Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Cranor

David Cranor is an operations engineer. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and former Texan (where he wrote for the Daily Texan), he's lived in the DC area since 1997. David is a cycling advocate who serves on the Bicycle Advisory Committee for DC.  

A greener Eastern Market plaza may be on the way

Where today the parks around the Eastern Market Metro are mostly tired expanses of grass with a few trees, the parks soon could contain an expanded library, formal playground, cafe-style tree bosque and several stormwater management features. The roads and sidewalks around the square could also get a better layout.

The Metro entrance, library entry pavilion, and water feature on the southwest parcel. All images from Esocoff & Associates unless otherwise noted.

The $45 million redesign has gone through years of planning and outreach. The project originally started as a Congressional earmark to Barracks Row Main Street, which funded the Capitol Hill Town Square study in 2008 that considered ways to redesign the intersection, including possibly rerouting Pennsylvania Avenue around a square similar to Stanton or Lincoln parks.

Any changes to Pennsylvania Avenue ran into fierce opposition from immediate neighbors. But the project team continued studying ways to redesign the parks and started a new round of public engagement in 2013, this time assuming Pennsylvania stayed where it is.

The plaza now. Image from Bing Maps.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates recently revealed a final design coming out of numerous community meetings and feedback on two concepts from January.

The most dramatic change would be on the southwest parcel with the Metro entrance. A new pavilion would lead to a massive below-ground expansion of the Southeast Library, across the street from the square. A long courtyard and a water feature would connect this pavilion with the Metro.

Staircase for the new pavilion.

The parcel would also get a shaded tree bosque (an urban grove of shade trees similar to the one at New York's Lincoln Center) with a crushed gravel surface, movable furniture, and an open space along the "desire line" path where people most often walk between the Metro station and Barracks Row.

Artist's rendering of the bosque.

A straight pedestrian path along the South Carolina Avenue axis would divide the northeast section, the largest parcel. A fenced-in children's play area and an open lawn would flank it on the each side. The play areas include a landscape with "Anacostia Hills," a "Floodplain," a "Valley," and a "Ridge," and on that landscape, children will find a tree house, water pump, a pair of jungle gyms and a swing set.

The playground and promenade.

The wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue would become a pair of bioswales surrounded by wrought iron fencing. The bioswales will absorb up to 70% of the stormwater runoff from the inside portion of Pennsylvania Avenue during most storms. Meanwhile, the fences prevent pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the block.

The smaller triangular parcels on the southeast and northwest sides would become green space with stormwater management gardens and trees surrounded by an outward facing bench. The southeast parcel would be further expanded by closing D Street in front of the Dunkin' Donuts and adding the land to the park.

Site plan for the smaller triangular parcels.

Around the square, the plan would make changes to street directions and sidewalks to provide better flow and greater pedestrian safety. The segments of D Street along the northeast and southwest edges would reverse to carry traffic away from 8th Street instead of toward it. 8th Street would get a new left turn lane for those turning west onto D Street south of Pennsylvania.

To aid pedestrians, many intersections would get curb bump outs and pedestrian islands. The northbound bus stop on 8th would move south of Pennsylvania, while southbound buses would stop just across the street from that spot, closer to the Metro station.

Building the parks and plazas will cost an estimated $13,500,000, while the expanded and renovated library would cost $22,800,000. With DC management fees, a maintenance endowment and other costs, the project team estimates the whole project would need a budget of a little over $45,000,000.

The team is still accepting comments and will issue a final report in September. Barracks Row Main Street has some money to help pay for development, but from the (somewhat vague) statements from the project team, it appears they would be looking for city funding to help make the project a reality.

DC's staggered elections give a random half of politicians an edge for higher office. That's a problem.

The system of elections in the District of Columbia gives a big advantage to councilmembers who represent half of the wards over those elected from the other half. This discourages good councilmembers from running for mayor or council chair.

Staggered lane number image from Shutterstock.

Half the council seats, for wards 1, 3, 5, and 6 and two of the at-large seats, come up for election in the same years as the mayor and council chair (such as this year). The other half, wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 and the other two at-large seats, run in the even-numbered years in between (such as 2012 and 2016).

This means councilmembers holding one of the mayoral/chair election cycle seats must choose between running for re-election or trying for higher office. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the other half of the seats can avoid taking risks and run for chair or mayor without giving up their seats.

Since half of all councilmembers must vacate their seats to run for mayor or council chair, the mayoral system dissuades some of the city's most experienced and productive leaders from running for DC's top government posts. The data show that this is indeed happening.

Since DC home rule was enacted in 1973, those in off-mayoral/chair seats have run for council chair 4 times and for mayor 17 times. Conversely, those in mayoral/chair election cycle seats have run for council chair 3 times and for mayor 6 times (and 4 of which were incumbent council chairs).

If this continues then one can expect more candidates—and more mayors—from Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8, thus giving an undue advantage to councilmembers and their constituents from those wards. Indeed, all three DC mayors elected with prior council experience (four if you count Marion Barry twice) came from one of those wards, and only Arrington Dixon and Linda Cropp have ascended from off-cycle seats to chair. Even Cropp is a particular exception as she won during a special election, and thus her council seat wasn't at risk.

What can be done?

DC could extend council seats to 6-year terms and have councilmembers alternate running between mayoral and non-mayoral elections. Or, there could be separate primaries for chair and mayor, similar to what we do for presidential elections.

Even better, we can follow the federal model and let people stand for two offices at once, as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan did during the 2012 election while running for vice president. Or, perhaps DC rearranges the election calendar so all council seats come up for election in council-only elections, while the chair and mayor have their own elections.

DC should explore all options to ensure its election calendar and political circumstance doesn't discourage quality candidates. The current system is unfair to half the city. Of all places, the nation's capital needs a system that encourages its political talent to seek higher office and is fair to all its voters.

Here are 8 ways DC can get the most out of a new soccer stadium

Last year, DC announced a tentative deal to fund and build a new soccer stadium for DC United through a land swap. The details haven't been worked out yet, though concern is growing that the soccer team may ask more of DC than it will give back in return. By making sure DC United accepts more risk, the city can get a better deal.

Rendering of a Buzzard Point soccer stadium. Image from DC United.

Under the deal, DC would swap land in Buzzard Point owned by developer Akridge for the city-owned Reeves Center. Then, for $1 a year, it would donate rent the land to DC United to build the stadium. While it appears better than the baseball stadium deal, considering how expensive it was, that's not a particularly high hurdle to get over.

Both the DC Council and local budget activists have begun to question whether the deal is fair or wise. And public skepticism about the deal could help drive a discussion about how to craft a better one.

A new DC United stadium and a successful franchise could be good for the city. It could bring in business and tax revenue and create opportunities for entertainment, local unity, prestige, and civic pride. These things have value, and it would not be unreasonable for DC to help DC United as long as the benefit exceeded the cost, because a stadium is unlikely to happen without some public contribution.

Even AT&T Park in San Francisco, which is often billed as privately financed, got help with the land and transportation improvements along with continued city service to the park. Without any contribution from the city, no stadium will be built and it's possible DC United could move.

So what would a good deal look like?

Have DC buy the land outright. They already own some of the land that the stadium sits on and they have the power to force landowners to sell if they need to. The District's lack of borrowing ability is something of an impediment, but it can probably still buy and assemble the land necessary for less than DC United can.

And the city is, by definition, invested in the area, so it can hold the land for a very long time if the deal goes south. This makes it a low-cost, low-risk way to help the team. The District would continue to own the land and could always sell it later.

Use a crowdsourcing campaign to pay for transaction costs. Assembling the land will require title work and environmental site assessments that will cost a lot of money. DC United fans are eager to have a stadium. Let them raise $1 million of their own money to make it happen.

Periodically, the Green Bay Packers sell "stock" in the team to raise money for stadium-related projects, but this stock consists mostly of a piece of paper that doesn't pay dividends. A similar campaign for DC United would demonstrate public support and allow those who care the most to pay the most, while reducing the city's burden. It would also be a way to get fans outside of the city to pay more.

Let the District pay for environmental remediation. Currently an industrial site, the future stadium location will require environmental remediation. The cost of the land plus the cost of remediation should be somewhat related to the land's value afterwards, suggesting that DC could recapture most of this expense when they sell.

DC United commits to pay for the stadium's eventual removal. One day, the stadium will reach the end of its life, and DC United should be responsible for restoring the land to the condition in which they get it. They could meet this requirement by either posting a bond to cover the cost, or paying insurance to cover it in case they go bankrupt.

DC United pays market-rate rent and full property tax, eventually. The term sheet has DC United paying $1 in rent per year and getting a reduced property tax for 20 years. By buying and preparing the land for DC United, the District is already taking on a large portion of the risk for them.

But the price of the land will include the potential rent they can charge. Paying $1 in rent regardless of revenue, as is currently proposed, means that DC is losing money on its land investment. It's a clever way to mask the contribution, but it isn't in the best interest of the city. Nor is reducing the property taxes.

If soccer is doing as well as its proponents argue, then covering these expenses shouldn't be too difficult. It would make sense to create a system for deferring these payments without penalty when revenue is low, or in the early years while the league is still growing. But they should be paid eventually, at an interest rate similar to what the city pays on its bonds.

Stadium-related sales taxes go to DC whether DC United profits or not. The current deal makes the tax revenue related to ticket sales, concessions, parking and merchandise available to DC United. In exchange, DC would share 50% of the revenue (which includes the tax revenue that DC would normally get) if DC United makes more than a reasonable profit.

This places all the risk on the city, but splits the reward with DC United. Because of concerns that the team will refuse to open its books or to move money around in such a way that it will never turn a profit, City Administrator Allen Y. Lew has stated that this part of the deal may not happen.

This is a good thing. It's far better for the District to be involved in normal government functions like collecting taxes, than trying to be a business partner of Major League Soccer. Being their landlord is enough.

Tax future development to pay for transportation and security. If the argument is that the stadium will generate spillover development in the area, then it can help pay for stadium-related costs, like security and transportation improvements. In addition, the city could also dedicate about $5.5 million in stadium-construction-related taxes it will earn.

Instead of a land swap, sell the land with open bidding. Once DC determines the value of the properties it proposes swapping, potential buyers willing to pay more should do so. DC and developers on the other side of the swap could split the excess value.

This is actually not too far from what DC is already proposing. But it moves more risk and cost to DC United, its fans and the landowners near the stadium that will benefit most from it, which is where those risks and costs should go. By allowing DC United to defer some payments in the early years, DC can create a cushion for DC United to grow into this investment. That's what a good deal would look like.

Dueling proposals for Eastern Market plaza include a miniature Capitol Hill

Barracks Row Main Street recently presented two design alternatives for a new plaza at the Eastern Market Metro station. Both concepts go a long way to uniting the plaza, which is currently broken up into six pieces, while making it greener, cleaner, easier to traverse, and more inviting.

Concept A, one of two possible plaza designs. All images from Barracks Row Main Street.

Last month, architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates and landscape architect Lisa Delplace of Oehme van Sweden revealed the two concepts at a public meeting. Both designs bring life to the unkempt, desolate green space that's there today by adding fountains, play areas for children and adults, and public art. Barracks Row Main Street is accepting public comments on the two designs through the end of this week.

Proposals include a mini-Capitol Hill, shady forest

Each design addresses each of the plaza's six pieces, which are divided by Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th Street SE, and include the two median strips on Penn.

Parcel 1 is the northeast corner of the plaza and one of the two largest parcels. Both concepts turn it into a pair of "play" areas, one fenced in for children, and another open area for adults, which are separated by a diagonal path between Pennsylvania and South Carolina avenues.

The children's play areas in Concept A.

In Concept A, the children's area would be larger and have two themed "playscapes," including a miniature Capitol Hill with the Capitol building, and a tiny Anacostia Watershed with rubber berms for climbing and rolling and a river with playable pumps and water wheels. In Concept B, there would be a smaller children's area themed after the Navy Yard, without any miniature buildings.

On the adjacent lawn, people can sun, do yoga, read, and socialize. This area would be larger in Concept B and have hedges along the north and west sides to create more separation from the street and homes.

Concept A includes a "shade tree bosque" by the Metro station entrance.

Parcel 4 is the other large parcel in the southwest corner, where the Metro entrance is located. Both concepts include another lawn, as well as an interactive fountain, an "infohub," a busking area, and a redesigned Capital Bikeshare station and parking area. In Concept A, the space becomes a "shade tree bosque" with trees, tables, and chairs in a bed of gravel.

Section of a proposed Southeast Neighborhood Library extension in Concept B.

Meanwhile, Concept B proposes an extension of the Southeast Neighborhood Library in a pavilion in the plaza, which would connect to the rest of the library in a tunnel under 7th Street SE.

An overview of Concept B.

Parcels 2 & 5 are the medians. While community members are interested in turning them into usable park space or adding bike lanes, DDOT asked the design team not to consider these options until the agency does its own corridor-wide study of the area.

Instead, the design team proposed new landscaping with barriers to discourage jaywalking. Concept A would add fenced-in bioswales that collect and filter stormwater, while Concept B adds raised, planted medians, like those on Connecticut Avenue.

Parcels 3 & 6 are the small islands on the northwest and southeast corners of the plaza. In both concepts, they would become bioswales surrounded by a continuous bench.

Community concerns

The design team took time to discuss additional issues important to the community. They talked about preserving existing trees, which many residents wanted, as well as which other trees might be appropriate for planting there. The designers also talked about ways to solve the plaza's rat problem, such as solar-powered trash cans, trees that repel rats, and eliminating standing water.

The designers also looked at ways to increase pedestrian safety with refuge islands and curb extensions. To improve traffic flow, they considered removing D Street on the south side, east of 8th, and reversing the direction of D Street on the north and south sides of the plazas. Finally, they proposed some moving bus stops, taxi stands, and car sharing spaces.

No one will love every one of these ideas, and there are some desirable amenities that neither design includes, like a dog park. But there are some really interesting ideas in these plans, and either concept would go far in making the plaza more of a park, rather than a place you just walk through to get somewhere else.

New commuter benefits could help bicyclists

Mayor Gray has proposed requiring large businesses to provide their employees with a commuter benefit and that benefit could include the cost of bicycling to work. While it's a good move, it doesn't cover bikesharing, and DC has yet to extend this benefit to its own employees.

Photo by James Schwartz on Flickr.

At the beginning of this month, Mayor Gray submitted a package of 11 bills as part of the Sustainable DC Act of 2013. Included in this is the Transit Benefit Establishment Act of 2013, which would require that employers with 50 or more workers provide their minimum wage-eligible staff with some form of transit benefit.

Employers will have three choices. They can give their employees pre-tax benefits, to be used however they like, that are at least as high as the maximum amount that can be deducted from the employee's gross income. They can also supply each employee a transit pass or reimburse them for vanpool cost. Finally, the employer can provide vanpool or bus transportation to work at no cost to employees.

The first option could include the bicycle commuter benefit, if the employer chooses to offer it, because the Internal Revenue Service considers it a qualified mode of transportation. The second option does not include bikesharing as a public transit system that employees can choose, but it should. And employers would likely support that, since it is surely much cheaper than any of the other options. And the third option does not relate to cyclists.

This is a good bill that could be made a little bit better if it included bikesharing as transit. (The federal government could decide to call bikesharing transit if it passed the Commuter Parity Act of 2013, but why wait?)

In addition, DC does not currently offer its employees the option to choose the bicycle commuter benefit in place of a transit benefit. Gray claims that this bill will move the District "even further along on the path to becoming an international destination for people and investment, and a model of innovative policies and practices that improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for all District residents."

Expanding the commuter benefits of DC employees to include the bicycle commuter benefit would help with that too, and at almost no cost to the District.

Crossposted from theWashCycle.

DDOT tries to fill gap in 11th Street bike lanes

ANC1B asked DDOT to explore ways to fill a gap in the 11th Street NW bike lane between Florida and Vermont avenues and held a meeting Thursday to talk about it. Many neighbors along 11th Street are strongly opposed to the bike lanes, primarily because it would require removing about 30 parking spaces.

Alternative 1. Image from DDOT.

DDOT also provided information about crashes along the section of 11th Street. Officials reported that there were more crashes on that section of 11th than on similar sections of 10th and 12th streets. When asked who was to blame, DDOT representatives noted that some of the crashes were due to cyclists running stop signs, but many more were from right hooks or doorings.

DDOT presented 4 alternatives. In Alternative 1, parking would be taken out on the east side and replaced with a one-way buffered bike lane going north. Alternative 3 was much the same, except the parking was replaced with larger lanes in each direction, each with sharrows down the middle.

Alternative 2 did not remove parking, but it did change 11th to a one-way, one-lane street with bike lanes in each direction. This would require rerouting buses and much more analysis. Alternative 4 replaced the east side parking with a two-way cycletrack down the center. This would require cyclists to move to the left to get into the cycletrack on one end and to the right to get out of it at the other.

Alternative 4. Image from DDOT.

Opposition mostly centered around removing the parking. "I am opposed to removing any parking at all. Period," said one woman. "11th Street is too narrow for two-way traffic and bikes" another added. Many of these same critics sought other, less intrusive, options.

One suggestion was to reroute cyclists instead of buses. "You could remove the bike lanes from where they are now and move them to another street," said a speaker. "There's room on 13th."

DDOT transportation planner Jim Sebastian replied that bikes have a right to the street. "There's bikes on every street and, where ever we can, we put bike lanes in," he said. "It would be almost impossible to reroute bikes because they're legal on every street and they use every street. They're going to go where they're going to go. There isn't room on 13th and if there were, we would put bike lanes there also because we have bikes on every street in this area."

Audience suggestions included signs, enforcement, education, rumble strips, bicycle priority lights, and lower speed limits. Some audience members suggested a two-way cycletrack like on 15th Street, and center bike lanes like on Pennsylvania Ave NW. Others suggested continuous green shared lanes, which are shown to have limited effectiveness, though a study in California finds they reduce bicycle crashes.

Sebastian agreed that there were many options, but pointed out that the best success is found when engineering, education and enforcement were all used. DDOT did shoot down one suggestion for reversible, rush-hour traffic lanes because, as a matter of policy, the agency is moving away from that kind of design.

In addition to complaining about the loss of parking, many complained about scofflaw cycling behavior. One person criticized DC for allowing sidewalk cycling, which is legal on this stretch, and told stories about the one time they saw a tourist on a bike cut off a bus. Sebastian noted that adding bike lanes has been found to discourage sidewalk cycling. The committee chair tried to direct the conversation away from this issue, since DDOT was the wrong agency to deal with it.

The committee chair wanted to have a vote on a preference among one of the existing proposals, but ANC 1B02 representative Jeremy Leffler argued that any vote on the issue needed to be postponed. "We have too many issues with parking, so taking 30-40 spaces away is just a non-starter," said Leffler. "Any option is going to have to not effect parking."

Leffler complained that cyclists coming down 11th Street don't stop at the stop signs, but motorists do and so this committee needs to talk with the Public Safety Committee and the MPD before proceeding.

When asked to give a show of hands, 13 out of 25 people opposed removing parking. Leffler suggested that only people who live on 11th Street should vote. Had that actually happened, it might have showed that the only people who wanted to retain their parking were those who live on 11th.

In the end, the ANC decided to send DDOT back to the drawing board and to discuss it again at the end of September. Leffler also wanted to invite abutting ANCs and more ANC 1B representatives to the next meeting.

"The problem is not ANC 1B people, it's the people coming out of Columbia Heights, going 40mph, joyriding into our community and not stopping," he said.

A version of this post appeared at The WashCycle.

Will a DC United stadium be worth it?

Last week, we looked at how much DC taxpayers have paid to build and maintain Nationals Park. What are they getting in return? And will the city's deal to build a new soccer stadium be worth it?

The proposed DC United stadium.

In 2003, baseball boosters hired consulting firm Brailsford & Dunlavey to estimate the benefits of a Major League Baseball team in DC. Later, they would help manage the design and construction of the stadium. They determined that the construction of a $272 million stadium would result in $5 million in one-time tax revenues. The stadium cost over twice as much, so if the same ratio holds, it produced $12.9 million in tax benefits.

But supporters also cite external benefits. Tourism would create jobs and tax revenue. Baseball and the stadium would be a cultural amenity, attracting concerts and other events. The stadium would also spur the redevelopment of Capitol Riverfront. But there just isn't any hard evidence that Nationals Park has led to any development.

The stadium didn't cause development

There were many other factors at play in Near Southeast that led to redevelopment, much of which occurred before the stadium site was selected. If the stadium truly were a catalyst, development would have occurred around it first, rather than scattered throughout the neighborhood.

On the 10 squares immediately adjacent to the stadium, only 2 smaller projects have broken ground: the Camden South Capitol apartment complex across the street and 55 M Street, whose main tenant DDOT moved there because of its proximity to the US Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, NoMa, where the stadium was originally supposed to be built, has experienced rapid development without one.

Research shows that stadiums do not spur development. In a survey of the economics of sports facilities, Siegfried and Zimbalist concluded that there is "no statistically significant positive correlation between sports facility construction and economic development." Even Brailsford & Dunlavey didn't assign a value to it at Nationals Park.

The stadium doesn't produce a lot of tax revenue

The stadium also generates some tax revenue, through hotel and restaurant taxes and income taxes from newly created jobs. Councilmember Jack Evans estimates the stadium produces up to $500,000 in tax revenue per game during the playoffs, which would require visitors to spend at least $3.5 million at hotels and restaurants.

Where Evans got that number is anyone's guess, but economists with the Kansas City Federal Reserve estimate that the average imported tax revenue for a MLB stadium is about $1.5 million a year. However, that includes tickets and parking, which we've already counted, and it assumes that 20% of fans are from outside of the metro area. But 85% of Nationals fans come from Virginia and Maryland.

Assuming there are 2.5 million tickets sold each year and each ticketholder spends an average of $33 outside the stadium, we get a total imported tax of ~$5.6 million. It's worth noting that that number is probably higher than it should be, because much of it represents hotel spending, but fans from Northern Virginia or Maryland are unlikely to rent a hotel room. It's also higher than Brailsford & Dunlavey's $4.7 million estimate.

The same study estimates the job creation and income tax benefits of a MLB stadium at $1.365 million a year. It's possible that DC's income tax take would be lower since, like its fan base, its employees are more likely to live in Virginia or Maryland.

Brailsford & Dunlavey also estimated that the city would collect $4.2 million in increased business franchise taxes from baseball-related activities, though it's unclear how they determined this and the city does not report it separately.

Is Nationals Park a cultural asset?

Stadium supporters say that venues and sports teams provide a significant cultural amenity in the form of entertainment, local unity, prestige, and civic pride. Having a sports team makes people happy, and a city has a legitimate role in helping people to be happy and making a city appealing. But what is this worth?

A 2001 study of the Pittsburgh Penguins' contributions to the public good tried to answer that question and put the value of the team between $4.20 and $6.94 per household. If we multiply $6.94 by DC's 260,136 households, we get a value of $1.81 million in public good benefits.

That value is for the team alone, not the stadium, which may add some cultural benefits by hosting concerts, weddings, and other events. So I'll round up to $2 million a year.

DC also spent $82.6 million for transportation infrastructure to support Nationals Park, but it has limited value outside of baseball. A second, $20 million entrance for the Navy Yard Metro station is nice, but is probably unnecessary outside of event days. Most of the $27 million spent on rebuilding the Frederick Douglass Bridge next to the stadium was to improve its aesthetics. But DDOT also resurfaced the bridge, did structural work, and added new streetlights and guardrails, extending its life and usefulness to travelers.

Therefore, in return for their investment, DC taxpayers get ~$11.2 million in jobs and tax benefits, another ~$2 million in public goods benefits, some development benefits, and a grab-bag of transportation improvements.

It's possible that the team's future success will lead to greater attendance and thus greater revenue to offset the stadium debt. But for now, DC is out $127.9 million and losing at least another $10.735 million every year on its stadium investment. Even Brailsford & Dunleavy's estimate, which stadium boosters used to justify the stadium, predicted the 30-year net present value of the stadium, which cost $670 million, to be just $526 million.

What about DC United?

This brings us back to DC United and DC's plan to swap the Reeves Center for land to build the team a new soccer stadium. Unlike Nationals Park, the DC United deal could be good.

DC pays $150 million for land and infrastructure improvements. DC United pays the same amount to build the stadium. If the team makes a high enough profit, then the city would get a cut. Much of the land is unused right now, so there would be less use of eminent domain.

But it's hard to see DC United Stadium providing as much in external benefits that Nationals Park does.

Major League Soccer just isn't as popular as baseball and it plays fewer games, so per team attendance is about one-eighth as high as baseball's. Assuming that visitors spend the same amount of money, the amount of expected tax revenue falls to just $2.9 million. That includes public good of the team, even though it's not a given that DC United would leave the DC area if they didn't get a stadium. It also includes sales taxes, even though there doesn't appear to be any plans for a special soccer tax.

The rent DC United will pay will be $1 a year, though DC United will pay up to $6 million a year in property tax, and any sales tax collected at the stadium could be paid back to DC United if they don't make a "reasonable profit."

This is not quite the same as guaranteeing DC United's profit, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has been saying, but it is a pretty sweet deal, and one that any other business in the city would love to have.

Meanwhile, DC is also contributing about twice as much for its stadium as the average MLS city does. As DCFPI points out, there is no cap on the land acquisition costs, so the price could easily go up, just as it did with the baseball stadium. The whole thing will be funded by complicated land swaps that lack transparency or the assurance that DC is getting the best possible price for its assets.

Though the costs of this stadium deal will be far lower, it is likely the benefits will be too. Those benefits would need to amount to at least $9.5 million a year to cover the $150 million price tag. In order for that to happen, the $150 million price to DC would have to hold steady and DC United would need to be successful enough to pay its entire property tax and generate revenue per attendee similar to the Nationals, while paying DC an additional $600,000 from profit sharing and covering its own security.

While DC stands to benefit if soccer does well, they're at risk to lose money if soccer does poorly. There may be a deal out there that can make breaking even a likelihood, but so far, this doesn't appear to be it.

Park Service could route cyclists away from White House

E Street NW in front of the White House was closed to traffic after 9/11. While car traffic is banned, bicyclists face barriers to using it as well. A new plan by the National Park Service could push cyclists off the street entirely.

Proposed President's Park South Alternative 3. Image from NPS.

Back in early July, the NPS and the Secret Service held a public open house on the joint-agency President's Park South Project. This project will redesign the park immediately south of the White House, including E Street NW between 15th and 17th streets. E Street was closed after 9/11 and has never been reopened. Unlike Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also closed to car traffic, pedestrians can usually use E Street but not bicyclists, for whom the street is a barrier.

In 2011, the National Capital Planning Commission held a design competition for the park and selected five finalists, some of whom recommended putting bike lanes on E Street. But NCPC's chosen entry proposed keeping the street closed unless security threat conditions change in the future.

NCPC's contest was non-binding, but it "informed" the eventual design process. The four new alternatives NPS and the Secret Service presented at the July meeting are very different from the ones in the NCPC contest.

Alternative 1 is a no-build option. Alternatives 2 and 3 include a bicycle path along the southern edge of E Street, and Alternatives 4 and 5 route bicyclists around the existing perimeter streets, 15th Street, Constitution Avenue, and 17th Street. The latter two do this to create an expanded viewing area south of the existing fence, shown as the shaded purple area on the image below.

I think it would be a shame if this project didn't include a space for a bike path on E Street. I don't see why they can't expand the viewing area and include the bike path, as the two do not seem mutually exclusive. Isn't that what we have on the north side of the White House?

If you'd like to comment to that effect, public comments are being accepted until September 12th at the NPS website. Comment early and often.

A version of this was crossposted at the Washcycle.

Was Nationals Park worth it for DC?

DC has proposed building a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point with help from public funds. The city already did this for Nationals Park, but did it work? We can find out by doing a cost-benefit analysis.

Photo by rsmdc on Flickr.

Building Nationals Park cost $701.3 million, according to a 2008 estimate. DC contributed $670.3 million, paying $135 million upfront and borrowing another $535 million. In addition, the city spent $82.6 million of federal money on upgrades to the Navy Yard Metro station, South Capitol Street and the Douglass Bridge. That doesn't account for all the costs, but it's the final dollar cost.

In this post, we'll look at money spent on the stadium and how much the Nationals contributed. Later, we'll look at the externalities caused by the stadium and what they mean for DC United.

What the stadium cost

In addition to the costs noted above, the District lost some existing revenue. Of the $670.3 million DC paid for the stadium, $57 million went to buying and cleaning up the land for the stadium. At that price, the land likely generated as much as $200,000-$500,000 in property taxes each year, but now it's been moved off of the property tax roll. Several of the displaced businesses have left town, as did some of the residents there.

There were some additional one time costs that are hard to quantify. The city took the land by eminent domain, which Jim Titus noted carries a social cost. District employees spent time and resources preparing for baseball, not all of which were billed to the stadium.

There are also continuing costs from the stadium and baseball. Paying for the stadium pushed the District to its debt limit, which means the city can't borrow money for anything else, including the new soccer stadium. That's why the District has offered to trade the land for a soccer stadium for the city-owned Reeves Center at 14th & U streets. The games have traffic and parking impacts that would not exist otherwise, and the District often spends tens of thousands of dollars per game for security. The DC Sports and Entertainment Commission must pay $1.5 million every year to maintain and enhance the stadium, and set aside another $5 million for a Contingency Reserve Fund.

Aside for the maintenance fund, none of these other costs have been accounted for. Ignoring those, a conservative estimate is that DC paid $675 million for the stadium, $82 million for transportation upgrades to support it, and another $1.5 million a year for maintenance.

How DC pays for it

DC's budget paid for the $135 million in upfront costs for Nationals Park, but Major League Baseball (MLB) could have paid for this. MLB bought the Expos in 2001 for $120 million and then sold them in 2006 for $450 million, turning a cool profit that would have easily covered this expense. But MLB only kicked in $20 million. The Nationals paid another $11 million.

To pay the bonds it issued to cover the $535 million stadium debt, the city created four sources of revenue: A gross receipts tax on businesses that make more than $5 million a year, a share of the utility taxes paid by every non-residential taxpayer, a 4.25% special sales tax on stadium sales, and rent paid by the Nationals.

The first two are just untargeted taxes on DC businesses, and are thus related to baseball only in that the revenue is dedicated to paying for the stadium. But the sales tax is a user tax on baseball fans and the rent is obviously a direct payment by the Nationals, so those can reasonably be counted as annual baseball contributions.

Unfortunately, when DC reports sales taxes from Nationals Park, they combine the special sales tax with the regular sales tax, which is currently 6% on the same items, and the 10% tax on concessions. Is this fair? All taxpayers pay the regular sales tax and concessions tax, which pay for things like roads, schools, and other things the DC government does. This approach to calculation suggests that baseball doesn't contribute to schools or roads.

I'm sure every business would like to dedicate their sales tax to paying off their construction debt, but that isn't how anyone else gets to do things. How much of the total sales tax is the special sales tax? According to Jonah Kerry Keri in his book Baseball Between The Numbers, concession revenue is about 30% the size of ticket revenue and merchandise is about 10%. So, we could estimate the amount of the reported sales tax that is from the special baseball tax only at about 30% of the total sales tax.

In addition, much of this sales tax revenue comes from entertainment spending that would have happened without baseball. This is what economists call the substitution effect. "As sport- and stadium-related activities increase, other spending declines because people substitute spending on sports for other spending," sports economist Brad Humphreys said. "If the stadium simply displaces dollar-for-dollar spending that would have occurred otherwise, there are no net benefits generated."

Rent for the ballpark started at $3.5 million in 2009 and climbed to $5.5 million this year. From now on, rent goes up by a little less than 1.9% per year, which is below the 3.22% average rate of inflation over the last 100 years. That means that rent in real dollars will likely go down.

In addition, the Nationals would pay an extra $1 for every full price ticket sold after the first 2.5 million. So far, that's never happened. Meanwhile, property taxes on a $500 million stadium, which the Nationals don't pay, would total more than $9 million.

The total amount paid in baseball sales tax and rent for 2008-11 averaged $14.2 million, well below the $30 million a year total estimated in 2005 and the $23.5 million estimated in 2008. It would go up to $15.6 million if the Nationals were paying the full $5.5 million rent.

The debt service on Nationals Park costs the District $38 million, meaning that city taxpayers are paying between $22.4 and $23.8 million a year just on the bonds, or $30.8 million if we use only the special baseball tax. And then there's an additional $1.5 million a year in maintenance and more still on security.

Again, the Nationals could pay this. In 2010, the team made $36.6 million dollars in operating income, which means they could pay the additional bonds and the maintenance costs and still have $11.3 million in profit. Even if we use the discounted baseball sales tax and add in security costs, the Nationals would still be able to keep whatever part of $4.3 million they don't need for security. And of course, after 30 years, they would own the stadium outright. But that isn't how the deal was cut.

So far, DC taxpayers have paid $140 million to build and maintain the stadium, $82.6 million for stadium-related transportation upgrades, and another $24-32 million a year to pay off the debt and maintain the stadium. In the next segment, we'll look at the external benefits to see if DC is getting a return on such a large investment.

Can Eastern Market park become a gathering place?

Barracks Row Main Street is studying ways to redesign the public space around the Eastern Market Metro station. While many neighbors see the potential to make a great gathering place, others don't want anything to change at all.

Councilmember Wells leads a meeting about the park. Photo from Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates is leading the Congressionally-funded Eastern Market Metro Park study, which will explore ways "to renew and upgrade" the two trapezoid-shaped public plazas, medians and two smaller triangular plazas on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th streets. Despite their location between busy Barracks Row and Eastern Market, the spaces are underused and poorly maintained.

Weinstein led another study in 2010 that explored ways to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue around the public space, making it a complete square. But that effort ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and those concerned about the plan's traffic impacts.

The new study will look at function, aesthetics, and the best way to accommodate all modes of transportation, including better pedestrian pathways, the location of the Capitol Bikeshare station and the Metrobus stops in the south plaza, and managing pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. It will also produce detailed designs for a children's play area in the north plaza, and look at an innovative storm water retention system as part of the effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia River.

Planners say that "nothing is off the table," except for consolidating the square by rerouting streets around it.

Will more activity mean more noise, or a better public space?

In July, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells hosted a pair of public meetings to hear about the types of changes residents would like to see around the Metro station. After a brief presentation, we broke into small groups where we discussed our thoughts on the current square and what we would and would not like to see in it in the future.

Aerial photo of the parks today from Google Maps.

My group seemed opposed to any changes at all. They questioned why money was being spent on this, whether it was legal and who this was to help. Some people seemed mainly concerned about stoplight timing, which did not seem to allow for the speedy movement of cars and pedestrians through the area.

They scoffed at the idea that the project had the word "park" in it. "Who said they wanted a park here?" one person asked.

One major concern they voiced focused on the lack of maintenance within the existing plaza. Trees went unwatered, rats were allowed to nest and several items like benches and lights had fallen into disrepair. "Why not fix what we have first?" some asked. For the same reason, group members also opposed any kind of water feature, along with music, food trucks or eating areas, which would produce noise and trash.

Group members seemed resigned to the idea of a children's play area as long as it wouldn't kill any trees, but their primary point was that it should be "a park, not an amusement park." But we did find universal support of better storm water management, lots of trees, more benches and non-polluting lights.

How to embrace space's potential

While many residents place an emphasis on creating a quiet place that is easy to traverse, what the neighborhood really needs is to activate the Eastern Market Metro Park with an emphasis on creating a place for people to play, work, shop, eat, and rest. By making it into a great place, the kind that people wanted to stay in instead of pass through, it would have a greater constituency that could push for better maintenance.

The space today. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

It seems my group was the outlier, because when other groups reported what they had discussed, they strongly supported the idea of an interactive water feature like those at Yards Park or Canal Park. Several suggested adding a stage for live performances and various gatherings. Others mentioned food trucks and more dining tables. One group focused on tying the public space in with the library at 7th and Pennsylvania.

The meeting's organizers are collecting additional comments about what should happen here. In my comments, I suggested that an interactive water feature and playground area in the north plaza was a natural way to attract kids and families. It's also a perfect area for a statue of a local person. In the eastern median, I recommended installing a dog run.

The south plaza should become a space where people will linger. Furniture, like movable chairs, benches, and permanent fixtures like tables with chess boards on top, will help draw people. A low stage for music and events could support programming while doubling as a seating area the rest of the time. The city should allow food trucks to use the parking spaces along D Street.

We should also use the western median to connect Barracks Row and Eastern Market with a brick walkway down the middle and to add spaces for vendor booths on the weekends, creating a stronger connection between the two commercial areas. The smaller triangles could become larger by removing the sections of D Street that separate them and then improved by adding benches, more permeable surface, and rain gardens.

Finally, a mid-block crosswalk across Pennsylvania Avenue with an advanced stop line and even a traffic light will help people cross. People want to walk here, and we should let them do it safely.

Future meetings, design work planned

The meeting's organizers will put a recap of the meeting on their website, but it's not up as of yet. There are also several ways to offer comments, including an interactive map and a suggestion box at Eastern Market, though the deadline is today.

However, there are more public meetings planned for later this summer. Planners hope to complete two alternate master plan concepts for the Eastern Market Metro Park within 6 months.

Support Us