Posts from January 2009
Traffic mounts up on Prince George's County highways. Transit stations experience neglect and underuse. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities rank among the highest the region. Amid these growing needs and problems, county planners have released their Preliminary Countywide Master Plan of Transportation. This plan takes some major steps toward improving notoriously bad conditions for pedestrians and bicycles, and toward better transit. However, it also perpetuates the county's focus on development and new roads at the greenfield edge of the county over infill sites inside the Beltway.
Prince George's County houses a wide range of people and facilities with an utterly unique set of demographics. For example, it the most populous and wealthiest majority African-American county in America. Residents commute not only to DC, but also Baltimore and Annapolis. Four interstate highways, three Metro lines, two MARC lines, and AMTRAK serve the county, as well as state, county, and regional bus lines. Nonetheless, traffic is notoriously brutal and walking along major corridors often involves risking life and limb. When cars hit pedestrians, pedestrian dies one out of every 16 times in Prince George's County, the highest rate in the region. In contrast, only one out of every 48 crashes is fatal in DC. Virtually all of Prince George's mass-transit stations are car-oriented and hostile to pedestrians.
The plan's goals give the impression that planners have gotten far more serious about walking and biking as modes of transportation, not just leisure activities enjoyed on sunny weekends. It identifies 190 pedestrian and bicycle facilities for construction or improvement. And the very first policy of the plan is to incorporate pedestrian-oriented facilities and TOD in new development. However, the plan segregates pedestrian improvements into their own section. Critics charge that this may place walkers and bikers on the back burner to cars unless there is strong advocacy. They recommend a "complete streets" policy forcing new roads to accommodate all modes, rather than independent pedestrian facilities on some roads.
The plan includes many new roads and highways, especially new arterials around Konterra and the very suburban southern and eastern parts of the county. Konterra includes two new interchanges at I-95, but apparently these interchanges will not be constructed as the land-efficient SPUI. I'm generally comfortable with the roads planned there so long as efficient development, pedestrian and bicycle facilities are constructed along with them. I'm not terribly optimistic though.
In a major improvement over previous iterations of the plan, the county has deleted the ICC Extended route. That would have continued the costly freeway beyond its currently planned terminus at US-1 in Beltsville. But instead, the plan proposes new lanes on MD-197 between Laurel and Bowie (blue in the map below) and "freeway facility implementations" on Crain Highway (green). This just continues the "outer Beltway" concept in another form, though by adding grade-separated interchanges on existing roads instead of entirely new construction. Currently, no plans exist to connect the ICC terminus (blue marker) and MD-197, but there is a right-of-way along the PEPCO lines (red) that would make it rather easy to connect the two between Route 1 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway:
The freeway "improvements" to Crain Highway (green) span the entire length of the road in the County, from the Patuxent River to Brandywine. There is even a corridor being studied to extend the freeway southeast from Brandywine (red), furthering the "Outer Beltway" effect. A Potomac crossing in Charles County could connect to the Fairfax County Parkway, and then the only major leg missing from such a Beltway would be the Techway from Loudon County to western Montgomery County, which Virginia still hasn't deleted from the books. It's discouraging to see proposals to turn roads into highways, especially on Crain Highway, which runs through areas of particularly low density.
The county has started to addres issues with its Adequate Public Facilities (APF) law. That requires developers to build "adequate" transportation infrastructure when planning new development, but the current standards only require "adequate" road capacity, not pedestrian, bicycle or transit infrastructure. Though well intended, the law has encouraged sprawl by constructing high-capacity suburban-style thoroughfares, assuring any subsequent development will be car-oriented in nature.
Chapter VII introduces a concept used in Florida of "conceptual mobility enhancement alternatives" (CMEAs) that limit additional traffic lanes on roads and consider transit alternatives and HOV only facilites. The policy also monitors the percentage of land devoted for transportation relative to the development, levying hefty taxes for inefficient road construction.
Like other aspects of County policy, the plan focuses on development in the Developing Tier. Many of the new facilities are greenfield developments on the fringes outside the Beltway. Konterra, Westphalia, Largo, Seabrook, Bowie, and Brandywine receive too much attention compared to possible infill sites such as Forest Heights, Bladensburg, District Heights, Morningside, Forestville, and Chillum. Instead of suburbanizing the rural fringes of Prince George's and potentially affecting the fragile Patuxent and Potomac watersheds, the County should maximize the potential of the inner areas. Otherwise, sprawl mitigation verbage in the plan is just lip service.
This study treats roads, pedestrian paths, and bike lanes as individual facilities, rather than thinking about the road network as a whole. It doesn't specifically address overall street connectivity. And it puts far too much focus on exurban communities while not proposing enough infill projects inside the Beltway. But overall, Prince George's County appears to be evolving in its approach to transportation and recognizing the merits of improving pedestrian safety and transit access in addition to automobility. The county's potential as the keystone gateway between Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis depends on quality transportation. If the County succeeds, the entire region will benefit greatly.
Coming up in part two: the Master Plan of Transportation's plans for transit in Prince George's.
Journalists and bloggers have been talking about the future of newspapers this week, amid huge revenue declines from the New York Times and Gannett. The Baltimore Examiner is closing. Despite strong growth in newspaper Web sites, many newspapers still cling to one relic of the dead-tree world: refusing to link to outside sites or point readers toward sources of more information.
In a print newspaper, the material in the paper is all the reader has. There's no easy way to go look at a reporter's source materials. As a result, journalistic practice has evolved around providing information in an article, but without pointers elsewhere. Blogs, by contrast, are on the Web, and typically hyperlink to any article the writer used in compiling the story. Unfortunately, while newspaper blogs have adopted this convention, newspaper articles themselves don't, since reporters still primarily write the articles for print.
In fact, some journalists believe that it's inappropriate to point people to outside Web sites. One activist who worked on the 2000 campaign against "Dr." Laura Schlessinger's short-lived TV show told me they changed the name of the campaign from "Stop Dr. Laura" to "StopDrLaura.com" after one journalist told them that they wouldn't publish the URL of the site otherwise. It's like publishing an 800 number, the journalist told him, and they won't do that.
They should. If a journalist interviews someone affiliated with a think tank, it'd help readers to be able to click through to that think tank's site and learn more about their positions and biases. If a newspaper story covers a study, like the MWCOG transit ridership study I linked to this morning, it'd be helpful to have some idea of where to find the study, especially to investigate apparent inconsistencies in the data.
Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story on development proposals for the Hill East area. The article itself mentions numerous proposals with no information about where to find more. To the Post's credit, a small link on the story points to a DC Wire companion piece which does link to the proposals.
It's time for newspapers to take the next step. There's no reason anymore to separate blogs, which have links, and regular articles, which don't. Each reporter should include links in a story, and then simply print it in the paper edition without the links. Relying on a separate blog piece misses a lot of other sources. For example, the Hill East article concludes, "'When you stand there, there's a feeling of a valley and some touch of naturalness,' said Jim Myers, who moderates the neighborhood Internet site. 'It could be very nice and very charming.'" Reading that, many interested people would surely like to check out this neighborhood Internet site. If only the Post were willing to tell us what it is.
New commute stats: A recent MWCOG survey discovered that one-third of residents of DC, Arlington and Alexandria take transit to work, and ten percent walk. Region-wide, five percent take transit and seven percent walk.
Chinatown National Park: The Post looks at the shrinking Chinatown, where rising rents are pushing out Chinese businesses (via BeyondDC). One idea: create a "gateway" in the triangular park at Massachusetts, I, 5th and 6th. The biggest obstacle: money. The second biggest obstacle: like so many of our little parks, the National Park Service controls the land.
More than a slap on the wrist: Maryland is considering a law to allow prosecuting negligent drivers who kill other people as a misdemeanor when their actions don't quite qualify as vehicular manslaughter. Today, the police can only give those drivers a traffic ticket. In New York, a truck driver killed two children last week, but the driver faces no penalties. AAA's Lon Anderson actually agrees: "It's high time that we make murder behind the wheel something more than reckless driving where you can just write a check and walk away."
We told Rybczynski: Rob Goodspeed wrote a thoughtful critique of architect Witold Rybczynski's Last Harvest, about a New Urbanist community in Pennsylvania. While fascinating in its account of the technical and political obstacles and tradeoffs, according to Goodspeed, it misses the influence that federal housing and transportation policies pushed development into distant auto-dependent exurbs like this one. Rybczynski is a member of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which approves projects in Georgetown and around federal parkland in DC.
Last year, Councilmember Jack Evans introduced a bill to exempt recently-designed churches from historic preservation. I and others argued that it could exempt other properties that might be, at the very least, less controversial. Evans withdrew the legislation amid criticism and the primary election; Marion Barry later reintroduced it, but it didn't come to a vote.
Now, as promised, Evans has introduced new legislation (PDF). This time, it specifically only exempts this one property from the historic preservation law. I'd suggest that the bill specifically clarify that if the church ceases to own the property, the exemption would end. Barry also reintroduced the broader bill once again.
Jim Graham introduced a bill to amend the WMATA Compact under the terms of the deal worked out between the federal government and DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Each jurisdiction must contribute $50 million per year to WMATA, and the feds will match the $150 million total. Under the bill, as promised in the deal, they also get two board seats, appointed by the General Services Administration, as long as they're holding up their end of the bargain and contributing their share.
In addition, the bill requires one of the federal representatives to be a regular rider of Metro services. Good idea; how about demanding that of all board members? It also adds a position of inspector general.
Other measures introduced recently include a resolution to confirm Gabe Klein, and this bill by Barry and Harry Thomas, Jr. that seems to seek to reestablish a Museum of the City of Washington, DC at the Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square. The museum closed in 2004 from low attendance, and now the Historical Society occupies the building including some public exhibits.
This morning, the WMATA Board made their appointments to the Riders' Advisory Council. You can listen to the recording here; the RAC appointment resolution comes up at 10:45, or start at 9:15 to hear Michael A. Brown's entertaining swearing-in.
Resolved, that the Board of Directors hereby reappoints Patricia Daniels and Kenneth DeGraff, and appoints David Alpert to represent the District of Columbia, andYup, that'd be me. As your new representative on the Riders' Advisory Council, I hope to ensure the RAC communicates with riders. Right now, there's very little information on the RAC page. It doesn't say how to get in touch with the RAC or even who is on the board. Some have charged that the RAC currently serves as more of a "glorified focus group", where Metro staff bounce ideas off a group of riders, rather than facilitating a conversation with as many riders as possible.
Resolved, that the Board of Directors hereby reappoints Sharon Conn and appoints Francis DeBernardo and Laura Routt to represent the State of Maryland, and
Resolved, that the Board of Directors hereby reappoints Penelope Everline to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia, and
Resolved, that the Board of Directors hereby appoints Dharm Guruswamy and Carl Seip as at-large representatives without regard to jurisdiction.
I will post about upcoming RAC meetings, and encourage all of you to weigh in on whatever issues they'll be discussing (or any other issues they ought to discuss), then present your opinions along with mine. I'll also do my best to keep you informed about any important information Metro staff presents to the RAC and the RAC's opinions.
The DC Office of Planning routinely posts their reports on zoning variance requests. This week, they recommended against approving two requests concerning tricky zoning issues: multifamily conversions and corner stores. Many neighborhoods have numerous townhouses divided into multiple apartments, and many have corner stores in residential districts. Creating new ones, however, requires a variance. Should we be doing more to encourage, or at least allow, these changes?
Both requests apply to properties in R-4 districts. DC's zoning contains several residential zone types: R-1-A and R-1-B for single-family detached districts; R-2 for districts comprising mostly semi-detached homes, where pairs of houses share one wall; R-3 and R-4 for predominantly single-family neighborhoods which include row houses, with R-3 requiring larger lots; and R-5 (-A through -E) for "general residential" including apartment buildings and all other types.
This map shows the current residential zones up to R-5-B, the predominant residential zoning in neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Logan Circle, and the area north of U Street. Both of these cases occur in R-4 zones, which include Shaw, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Bloomingdale, H Street, and Capitol Hill.
In one case, a property owner in Petworth wants to convert a three-story row house into three separate apartments. The local ANC has endorsed this change, as have several surrounding neighbors, but OP recommends denial under the zoning regulations.
R-4 districts allow conversions as long as the lot size exceeds
2,700 square feet per unit 900 square feet per unit, or 2,700 for a three-unit building. Most lots, including this one, aren't big enough for three or more units under those rules. The typical townhouse in an R-5, where there's no minimum lot size for a converstion, wouldn't be large enough either under the R-4 rules).
It's valuable to preserve a certain number of whole houses for families. However, we shouldn't segregate all of those single-family homes into neighborhoods with nothing else. Many neighborhoods benefit from a mix of families, singles and couples, ages and income levels. By prohibiting apartments in some of the houses in neighborhoods like Petworth, we deprive them of residential diversity. They also can't grow in population, making most retail unprofitable in these neighborhoods and forcing residents to drive to meet many everyday needs.
Perhaps the zoning regulations ought not allow conversions anywhere as of right, but the variance test is too strict. The application must demonstrate "specific uniqueness" in the property and an "excptional hardship" upon the owner, meaning an average building on an average block couldn't qualify for the variance.
Also, the relief must not "substantially impair the intent, purpose, and integrity of the zone plan." According to OP, "The purpose of the R4 district is to stabilize low-density, single-family residential areas by allowing new construction of single-family and two-unit buildings." But in neighborhoods like Petworth with three- and four-story row houses, a combination of some single-family buildings, some two-unit buildings, and some three- or four-unit buildngs adds diversity. The Kalorama Triangle neighborhood has a nice mix of housing types despite being an R-5-B, for example.
The second case concerns a grocery store at 1403 6th Street in Shaw. This isn't the best example of a grocery store case, because the owner wants to move an existing grocery store from an adjacent building rather than establishing a new one. Also, according to OP, the applicant hadn't adequately explained his hours of operation or how he will handle trash or deliveries.
We should allow small grocery stores in residential districts, provided they take appropriate steps to handle noise and trash. This particular application may not have taken those steps. Still, the burden required for a "use variance" is again too great. The grocer must do far more than simply show he's minimized the impacts. An average building on an average corner wouldn't have "specific uniqueness" and "excptional hardship".
Also, the variance must not impose "substantial detriment to the public good", which this OP report equates to "could have negative impacts on nearby properties." A grocery store would most likely have some negative impacts, but the positive impacts on the surrounding residents of having convenient access to groceries might outweigh that in many cases.
Finally, according to the OP report, "The Regulations are intended to protect purely residential areas from encroachment by non-residential uses. The application goes against that intent by proposing a retail store in the residential R-4 zone." This may be true under current zoning, but we should change it. It's not bad for residential uses to include the occasional grocery store, and our new zoning rules should allow that.
Some readers would prefer to abolish these restrictions and let free markets decide what to do with these properties. Other people want to keep the zoning regulations and our neighborhoods just as they are. At the residential and historic zoning meetings, some advocated for rules to make corner stores even scarcer and to disallow multifamily conversions altogether in some areas, even on the large lots that qualify today.
We should strive for a balance. Our zoning rules should allow a greater diversity of uses, with some corner stores in residential zones and a mix of single-family and multifamily buildings, especially when the community supports the change. Rules that require review but set a lower bar, such as under a "special exception", could fit the bill and maintain a good stock of single-family homes while also helping our city grow, provide adequate housing choices to households of all sizes and all income levels, and strengthen our neighborhood businesses.
There's just one week left until Greater Greater Washington's first birthday party!
One Year GreaterOver 150 people said they'd definitely or probably attend, so come on by for a really greater greater celebration! Plus, DC Council transportation experts Jim Graham and Tommy Wells have confirmed that they plan to join us. Feel free to bring friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors.
Greater Greater Washington's 1st birthday
Thursday, February 5th
RFD (8th Street entrance)
8th St NW between H and I
Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown or Metro Center
Buses: 42 53 54 66 68 70 71 79 80 D1 D3 D6 G8 P6 S2 S4 X2, Circulator, H Street Shuttle & more
Counting our chickens: State and local officials have started discussing how to spend the stimulus money. Maryland's John Porcari says they'll prioritize repairs over new projects, which is the right choice; VDOT head Pierce Homer wants to pay for repairs and some of the delayed projects, meaning potentially more freeway widenings or new freeways. Most likely, according to COG transportation planner Ronald Kirby, the Purple Line won't get any of this money. Update: Or maybe it will. Nobody really knows yet.
Screw nature: $200 million to repair the Mall's grass and keep the Jefferson Memorial from sinking underwater got cut from the stimulus. MoCo is cutting port-a-potties from Rock Creek Park in winter. And auto manufacturers have confirmed they plan to use public bailout money to keep suing the public for imposing higher clean air standards (via Ryan Avent).
Wires have their high points: That Bombardier wireless streetcar technology looks pretty cool but, writes Manifest Density, it'll probably be quite energy inefficient, likely wasting 20% of the power it consumes.
Thanks for reading, Examiner: It looks like the Examiner noticed GGW's weekend links about the emergency DMV rule for federal judges. Reporter Bill Myers called the DMV, who said "the emergency order sprang from 'a situation' recently," but wouldn't elaborate.
Cut transit and people stop riding transit: Maryland Politics Watch's Marc Korman reluctantly stopped riding MARC after recent service cuts (and falling gas prices). No word yet on whether he's changing his name to I-95 Korman.
Lose the LOS: Streetsblog SF explains how Level Of Service (LOS) warps traffic engineers' thinking and blocked important improvements in San Francisco. city and state planners are trying to dethrone LOS as the primary driver of traffic decisions.
Stop hatin' on K Street: Yglesias points out, "'K Street' is a synedoche for the influence peddling business, but it's also an actual street," which is definitely not full of lobbyists over in the Mount Vernon Triangle. "You wouldn't want to actually crack down on K Street, leaving out all the bad people on other streets but hitting the new Busboys & Poets coffee shop."
The biggest chunk of the $176 million shortfall is $99 million from increased personnel costs. Also, Metro used a one-time budget trick last year to reduce the fare increase: fares went up in January 2008, but Metro actually applied the money collected from January to July to the next fiscal year's operating revenues, running from July 2008 to July 2009. Since they can only use that trick once, there's a shortfall of around $36 million.
The plan WMATA will present tomorrow eliminates $103M of the gap. Management and the Board then face the tough decision of what service to cut, or whether to increase fares just a year after the last fare hike. WMATA could ask its member jurisdictions to provide a "cost of living" increase of 2% in the budgeted subsidy, which would reduce the shortfall by another $10M, but those jurisdictions aren't flush with cash either.
In the plan, Metro will cut 292 of their over 10,000 employees. These cuts will keep WMATA's personnel costs from increasing by almost $100M this year. Out of the eliminated positions, most (70%) will come from rail and bus divisions, with about twice as many lost in rail as in bus. Most of the rest will come from administrative divisions (28%).
It's hard to tell from this presentation whether most of the eliminated jobs are slots that just haven't been filled, or whether they are workers who will be laid off. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, when Metro was considering cutting 900 jobs, the split was approximately half and half. Now that the number of eliminated positions appears to have shrunk, perhaps most or all of the proposed staffing cuts will come from unfilled positions. It's unclear from the previous discussion whether the 900 eliminated jobs include those that result from service cuts.
Other smaller cuts would increase the number of workers per supervisor, reorganize the staff with fewer levels of supervision, reduce overtime, and take advantage of today's low fuel prices. They also propose "employ[ing] technology-driven approach[es] to traffic/ridership measurement", which, according to Metro, should result in more accurate data collection. I hope WMATA will be forthcoming in sharing this data with the public.
In addition, Metro will defer non-personnel expenses, such as materials purchases, when possible. This should concern riders because it just pushes the problem down the road rather than actually cutting back on costs. It doesn't eliminate the need for fare increases or service cuts, merely defers them until next year. Also, if the reduction in supervision allows poor customer service or unsafe practices to arise or continue, it could reduce the quality of WMATA's operations.
The largest increase in personnel costs this year, $44 million, comes from wage increases for unionized employees. WMATA budgeting treats those as sacrosanct. But in these hard times, unions all over the country are being asked to do their part to help keep costs down. For example, in Montgomery County the firefighters' union agreed to cuts in order to help the county balance its budget, nationally the Teamsters agreed to wage cuts of 10% in order to help keep their employers afloat. All Headline News reports that Boston has asked its city worker's union for a wage freeze in order to help balance the budget. Bridgeport, Connecticut workers have agreed to a two-year wage freeze as well as a five day unpaid vacation (furlough). Would it be fair to ask the unions to compromise and agree to a cut in wages or at least a cut in wage growth rates? Perhaps a one-year wage freeze. The cuts might save some jobs compared to having to lay off workers or cut service, which would lay off even more workers.
Since Metro's previous proposal from early January, an "other" expense of $22 million has disappeared. With that unexplained change, WMATA appears to have met their goal of eliminating $103 million from cost cuts. That leaves $73 million of shortfall.
The previous proposal estimated that closing the gap with service cuts will cut expenses by $87 million and decrease revenues by $14 million. The new presentation does not provide any specific proposals for service cuts. Alternatively, the Board could decide to raise fares or the subsidy provided by local governments. Representatives of WMATA and member jurisdictions have been discussing and debating this very question of where to get the last $73 million, and if cuts are involved, what to cut. Look for much more debate on these issues in future board presentations.
Many of DC's supermarkets turn long, blank walls toward the sidewalk. This space represents an enormous missed opportunity for retailing. Supermarkets like Manhattan's Fairway line their sidewalk frontage with produce stands. This draws customers into the store who see an appealing mango as they walk by, go inside, and end up buying a few items. Clearly, they've determined that any loss to theft pales in comparison to the profit in drawing more customers. Yet DC's supermarkets leave these spaces dead and unused.
Left: Fairway on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Right: Safeway on 17th Street in Dupont.
Photos by swruler9284 and M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
It seems puzzling that stores ignore this obvious opportunity literally right in front of them. According to a developer who's tried to attract supermarkets to DC, our chains, like Safeway and Giant, cling to very suburban business models despite having many successful stores in the city. They primarily measure stores by their "average receipts", the average amount of money a customer spends on a single visit.
Adding small-ticket items like produce outside the store would bring in more customers and even more total profit, but decrease the average receipts. Despite raising the store's profits, the national headquarters would very likely see the change as diminishing the store's performance.
Most of New York's supermarket chains focus entirely or almost on that market. Fairway, Food Emporium, D'Agostino, Gristede's, C-Town, and others don't answer to suburban managers who measure their stores by the standards of the typical auto-dependent strip mall store. Many of these stores can operate successfully in small spaces, and are happy to locate half or more of their stores below ground or on the second floor. They know they don't need an enormous 20-foot-high sign. And even in buildings with no parking, they can thrive.
Meanwhile, Safeway largely neglects its Dupont Circle store. Safeway, Giant, and other regional chains, when negotiating to become anchor tenants of new developments, still insist on large facades facing the sidewalk, suburban-sized signs, and vast quantities of parking, often including parking reserved exclusively for the store's patrons.
It's not all bad. Even these same chains are thinking more creatively on some of their new stores. The new Georgetown Safeway will engage the sidewalk much more than existing Safeways. My developer source says that some chains are open to adding sidewalk vending. If those outside-the-DC-box examples succeed, then our supermarket chains will learn to incorporate these elements in other stores in less-rich areas. As with many large businesses, however, these chains move and change slowly. We may well have to wait a long time for them to wake up to profit opportunities in urban areas.
- Are public spaces really public when not everybody can use them?
- Cell service in tunnels, junking old rail cars, getting finances in order. Here's what's in Metro's Back2Good plan.
- What happens when people without cars move to places built for driving?
- If racial inequities didn't exist, DC would look like this...
- Metro now has an official plan for getting better in 2017. It's called Back2Good.
- WMATA recommended express bus service along 14th Street NW four years ago. Is it time to make it happen?
- The DC reps on the WMATA board might veto late-night closures