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Posts from November 2008


Auto-industrial complex now cures colic, too

Does your baby have colic? Make your baby think he's in a car! The baby will imagine the open highway, dream of road trips yet to come, think of the jobs created in Detroit, envision his future fighting traffic every day on his commute, visualize circling endlessly for parking, and prepare himself to develop asthma thanks to the pollution choking his air.

Image by sean_mcgee on Flickr.

That's the promise of the SleepTight infant soother, which claims to be far more effective than medication at curing colic by "simulat[ing] the sound and motion of a car going 55 mph." The site doesn't specify whether this car sound resembles the higher-end sports car noises which also supposedly arouse women.

Or maybe it's just that gentle vibration and white noise help soothe a baby, whether resembling a car or anything else.

Tip: Ken Archer.


Purple Line opposition has "tarnished" the Town of Chevy Chase

Not everyone in Chevy Chase wants to block the light rail Purple Line. I don't want to start another Purple Line flame war, but this testimony at the recent Purple Line hearing, from long-time Town of Chevy Chase resident Arthur T. Rowse, bring a unique and valuable perspective on the super-local, anti-Purple Line politics:

Fenced-in interim Capital Crescent Trail near the Columbia Country Club. Image from Finish The Trail.
I would like to raise a few questions about where the Town of Chevy Chase stands on the Purple Line. Since the rail-trail plan was proposed, the dominant powers of the town government have simply assumed that everyone in town opposes the plan. They also have used more than half a million dollars of taxpayer funds to concoct a scheme that would dump the problem onto the residents of Jones Bridge Road.

The town has never conducted a poll of residents to determine where they stand on the issue. One reason may be the fear that if the issue were presented fairly and objectively, the overwhelmingly liberal residents might strongly support the Purple Line plan. They also might want their tax money back.

The fallout has unfairly tarnished the town. Many of its progressive residents have become ashamed at the NIMBY image that the town government has presented to the outside world on this matter. Saving the trail has never been the real issue. It is whether a few property owners who bought property on the freight spur might tolerate the softer sounds of a trolley carrying non-residents so close to the town's border.

Even more shameful is the narrow-minded image created by critics of the Purple Line at a time when most rational people are seeking ways to break the cycle of planet destruction from fossil fuels. I wonder how the opposition of town officials to light rail fits with their endorsement of the Kyoto Treaty? And how can they explain to their children why they support the so-called green revolution for everything but the Purple Line?

Much has been made of a petition drive that has boasted many thousands of signatures as part of a clever campaign entitled "Save the Trail." But, as Shakespeare might say, such strutting and fretting signify nothing. It's like asking people if they like ice cream. Everybody likes the trail. That's why planners have included it in all their plans, like many successful rail-and-trail operations around the world.

Much has also been made of the probable loss of many trees along the trail. The same people seem blind to the invasive weeds that have already devoured many of the trees and shrubs with scarcely any effort made by save-the-trail people to stop the destruction. My message to Purple Line opponents is: relax. By the time the first dirt is moved for this line, there won't be many live trees to cut down.

Update: Ben T. points out a Brookings panel next week about the Purple Line, "Remaking the Suburbs in a Carbon-Constrained World: A Case Study of Maryland's Purple Line." It's Wednesday, Dec. 3 from 9:30 to 11 am. Register here.


Harvard Square: streets more complete, parking needs work

I stopped to eat in Harvard Square today on the way to my parents' from the Boston airport. Modern thinking on street design has made its impact on the Square. Bike lanes have erupted all over the place since 2000, and the small Palmer Street alley, which runs between the Harvard Coop's two buildings, has become a pedestrian-friendly, woonerf-like "shared space" where pedestrians mix with occasional traffic and loading trucks. Here's the old alley, and this is what it looks like today.

The new Palmer Street, Harvard Square. Reprinted with permission from AntyDiluvian on Flickr.

Not all is rosy for Harvard Square; sadly, the iconic Out of Town News is closing, a harbinger of imminent social collapse.

However, municipal parking is still too cheap. As Greater Greater Mom and I were driving into the Square for lunch, we tried to find parking at the municipal parking lot by the Harvard Square Hotel (price: $2 per hour). Unfortunately, it was full, and private garages charge closer to $20 for two hours. She recommended that if we couldn't find parking, we just ditch the Square and drive on home to eat. She didn't want to drive around for a long time looking for a space.

Fortunately, we found a curbside space (price: $1 per hour), but Cambridge is missing a big opportunity. Greater Greater Mom decided she'd have been willing to pay $4 per hour to be assured of a space to park. Cambridge could be making more money, and drawing in customers who don't want a big hassle to find parking, by charging that much for these municipal spaces. Instad, Cambridge is underpricing their public parking and curbside spaces, missing out on revenue and scaring away potential customers who'll dine elsewhere.


"Persuading" or "evaluating"?

Before attending the DC Preservation League's recent panel discussion, "Evaluating the Significance of Modern Structures," I wondered if it would focus on differentiating the significant from the insignificant or just advocating for modern structures' significance. I found a little of both, but more of the latter. As Reid wrote in a comment after the event,

A truly notable modern building in Stamford, CT.
I'll say that there were some feints towards saying that some modern structures aren't significant. But one suspects that everyone on the panel would love to keep all modern buildings around in perpetuity, regardless of their significance (let alone hostility to good urbanism).
The General Services Administration, manager of most federal office buildings, does distinguish its historic properties from the non-historic. GSA's preservation office divides buildings into three categories: the truly iconic that already warrant landmarking, those that don't meet National Register criteria now but may once they turn 50, and those that probably don't merit preservation at all.

For example, the Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, California has an iconic pyramidal shape. But since the architect also designed San Francisco's very iconic Transamerica Pyramid, said GSA preservationist Kristi Tunstall, this building may therefore represent a lesser example and not eligible for historic designation now - but perhaps on its 50th birthday.

Many panelists frequently used the word "eligible". The actual process of landmarking, of course, centers around eligibility. But none of the speakers asked whether a building might be eligible but nonetheless not warrant preservation. "Evaluating the significance," therefore, meant not judging merit but simply determining eligibility.

And the federal eligibility criteria are very broad. For example, Lyndon Johnson had an office on the top floor of the J.J. Pickle Federal Building in Austin, which from what I can see is a plain and unremarkable concrete and glass box. Yet GSA considers that building historically significant, simply because Johnson had an office there. Tunstall admitted that the Battin Federal Building in Billings, Montana is generally undistinguished. But it's the only Brutalist building in the state, making it potentially eligible and thus, at least to her office, worthy of preservation

The biggest debate for GSA's buildings, said Tunstall, arises in the second of GSA's three categories, buildings not "iconic" today but potentially eligible in the future. Under the federal designation rules, buildings under 50 years of age must meet a far stricter standard than older buildings. That's why GSA feels the Laguna Niguel building may not be eligible now, but could become so.

Should we simply designate any 50-year-old structure that's a good example of a certain architectural school? Tunstall and her colleagues seem to think so; she said her office's task for the second tier is "how do we make [the] case" for preservation?" They're not asking whether these buildings are really significant and whether we are improving our built environment by preserving them. Instead, they asked, how do we convince people to save them?

Christine French, of the Recent Past Preservation Network and another panelist at the event, focused her talk entirely on persuading the public of the significance of modern buildings. French wouldn't have approved of Tunstall's characterizing the Battin Federal Building as otherwise unremarkable. Among French's tactics from her presentation were these rules: "Never admit that the other side has a point," and "Include no statements that can be taken out of context."

French repeatedly referred to anyone not entirely in agreement as "adversaries." That, and her "admit nothing" rule, does her side a disservice, casting everyone who disagrees with any of any of her views as the enemy. (And yes, those of you who've pointed out the folly of calling development foes "NIMBYs" were making the same point.) Some audience members were indeed skeptical of some aspects of preservation; some residents of the Watergate and the Capital Park building at Fourth and G Southwest, proud of their buildings, nevertheless spoke about the financial burden of maintaining their architecturally interesting but costly balconies.

The preservationists on the panel also pointed out the large environmental cost of simply trashing an entire building's worth of concrete. Where would all the concrete go if we tore down the FBI building, asked GSA's Beth Savage, who'd like Pennsylvania Avenue to contain at least one structure from each architectural era. And, indeed, LEED 2009 gives points for retaining existing structures, according to Savage. The Maryland historic preservation chair, who was in the audience, had harsher words for LEED, calling it a "process that is written by accountants and construction managers," where developers tear down an entire building, creating enormous waste, to build a "green" building, and called for a "more sophisticated" LEED system.

Besides, not all modern buildings discussed at the panel are unremarkable glass and concrete boxes. Theodore Prudon of US DOCOMOMO showed some beautiful modern buildings, like the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT (which faces many similar heating and lighting challenges as the controversial Third Church of Christ, Scientist here in DC). I am a big fan of the 1965 Pan American Health Organization building, where the panel took place. And we were treated to photos of a very impressive modern house in Cleveland Park when it went on the market recently.

There are some wonderful modern buildings, in DC and elsewhere. And there is indeed value in preserving some examples of various architectural styles. Nevertheless, when almost every modern building is eventually eligible and we landmark almost every one, either we aren't exercising enough discretion or the eligibility criteria are too broad. The question I should have asked the panelists, but didn't think of at the time, is this: Is there a building that's eligible for historic designation under the federal guidelines, but which you don't feel should be designated? If so, why? If not, do you support designating all eligible buildings? I'd still love to hear the panelists' thoughts on this. But to me, just because we can landmark a building doesn't mean we should.


Midnight links: I will protest injustice more

Traditional sidewalk values: Citing California's precedent of taking away minority rights by majority vote, a group of Princeton students is pushing Princeton Proposition 8, to "preserve traditional sidewalk values" that reserve sidewalks for sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students, faculty, staff, visitors, and others, but not freshmen. (AmericaBlog)

This is where the sidewalk ends. Keep on the grass.

I will stop lobbying for huge oil company tax giveaways: The League of Conservation Voters suggests some alternate posters for Chevron's "I will use less energy" greenwashing campaign. Via DCist.

Yes train on Wayne: At Saturday's Takoma Park/Silver Spring Purple Line hearing, many residents testified in support of the light rail Purple Line. Despite many Wayne Avenue residents opposed to an alignment on their stret, one Wayne resident supports it, having lived in San Francisco near a light rail line. "It was a controlled street, very safe, very quiet, more so than on Wayne now with the buses," she said. (Just Up the Pike)

$235,000 from parking: JDLand attended last week's performance parking meeting in Ward 6. There's not much really exciting info, but the program earned $235,000 in about six months, which is about a quarter of the cost to install the meters and signs. But we needn't wait two years for community benefits: 20% of the revenue goes to the neighborhood right away.

Saved by the limit: The National Building Museum's Martin Moeller thinks the height limit saved downtown DC from becoming "a patchwork in which skyscrapers alternate with surface parking lots" like Cleveland or Detroit. He also talks about how visitors to DC miss the good parts of the city (the neighborhoods) while getting stuck on the Mall, and feels that thanks to our many historic districts, "novelty rarely gets a chance to breathe."


Metro will open an hour early on "Black Friday"

According to Jim Graham at the WMATA board meeting last Thursday, the District of Columbia has agreed to pay to run Metro's services one hour early, starting at 4am, on Friday, November 28th. The Friday after Thanksgiving, dubbed "Black Friday", is frequently a busy shopping day, and many stores open early with major "door-buster specials" to get crowds into the store.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Graham hopes the extra hour will help customers reach District shopping areas like DC USA in Columbia Heights. According to Graham, the extra hour will cost about $27,000.

At DC USA, Best Buy opens at 5:00 am on Friday. Target, Staples, and Radio Shack all open at 6.


Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar

During a recent trip to Seattle, I fed my transit craving by examining the city's fledgling South Lake Union Streetcar. There is more depth to this new streetcar system than just a crass acronym...

The South Lake Union Streetcar, with the Space Needle in the background.

Seattle built a streetcar here largely because of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who heavily invested in the South Lake Union neighborhood through his venture capital company, Vulcan Inc. Allen pushed for the line to jump-start revitalization of the area.

With support from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle created a public-private partnership finance the $52 million project. Service began on December 12, 2007 after 15 months of construction.

The route, stations, and maintenance facility. View larger map.

The route

The South Lake Union streetcar is a 2.6 mile, eleven stop loop, connecting downtown to the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods. The majority of the route follows Westlake Avenue, which is a wide two-way avenue with two lanes in each direction and metered parking on each side of the street. The Westlake segments are primarily at-grade tracks in each direction along the right-hand lane of traffic.

Sidewalk bulb-outs at the stations keep metered parking between the tracks and the curb, though there are exceptions. A four-block segment of the northbound route breaks off Westlake to follow the parallel Terry Avenue. Due to Terry's one way traffic pattern, stations appear on the left hand curb on Terry.

The Westlake and Terry Avenue tracks meet again at a dedicated ROW and station stop along the 12 acre waterfront Lake Union Park. Upon leaving the park, the route returns into mixed traffic. The line continues to its northernmost point along Fairview Avenue with a station stop in the median. When in mixed traffic, the tram travels slightly slower than cars or buses and waits at traffic lights like other vehicles.

The streetcar takes about 10 to 15 minutes to traverse the route. Fares are $1.75 for adults and $0.50 for children and seniors. A single ticket gets you unlimited travel in a two-hour travel window, rather than a single trip. The streetcar uses the honor system for payment, with the possibility that a fare inspector may ask for your ticket. One tram operates in each direction throughout the system's operating hours (6am to 9pm Monday through Thursday, 6am to 11pm Friday and Saturday, and 10am to 7pm Sunday).

At downtown end of the route is Westlake Center, a twenty-five story office tower and four story shopping center that also adjoins the southern terminus of the Seattle Monorail. Beneath the mall is a Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, which accommodates the city's metrobuses and eventually light rail. Within blocks of this station is Pacific Place, the Emerald city's version of Gallery Place, and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

As the route proceeds down the Westlake Avenue corridor, it travels through the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods that are both brimming with potential for economic development. Along the way a stop at Westlake & Denny Way serves the most impressive Whole Foods Market I've ever stepped inside of and the city's oldest park (Denny Park).

Economic development

The streetcar project is part of a larger transformation for the area north of Seattle's downtown.

The Denny Triangle, bounded by Fifth Avenue, Denny Way and Olive Way, has historically been a traffic funnel and sea of surface parking lots. Development has begun to seep from downtown into this underutilized land over the last decade. In 2006 the city council approved downtown rezoning south of Denny Way (map) that increased base height limits and outlined incentives for height bonuses (up to 500 ft) for developers that meet affordable housing and LEED standards. The rezoning placed intense development pressure on the area.

A big beneficiary of the rezoning is Clise Properties, which has amassed 12 contiguous acres that represent nearly all the land bordered by Denny Way and Fifth and Westlake avenues. Clise has changed directions and is looking to sell rather than build. Imagine a project with three times the land of Mount Vernon Place and about four times the height limit! Al Clise told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

[The full potential is] a thriving world-class development on par with New York's Rockefeller Center or London's Canary Wharf. We're a small, privately held company and for us to do it ourselves would be a very difficult task. I don't think we could do it in the time frame it needs to be done.
The potential for a downtown site this large is enormous, but it will require deep pockets in a climate where capital is tough to come by. It will be interesting to watch and I hope they don't settle for fracturing it into tiny projects.

For decades South Lake Union had been a light industrial and auto services oriented district with residences only in the Cascades section (east of Fairview). Paul Allen has worked with the city for infrastructure improvements including not only the streetcar, but a new substation, multi-space parking meters and street lighting. In return, his Vulcan Real Estate is transforming the area into a 24/7 mixed use community with office, residential and retail. Vulcan has put a special focus on making the corridor a biotechnology hub; tenants include Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Zymogenetics, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children's Hospital, and University of Washington Medicine. In December of 2007 online retailer Amazon announced that it will consolidate its vast Seattle operations into an 11 building urban campus spanning six blocks Vulcan has broken ground on the Amazon development and one can see cranes galore along Terry Avenue.

Seattle Streetcar Thumbnails
Visit the entire Flickr photo set.

Ridership and safety

Each streetcar can fit 140 riders (29 seated), which is more than double the capacity of the articulated buses in King County's standard fleet. Presently ridership has been exceeding the city's estimate of 950 riders per day or just 7.5% of the 12,600 capacity per day. In fact, the streetcar surpassed the estimated ridership for the first year (347,000) three months ahead of schedule. I believe those statistics are independent of the ridership from the inaugural first month when fares were free (video).

I explored the streetcar during the mid afternoon of a lazy Thursday. Traffic was light and cyclists few and far between. According to KUOW radio, five cyclists have raised litigation against the city because of accidents related to bike tires snagging on the street car tracks. Seattle has provided a bike lane on the parallel 9th street to address the concern. Lawyer Bob Anderton claims that the city was negligent to the risk the tracks impose on cyclists and that the city should have aligned the tracks in the left hand lane, leaving the right hand lane safe for bikes.

That would force all stations on two way streets to be in the median. Ethan Malone, streetcar program manager from SDOT, says that is a possibility for future lines. What do you think about this issue? I'm sure few care about the impact to automobiles of placing the tracks in the left hand lane, but what about forcing pedestrians/riders to the median strip? Another consequence of streetcars traveling in the left hand lane along the median is that it pushes the overhead wires further out into the street, often creating a nest effect.


Overall, I was impressed with the streetcar. It was a reliable, clean, safe and predictable form of transportation. The passenger information system that displays the wait time for the next tram was a tremendous asset. However, with a one way distance of just 1.3 miles, it doesn't span much pavement and at the moment is more of a people mover than great transit. It's a first step. This line needs to be extended to the University District while Seattle plans and prioritizes the rest of the network.


Zoning Commission nominee Keating supports Smart Growth and TOD

Unlike in many cities, the DC Council doesn't have the authority to review or influence zoning regulation changes or large-scale development projects. Instead, the Home Rule Act gives that power to the Zoning Commission, made up of three DC appointees and two federal representatives. Some feel this yields better results, isolated from politics and the corrupting effect of political contributions, while others say it's undemocratic, keeping the people's voice too far from important decisions.

Either way, DC's three-year appointments to the Zoning Commission are extremely important. Commissioner Curtis Etherly recently moved to Maryland, opening up his seat, and Mayor Fenty has appointed William Keating, President of DC-based Urban Service Systems Corporation, which "provides trash, transportation and construction services in the metropolitan area" with a "current focus on providing environmentally friendly solutions... such as food composting and waste energy solutions." Keating has a bachelor's from Dartmouth and an MBA from Harvard.

Keating was one of six nominees Fenty submitted for UDC's Board of Trustees, which the Council has blocked. Fenty withdrew Keating's UDC nomination when the Zoning Commission seat opened up.

On Wednesday, Chairman Gray held a confirmation hearing. Much of the discussion focused on whether any conflicts of interest might arise between Urban's contracts with the city and issues before the Zoning Commission. Keating assured Gray he would recuse himself when appropriate, and added that since most of Urban's city contracts come from competitive bidding, the administration has little opportunity to punish or reward Urban specifically.

On the policy issues before the Commission, Keating expressed a strong commitment to "using the space that we have wisely," especially to create housing and offices around Metro stations, and pushing for green buildings while remaining sensitive to individual communities' needs:

From his statements, it appears Keating would make a positive impact on the Zoning Commission and I hope the Council will confirm him promptly.


The Blue Line reroute, visualized

Commenter Reza pointed out Track Twenty-Nine's great visual diagram of the proposed Franconia-Greenbelt "blue line reroute". He shows each train in a 12-minute period as a separate line, making it easy to visualize the relative volume on each segment of Metro track before and after the proposed change.

Left: Current service. Right: Service under proposed changes. Click a diagram for larger version.

See the post for more details and an analysis of the relative time savings and costs (riders to L'Enfant should save an average of 9 minutes, while riders to Farragut West lose 6).

Open thread

Open thread

I have two posts which I just haven't been able to quite finish among various other tasks today. Meanwhile, what have you been reading that's worth discussing here on GGW?
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