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Posts from October 2012

Public Spaces

Funding, partnerships, and rules hamper DC federal parks

On Thursday, residents from all across the city asked the National Park Service to do better for DC, and praised the progress NPS has made this year, at a town hall meeting from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Photo by North Cascades National Park on Flickr.

If you didn't get to attend, you'll have another chance to talk to park superintendents about DC parks at another event NPS is organizing on November 13.

At the town hall, Norton noted that the Park Service has very little money and the climate in Congress isn't likely to fund them any better anytime soon; if anything, there might be more cuts. That will exacerbate the huge maintenance backlog at the National Mall and many problems at smaller parks, like at Fort Dupont, where a reasident of Ward 7 said NPS hasn't fixed a deteriorating roadway for years.

But many other people brought up issues that won't require more federal money.

Danielle Pierce of Downtown DC Kids said that 6 months after NPS officials promised to help give the District jurisdiction over a small parcel so it could build a playground, and after Tommy Wells put money into the budget for such a playground, nothing has happened on the Park Service side.

The organizer of a youth sports league said that playing fields in Anacostia Park are in terrible shape. They'd be happy to fix the field themselves if they can become a partner for that park. Joe Sternlieb, the new head of the Georgetown BID, said they'd be happy to do more to remove graffiti at the C&O Canal but need NPS permission.

Rick Reinhard, Deputy Executive Director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, had a very cogent statement about the need for funding, its progress and challenges on partnerships, and its frustrations with rules that make it very difficult to program downtown parks.

He said,

In 1997, our buildings, our streets and sidewalks and our parks all were unexceptional-- a 3 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Today, our buildings are an 8 or 9, our streets and sidewalks are a 6 or 7. Our parks are still a 3. Why? Mainly lack of investment. The NPS budget does not allow the [34 National Park Service parks and reservations in the one-square-mile Downtown BID] to be designed, built, maintained or programmed any of us would choose.

NPS is handcuffed to run its urban parks using the same rules they use to run Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Everglades. The same regulations that work so well to protect moose, redwoods and crocodiles work much less effectively to promote playgrounds, concerts and family picnics.

Permits are required for small, what should be spontaneous events. Sponsorship banners are so limited as to be practically prohibited. Food service is limited to the National Mall concessionaire, who finds it not profitable enough to operate a small food cart in, say, McPherson Square, when it is selling thousands of hot dogs on the Mall.

When the Downtown BID worked with the Willard Intercontinental Hotel to promote a simple art fair in Pershing Park, NPS red tape strangled it. One example: artists could sell only art that was materially connected to the theme of the park, like portraits of General Pershing.

Sidewalk cafes are next to impossible to site legally on NPS-controlled Pennsylvania Avenue. So while the number of sidewalk cafes within the BID area has grown over the past 15 years from zero to 147—with 4,400 seats—the number of sidewalk cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue—which should be one of America's greatest, liveliest streets—is only four.

Local NPS officials understand these problems and do not want to manage this way, but rules are rules.

If NPS is not appropriated enough money, and if NPS has inflexible rules, then the only way our parks ever will be what we deserve is through forging serious, meaningful partnerships.

We offer sincere compliments to Regional Director Steve Whitesell, Mall Superintendent Bob Vogel, Deputy Superintendents Steve Lorenzetti and Karen Cucurullo and their staffs. We have moved ahead on these important issues more in the past couple of years than we have in the decade before, because these men and women understand that these parks not only must respect history and serve our nation but also must be enjoyed day-to-day and serve our residents, workers and visitors.

The Downtown BID wholeheartedly endorses Secretary Salazar's call for a new way of managing NPS' urban space inventory, which includes all of Downtown DC's green spaces. Our hope is that our most recent experiences constitute a new way for DC to work with NPS going forward, and are not exceptions to the rule.

You can read the complete statement.

At the meeting, NPS regional head Steve Whitesell announced that the agency was planning its own town hall as well to hear from even more residents. That event will be Tuesday, November 13, 6:30-8:30 pm at the African-American Civil War Museum, 1925 Vermont Avenue NW, right by the east entrance to the U Street Metro.

5 area park superintendents will be there to talk with residents: Bob Vogel of National Mall and Memorial Parks (the Mall plus most nearby small parks), Alex Romero of National Capital Parks-East (generally everything east of the Capitol and also east of the Anacostia), Tara Morrison from Rock Creek (which includes small parks outside the L'Enfant city in Northwest), the C&O Canal's Kevin Brandt, and Ann Bowman Smith who works with the White House to manage "President's Park," the White House itself and surrounding grounds.

This is an important opportunity to bring important issues directly to the people in charge. NPS isn't going to make parks safer to walk and bike, or enjoyable for sitting and eating, or more active for daytime and evening activities, unless people personally ask them to. The more residents ask for these things, the more we will get them. Mark your calendars!

Public Spaces

What makes a place "walkable"?

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. His new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time comes out on November 13. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from the book.

We've known for three decades how to make livable cities—after forgetting for four—yet we've somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Photo by p medved on Flickr.

Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions.

In the small and mid-sized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.

This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that, now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

This past spring, while I was working on a plan for Lowell, Massachusetts, some old high school friends joined us for dinner on Merrimack Street, the heart of a lovely 19th-century downtown. Our group consisted of four adults, one toddler in a stroller, and my wife's very pregnant belly.

Across the street from our restaurant, we waited for the light to change, lost in conversation. Maybe a minute passed before we saw the pushbutton signal request. So we pushed it. The conversation advanced for another minute or so. Finally, we gave up and jaywalked. About the same time, a car careened around the corner at perhaps forty-five miles per hour, on a street that had been widened to ease traffic.

The resulting near-miss fortunately left no scars, but it will not be forgotten. Stroller jaywalking is a surefire way to feel like a bad parent, especially when it goes awry. The only consolation this time was that I was in a position to do something about it.

As I write these words, I am again on the road with my family, this time in Rome. Now, the new baby is in a sling, and the toddler alternates between a stroller and his own two feet, depending on the terrain and his frame of mind. It is interesting to compare our experience in Rome with the one in Lowell, or, more to the point, the experience of walking in most American cities.

Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians. So many things are wrong. Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crosswalks, pavements are uneven and rutted, handicap ramps are largely absent. Hills are steep and frequent (I hear there are seven). And need I mention the drivers?

Yet, here we are among so many other pedestrians—tourists and locals alike—making our way around Trastevere. ... on our toes, yes, but enjoying every minute of it. This anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers, recently selected by readers of Lonely Planet travel guides as one of the world's "Top Ten Walking Cities."

Romans drive a fraction of the miles that Americans do. A friend of ours who came here to work in the US Embassy bought a car when he arrived, out of habit. Now it sits in his courtyard, a target for pigeons. This tumultuous urban landscape, which fails to meet any conventional American measure of "pedestrian friendliness," is a walker's paradise. So what's going on here?

Certainly, in competing for foot traffic, Anatole Broyard's "poem pressed into service as a city" began with certain advantages. The Lonely Planet ranking is likely more a function of spectacle than pedestrian comfort. But the same monuments, arranged in a more modern American way, would hardly compete. (Think Las Vegas, with its Walk Score of 54.)

The main thing that makes Rome—and the other winners: Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, and New York—so walkable is what we planners call "fabric," the everyday collection of streets, blocks, and buildings that tie the monuments together. Despite its many technical failures, Rome's fabric is superb.

Yet fabric is one of several key aspects of urban design that are missing from the walkability discussion in most places. This is because that discussion has largely been about creating adequate and attractive pedestrian facilities, rather than walkable cities. There is no shortage of literature on this subject, and even a fledgling field of "walkability studies" that focuses principally on impediments to pedestrian access and safety, mostly in the Toronto suburbs.

These efforts are helpful, but inadequate. The same goes for urban beautification programs, such as the famous "Five B's" of the eighties—bricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and berms—that now grace many an abandoned downtown.

Lots of money and muscle has gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights, and trash cans, but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? If walking was just about creating safe pedestrian zones, then why did more than 150 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies fail almost immediately? Clearly there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.

The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others. Laying out those criteria in no uncertain terms, and showing how we can satisfy them with the least cost and effort, is the purpose of this book.

Interested in learning more about what makes a place walkable? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 17 at 6 pm for a discussion with Jeff. The event is free and open to the pubilc; no RSVP is required.


DC Home Rule almost had... nonpartisan elections

During Hurricane Sandy, I passed the time by reading the legislative history of the DC Home Rule Act. This 1973 bill, which gave District residents the right to vote for local leaders who can make local laws for the first time in 99 years, established the system of government DC has today. But what might have been?

Photo by jcolman on Flickr.

Congress considered a lot of different alternatives for Home Rule. Very different bills passed the House and Senate. The House made some amendments on the floor, and then the conference committee made some of its own changes to reconcile the House and Senate versions.

One system that almost was: nonpartisan elections for DC Council and Mayor.

DC's current system includes a 13-member council. 4 at-large members and the chairman run for office citywide, while each of the 8 wards elects one member. All run in partisan elections, with primaries in April (September up until last year) and the general election in November.

But neither the House nor Senate bill specified that. The House bill had the 13 members, 5 at-large, but the Council would have chosen the chairman from among the 5 at-large members each January. (2249) The Senate bill, meanwhile, had only 3 at-large members (2 plus the chairman) for a total of 11 councilmembers. The voters would choose the chairman at-large directly, as they do today. (2887)

House bill had nonpartisan elections with runoff

The House bill also specified nonpartisan elections for Mayor and Council. In the open general election, the top vote-getter would win only if he or she received at least 40% of the votes. Otherwise, there would be a runoff 21 days after the election. For elections for 1 person (like ward councilmember or mayor), the 2 top finishers would participate in the runoff; for at-large elections with 2 to be elected, the runoff would involve the top 3. (2347)

The House's version put elections in November of even-numbered years that aren't Presidential election years (where they are today), but the Senate placed them on Presidential years with primaries in September.

Adams. Photo from Wikipedia.
The conference committee ultimately picked the Senate's option of partisan elections and a chairman elected in his or her own race, but the House's 13-member council and choice of years (3013-3014). Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA, 1927-2004, US Rep. 1965-1977, US Secretary of Transportation 1977-1979, Senator 1987-1993) and his staff prepared a memo during conference on the major House-Senate differences. He wrote,
Both these bills leave much to be desired; to my thinking, elections should be partisan, without runoffs (only Southern states have them) in even numbered non-Presidential years, with primaries in September and generals in November ... with no runoff (like Seattle). (2891)
Business, labor, parties all favored partisan elections

Most local groups favored partisan elections as well. Rep. Donald Fraser (D-MN, b. 1924, US Rep. 1963-1979, Mayor of Minneapolis 1980-1993) said that "Testimony before the House District of Columbia Committee was overwhelmingly in favor of party designation for these elections."

Walter F. McArdle, president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, spoke in favor of partisan elections, as did George Apperson, president of Greater Washington Central Labor Council, who told the committee:

We think it would be wrong to prohibit partisan politics in elections in the District of Columbia. Partisan politics helps to focus responsibility and that's what we need in the District—responsible politics and responsible government.
The DC Republican Party also agreed, saying, "There is no question but the present political parties in the District of Columbia can provide the machinery by which a candidate aspiring to office can best bring his or her views of the electorate." So did the League of Women Voters.

Fraser concluded, "In my own State of Minnesota, nonpartisan elections for mayor and city council in the large cities did not work well. The State legislature has reinstated party designation. I believe this is wise. (1684)

Hatch Act drove push for nonpartisan elections

If so many people supported partisan elections, how did the House pass a bill with nonpartisan? The committee reported out a bill with partisan elections, but a dissenting commentary from a number of Republicans who opposed a great many provisions of the bill (including Arlington, Virginia Rep. Joel Broyhill, 1919-2006, US Rep. 1953-1974), argued for nonpartisan:

Based on information recently provided by the United States Conference of Mayors' that a total of 152 cities with populations over 100,000, 92 or 60% conduct nonpartisan elections, 49 or 32% conduct partisan elections, and for 11 cities the information is unknown. ... Several such cities with nonpartisan elections are Detroit, Seattle, Oakland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco, San Diego, San Antonio, Memphis, and Columbia.

It would appear that in a city such as Washington, D.C., which is the Nation's Capital, where the Federal and local interests are so inextricably interwoven, that nonpartisan elections would best serve the interests of the Federal government, as well as the local residents. ...

It is doubtful if other cities of the size of the District of Columbia have as many Federal employees within their boundaries. Obviously, the drafters of this legislation recognized this in trying to amend the Hatch Act and permit the Federal employees to be partisan political candidates for the office of Council Member and Mayor. How much better it would be to avoid the question of amendment of the Hatch Act, which as is argued elsewhere in these views would undoubtedly result eventually in the repeal of the Hatch Act in its entirety, and hold the elections, in the District of Columbia, if authorized, on a nonpartisan basis. (1585-1586)

The subcommitee and committee markup sessions don't include a lot of debate over the merits of partisan or nonpartisan elections, but they do contain voluminous debate over the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from participating in partisan political activity.

During Senate debate, then-freshman Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM, Senator 1973-2009), said, "in the District of Columbia, 135,141 or 40% of voters would be subject to Hatch and unable to actively participate in the election process."

In fact, the Civil Service Commission issued an opinion that the then-sitting Mayor and City Councilmembers, who were federal appointees at the time, "would have to resign in order to run for office" under the new Home Rule system. (3613) Congress amended the Home Rule Act in 1974 to exempt the mayor and councilmembers from the Hatch Act, but problems with the way the Hatch Act applies to DC continue to this day.

At the beginning of floor debate over the bill, the chairman of the District of Columbia Committee introduced a "Committee substitute" that made a number of changes (2361). One of these was to replace partisan elections with nonpartisan. That provision never came up in the floor debate itself, and was part of the bill the House passed, but the members of the District of Columbia Committee who'd passed the original bill with partisan elections put it back in conference.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.


Breakfast links: Storm stories

Photo by brownpau on Flickr.
Sandy hits the Northeast hard: At least 40 people have died as a result of Hurricane Sandy, and millions are without power. In the DC area, 115,000 still have no electricity. (Post)

Climate change does cause Sandy-like storms: The Presidential campaign has ignored climate change, but Sandy reminded everyone; it's indeed fair to cite climate change for the kind of weather we've had. (Post)

Pepco does a bit better: The much-maligned Pepco performed better in this week's hurricane than the summer's derecho. Total outages among Pepco customers peaked below 42,000, compared with 483,000 in June's storm. (DCist, Post)

Why Sandy didn't flood Bloomingdale: Bloomingdale actually didn't flood during Sandy. Is the flooding problem fixed? No, it's just that regular drainage could handle the sustained, less-intense rain we had, but not sudden heavy downpours. (City Paper)

Teleworking: why just in storms?: One-third of local federal government employees telework during storms like Sandy. But less than 8% do so on regular days. Why can't more telework in good weather? (Post)

Region still faces risk of flooding: The region is returning to normal today, having avoided the worst effects of Sandy. But waterways which received millions of gallons of sewage overflow still pose a health risk, especially if they overflow. (Post)

More storm stuff: Though the subway closed, New York's dollar vans stayed in operation during Sandy. (WSJ) ... Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive flooded. (DCist) ... The storm caused a serious blood-donation shortage. (WAMU)

Parks get more private money: Donations are on the rise to fund urban parks, including some record gifts to major cities' most significant parks, but many more parks remain woefully underfunded. (NAC)

Housing recovery doesn't reach everywhere: Some metropolitan areas, including DC, have housing prices almost double 2000 levels, while many other metros are still below their prices in 2000. (Atlantic Cities)

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Where does the water go?

An awful lot of stormwater just fell on the Washington area. DC Water shared this 2011 video about what happens to a raindrop after it falls in a storm until it gets to a river.

Stormwater has to pass through the Combined Sewer Overflow system, which mixes water and sewage. That is, unless and until DC Water digs new tunnels for stormwater (and, unfortunately, has to spend a very large amount of money to do it).

Breakfast non-links: Sandiest

Yesterday, a giant storm smashed into the mid-Atlantic. Virtually nothing else of note happened.

Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Sadly, a few people were killed in traffic crashes or from falling trees in the region, but it was far worse in New Jersey and New York.

The Ocean City boardwalk was damaged and a pier destroyed. Storm surge flooded Atlantic City Lower Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn, including the New York City Subway, PATH, and tunnels.

Metro will reopen at 2 pm today on a Sunday schedule, and will return to normal weekday service tomorrow. There is no timetable about when the New York subway will reopen after facing what its chairman calls the worst disaster in its 108-year history.

There aren't as many traffic signals out in DC as some expected, but there are a number of of roads closed in Virginia and Maryland.

Finally, forecasters expect flooding in the Potomac over the next few days as all the water that fell yesterday makes its way downriver.

How did you and your homes hold up in the storm?


Many holidays look like weekends on Metro

WMATA's planning department has started posting more graphs and charts of ridership data, like one today changes in ridership over 5 years. A few recent charts show how holiday ridership compares to regular weekdays, Saturdays, or Sundays.

On holidays like MLK Day and Presidents' Day, when most offices are closed, Metro runs a Saturday schedule. That seems sensible, because the ridership pattern across the day closely resembles the typical Saturday.

Images from WMATA.

When the federal government is closed but most private companies still have work, like Columbus Day and Veterans' Day, Metro runs a Saturday schedule with extra peak service. Then, the ridership graph looks like a blend between the Saturday and typical weekday pattern:

On some of the holidays where virtually everyone is off and people generally travel, like Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Labor Day, Metro runs on a Sunday schedule. The ridership pattern looks a lot like a typical Sunday as well, except Thanksgiving where it's even lower:

Even though the final numbers aren't in yet, we were able to get an exclusive look at the ridership chart for today, during Hurricane Sandy. Here it is:

Image not really from WMATA.


L Street cycle track about half done

While most Washingtonians prepared for Hurricane Sandy, DDOT crews were hard at work over the weekend installing the L Street cycle track.

The cycle track will run from New Hampshire Avenue in the west to 12th Street in the east. Workers began marking it on Thursday near New Hampshire Avenue, and have been moving east block by block. As of Sunday they reached just past 17th Street.

L Street near New Hampshire Avenue by Zach Rausnitz (left),
and near Connecticut Avenue by Dan Malouff (right).

On Sunday, DDOT's "green lane flash mob" was out, painting a high-visibility green coating where the cycle track approaches Connecticut Avenue.

Photos by Andrew Heining (left) and Scott Thomasson (right).

When Sandy is safely past and DDOT begins to work again, share your photos with us via Twitter and on the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool.


Breakfast links: Hunker down

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr.
Sandy shuts down transportation: You shouldn't need to wait for the Breakfast Links to know there's a massive storm hitting Washington. Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess are all closed today, as are MARC, VRE, and Amtrak, local and intercity bus services, Amtrak, Capital Bikeshare and more. (DCist, City Paper)

Farragut Crossing a hit: About 600 people use the Farragut Crossing virtual tunnel every day, almost double the number of when it first opened. Despite its success, Metro has no immediate plans for any more virtual tunnels. (Examiner)

CaBi gets ads: DC's Capital Bikeshare stations will soon get advertising. Arlington can't put advertising on its stations unless it modifies a ban on outdoor ads. (Examiner)

No love for Hoover: Preservationists will likely not fight to save the Hoover FBI building. The building would cost too much to reuse, the movement suffered from the contentious Third Church fight, and almost no one likes it. (Post)

Bus garage at AFRH?: Another possible location for a new Metro bus garage has popped up: the Armed Forces Retirement Home near North Capitol and Irving. It could replace the aging Northern garage on 14th Street. (Post)

And...: Georgetown's West Heating Plant building might not be worth much unless the preservation process allows adding windows. (Post) ... Is it possible to build a green downtown parking garage, or is it just greenwashing? (Grid Chicago)

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Pre-Sandy video: Why the Netherlands went bicycle

Speaking of another part of the world even more prone to coastal flooding, someone recently shared a link to this video about why a top-notch network of bike paths came to the Netherlands. I often hear the question, why do other parts of the world do bicycling so much better than we do?

The video argues that the country was on the path of wider and wider roads and more driving following World War II, but after the pedestrian death toll started to mount, especially among children, residents demanded another transportation approach.

Why didn't the same happen here? The US is much larger, and during the interstate highway building boom, most of the roads were going in areas with few or no pedestrians. That would have meant a very different political dynamic around a national policy of road-building.

However, even in the cities there wasn't this push for bicycle infrastructure until fairly recently. Why not? Perhaps that is because the politically powerful classes at the time were moving to suburbs and not caring about the cities? What do you think?

Americans might not have made a fuss about the hazards of poor road design or reckless driving 50 years ago, but some are today. Cyclists rallied on Pennsylvania Avenue Friday to raise awareness of the dangers of illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue. Local bike shop BicycleSpace organized the event, and officers from the Metropolitan Police Department attended to speak with cyclists about how they can enforce the law.

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