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Posts from January 2012


Graffiti by the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Rhode Island Avenue. Photo by msdeena.

Columbia Heights. Photo by guy_incognito.

Eastern Market. Photo by James...Campbell.

15th Street. Photo by Joe in DC.

Silver Line construction, Tysons Corner. Photo by 1 brian.

McPherson Square. Photo by Joe in DC.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!


Old Town Theater sold, likely to become retail space

The Old Town Theater in Alexandria closed its doors in early January and the King Street location will likely be rented out for retail, the former owner said. With the closing, go memories of a bygone era and the incredible potential of this unique building.

Photo by dewitahs on Flickr.

Everyone has their own theories as to why the theater failed: some point to small screens and old audio equipment, others to the lack of parking (though there are four public parking lots within two blocks). Some think it was just inevitable and that all movie theaters are on their way out.

The Old Town Theater opened in 1914 as the Richmond Theater and was the first permanent theater in the City of Alexandria. Over the years, it was everything from a vaudeville theater and dance hall to the National Puppet Center. For the majority of its life, however, it was a motion picture venue.

Former owner Roger Fons bought the then-closed Old Town Theater in 2003 with the intention of opening a live music venue but it quickly became a movie theater once again.

The Old Town Theater was in a thriving and popular part of town, a "date night" area. It was a unique building surrounded by a supportive community. With the right approach, it could have become a destination in its own right.

Instead, it was a mess. The theater was not cleaned well. Posters and lighting units were stored in plain sight. Movies never started on time, leaving patrons crowded in the small lobby or spilling out onto the sidewalk.

One reason the movies never started on time is that Fons couldn't resist a captive audience. When there was a full house, instead of showing coming attractions, Fons would stand in front of the theater and opine about anything that happened to be on his mind. The topics were generally related to the movie industry, but he would sometimes meander into stranger topics such as military conspiracy theories and tips on safe driving.

For years, the theater did not work with online services such as Fandango. The theater's Facebook presence was not consistently maintained, even though it once generated significant activity.

Fons did not recognize the neighborhood demographic and staged movies inappropriate for the old, small theater. Old Town residents are more likely to want to see smaller, arty, independent movies than big Hollywood blockbusters. Non-residents tend to come to Old Town for "date night" trips. Neither of these audiences wanted to see "Twilight" or "The Hangover." Those who do want to see blockbuster movies such as "Transformers" want to see them on the biggest screen possible with the full surround sound experience. The Old Town Theater could never compete on those technical fronts.

But it could have competed on another front. There are very few theaters in Northern Virginia which show independent films. Fons could have carved out a niche into that market. He was told this by many people many times over the years. He said that he tried but that no one came.

New owner Rob Kaufman said he has tried to find and is looking for a tenant who will keep the space a theater. But Kaufman said consultants have told him the space is not financially viable as a theater. Kaufman has also received permission from the Board of Architectural Review to proceed with a plan to demolish the 1940s-era marquee and box office, making the chances of the space reaching 100 years as a movie theater seem very slim. Rumor has it that J. Crew is interested in the space.

Despite the sale of the property and the planned destruction of the marquee, with proper management, marketing and demographic understanding, the Old Town Theater could be a charming gem instead of an ersatz dump.


Gray deserves more credit for One City One Hire

The rap on Vincent Gray as a mayor too distracted by scandal to accomplish much overlooks one major accomplishment. Gray has made more progress addressing chronic unemployment in his first year than have any of his predecessors in their entire terms.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Mayor Gray's One City One Hire campaign is directly responsible for the hiring of 1,400 previously jobless District residents. While this accomplishment has received little notice, for these 1,400 families Mayor Gray has moved mountains in his first year in office.

Perhaps the criticism of Gray as unaccomplished reveals more about the lack of interest in policies to address crisis-level unemployment on the part of DC's political class than it does about Mayor Gray.

Politicians often release estimates of jobs they created, and perhaps cynicism around such estimates explains the lack of credit given to One City One Hire for the hiring of 1,400 jobless residents.

The difference here is that the leader of One City One Hire, Director of Employment Services Lisa Mallory, actually knows who these 1,400 people are. She knows who they are because her staff personally introduced them to their current employers.

Understanding One City One Hire requires understanding that one of the biggest barriers to employment in DC has nothing to do with skills, criminal records or addiction issues. A major barrier to employment is the lack of trust by local employers in jobless residents, particularly those east of the Anacostia River.

While this barrier is not often mentioned by the local media, any job training provider can attest to its reality, and the discouraging effect it has on District residents who are otherwise job-ready.

Chris Hart-Wright, Executive Director of Strive DC which works with chronically unemployed District residents, says she spends much of her time seeking to build trust on the part of local employers in her clients. She says that all training providers are doing the same thing, and that they need the city to use its influence to play this role so they can focus on training and case management.

That's what One City One Hire is all about. Run by the Business Services Group within the Department of Employment Services (DOES), One City One Hire asks local employers if they will consider a small number of resumes pre-screened by DOES for their open positions.

Director Mallory has transferred DOES employees into the operation of working with employers to understand the requirements of particular positions and evaluating thousands of resumes of jobless DC residents to fill those positions.

Now, overcoming the trust gap between local employers and jobless DC residents is only one of several difficult steps that need to be taken to address chronic unemployment. But the success of Gray and Mallory in conquering this first barrier raises hopes that they will live up to their promises on other barriers to employment.

First, Mallory has committed to transforming the One-Stop Centers that are responsible for empowering jobless residents with access to training, transportation and child care benefits, and other resources needed to get a job. This is no small task, as these centers have historically been more like DMV centers in the 1990s.

It will require strong leadership in each One-Stop, implementation of a uniform assessment process so that employees are trained in uncovering and addressing barriers to employment, and tight coordination with agencies like DHS that can address barriers like transportation and child care.

If this transformation doesn't occur, then the body that oversees One-Stop funding, the Workforce Investment Council, could conceivably pull all funding from DOES and contract with a private agency to run One-Stops.

Second, Mallory has committed to providing data on jobless residents who enter One-Stop Centers that would provide the first ever profile of DC's jobless and their barriers to employment. Finally, Mallory has committed to holding training providers accountable to metrics of job placement.

These are significant challenges, but the success of Mallory and Gray in addressing the challenge of trust in jobless DC residents should give us cautious optimism they can be met.

Tackling chronic unemployment is not optional. It is essential to improving education outcomes of the 30% of District children living in poverty. It is essential to limiting gentrification and ensuring all residents benefit from the District's resurgence in recent years.

Gray deserves credit for his accomplishments thus far and greater interest in his vision for finishing the job on unemployment.


Breakfast links: Busing it

Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.
Seven Corners gets transit center: The bus transit center at Seven Corners opens today, replacing several temporary stops in the area. It's the town's only major transit hub, but is located in a shopping center. (FC News-Press)

Redevelopment rumblings for Glenmont: Montgomery planners want to give Glenmont a town center, with high-density commercial and residential development clustered around the Red Line terminus. (Examiner)

Counting the homeless: Activists are taking a census of DC's homeless citizens to measure the scope of the problem and how much more needs to be done. Last year's count was 6,546, and new numbers are another few months away. (WAMU)

Residents stuck in limbo: A black hole in the ground awaits new construction to replace apartments lost in a 2008 fire. The city promised funds and is supporting the residents, but support will soon expire and the funds have not yet materialized. (Post)

Gas taxes are the best: Gas taxes are the best way to fund transportation projects in the short term, but other usage fees will need to replace that funding stream, according to a new MWCOG study. (WTOP)

When sprawl isn't sprawl: Development of 23,000 homes outside of any city and with no infrastructure is not legally sprawl in Florida, ruled a judge. Under Gov. Rick Scott, most controls on sprawl have been weakened to meaninglessness. (Orlando Sentinel)

Thriving without parking: Chinatown was abuzz with shoppers in San Francisco during a week without any on-street parking. The neighborhood is the most car-free in the city, leading some to call for a permanent ban. (Streetsblog)

To save or not to save?: Historic preservation seeks to save iconic buildings for future generations, but many mid-century buildings are often architecturally significant while widely reviled. Is historic preservation to preserve beauty or history? (Washingtonian)

Rents may fall: A huge supply boost could make DC's apartment rents actually fall. Realtors predict 23,000 new apartments in the region by 2014. (Urban Turf)

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Metro suffers complete blackout

Metro suffered a complete system failure last night around 11:30 pm. The failures were so extensive that all communications, including track circuits, were out of service.

Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

Customers on Twitter were reporting that rail operators had to leave and walk to the next station to get permission to move. WMATA's website was down, no communication came over any of the alert systems.

Former DCRA tweeter Mike Rupert wrote in the Local Gov blog that he thinks the complete lack of communication killed months of goodwill.

This wasn't Metro's only problem yesterday. In the morning, a cracked rail forced single-tracking between Van Ness and Friendship Heights, and then one train single-tracking stopped for 15 minutes due to door problems, forcing long delays for all riders trying to traverse the area.

With Metro's 30-plus year old system and a long backlog of deferred maintenance needs, some problems are going to crop up, but many riders and the Riders' Advisory Council have repeatedly faulted inadequate communication during crises.

Meanwhile, while Metro has launched a detailed campaign to explain its need for maintenance work, it has been tight-lipped about more specifics, such as timelines and costs for various aspects. Riders frustrated by multiple overlapping outages of lines, escalators and more may well tire of just hearing entreaties to be patient for a period of years, with little more to reassure them that the delays are leading to actual change.

Were you stuck in either of yesterday's problems? Looking constructively, what level and type of communication do you think Metro needs to achieve?


Then and Now: The 11th Street Bridge

At the doorstep of Historic Anacostia, the junction of Good Hope Road (formerly Harrison Street) and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue (formerly Piscataway Road, Monroe Street, and later Nichols Avenue) is an old corner with a unique place in the lore of DC and American history.

Eastern Branch Bridge, circa 1862. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In August 1814, with British troops descending on Washington's federal core, local citizens burned the Eastern Branch Bridge (the Anacostia River was then known as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac) to imperil their advance.

On the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth made his escape over the Navy Yard Bridge, through Uniontown (now Historic Anacostia), to southern Maryland after shooting President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.

Today, as part of a massive public works project, a new 11th Street Bridge is on the cusp of reopening.

Anacostia today. Photo by the author.

Public Spaces

Don't cut new Tysons Corner in two

Fairfax County is planning to turn Tysons into a dense, walkable, urban center. This transformation will include the creation of street grid and better bike and pedestrian facilities. But two major thoroughfares will weaken pedestrian circulation and divide the new Tysons in two.

Photo by VaDOT on Flickr.

Route 123 and Route 7 are major 6-lane roads running through the heart of Tysons Corner. The Silver Line will run along portions of either road, meaning that many pedestrians will be entering Tysons along these arteries.

But the construction of the Silver Line through Tysons Corner isn't the only work being done in the corridor. Fairfax County is currently widening Route 123 from 6 to 8 lanes.

The creation of a grid of streets coupled with bike/ped improvements is necessary to facilitate movement within an urban Tysons, particularly to and from the metro stations. The widening of 123, however, moves Tysons Corner in the opposite direction.

As a pedestrian, crossing 6 lanes of a major arterial road can be daunting. Adding an additional lane in each direction can make it even more difficult. Since Route 123 runs parallel to the Silver Line through the middle of Tysons, residents and employees will inevitably need to cross this busy street.

Route 123 in Tysons Corner. Image from Google Street View.

Last night the National Building Museum hosted an event on the Tysons redevelopment plan. Matt Ladd, a Fairfax County planner, said that lanes on 123 are 12 feet wide. The plan calls for a reduction to 11 feet, but that still means pedestrians would have to cross an 88-foot road, not counting any turn lanes.

This certainly isn't impossible. Infrastructure improvements like pedestrian islands and leading pedestrian intervals can make crossing easier. The problem is that crossing major streets like this isn't attractive and it makes for a pedestrian-hostile space.

Ladd also mentioned that the county's plan calls for wide sidewalks and a double row of trees along 123. These additions will make walking along the road more pleasant but don't make it any easier to cross.

Crossing 123 will be even more difficult at the Tysons Central 7 metro station because the tracks are at grade. Pedestrians will either have to cross over or under the tracks to get from side to side. Again, this isn't an impossible scenario. But if the county wants to make Tysons a walkable, accessible urban space, it will have to solve these barrier problems.

Today's Tysons lacks any real neighborhoods, in large part because of wide roads, on-ramps, mega-blocks, parking garages, and other major built environment factors that break up any coherent community. The new urban Tysons will overcome some of these, but a major 8-lane highway will act as an abrupt and unnatural edge to any future neighborhoods or districts that will stunt their growth and weaken them.

If residents find it too difficult or unpleasant to cross major roads, they may choose to patronize businesses on their side or use parks that are easier to reach. The physical division can also create social divisions and isolate communities.

The county can't just rip up state highways, so the roads will always be an issue. But planners must be careful to prevent the roads from becoming enormous barriers to a true urban space. The county could narrow the lanes further and convert one lane for street parking.

Ladd suggested that because the county is planning for redevelopment over 40 years, these options could become a reality at some point. Hopefully the county doesn't wait that long to solve the problem. Encouraging strong urban growth in a transit-oriented Tysons Corner should be a priority now, not decades down the road.


Breakfast links: No funding

Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.
Trail defunded: Montgomery County has deleted funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail until after 2018. It also would eliminate 2 grade-separated crossings. (Cycle MoCo, Rebecca Mills)

No bill this year: Secretary LaHood doubts a transportation funding bill will pass this year. He blames partisan politics and an election-shortened legislative session. (Post)

Less of a deduction: Governor O'Malley wants to reduce the mortgage interest deductions claimed by those making over $100,000. The cap will help Maryland balance its budget. Could this be a first step in eliminating the deduction completely? (Post)

Smart growth advocate to HPRB: Andrew Aurbach has been nominated for the Historic Preservation Review Board. He is a strong supporter of urbanism and smart growth, and served on the board previously. (City Paper)

Transit tweets are negative: "Sentiment analysis" of tweets about transit show that most tweets about transit involve complaints; when people are happy with their transit, they generally don't tweet it. (Atlantic Cities)

New MD website lacks open data: A draft redesign of the Maryland legislature's website failed to include open data or social media integration, says Heather Mizeur and other delegates who saw a mockup. (Maryland Reporter)

Frederick fights sprawl: Frederick's planning commission rezoned some areas to farmland to stop sprawl and growing traffic. But some groups, including the country commissioners, are trying to get it changed back. (WAMU)

And...: Live, work, shop or play near M Street SE or SW? Fill out a DDOT survey on how to make it safer and better. ... 18 people have picked up petitions to run for Ward 5 councilmember. (Frozen Tropics) ... Arlington is aiming to become a gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community, the first on the east coast. (Patch)

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Field for Ward 7 council race is set. Who will survive?

Ward 7 is shaping up to be a unique DC Council race this year. Unlike the other ward races, there are candidates other than Democrats in the running. Many believe this could actually make general election competitive, instead of the primary election being the only race that matters.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Incumbent Councilmember Yvette Alexander is running for a second full term, after being elected to her first full term in 2008. Alexander bested a field that included 3 other Democratic candidates that year, after having beat 17 other candidates the year before in a special election to secure the seat (with 34% of the vote).

Alexander is currently the chair of the Council's Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, which has oversight responsibility for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, as well as multiple professional boards and accountability agencies.

Incumbency grants Alexander a leg up for fundraising. She's managed to raise over $82,000 (PDF) as of the last filing date, far ahead of the rest of the field.

Second in money raised, and by many accounts a candidate who could be a strong challenger, Kevin B. Chavous has raised nearly $29,000 so far. He touts the endorsement of the Ward 7 Concerned Citizens Coalition on his website. This organization came together last year to find a candidate to run against Alexander.

With grassroots support and name recognition (Chavous' father was the Ward 7 councilmember for 3 terms from 1992-2004), Chavous appeared to be in good shape until a mid-December arrest on a charge of solicitation of a prostitute. Yesterday, he agreed to a deal that would lead to the charges being dropped, provided he completes community service within the next 4 months.

Some in the ward have said Chavous is too young, and doesn't appeal to older voters. In addition, being a "legacy" candidate could be a hindrance.

Tom Brown, who ran in the special election last year to fill the at-large seat vacated by Kwame Brown (and temporarily filled by Sekou Biddle), is running on a platform that focuses on job creation. Ward 7 residents I have spoken with believe he's a strong candidate, but has not done as good a job convincing voters he's a strong challenger as others. He has a background in job training, which is a key issue in the race. Brown has raised nearly $18,000 so far.

Bill Bennett is a pastor in Ward 7. His website remains a landing site with no information other than his name, currently. Bennett has gathered support from many churches in the ward and has raised $11,000 so far.

Of interest is the person listed as the contact for the Bennett campaign on the BOEE website: Willie Wilson. Wilson has a history as a long-time advocate for the poor in Ward 8, but also has been called out for controversial statements in recent years.

Dorothy Douglas, who also ran in last year's special election to replace Kwame Brown, is running again. Monica Johnson is the remaining Democratic candidate. Neither of the two appear to be gathering large amounts of support in the ward in the early going.

What makes the Ward 7 race interesting is the inclusion of non-Democrats in the race. There are two Republicans running for the seat, Don Folden and Ronald Moten. One of the two will have an additional 7 months to make his case to the people of Ward 7, facing off against whichever Democrat emerges from the 6-way primary scrum.

If media savviness and attention alone would dictate the winner of the Republican race, Ron Moten seems well-placed to win. Moten, one of the founders of Peaceaholics, a non-profit that worked with at-risk youth in the city, has been in the news since the organization came to prominence during the Fenty administration.

Moten's decision to run as a "Civil Rights Republican" appears to some as a way of simply avoiding the Democratic primary to live another day. While that may play into the political calculus, individuals I have spoken to in Ward 7 believe that Moten would have a good chance in the general election against any of the Democrats.

Last week, Ward 7 resident Dawn Matthews challenged Alexander's ballot petitions. Whether this will keep her off the ballot in April remains to be seen, but other incumbents have been able to survive being knocked off the ballot in the past and still win reelection via write-in (see Anthony Williams in 2002).

The main theme of the race seems to be the perception, fair or not, that Alexander has not done much for Ward 7. Economic development, and the related topic of employment, appear to be first on the mind of many voters. A splintered field works in the incumbent's favor, but the addition of a strong Republican challenger will make this a race worth watching, regardless of who emerges from the primary election on April 3.


WMATA would cut last commuter discount, has no pass plan

Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will approve a docket for public hearings with potential fare increases, which does not include a monthly pass proposal as the finance committee requested.

Only fare increases have to go to the public for comment, and a monthly pass could be considered a fare reduction. That means it's still possible for the board to work out the details of a pass option during meetings between now and June, when they must approve the budget.

The docket also eliminates the last discount available for riders that only take 10 trips per week, a normal commute for some people. Metro proposes raising the price of the rail fast pass to exactly 10 times the maximum rail fare.

Previously, Metro offered a few discounts for frequent riders: a 10% bonus fare for people who bought farecards of $20 or more, a weekly bus pass that cost about 8.5 trips, and the rail fast pass.

The 10% bonus fare was eliminated in 2003. The weekly bus pass discount was eliminated in 2010. Metro now charges 10 times the Smartrip fare for a pass.

For a regular commuter taking 10 trips per week which are long enough to hit the maximum fare, the rail fast pass currently offers about a 10% discount compared to 10 individual trips, as well as free trips after that. This proposal will eliminate the 10% discount and almost certainly drive customers away from using the rail fast pass.

More to follow after the Thursday board meeting.

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