Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dan Reed

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

South Park weighs in on gentrification with "SoDoSoPa"

As more people seek urban living, communities around the country are trying to meet the demand. That even goes for fictional places like South Park, which skewers gentrification this season with a new neighborhood called "SoDoSoPa":

In last week's episode, the town decides to redevelop the poor part of town into a trendy arts and restaurant district called "SoDoSoPa" in order to attract a Whole Foods. This fake ad for the community, complete with shots of sleek lofts, fancy restaurants, and bearded hipsters, could pass for lots of places in our region.

The episode also looks at how revitalization projects impact the people who already live there. South Park's mayor reassures Kenny's blue-collar family that she'll listen to their worries about the development. Instead, SoDoSoPa uses Kenny's blue-collar family as a marketing tool, advertising its proximity to "historic Kenny's house." Kenny's little sister asks her dad why they can't go outside to enjoy the cleaned-up neighborhood, and he replies that they can't afford to.

The video inspired a lengthy thread on Reddit's South Park board asking commenters to name their city's "SoDoSoPa" neighborhood. Naturally, one commenter suggested NoMa for the DC area, in addition to other redeveloping areas, including downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda Row, and Tysons Corner.

What depictions of urban issues on TV have you enjoyed recently?

Join us for happy hour in Brookland!

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! Join us in two weeks for drinks, conversation, and trainspotting along the Red Line in Brookland Edgewood (which should be a little less crowded than it is today).

Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 6 from 6 to 8 pm, we'll be at the Dew Drop Inn, located at 2801 8th Street NE. Formerly home to Chocolate City Brewing Company, this bar may be best known for its rooftop deck, which overlooks the Red Line tracks. In addition, drinks are $2 off until 7:30, and there's a full food menu.

The Dew Drop Inn is located between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland-CUA Metro stations. From Rhode Island Avenue, the bar is about a half-mile up the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just past Franklin Street. From Brookland, it's six blocks south of the station along 8th Street. If you're coming by bus, the Metrobus D8, G8, and H8 all stop within two blocks, while several other routes stop at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station three blocks away at 7th and Hamlin streets NE.

Over the past year, we've held happy hours in Alexandria, Shaw, and U Street. We're always looking for new, Metro-accessible locations for future happy hours (especially in Prince George's County!). Where would you like us to go next?

The Silver Spring Transit Center is finally open

After years of delay and budget overruns, the Silver Spring Transit Center finally opened yesterday.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

The three-story complex, located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, brings together Metro, MARC commuter rail, local and intercity buses, and a kiss-and-ride. The future Purple Line will also stop there. First proposed in 1996, construction started in 2008.

The transit center was supposed to open in 2012 before officials found serious structural defects. A report found that the county, the designers, and the builders were all at fault, and WMATA refused to take over the building. The county brought in a new structural engineer to organize repairs, which began last fall. Right now, Montgomery County and WMATA are suing the builder and designer.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

But now, the transit center is up and running after a low-key opening Sunday morning. The first bus, a Metrobus 70 headed to Archives, pulled out at 4:08 am. Later in the morning, the Action Committee for Transit announced the winner of its contest to guess the transit center's opening date: Garth Burleyson of Colesville, who'd picked October 26.

Goofing off in the transit center before it opens. Photo by the author.

Fences surrounding the transit center finally came down Saturday afternoon. When I stopped by Saturday night, curious onlookers were wandering around the empty structure, snapping funny photos and taking in the building for the first time.

Looking from the transit center into downtown Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The views of the Metro station and downtown Silver Spring are pretty dramatic.

Photo by the author.

The first two floors have stops for Metrobus and Ride On, and intercity buses, while a third floor has a taxi stand, bike parking, and a kiss-and-ride. Signs point to where riders can catch each bus, while digital displays give real-time arrival info.

Riders catch the Z8 on the street one last time.

For bus riders, the transit center will require some getting used to. For seven years, buses stopped along nearby streets. Stops for dozens of routes will move into the transit center.

Now that the Transit Center is done, one big question is what will happen to the space around it. Plans to build apartments, offices, and hotels next to the complex fell through last year, and the county's suing Foulger Pratt, the developer who sought to build them.

This is one of the most valuable development sites not just in Silver Spring, but the region, situated next to one of its biggest transit hubs. With the core of downtown Silver Spring three blocks away, there's a big opportunity to capture all of the people walking there from the Metro. Hopefully, this won't sit empty for long.

Check out my photos and Dan Malouff's photos from opening day.

DC's "Little Ethiopia" has moved to Silver Spring and Alexandria

Historically, the DC area's Ethiopian diaspora has centered on Adams Morgan and Shaw. But as the community has grown, it's mostly moved out of the District. Today, the region actually has two "Little Ethiopias": one in Silver Spring and one in Alexandria.

Where the region's Ethiopian population lives. Map by the author.

Ethiopians have a lot of roots in the DC area

Ethiopians first began moving to the United States in the 1970s, fleeing a military dictatorship. The DC area has the nation's largest Ethiopian community, but just how big it is up for debate.

The 2013 American Community Survey found about 40,000 people of Ethiopian ancestry in the region, while the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Center says there are 100,000 Ethiopians living in the area.

There's also a large population from Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia in 1991. The Census doesn't break out ancestry data for Eritreans for local areas. But in 2005, but the Population Reference Bureau estimated that about 2% of African-born blacks in the region, or about 2,300 people, came from Eritrea.

Today, Ethiopians are the largest African immigrant group in the region, making up one-fifth of the region's African diaspora. There are about 1200 Ethiopian-owned businesses in the region, according to the ECDC, as well as the Ethiopian community's own Yellow Pages. Famous Ethiopian entertainers have settled in the area, and major events serving the diaspora are held here, like this sports and live music festival that was at the University of Maryland this summer.

Two "Little Ethiopias" emerge

When the diaspora began, Ethiopians arriving in DC settled in Adams Morgan, then along 9th Street NW in Shaw, occasionally called "Little Ethiopia." Since 2000, DC's Ethiopian population has more than doubled, from 2134 to 4807 in 2013, though it's shifted north towards Petworth and Brightwood.

But like many immigrants in the region, many Ethiopians moved to Maryland and Virginia, and today most of the community lives outside the District. Montgomery County has the region's largest cluster of Ethiopians, with nearly 13,000 residents claiming Ethiopian ancestry, three times as many as in 2000. Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria have the region's second- and third-largest Ethiopian populations.

Ethiopian nightlife in Silver Spring. Photo by Reemberto Rodriguez.

Today, there are two "Little Ethiopias." One sits in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and reaches into far northwest DC. Another is in Alexandria and extends west towards the Skyline area of Fairfax County.

Both areas are home to several thousand people of Ethiopian descent. Ethiopians make up 29% of one Census tract next to downtown Silver Spring, while one census tract in Alexandria, consisting of a large apartment complex called Southern Towers, is 40% Ethiopian.

The most Ethiopian places

The most prominent sign of the region's "Little Ethiopias" is food. Downtown Silver Spring has dozens of Ethiopian eateries, and with those numbers come specialization: there are white-tablecloth places, sports bars, an "Ethiopian Chipotle," and of course, many different coffee shops. Meanwhile, chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited an Ethiopian market in Skyline on the DC episode of his show No Reservations.

Montgomery County's annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

These communities are also gathering and economic hubs not only for Ethiopians, but the wider African diaspora living in the DC area. Silver Spring is home to I/O Spaces, a coworking space geared to the African community. Montgomery County, which hosts an annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring, is also the first jurisdiction in the nation to name September African Heritage Month.

Will "Little Ethiopia" continue to move farther out?

Why did Little Ethiopia, like so many other immigrant enclaves in the DC area, leave the District? Gentrification and displacement may be one cause. Though it's also likely that people moved to Maryland and Virginia for cheaper housing, better schools, or to be close to friends and family.

It'll be interesting to see if the region's Ethiopian population continue to move further out. There are already large concentrations of Ethiopians extending far from both Little Ethiopias: the one in Silver Spring stretches north towards Burtonsville, while the one in Alexandria continues south along I-95 towards Lorton.

This map takes another look at "urban" vs "suburban"

Last month, I used housing density to map the real boundaries between "urban" and "suburban" in the DC area. But what if you took other factors into consideration? This map looks a little different, but still shows that there's more "city" in the region than what's inside the DC line.

How economist Jed Kolko would classify "urban" and "suburban" parts of the region. Map by the author with Kolko's data.

My maps are based on research from Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, who mapped several other metropolitan areas around the country. He reached out to me with his own data for the DC area, which is available on his website. While I only looked at housing density as a measure of urbanism, Kolko included several other factors, including the density of jobs and businesses, how many people go to work without a car, and the presence of multi-family housing.

Compare Kolko's map to my map below. One big difference is that his analysis only goes to the zip code level, while I used Census tracts. That makes my map is a little finer-grained, focusing on neighborhoods as opposed to larger areas. And while he agrees that there are "urban" places well outside the District, Kolko's analysis finds fewer of them, particularly in Northern Virginia.

My earlier map, looking solely at housing density.

Kolko classifies all of the District, Arlington, and Alexandria as "urban," even areas that are pretty spread-out and arguably suburban in character, like the Palisades in northwest DC. Like me, he also includes several older communities in Maryland that originally developed around streetcar lines and as a result look very similar to urban neighborhoods in DC, like Hyattsville, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.

My map also identified many newer communities that are gaining more urban characteristics, like White Flint in Maryland or Tysons Corner in Virginia. Kolko includes several of those places in Maryland, but not a single one in Virginia. In fact, he doesn't consider anything in Fairfax County "urban."

I wasn't the only blogger to look at housing density as a measure for urbanism. NextSTL, a St. Louis-area blog, made a similar map and found that "urbanism" can be found on both sides of the city line there too.

Image from NextSTL.

What do you see in these maps? What factors do you consider make a place "urban" or "suburban"?

The Silver Spring Transit Center will open soon. Here's how everything fits together.

After years of delay and construction problems, the Silver Spring Transit Center will finally open next month, bringing together local and intercity buses, MARC commuter rail, and the Red and future Purple lines. To get travelers ready, Metro put together this diagram showing how it will work.

Image from WMATA. Click for full version.

Silver Spring is one of the region's biggest transit hubs, bringing together dozens of bus and train lines and serving 60,000 passengers each day. It'll become an even bigger destination when the Purple Line opens in 2021. First envisioned nearly twenty years ago (and several years behind schedule), the transit center (named for former senator Paul Sarbanes) provides a single place where all of those services meet.

The transit center will have three stories, each with its own entrance from the street. On the ground floor, with an entrance on Colesville Road, you'll be able to find Metrobus routes serving Maryland, some of Montgomery County's Ride On routes, MetroAccess, and a shuttle to the Food and Drug Administration's campus in White Oak. This is where the Red Line entrance will be, as well as some bike racks.

On the second floor, with an entrance on Ramsey Avenue, you'll find Metrobus routes serving the District, additional Ride On routes, and the University of Maryland shuttle, as well as intercity buses like Greyhound and Peter Pan. This floor connects to the MARC train platform and has an escalator down to the Metro entrance.

The third floor, entered from Bonifant Street, will have taxis and a kiss-and-ride. The transit center also has a TRIPS commuter store where you can get transit schedules and buy tickets. All three floors connect to a portion of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which will eventually connect Silver Spring to Union Station.

Strangely enough, you won't be able to get MTA commuter buses at the transit center. They'll continue to stop a half-block away at Colesville Road and East-West Highway.

This map shows which parts of the DC area are really "urban" and "suburban"

Where does "the city" start and end? Some might say it's the District line. But in reality, the lines between "city" and "suburb" are more unclear than you think.

"Urban" (blue) and "suburban" (green) parts of the DC area based on housing density. Map by the author. Click for a high-resolution version.

I got into an argument with someone at a happy hour a few years ago. Why? This dude said I lived in the suburbs, because Silver Spring was outside the District. Even if I was literally 1,000 feet from Eastern Avenue.

"But no," I protested, "Silver Spring is an urban place! We have tall buildings! We're a major transit hub! I walk everywhere!" He wouldn't relent, and a normal bar disagreement got way more heated than it needed to be. (Thankfully, nobody got hurt.)

Many people would say the same: DC is "the city," and everything else is "the suburbs." But as our region grows and changes, the lines between "city" and "suburb" can get kind of blurry.

"Urban" and "suburban" are about "what," not "where"

What makes a place "urban" or "suburban" isn't just whether it sits on one side of a municipal boundary or another. The distinction is about physical characteristics, like population density, the mix of uses, and how it's laid out. More often than not, urban places are older, built at a time when driving was less prevalent and places needed to support walking and transit use.

As a result there are places like Alexandria or Silver Spring that feel urban but happen to sit outside the District or even predate its founding. Meanwhile, there are parts of the District that were built more recently and feel very suburban, like Fort Lincoln in Northeast.

"It turns out that many cities' legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban," wrote Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, in a blog post a few months ago on FiveThirtyEight looking at how "suburban" some American cities are.

So how can you determine whether where the "urban" parts of a city or region really are? Kolko started by simply surveying people about whether they felt they lived in a rural, suburban, or urban place. He discovered that the housing density had a big impact on how residents saw where they lived.

Kolko found that at a density of 2,213 households per square mile, people started to say they lived in an urban place. That's about the density of Falls Church. Below 102 households per square mile, they reported living in a rural place. Taking a few other data points into account, Kolko mapped several American cities and found that what many considered "the city" was actually really suburban, and vice versa.

He didn't map the DC area, however. We don't have the complete model he used, but I was able to map the region's Census tracts based on household density.

Looking at the map, you can see a huge swath of blue in the District, representing areas with urban household densities. But that blue area hops across the Potomac River into Virginia, covering most of Arlington and Alexandria. It also extends into Maryland, encompassing Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Hyattsville.

Beyond that, there are urban "clusters" outside the Beltway, in places like Wheaton and Rockville in Maryland and Merrifield and Reston in Virginia. Many of them overlap with Chris Leinberger's map of "Walkable urban places" or WalkUPs. Meanwhile, the District has a fair share of "suburban" areas, like Palisades, Foxhall, and Crestwood in Northwest, Deanwood Kenilworth in Northeast, and Bellevue in Southwest.

Of course, this is just a map of housing density, which doesn't really say anything about urban form: places that aren't just dense, but have a street grid that makes it easy to walk and a mix of housing, shops, and other uses. Some of the urban places outside the District have those things. Others, like Fairland in eastern Montgomery County, have the population density but are really just dense suburbs, designed for driving and lots of it.

What else do you see in this map?

Ice cream: your doctor may hate it, but your city loves it

Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, which is great for fans of cold desserts. But it's even better for urban places, because ice cream is a great tool for placemaking.

Moorenko's Ice Cream in Silver Spring. All photos by the author unless noted.

One of the best ways to create a busy, active sidewalk or plaza is by putting food there. Especially ice cream (or gelato, frozen custard, frozen yogurt, and so on). Why? People of all ages can enjoy it, and it's generally cheap enough that most people can afford to eat it.

Most importantly, ice cream melts. You have to consume your ice cream soon after buying it, meaning that people tend to linger outside of ice cream shops.

Of course, ice cream doesn't automatically make a place great. But it definitely helps. Here are a few tips from great ice cream stores and great places around the DC area and beyond.

Getting some frozen yogurt at FrozenYo.

Provide outdoor seating.

"Make your own" frozen yogurt places are a dime a dozen these days. But you'll always see people hanging out in front of FrozenYo in Columbia Heights. It's because there are lots of places to sit outside with your frozen yogurt, from tables and chairs to ledges and even a grassy lawn.

Have big windows.

Like any good storefront, ice cream shops benefit from big windows, which break down the barrier between inside and out. People inside still feel a connection to the street, while people on the street can see what's going on inside. And if there's ice cream inside, people are likely to come in.

Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester, New York. I really want to go here now. Photo by June Marle on Flickr.

Dolcezza Gelato, which has locations in Logan Circle, Bethesda, and elsewhere does an especially great job of this. Their spin-off location in Fairfax's Mosaic District, Mom & Pop, is basically a glass box in a plaza, which makes for great people-watching whether you're inside or out.

Have a walk-up window.

I scooped my way through college working at Gifford's Ice Cream, the now-defunct local chain that began in Silver Spring in 1938. Customers could either come in through the door or at a walk-up window on the sidewalk. As Dan Malouff notes, walk-up windows give people walking by something to look at while putting more "eyes on the street," which deters crime. They're also great for people with dogs or strollers or anything that might be difficult to carry inside.

Keep it local.

Local shops like Gifford's, Dolcezza, or Moorenko's seem to be one of the few places a teenager can still get a summer job, which is a big deal for placemaking. Knowing the kids behind the counter gives their friends, parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on more reasons to visit, which builds community ties.

These rules work in suburban settings, too.

Creating street life can be challenging in suburban places where most people get around by car. But ice cream stands seem to be the exception.

Goodberry's in North Carolina. (Ask for the Carolina Concrete.

Goodberry's is a chain of frozen custard stands in Raleigh (and in Canberra, Australia) whose locations consist of walk-up windows in big parking lots. But there's also a little plaza closer to the street with some picnic tables. Even from a car, you can see the activity happening here, which draws people in.

Closer to home, Jimmie Cone in Damascus has a similar setup. As a result, fans call it "the closest you could get to having a local pub setting" in an otherwise dry town.

Together, these things can help to make a great place where people want to gather and have a good time. Ice cream isn't a necessity, but to mix food metaphors, you might call it the cherry on top. What's your favorite ice cream and placemaking experience?

We're heading to Alexandria for our next happy hour

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! Next week, we're heading to Alexandria's newest park and its newest bar with our friends at YIPPS,, and Do Tank DC.

Photo by Ned Russell.

Next Thursday, July 9 from 6 to 8 pm, come see and enjoy the new Braddock Neighborhood Interim Park, located at 600 North Henry Street, to see what the City of Alexandria is doing to activate the Braddock Metro/Parker-Gray neighborhood. Play bocce, ping pong, horseshoes, corn hole, and more in the new half-acre park. Hear from local activists and planners who helped develop the active interim space.

After checking out the park, join us for a few drinks at Mason Social, two blocks away at 728 North Henry St.

The park and the bar are both a few blocks from the Braddock Road Metro station (Blue and Yellow lines). If you're coming by bus, the Metrobus 10A/B/R and DASH AT3 routes stop next to the park at Henry and Pendleton streets. There's a Capital Bikeshare station at Henry and Pendleton as well.

Over the past year, we've held happy hours in Gallery Place, Shaw, U Street, Eastern Market, and Silver Spring. We're always looking for new, Metro-accessible locations for future happy hours (especially in Prince George's County!). Where would you like us to go next?

How Alexandria's Courage Wall helped me find courage

A chalkboard wall in Alexandria that recently got national attention for asking people to finish the thought "I wish I had the courage to ..." is coming down. For me, the Courage Wall represented a moment when I took a courageous jump of my own.

The Courage Wall in Alexandria. All photos by the author unless noted.

Resident and leadership coach Nancy Belmont set up the wall outside her friend's business in the Del Ray neighborhood last month. Inspired by artist Candy Change's "Before I Die" project in New Orleans, the Courage Wall is an interactive piece of public art, constantly changing as people add their thoughts to it.

Over the following weeks, thousands of people wrote their wishes: "Ask her out." "Start my own business." "Be in the present." The wall appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to ABC News. Even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted about it. Last week, Belmont took the wall down but promises to return it to another location in Northern Virginia.

Some of the comments people wrote on the Courage Wall.

The Courage Wall's site, a vacant lot at Mount Vernon and East Del Ray avenues in Del Ray, is a particularly significant location for me. Seven years ago, I had a studio project here while in architecture school at the University of Maryland. Our professor, Mark Ramirez, told us to design something here, but unlike every other project I'd done before, he didn't say what it should be.

I was shocked: how would we know what to build? My classmates and I started researching the neighborhood for clues. We interviewed residents and shop owners and explored the local history. We hung out in shops and restaurants and watched people go about their lives. I started digging into Census data, eager to learn about the demographics of the people living in the area.

That's when I came onto something: despite having a diverse and very young population, Del Ray and surrounding neighborhoods lacked a central gathering space, especially one for teenagers. I ended up proposing a public space on the vacant lot, with structures around it that were small enough for intimate gatherings, but big enough for performances. The building (which in real life is a web design firm) became a retail incubator on the ground floor, and a teen center above.

Two renderings of my proposed design for the vacant lot.

What I didn't realize at the time is that I'd basically conducted a planning exercise: using input from the community, I'd analyzed its needs and developed a plan. But I did know I was inspired in a way I'd never been before, so I started to get involved more with the neighborhood.

Later that fall, I drove down to Northern Virginia Community College one rainy Friday night to participate in "We Are More Than What You See," a city-run campaign where local artists worked with teenagers to make posters decrying prejudice. Our work was shown in a gallery in Del Ray, then appeared in shop windows at businesses around Alexandria, including one across the street from the vacant lot.

The poster I made for Alexandria's "We Are More Than What You See" campaign.

My entire life I had dreamed of being an architect and had built an identity around it. But I struggled with math and physics, and I felt disconnected from the people and communities I was supposed to design for. My time in Del Ray taught me something new about myself, and it gave me the courage to take the leap and try a different path. Seven years later, I'm a urban planner.

But I find myself dealing with even bigger challenges. I've always been a really optimistic and driven person, hopeful that I could overcome any obstacle. Yet the past three years after I graduated planning school seemed to be one setback after another: a struggle to find full-time work, hospital bills from a foot injury, two car accidents, a stressful living situation, a five-year relationship that ended. I became overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, unsure of myself and afraid that this time, I wasn't going to make it through.

Over the past few months, I've been able to pull myself out, slowly but surely. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the Courage Wall, watching people walk up, admire it, and add something of their own.

This is a place where I'd shown myself courage once. Chalk in hand, I felt hopeful I could do it again. I added my words and I went on my way.

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