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The Van Ness Metro station's west entrance isn't closing just yet

The west entrance to the Van Ness Metro station was supposed to start a three-year closure for escalator repairs today. But after pushback from nearby residents and DDOT, the project is on hold.


Photo by David Bardin.

"I am putting WMATA on notice that all public space permits are suspended until further notice," DDOT's Matthew Marcou said. He spoke in response to an audience member's question at a community meeting on Thursday, which ANC 3F Commissioner Mary Beth Ray organized.

Marcou, who chairs the DDOT committee that oversees permits to use public space for construction staging and other work, went on to explain that this means no trucks can bring any supplies or equipment to the site.

It's not clear how long DDOT can hold up the work. ANC 3F has asked Metro's interim general manager for a delay until the closed sidewalk at the Park Van Ness site reopens at the end of this year.

Marcou is no stranger to the community or that project. He, along with ANC 3F and developer Saul Centers, hammered out the traffic safety control plans that have closed the Park Van Ness construction site to pedestrians since late 2013.

DDOT hasn't had a chance to plan for the entrance being closed

During a community meeting with DC's Office of Planning last Tuesday, DDOT's Ward 3 transportation planner, Ted Van Houten, revealed that DDOT wasn't notified of WMATA's plans until April 21st, the same day as the general public. Further, at that point WMATA had not set up any meetings with DDOT to discuss the Van Ness station entrance being closed.

At that same meeting, Council member Mary Cheh said she would be talking to WMATA and DDOT, and specifically asking DDOT about the possibility of a temporary sidewalk at the Park Van Ness site.

Because closing the Metro entrance will add more stress to this heavily-traveled stretch of Connecticut Avenue, Marcou explained at the meeting that all options for relief are on the table. Community members' suggestions, which came in via written comments and questions, included:

  • Increasing crossing times for pedestrians at Windom Place and Veazey Terrace.
  • Marking a crosswalk on the south side of Windom
  • Installing a Barnes Dance crossing which stops cars coming from all directions so pedestrians can all cross at once.
  • A temporary sidewalk at Park Van Ness
  • The repairs at Van Ness will require a multi-step process

    WMATA sent Cedric Watson, its head engineer of escalators and elevators, to the meeting to explain the escalator replacement process. He gave a presentation and answered questions from ANC 3F commissioners.

    Watson stated repeatedly that WMATA had notified the community about the work at an ANC meeting about 18 months ago, when a representative spoke about a five-month closure of the east entrance at Van Ness that was also for replacing escalators.

    At the meeting's end, however, Watson acknowledged that ANC 3F had not been given a date for the west entrance project.

    He explained that the Van Ness station has certain constraints that are going to keep it closed for a long time. Removing the escalator at the entrance will create a chute through which workers will drop sections of three longer escalators, some of the longest in the Metro system, down tot he mezzanine level. Also, a lot of the work can only happen at night, while the station is closed. Finally, there's electrical work to do and structural upgrades to make since the escalators have been there since the station opened almost 35 years ago.

    Steve Strauss, DDOT's Deputy Director of Progressive Transportation, asked whether closing the station over the weekends would have a significant impact on shortening this time frame. There wasn't a clear answer, but the question appeared to warrant further discussion.

    ANC Commissioner Sally Gresham asked whether the entrance stairway could remain open. Watson said that might be possible if it remains structurally sound.

    Van Ness is only the first of a number of stations that need escalator repairs

    Asked about delaying the project for eight months, Watson said that would affect the timetable for the contractor, which will tackle the Cleveland Park escalators after this project is complete. He said an entrance will close for three years at that station as well. Medical Center, Woodley Park and Friendship Heights are other Red Line stations due for escalator replacements.

    Watson also said the decision about whether to delay the project or move forward with it ultimately rests with Jack Requa, the interim general manager at WMATA.

    3F Commissioner Malachy Nugent captured the frustration and anger at the meeting, stating that WMATA made working with its contractor a higher priority than getting input from the community. He warned that an injunction was not out of the question. This got resounding applause from the audience.

    It was clear that WMATA did not fully consider how closing a Van Ness station entrance would affect the community. But after the community meeting, the tone changed. DDOT's Marcou and WMATA's Watson met on Friday. And Ann Chisholm, WMATA's head of government relations, told me that Metro needs to do a better job of outreach.

    To see Metro's advisory addressing questions about the work itself, see wmata.com/vanness.

    This post originally appeared on Forest Hills Connection.

    A history of streetcar planning in the District

    DC's streetcar plans have evolved over 20 years, ebbing and flowing mayor-by-mayor. In advance of the H Street/Benning Road streetcar's eventual opening, we take a look back at how we've arrived at where we are now.

    You can trace plans for modern streetcar service in the District back to the Transportation Vision, Strategy and Action Plan, which the District Department of Public Works completed in March of 1997. This plan identified a need for better inter-District transit to complement the Metro, and it proposed three possible streetcar lines to make that happen.

    In the following years, WMATA conducted two studies of its own. The first was 1999's Transit Service Expansion Plan, which identified three possible downtown streetcar lines as part of a larger region-wide transit vision. 2002's District of Columbia Transit Development Study was a more direct follow-up to the 1997 Vision study.

    The result of the Transit Development Study was a proposal for four lines, including a starter line in the Anacostia region.

    In 2003, DDOT started the DC's Transit Future program, which expanded on the 2002 study and assessed the transit possibilities for fourteen corridors across the District.

    The program culminated in the release of the DC's Transit Future System Plan and Alternatives Analysis in September 2005, which identified nine corridors for transit investment, including four streetcar lines. The report got an update in June 2008, and in October 2009 DDOT unveiled a substantially upgraded and expanded streetcar vision before making a second update in April 2010.

    Due to funding concerns and shaky construction efforts on the first lines in Anacostia and the H Street/Benning Road corridors, DDOT refined this 37-mile plan down to a 22-mile "Priority System" in June 2012, focusing efforts on three major corridors of the original vision.

    As revenue service moved further into the future and political support for the DC streetcar network declined, more funding cuts in October 2014 meant shifting the near-term focus to just the two lines under construction (8.2 miles).

    The Bowser administration has so far only committed to completing the planned extensions to the H Street/Benning Road line to Georgetown and down Benning. The performance of that first line will likely play a huge role in determining whether the broader vision's other plans become a reality.

    In the coming days, we'll take an in-depth look at modern streetcar proposals in Northern Virginia, as well as the two DC routes that made it out of the planning phase and into actual construction.

    What's behind the budget cuts at Wilson High School

    DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has defended her plan to cut Wilson High School's budget by over 10% per student next year, citing a DC law that requires DCPS to redirect funds to at-risk students. But most of the cut isn't required by that law.


    Photo of desk and scissors from Shutterstock.

    DCPS plans to spend $8,300 on each student at Wilson, the lowest amount it has allocated to any school on a per-pupil basis for next year.

    Designed to accommodate 1550 students, Wilson will serve almost 1800 next year, according to DCPS projections. That's an increase of 170 students over this year's enrollment. Nonetheless, DCPS wants to cut the school's budget by about $300,000.

    The Wilson community has protested that class sizes, already high, could climb to 40, and that the cut will hurt the school's efforts to support its lower-income students. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has argued that the planned cut could "dramatically shake" the confidence parents across the District have begun to feel in the relatively high-performing school.

    While Wilson is located in Ward 3, its attendance zone extends into other wards. And 43% of its students live outside that zone.

    At some other schools, the overall per-pupil spending will be almost twice what DCPS has allocated to Wilson. This interactive graphic, produced by a new coalition of DC education advocates with the help of Code for DC, shows the range of budget allocations for all DCPS schools.

    Henderson's justification for the cut in funds

    Henderson has argued that Wilson is losing funds because it has a lower concentration of at-risk students than many other DCPS schools. Two years ago, the DC Council passed legislation providing that DC schools spend an additional $2,000 on each at-risk student, a category that includes those who are homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

    DCPS projects that Wilson will have 582 at-risk students next year, a number that makes up 31% of its student body. That's a large increase over this year's figure of 343, and 582 is greater than the total number of students at some other high schools. But at many DCPS schools, 70% or more students are at-risk.

    As an example of how the new at-risk allocations will affect Wilson, Henderson cited a DCPS program that awards money for projects proposed by individual schools. Beginning next year, the funding for that program will be tied to the number of at-risk students a school has, a change that Henderson said will result in a loss of $140,000 at Wilson.

    DCPS chose to fund other priorities rather than Wilson

    But that explains only a fraction of the cut to Wilson's budget. The remainder does have something to do with at-risk funding, but the connection is indirect.

    Last year, DCPS officials said they didn't have time to allocate the $40 million they got in at-risk funds in direct proportion to the number of at-risk students at each school, as the law required. Instead, they pooled the money and used it to fund priorities they had already set for the current school year, such as improving middle schools. They argued those priorities primarily benefited schools with high at-risk populations.

    For next year, the DCPS budget does distribute at-risk funding proportionally. But school officials didn't want to pull the plug on initiatives they started last year with the at-risk funds they had pooled. So, Henderson explained in a letter to Cheh, they "identified acceptable cuts elsewhere" in order to continue to fund them. They also wanted to focus on schools with at-risk students and the priority DCPS has set for this year, high schools.

    In a heated exchange with Cheh at a DC Council hearing yesterday, Henderson elaborated on her view of what the at-risk legislation requires. (The exchange begins at about an hour and 12 minutes into the hearing.)

    "Those funds were to be distributed proportionally," Henderson told Cheh. "It didn't say what number do you have, it's what proportion. I don't know how we distribute proportionally and not have loss at schools that have lower proportions. That's the law."

    But in fact, the legislation says nothing about targeting schools with high proportions of at-risk students. It requires DCPS to direct at-risk funds "to schools proportionally based upon the number of at-risk students within each school's projected student count." And in apparent accordance with that reading of the law, DCPS did allocate at-risk funds to Wilson for next year based on the number of at-risk students it's projected to have.

    DCPS eliminated Wilson's per-pupil funding minimum

    What DCPS chose to cut was Wilson's "per-pupil funding minimum," or PPFM. DCPS came up with the PPFM three years ago to make sure schools with larger enrollments weren't getting shortchanged. The problem stems from the fact that DCPS doesn't allocate money to individual schools on a per-pupil basis. Instead, it gives each school funds for a certain set of staff positions.

    DCPS generally funds those positions at the same amount, regardless of how many students attend the school. At large schools, costs like the principal's salary are spread over a greater number of students, resulting in lower funding per pupil than at small schools. To offset that effect, DCPS decided to ensure that per-pupil funding at larger schools wouldn't fall below about $9,000.

    But, Henderson said, that policy cost the school system about $9 million this year, including $3 million at Wilson alone. Many of the schools receiving PPFM funds have relatively low concentrations of at-risk students. So DCPS officials decided to cut the PPFM payments for all schools other than Wilson. There, it eliminated the PPFM altogether.

    That $3 million PPFM cut explains why Wilson's funding for next year is so low. As the budget data tool shows, the funds Wilson will get in other categories, including at-risk, have actually increased.

    Henderson says the cuts at Wilson will be "mostly" offset by new investments that all high schools will get next year, such as a new athletics and extracurricular coordinator. But Wilson parents say that change will actually result in the elimination of one of two current staff positions, and that the overall effect of the new investments on Wilson's budget is nil.

    Overcrowding at Wilson is the basic problem

    The basic problem is that Wilson has too many students, while other neighborhood high schools are underenrolled. In her letter, Henderson also outlined several plans for decreasing Wilson's population next year.

    For example, she pointed to over 100 out-of-bounds students there who have more than ten unexcused absences. DCPS will start enforcing an existing policy that would send such students back to their zoned schools, she said.

    But Wilson parent leaders say measures like that won't make up for the cuts. And education activist Matt Frumin, a former Wilson parent, argues that enforcing the attendance policy could have harsh results. DCPS defines "unexcused absence" to include instances when a student is late, perhaps because she had to accompany a younger sibling to another school.

    As a longer-term solution, Henderson pointed to the new school boundary plan that will shrink Wilson's attendance zone. But because most students are grandfathered in to their current feeder patterns, the effect on Wilson's population is years away. And Frumin, who was a member of the committee that drew up the new boundaries, says the changes will prevent Wilson's overcrowding from getting worse but won't solve the problem.

    Frumin and others arguing on Wilson's behalf are asking that the school get an additional $900,000 next year. Henderson says she's already cut her administrative budget by $15 million, and there's no way to find money for Wilson without inflicting harm on other schools.

    No one, including advocates for Wilson, wants that to happen. It's possible that the DC Council will appropriate additional money for the school. But one way or another, DCPS should at least treat Wilson the way it's treating other large schools that have benefited from the PPFM in the past: by reducing that allotment rather than eliminating it entirely.

    Henderson may be right in feeling that schools with higher proportions of at-risk students need additional help. But she's mistaken in claiming that the law requires her to divert as much funding as she has from Wilson. And that claim doesn't accord with the clearly discretionary decision-making process she described in her letter to Cheh.

    Even as a matter of policy, depriving Wilson of the funds it needs to succeed, and to help its nearly 600 at-risk students succeed, doesn't make sense.

    Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

    Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

    The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.


    Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

    The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

    In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

    The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

    No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
    Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

    In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

    LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

    The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

    Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

    Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

    Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

    Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

    Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

    Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

    Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

    Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

    Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

    The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

    To bike without worrying about nearby cars, I'm happy on the MBT

    In recent years, a number of people riding bikes on the Metropolitan Branch Trail have been robbed or assaulted. But the trail is still a generally safe and, compared to city streets, comfortably pleasant place to ride.


    A pedestrian bridge went up over the MBT at Rhode Island Avenue in December. Photo by Ranpuba on Flickr.

    Recently, a neighbor of mine was riding on the MBT when they saw some young people in ski masks. This understandably prompted fear that they were about to get mugged, so they turned around and got off the trail as quickly as possible, warning other cyclists about the potential danger ahead. My neighbor later emailed our list serve vowing never to ride the trail alone again. Others replied with claims that the MBT is "not safe and never will be."

    I use the MBT at least five days a week, during both morning and evening rush hours. I use it on the sunny days when the MBT is full of people and I use it on the cold, rainy days when I often only see one or two other people on the trail. I also use it at night if I am coming home from a friend's house or bar.

    Sometimes I'm lucky enough to ride with one or two other people, but I usually ride alone.

    I don't want to downplay someone's fear or dismiss their feelings. But I do want to counter the idea that a robbery (or even a handful of robberies) means that the MBT is unsafe.

    To me, city streets feel far more dangerous than the MBT

    I feel unsafe while riding on Michigan Avenue during rush hour, especially with the potholes that sometimes mean I have to swerve at the last second not to hit a six-inch bump. I'm afraid that I will get hit by a busy driver who is texting or talking on their phone as they come around the turn near South Dakota Avenue.

    I feel unsafe crossing the Franklin Avenue bridge, where drivers seem convinced that they fit in the lane with me. They probably don't know that the right half of the lane is filled with broken glass and grates that could easily catch a bike tire. I feel afraid that I will get side-swiped by someone who sees me too late and instead of slowing down, decides to change lanes and doesn't make it all the way over before hitting me.

    The end of my commute means getting off the trail and riding on Florida Avenue for one block before I turn onto P Street NE. That block is the scariest part of my commute. I have to take one hand off my handlebars to signal my intention to turn left, which means I have half as much control over my bike. I hear cars whizzing up behind me, and I pray that the car coming up behind me is in the right lane rather than mine.

    I see the MBT as a safe haven

    To me, the MBT is a sanctuary. For 15 minutes, I can stop being afraid of a car hitting me. When it's snowy or a little bit icy, I can ride my bike anyway because if I wipe out, I'll get scraped up but I won't get run over by a car passing me by at 30 mph.

    This is what I tell my friends who are afraid to ride on the MBT: I feel a much more real and present danger of getting hit by a car when I ride on the streets than I do of getting mugged by some punk kid on the trail.

    According to Lauren Cardoni, an associate at Nelson\Nygaard, 37 reported crimes happened within 100 feet of the trail in 2014; in 2013 there were 26. The stretch of Rhode Island Avenue between 7th Street NW and 2nd NE, by comparison, had 301 reported crimes in 2014 and 244 in 2013.

    While Cardoni noted that the crime locations in this data aren't completely precise, just looking at them as approximations gives some valuable perspective.

    Yes, I keep my eyes open when I'm riding the MBT. Yes, I am ready to turn around if I see a group of kids split up on either side of the trail. I am aware of the dangers, I am on the lookout, and I am ready to call the police if I feel unsafe.

    But to me, getting hit by a car is a lot scarier than getting mugged.

    The NoMa Business Improvement District is currently running a survey on MBT safety, and they're hosting a workshop on the trail tomorrow, from 5-8 pm. Note that the workshop was previously scheduled for today, but it's been moved because of a forecasted thunderstorm.

    Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base

    Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to raise real property tax rates by 16% to increase funding to public schools. The real way to boost Prince George's economy is to develop around its gateway Metro stations near the DC line.


    The area around the Capitol Heights Metro station is underdeveloped. Image from WMATA.

    Prince George's is home to the lowest median home values and highest property tax rates in the region, largely because of the low home values in its older, deteriorating communities that border the District of Columbia. Seven of the county's 15 Metrorail stations are in these gateway neighborhoods, but they all are devoid of any substantial transit-oriented development (TOD).

    Improving existing home values will strengthen the tax base

    Like many other suburbs, Prince George's County has historically been a bedroom community. The county's largest source of tax revenue comes from real property taxes, and 61% of taxable real estate is residential property.

    It stands to reason, then, that even small increases in existing home values in the county would go a long way to raise revenues even without any major large-scale development.

    Currently, median home values in the five Prince George's county subdivision areas bordering the District of Columbia fall 10-31% below the countywide median value of $269,800. If existing home values in these areas simply rose to that level, the county's taxable real estate base would increase by approximately $2.47 billion. That would add approximately $23.7 million annually in revenue to the county.

    Of course, if the county got serious about developing the seven Metro stations located in these struggling communities (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and West Hyattsville), real property revenues would soar much higher than the median.

    Undeveloped transit station areas undermine economic growth

    Shockingly, Prince George's current General Plan doesn't recommend any substantial growth around six of the seven Metro stations near the DC border over the next 20 years. (The Suitland station, next to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the exception.) Indeed, the county's planners believe there are currently "too many" Metro stations in the county and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

    More specifically, planners say that the six gateway Metro stations bordering DC, plus the four stand-alone MARC stations, plus all the planned stand-alone Purple Line stations should only account for 15% of the county's future growth in the next 20 years. That equates to fewer than 600 new housing units per transit station.

    By contrast, the General Plan recommends putting 30-40% of the county's projected growth and development over the next 20 years—or up to 25,000 new housing units—far away from transit and mostly outside of the Beltway. This recommendation appears despite county-funded research that concludes that failing to focus on TOD puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors."

    Prince George's has continually squandered opportunities to focus its attention on revitalizing its neighborhoods inside the Beltway. Continuing to encourage scattered development away from transit has crippled the county financially, environmentally, and aesthetically.

    Gateway communities can't wait 20 more years to redevelop

    The close-in Prince George's neighborhoods and Metro station areas near the DC line are likely the first thing the region's current and prospective residents think about when determining whether they would like to live and work in the county.

    Until Prince George's County improves its gateway neighborhoods, it will be difficult for it to attract the region's best and brightest. The county can't wait another 20 years for that transformation to happen.

    County executive Baker is rightly concerned with diversifying the county's revenue base, creating more jobs, and expanding the county's commercial tax base. To that end, he has advocated strongly for developing the end-of-line Metro stations at the Beltway's edge.

    For example, he's called for the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt Metro, for the state housing agency to relocate to New Carrollton Metro, and for a new regional medical center to come to Largo Town Center.

    Likewise, the General Plan's strategy to direct 50% of future growth to the seven largest Metro stations (including the three mentioned above) plus National Harbor, and to create three "downtowns" at Largo, New Carrollton, and Prince George's Plaza, is sensible.

    Still, the county's economic development strategy should also reach beyond downtown, and deeper inside the Beltway, to the neighborhood Metro stations near the District's edge. Most of the new development that the General Plan currently contemplates for outer-Beltway suburbia should instead go toward these gateway areas.

    Prince George's County cannot simply tax itself out of last place in the region. Instead, its leaders need to become better stewards of the public's trust and the public's resources. The county's transit-rich gateway neighborhoods are economic engines ready and waiting to be fired up, but county leaders have to ignite the switch.

    Prince George's must get serious about revitalizing its old streetcar suburbs. These vital neighborhoods can't be left to languish for another generation.

    Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

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