schools, and a senior center without using busy Wisconsin Avenue. But drivers speed through the area and it was not safe enough for pedestrians, a 2011 study of the area found.

The solution? Mini-circles, a traffic calming device that's common in places such as Seattle, Portland, and Palo Alto, California. These provide a more pleasurable way to slow traffic than a speed bump. They are more effective than stop signs, since drivers may ignore a sign but must slow down to navigate the circle.


Photo by Seattle Department of Transportation on Flickr.

On 42nd Street, DDOT installed two mini-roundabouts a year ago to slow cars but keep the road working as a through route. Warren Street splits a block to the west and meets 42nd in two separate curved intersections where drivers take the turns too fast and often blindly.

American University agreed to pay for the traffic calming as part of negotiations over its most recent campus plan. That will fund more permanent versions, whose construction is scheduled to start on November 19.

Some neighbors say no

When the circles first appeared, some drivers complained of being confused. Sherry Cohen, a resident, said she thought the circles were dangerous.

The data, at least in Seattle, says otherwise: A 1997 study found that crashes dropped 94 percent in areas that got mini-circles. The city found that, "In addition to reducing [crashes], traffic circles have been effective at reducing vehicle speeds but have not significantly reduced traffic volumes."

Recently, Joan Silver, who lives right at the corner of 42nd and Warren, started circulating a petition opposing the permanent circles. She wants a new study to consider instead using stop signs or speed bumps.

Silver complains that the circles "do not satisfactorily or adequately address the range of traffic-related safety issues at the specified location, and ... have generated a number of dangerous conditions in their own right and negative impacts on properties immediately surrounding them."

Matthew Frumin, who chairs the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (3E), canvassed the neighborhood after receiving the complaints. In an email to the other commissioners and some of the petitioners, Frumin said that neighbors around the northern circle strongly favored making it permanent.

"While they do not think the circles are the only possible solution, they believe even the temporary northern circle has improved traffic conditions considerably," he wrote, "and that in the next phase when the circle takes its new shape and the crosswalk is added, conditions will improve further. If there is not a unanimous consensus around that, there is a very strong and decisive one in favor of the circle." Residents around the southern circle had more mixed views.

Comments on the petition say that the circles confuse some drivers (who even may go around the wrong way) or cause backups. Others complain that the pylons are ugly.

The permanent circles should address the aesthetic complaints. They will have landscaping that will create an attractive focal point for the residential neighborhood.

And fewer drivers will be "confused" as they get used to the circles. In other cities, drivers have not found them confusing or have adjusted. Perhaps a sign could help; some circles have them, though signs are also less attractive.

Trying new designs that have worked elsewhere should be the norm for our neighborhood streets. Hopefully DDOT will continue to experiment with ways to slow traffic down and make streets safer and more pleasant for everyone.

Does Maryland's statewide planning make big projects harder to build?

Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland's new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland's heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?


Plan image from Shutterstock.

Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies rather than doing it at the state level. But Maryland is unusual. It's geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.

That can be a mixed blessing.

When things go well, it means Maryland directs a lot more resources toward transit than most states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.

Maryland's centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won't change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.

But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly as safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan's election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans with much different transportation concerns.

Of course, it's completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.

But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor's time in office to complete. It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway, and if every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.

Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore's light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor's pet project and another governor's whipping post.


Maryland's spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.

And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland's particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor's office seems to make it par for the course.

When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they're less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.

For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.

Is there a best of both worlds?

The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.

While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George's weren't supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.

Could we find a way to preserve access to the state's financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.

Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.

Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn't get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.

No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn't have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.

Don't mistake Maryland's problem as a criticism of planning in general

One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, "central planning" is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.

Maryland's reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.

Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.

Perhaps it's time to begin that conversation.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

New density will change the face of upper Northwest

Despite some bruising battles in Upper Northwest, big changes are underway. Over the next two years, a large number of residential buildings that are opening may change the area's politics for good.


Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

Upper Northwest has a reputation for being full of people who hate new buildings, are suspicious of cyclists, and worry that students will die chasing ping-pong balls into the street. After seeing their neighborhood commercial strips reduced to mattress stores while others thrived, many residents started looking for another way.

They saw how progressive urban design made other neighborhoods safer, more lively, and better for people of all ages. Already, we're starting to see the effects: dense mixed-use areas and walkable blocks of single-family homes can be good neighbors. The new residents will probably like the new vitality even more.

New buildings make good neighbors and better neighborhoods

Cathedral Commons symbolizes the area's anti-development reputation. In 1999, Giant Food proposed rebuilding the midcentury shopping center at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street in Cleveland Park. Some residents were fiercely opposed, and the fight dragged on through multiple revisions, an attempt to landmark the dreary building, and an expensive lawsuit against the final mixed-use proposal.


Cathedral Commons residential building under construction. Photo by the author.

Still, a strong enough coalition of people who were frustrated with opponents' demands formed to push the project through. Cathedral Commons will finally open by the end of 2014, and even at 15 years after the start of this fight, the development's arrival is better late than never. It's undoubtedly an improvement on what was already there, and new families that move into the neighborhood will likely see the project as an amenity and wonder why anyone ever opposed it.

Up Wisconsin Avenue, the Tenley View apartments are also under construction. First proposed in 2004, the current scheme surfaced after the financial crisis in 2011. After a lengthy "Planned Unit Development" review, DC's Zoning Commission approved the building in 2013.


Tenley View under construction last week. Photo by the author.

One condition of the approval for Tenley View bans not only stores selling pot and porn but also mattresses and picture frames. That may seem odd, but those low-volume destination stores represented a low point in Tenleytown, before the new library and the Cityline building that added new residents atop a historic Sears. As new buildings have attracted foot traffic, restaurants and stores that serve local needs have returned.


Mattress store. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

On Connecticut Avenue, new projects like Woodley Wardman and the 212-unit 2700 Woodley Road delicately add density to established neighborhoods. And despite an expensive legal challenge from well-connected neighbors, a rental building at 5333 Connecticut broke ground last winter and will open next May.


2700 Woodley Rd. Image by DMSAS.

In Van Ness, the Park Van Ness building is replacing a strip mall. The large, well-designed building promises to bring much-needed street presence in an area that suffered from banal midcentury design.


A rendering of Park Van Ness on Connecticut. Image from Torti Gallas.

Academic villages bring activity, if not ideal design

Also in Van Ness, the University of the District of Columbia is constructing a new student center where a large plaza once sat empty most of the week. The new building will make UDC's brutalist campus more extroverted.


The blank UDC Plaza before construction began.


The new UDC student center focuses on the Van Ness Metro station.

American University is making even more dramatic changes. It's about to replace a large surface parking lot with a new residential complex. Bowing to opposition, AU set the buildings back far from the street, which isn't ideal for putting eyes on the street. But it's a step in the right direction for a long-term construction project.


East Campus site plan. Drawing from American University.

Closer to Tenleytown, AU's Washington College of Law is constructing a large campus that will discourage car trips and bring new activity to Tenleytown. The law school is currently on a relatively isolated stretch of Massachussetts Avenue in Spring Valley, and the move will make the campus more accessible to downtown. That's crucial for a law school that relies heavily on practicing teachers.

For development to work, the political process needs to change

There is a common thread between all of these projects: getting them into the neighborhood required a lot of work on the ground. But more and more residents are recognizing that Upper Northwest can grow without losing the characteristics that make it so desirable. The strife has even created networks of people favorable to Smart Growth, like Ward 3 Vision.

The downside of the fight is that it makes the process of planning a community feel piecemeal and time consuming. Facing a lawsuit against something the ANC approved can feel hopeless. Neighborhood meetings during dinner time make it hard for residents to get involved every time. And the negotiations over individual projects often get too bogged down in details for people who haven't been following a project since the beginning.

At the heart of it is that each process lacks guidance. For development in upper Northwest to continue in a way that benefits all parties, decision-makers need to engage the public at a more basic level. I'll address that process in my next post.

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