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Posts from December 2008


Roger Lewis endorses three Beltways?

Washington Post Shaping the City columnist and UMD architecture professor emeritus Roger Lewis usually makes a valuable contribution to debates about our region. He supports less sprawling development patterns, plans to make Tysons a "real city", and the Purple Line. That's why I was shocked to hear him recommend not just completing the ICC, but three Beltways for the Washington area during today's Kojo Nnamdi show:

We don't want to be like Houston. From Blueprint for a Better Region.
The ICC is intended to create part of a larger network. I mean we've talked about how we really want a lattice system. Ideally what we should have in the metro Washington region is something that looks like a cobweb. We have the radials, we've got one of the circumferentials, we probably need three of them.

My hometown of Houston, they already built the second beltway. There's an inner loop and now there's an outer loop. The ICC is envisioned, I think, as a fragment, as a beginning of what might be in 100 years be a completed network where you can move circumferentially, or east-west, north-south as easily as you can move radially along the roads that vector out from the city. I think the Purple Line is also part of this. [Emphasis added]

You can hear it for yourself at 35:33 here.

Does Lewis really mean what he said today? Houston's beltways have created and cemented the sprawl that Lewis criticizes in his own columns. It's generated stifling commutes, destroyed millions of acres of open space, damaged the environment, and made us completely dependent on petroleum. Plus, we've learned over the last 50 years that building new freeways doesn't relieve traffic, it just induces more. More beltways would make our current problems ten times worse.

Left: developed areas in 2000. 74% of the region remained farm and forest. Right: projected development in 2030 if current trends continue. 800,000 acres, mostly in rural areas, would become developed. Images in Blueprint for a Better Region from Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Purple Line advocates often talk about the value of making our transit system a network, lattice, or cobweb, instead of just a hub-and-spoke system, the phrases Lewis was repeating. Today, it's impossible to go from Silver Spring to Bethesda to Tysons by rail, depriving many of a real transit alternative to driving. Lewis has himself explained this wisdom on past shows using those terms. But highways aren't the same. We already have the lattice or cobweb in the form of our streets. In fact, really building a good cobweb involves providing many parallel roads instead of just one.

Lewis talked about completing a system. Not all systems are created equal. Earlier in the show, they discussed the last century's "freeway revolts", where citizens rose up against completing the freeway system because they'd realized that having that system was not the right direction for our metropolitan areas. The ICC is indeed part of a system, but an extremely dangerous, destructive, and foolhardy system.

Does Lewis really believe "we probably need three [beltways]"? Say it ain't so, Roger!



My wish for the holidays: development review filings online

One of the most important and contentions issues in any community is new development. ANCs spend a great deal of time discussing development proposals. We discuss them extensively, along with the zoning and historic preservation implications, on Greater Greater Washington. Several key boards make the big decisions in the District of Columbia. Yet it's still extremely difficult to get a look at the materials these boards review to make their decisions.

Photo by countrygal845 on Flickr.

The Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment make zoning policy in DC. The Zoning Commission reviews Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), along with zoing regulation changes, while the BZA reviews every request for a zoning variance. Anyone seeking a PUD or variance files plans with the Office of Zoning, which are public. But to see them, you have to go in person to 441 4th St and pay to photocopy the materials.

In addition to the developer's filings, the Office of Zoning gathers written testimony from the Office of Planning, DDOT, the fire marshal, MPD, the Department of the Environment, ANCs, civic groups, and individuals. The Officce of Planning does a good jbo putting most of their reports online after they send them to the Office of Zoning, but few others do. That means that unless someone is willing to trek downtown every few days to look for new filings, they have to ask the ANCs, DDOT, etc. for their letters individually.

This is silly. The Office of Zoning already makes lots of copies of everything to send to the developer, ANC, OP, DDOT, and the other agencies. They could instead simply scan everything to a Web site that organizes all filings by case, and then email notifications to the agencies and ANCs. The site could even let individuals sign up for notifications of individual projects, or any projects in an ANC, Ward, or citywide. This would save paper, staff time photocopying and mailing, and most of all, enable residents to know what's happening around the city and more easily participate in the process.

The Historic Preservation Review Board likewise has enormous influence over dedvelopment, but seeing the materials they use in their decision requires a trip to the Historic Preservation Office. They do post staff reports a few days to a week before each hearing, but by then most of the deecisions were already made; for historic review, a proposal often goes to HPO staff months before HPRB will see it, wherein staff negotiate with the developer to improve the project. Meanwhile, the rest of us have little opportunity to see what's been proposed and make comments. Nor are landmark applications posted online.

Finally, there's the Public Space Committee, which is least transparent of the four. Their Web "site" doesn't even list the members of the committee, nor the agendas for meetings, nor the decisions made. Members of the public can ask to join an email list where agendas and decisions are posted, but I emailed the specified address ( six weeks ago and never heard back. Folks within DDOT advised me to contact the specific staff member ( individually. Unlike the Office of Zoning and HPRB, according to Felder, the Public Space applications, agency reports, and ANC letters aren't even open to the public to view on paper; one must file a FOIA request to see them.

Let's fix this. It's not hard. The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) can create a system to hold all of these filings and provide notifications to agencies and individuals. The administration can instruct the Office of Zoning, HPO, and Public Space to put every incoming document into the appropriate case's folder. We can save staff time and photocopying expenses, and open up development plans and their review to citizens.

Here's a table of the boards and which information is currently available online. We can and should easily turn this entire table into 'Yes'es.

Office of Zoning (ZC & BZA) Historic Preservation Public Space Committee
Submissions PUDs (ZC): No
Variances etc. (BZA): No
Permits: No
Landmark nominations: No
ANC & individual comments No No No*
DDOT comments No N/A No*
Office of Planning comments Usually posted by OP N/A No*
Other agency comments No N/A No*
List of members Yes Yes No
Meeting agendas Yes Yes Email list only
Votes & orders Yes Yes Email list only
Transcripts Yes No No

* These documents are not even available for in-person review but require a FOIA submission.

Update: Office of Zoning's Sara Bardin says:

The Office of Zoning is already in the process of creating the online system you refer to in your article. The Interactive Zoning Information System (IZIS) will allow the public to follow a case from filing to completion online. We will be holding focus groups to test the technology this year, and plan on releasing it in FY 2010.
Hooray! I hope that OZ will build something that HPO and Public Space can also utilize for their components of the development review process.


Montgomery County: America in microcosm

Montgomery County, and most of the Washington region, is far from typical of the United States in many ways. Both Montgomery County and the region as a whole have higher education and income levels than the nation on average, and even the less affluent parts of the county have a median income that is well above the national median income. However, on land use, the county is grappling with the very same issues as many other communities throughout the United States.

Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, from MNCPPC-Montgomery

Two weeks ago, Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson told the Montgomery County Civic Federation that the county "needs to adopt an urban development model to handle growth, demographic changes and a diminishing supply of developable land." Many inner suburban communities throughout the nation are grappling with questions about how to plan for future growth. Most would like to preserve some agricultural land uses, as Montgomery has with the Agricultural Reserve. Most would like to preserve some undeveloped land. At the same time, most would like grow their tax base to keep up with increasing demand for services. It's impossible to maintain agriculture and undeveloped land and continue to expand a tax base using car-dependent development patterns. But many residents of Montgomery County, and counties throughout the nation, also resist a shift toward denser, more walkable development.

Montgomery County is ahead of most of the other inner suburban counties in the United States because of its wealth, its legacy pre-World War II towns, and its eleven Metro stations, plus two more on the DC border. Those elements conditions allowed the county to construct Bethesda at a time when most of the nation (and the rest of the county) was building edge cities. Just as it took a lot of political will to change the zoning and create tax incentives for smart growth in Bethesda, it will also take a lot of political will for the next generation of suburban-to-urban retrofits around the White Flint, Twinbrook, Shady Grove, and Glenmont Metro stations. In Montgomery, and in the nation at large, necessity will be the mother of invention. From the Gazette article:

As planners work to create a new growth policy recommendation for the council to enact next year, Hanson says they need to rethink and reinvent the way development is planned and put less emphasis on roads because little more traffic capacity is likely to be added after the Intercounty Connector and Montrose Parkway, now under construction, are built. ...

"Time and costs of commuting and home maintenance are making big homes on big lots in the exurbs out of favor, [Senior Vice President Stephen] Nardella [of single-family house developer Winchestor Homes] said."

"Drive 'til you qualify" was okay when that drive was ten miles. It's not so great when that drive is 50 miles. Will Montgomery County and other communities across the nation muster the political will to build something different from the traditional exurban housing developments as they grow?

Earlier this month, the Montgomery County Council approved an Avalon Bay development on the northern border of downtown Wheaton. The project will include 310 housing units and a new modern Safeway, which will move from its current location at the intersection of Reedie Drive and Georgia Avenue, above the Metro Station. Moving the Safeway will greatly improve downtown Wheaton, and the housing units in the development will be attractive to prospective buyers while the store will have a large customer base in close proximity.

Still, before approving the project, the County Council reduced the density from 100 units per acre to 50 and then again to 40. "Montgomery County can't decide whether it wants to be urban or suburban," said Councilmember Nancy Floreen (at-large). Perhaps Floreen herself can't decide, either:

"I think the vast majority of residents bought into a suburban lifestyle, [and] some of these planning initiatives are urban and require massive amounts of infrastructure," she said. "The real frontier in Montgomery County is in paying for these changes," and with the economy slumping it is "not the ideal time to address that," Floreen said, although she agrees with much of what Hanson is advocating. ...

It takes political will to make such a change [for higher density], and usually surrounding communities oppose higher density, [Hanson] said.

Some of that political will means resisting the arguments of nearby residents who argue, as they successfully did recently in Kensington Heights and Rockville, that three-story townhouses or four-story apartments will "tower" over their homes and "destroy" their neighborhoods.

Our nation had a big suburbia party (except no one came because no one knew their neighbors) these past six decades. We're now starting to feel the effects of the hangover, such as a lack of affordable housing near jobs, foreign oil addiction, and an exponential acceleration of open land being paved over.

Montgomery County has been creating the blueprint for other suburban jurisdictions to follow in order to assure their own long-term viability. It is slowly (and I do mean slowly) coming to terms with the fact that it is no longer some sort of fringe bedroom community. It is an economic dynamo and home to a couple of centers of culture and vitality that rival the downtowns of some American "cities." However, I fear that Montgomery, and most of the other suburban jurisdictions across the United States, won't have the political will to stand up to all the super-local selfish interests until it's too late.



Metro endorses openness for schedule data

At Thursday's board meeting, I spoke about Google Transit and the broader issues of communication at Metro. Chief Administrative Officer Emeka Moneme stated unequivocally that Metro agrees with the principle of making schedule data available beyond just

Photo by sudama on Flickr.
Board Chair Chris Zimmerman of Arlington: Is it your view that this is potentially a very valuable thing for this agency, to be able to conclude some kind of deal with Google?

Moneme: I'll be even broader ... it's not necessarily about working with Google, that's one of the many partners that we think we could work with. ... Making our information available for whomever out there that does manipulation of information to make or create applications, for example, for people's PDAs, having a relationship with them would be good not just for us, but for our ridership and for the region. So it's a direction we want to move in.

Zimmerman: So your goal is to be able to get information as broadly available as possible through whatever devices our [riders] are using?

M: Absolutely, whether we do it ourselves of our own volition, through our website, or with a partner that can provide that service.

Congratulations to the 774 people (and counting) who signed the petition! You've made a big impact. Metro has agreed in principle that making this information available to all is a goal. The campaign generated some even generated some major press stories, and got the attention of at least three Maryland state legislators. One, Bill Frick of Bethesda, followed up with a letter to WMATA General Manager John Catoe:
As the Washington region prepares to host as many as 3 to 4 million visitors this January, it is in all of our interests to disseminate information about public transit options as quickly as possible.

Based on public statements by WMATA officials, the Authority is withholding this data principally in order to extract or protect ad revenue that it believes would inure to Google's benefit. This is myopic. WMATA is not in the online advertising business. It is in the transportation business. Inclusion in Google Transit will help WMATA perform this core function for many more individuals—and, it bears noting, increase fare collections as a result.

I urge you to reconsider your position.

Still, we have to keep pushing Metro to turn this general principle into action. Moneme didn't actually endorse releasing the data to anyone without cost. By couching his statement in the language of "working with partners," he kept the door open to requirements that any such partner pay, negotiate detailed contracts, meet any technical demands, and more. Bureaucratic organizations often prefer this deal-oriented, tightly-controlled route, but that impedes real innovation, which might come from an individual without the time or resources to negotiate a complex agreement with WMATA.

Moneme justified this control as a way to ensure accuracy:

Zimmerman: Is the kind of thing you're concerned about, that if people use these services to get information which they believe comes from the transit agency and is reliable, if there's some problem with that and they encounter difficulties on an individual basis which they then attribute to us ... Are these the kinds of things we're talking about?

Moneme: Absolutely. Any information that is related to riding our system, we believe impacts our brand, so we want to make sure it's accurate, that it gets people to where they need to get to in the most efficient manner, provides them with accurate information about the costs or price of our services. That's essentially the bar or standard that we want to make sure we achieve.

Innovation can be a messy thing, sometimes, and even a little bit scary. New tools make far more information available to individuals, but sometimes at the cost of accuracy. Online maps sometimes have the wrong addresses for businesses. The Web sometimes convinces a person of incorrect information. But taking away the information isn't the answer.

These arguments on both sides follow very familiar open systems vs. closed control lines. Mobile phone carriers long argued against letting developers build applications freely, as they can on conventional computers, arguing that they were "protecting the network". When the World Wide Web was in its infancy, online services like Prodigy and, later, AOL claimed that the controlled, managed environment they created was better for users. Users disagreed. Metro's reluctance to allow innovation that they don't control is similarly shortsighted.

We've made a lot of progress in just one week. From refusing to even talk about Google Transit, to arguing that riders should only use the Metro trip planner, to seeing schedule data as a revenue opportunity instead of a service to riders, WMATA officials now acknowledge that greater availability and openness is their goal. They're never going to move with Internet speed, but we can continue to push and encourage them to move faster than typical bureaucracy speed. The 774 individuals who signed the petition moved this issue forward one huge step.



Looking under LaHood

Many advocates worry that Transportation Secretary nominee Ray LaHood doesn't understand the link between transportation and climate change, and that perhaps Obama doesn't either.

Photo from Jason Broehm.
"Obama still hasn't made the transportation - land use - climate connection," Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association's America 2050 program said. "It's clear he's thinking about these things in separate categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the transportation secretary was nowhere to be found. ...

Said a former Federal Transit Administration official, "He's got a horrible environmental record, he's bad on climate change and he's Caterpillar's bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?" Many feel that former F.A.A. chief Jane Garvey would have been the better choice.

Matt Yglesias ponders that perhaps expectations for an amazing Secretary of Transportation were unreasonably high:
A lot of this comes down to the expectations game. If you put LaHood side-by-side with Frederico Pena or Rodney Slater, I see a guy who seems at least as good as the appointees we got from the last Democratic president but who also has ties to the Hill that could be useful and fills a slot as a Republican. If you put LaHood side-by-side with my ideal vision of a committed urbanist and transportation reformer like Janette Sadik-Khan, LaHood looks terrible.
And Obama mentioned both mass transit and (recreational) bicycling in his speech introducing LaHood:
Throughout his career, Ray has fought to improve mass transit and invest in our highways. But he has not only helped rebuild our landscape, he has helped beautify it by creating opportunities for bikers and runners to enjoy our great outdoors. When I began this appointment process, I said I was committed to finding the best person for the job, regardless of party. Ray's appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit—a spirit we need to reclaim in this country to make progress for the American people.
In acceepting the nomination, LaHood addeed, "As a nation, we need to continue to be the world leader in infrastructure development, Amtrak, mass transit, light rail, air travel, and our roads and bridges all play a vital role in our economy and our well-being as a nation." On the other hand, he later called the federal transportation spending bill the "Highway Bill":
A hallmark of my career has been my work with our local and state leaders as we have improved the infrastructure of Illinois. I've served on the House Transportation and infrastructure committee as we reauthorize the Federal Highway Bill. I understand first hand what good infrastructure and transportation means to communities, and understand it is the local folks who know best their transportation needs. We'll bring that same approach to the Department of Transportation.
The bill mostly has funded highways in the past, but advocates hope to push for a much more progressive bill in 2009. Calling it the "Highway Bill" is already framing the issue in completely the wrong way.

On a broader note, a lot of commentators are playing up this narrative about "Obama supporters feeling betrayed." Obama will do some good things, and some bad things. Any President would have. During the election, the task was to decide if we liked Obama or not. Now, the task is to persuade him and his staff, through advocacy, education, criticism and praise, to do the right thing. We should neither blindly accept anything Obama does, nor write him off in a fit of pique. He's a politician, and we must treat him like one, for better and worse.



Maryland and Virginia trade places

Virginia has made huge strides in smart development and transportation policies in recent years, just as Maryland has taken huge leaps in the opposite direction. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening gets credit for coining the term "Smart Growth", and DC's progressive Planning director Harriet Tregoning used to run Maryland's Smart Growth cabinet. But today, Virginia seems to be where it's really at on Smart Growth policies.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

Fairfax supervisors are pushing to adopt of the zoning changes that would transform Tysons into a walkable, mixed-use area around future Metro stations. Meanwhile, Montgomery County seems to be trying to build a Tysons-sized "science city" out in Gaithersburg, with dim prospects at best for transit.

Virginia is also ahead of Maryland on transportation, as BeyondDC points out. Today, the Post reported a new round of transportation cuts in the Virginia budget, including the second phase of the I-66 widening (though not the first phase). But transit funding actually rose, from $2.7 billion to $2.8 billion, as many (but not all) sprawl-inducing road projects got the ax.

In fact, according to the AP, Virginia officials even want to expand intercity passenger rail from Richmond and Lynchburg to Washington, DC. Meanwhile, while Maryland could still save billions by canceling the ICC, most politicians there are keeping their heads in the sand no matter how dire their budget becomes.

Arlington has always led the region in transit-first thinking. As the rest of Northern Virginia has grown, walkable areas expanded, and traffic worsened, Virginians and their leaders are waking up to the value of transit-oriented smart growth. Maryland, on the other hand, talks a good game but its actions leave it stuck in the mud.



Public Space Committee says Shell, No

Capping a very long hearing yesterday, DC's Public Space Committee agreed with resident opposition and denied the public space permit for a new Shell gas station at 14th Street and Maryland Avenue, NE. This site is around the corner from the revitalizing H Street corridor, and within a few blocks of two other gas stations. Echoing the "livable, walkable" mantra, several residents talked about how another gas station is not right for the community and not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

1400 Maryland Ave, NE. Photo by Shell, No!

The Public Space Committee, which comprises representatives from DDOT, the Office of Planning, DCRA, and others, doesn't get to decide whether the owners can operate a gas station, but can decide how the station might use public space. Current zoning in this area allows gas stations as a "special exception", which the Board of Zoning Adjustment decides. The Public Space Committee reviews any use of public space, including the public park(ing) area between the sidewalk and the property line. On Washington's original L'Enfant diagonal avenues, such as Maryland Avenue, this public park(ing) area is particularly wide. And the owners want to pave or repave most of the public space surrounding their proposed gas station.

Fortunately for opponents of the project, Public Space Committee members found plenty of negative impacts from this proposal on the public space. Chairman Matthew Marcou focused the discussion quickly on some of the key issues. While the owners may currently have the right to let vehicles cut across the public space to access the property to and from the street, cars would also drive on the public space to circulate around the pumps and queue up to pump gas. Also, the pumps are close enough to the property line that many cars would partially sit on public space while filling up. Marcou also pointed out flaws in truck circulation, the size and height of the proposed sign, and the wide driveways.

(Marcou, by the way, repeatedly mentioned that he uses Zipcar instead of having his own car. Sometimes he brought it up in amusing ways, such as when discussing the sizes of various vehicles, where he said, "I'm a member of Flexcar [now Zipcar], so I own thousands of vehicles.")

Many other gas stations in DC do share these same flaws, but those are grandfathered and don't conform to current standards. Office of Planning's representative on Public Space, Chris Shaheen, also laid out a case why this area is different than, say, upper Wisconsin Avenue. He explained how the public park(ing) area creates a "sequence of open spaces" which L'Enfant-era planners expected to be landscaped, not paved. In particular, Shaheen argued, along avenues like Maryland, the public park(ing) connects small triangular parks and leads to the Capitol. Therefore, we should consider this public space as part of a public park network.

The applicant's attorney, Richard Aguglia, argued that DC needs more gas stations. Aguglia said that the number of stations fell from 277 at some point in the past (I didn't write down the exact date) to 130 in 2002, and further since; after the ballpark opened, more gas stations closed nearby. "DC needs a gas station at this location," he argued. The Council even considered, but rejected, a measure years ago to create tax incentives for new gas stations. But the owner of some nearby stations testified that he sells much less gas (25,000 gallons a month) than in the past. The drop in gas stations isn't a bad thing. People are driving less, commuters prefer to just get their gas in the suburbs, and we can now utilize land in DC in much better ways than with suburban gas stations.

Aguglia also said that any other use of the property, like a 2-3 story building, would occupy more of the lot and lack space for parking. That's true, but makes the logical leap that another use needs on-site parking. A garden shop or daycare center, some of the alternate uses neighbors have suggested, could do fine with just street parking, assuming our zoning laws allowed it. Thinking that a gas station is the best use of a small lot, because other uses require parking while the gas station only requires paving over the public space, is a very gas-station-oriented view of our city.

The property owners can now redesign their proposal to use less public space, if they choose, though they would have to significantly shrink the station to fit everything on the property. They also might appeal the ruling, an eventuality the ANC's lawyer, Richard Luna, warned about. Or, perhaps they will simply find a more "livable, walkable" business to establish on this property to better serve the H Street neighborhood.



Breakfast links: Enhancements and losses

Bicycle safety enhanced: Among the many controversial items at Tuesday's legislative session (like parking meters, bar hours, and handgun safety), the Bicycle Safety Enhancement Act sailed through the DC Council quickly and quietly. Once re-passed on second reading and once Congress gets its chance to meddle, motorists will have to pass cyclists with at least three feet of space and receive a fine if they drive in bike lanes or bus-bike lanes.

Photo by MatthewBradley on Flickr.

The bill also requires side guards and bike safety training for DC-owned trucks, though much of that will have to wait for budget appropriations. With the current budget crunch, don't hold your breath for funding for that part of the bill.

Comment on 15th Street: Today is the last day for public comments on DDOT's fifth alternative creating a contraflow bike lane on 15th Street. Send your comments to Chris Ziemann, And I hope your comments will endorse the idea.

Pro-rail conservative Weyrich dies: Paul Weyrich was the leading conservative proponent of rail transit. He lost a long battle with diabetes at the age of 66. According to USA Today, his last column, as many others of his, promoted light rail: "'It is the best of times because the 22nd city opens a light-rail system this December,' he wrote. 'It is the worst of times because the Bush administration has turned down 70 some cities which want light rail or streetcars."

Metro approves rush-hour fares and parking fees: The WMATA board approved a proposal to charge for parking on Inauguration. People will be able to pay with cash. According to the Post, parking will cost $4 because making it $5, while easier for customers, would require public hearings. They will also charge rush-hour fares and run rush-hour service from 4 am to 9 pm.

The shrinking Mall: The Post writes about the areas around the White House and Capitol no longer open to the public since 2001, like the west steps of the Capitol. The Ellipse feels like a military base, and thanks to the bizarre anthrax scare, First Street is closed around House and Senate buildings forcing the N22 on a very circuitous route. Will we ever be able to reexamine these barricades and restore some public spaces around our government buildings for the public?



British officials push modernism, call traditional architecture "pastiche"

PedShed's Laurence Aurbach sent over this great article in the UK's Building magazine about "pastiche." Apparently, people in Britain are much more hostile to traditional buildings than here in the 'States', with many towns adopting laws saying that "[New building] proposals that provide a pastiche ... should be discouraged", and "someone senior in English Heritage [a UK preservation group] announces that there's 'no contest' between 'good modern design and pastiche.'"

Photo(s) by fredlet on Flickr.

Robert Adam, the article's author, writes what seems blindly obvious to most of us yet eludes some in the architectural profession:

In the dictionary, pastiche is "a composition made up of bits of other works or imitations of another's style". If this sounds bad, why? Sometime in the 20th century we got the strange idea that for art to be modern it has to be unlike anything done before. This is, of course, ridiculous. All art is based on ideas, influences and bits from other artists.

[In architecture], avoiding "imitation of another's style" would mean that you couldn't do something good because someone had already done it. This would not only be impossible; it would be stupid. You might just avoid being condemned as a pasticheur if you do a perfect copy, but try and be creative with tradition and your work will be consigned to a special dustbin. Except for a few periods, such as neoclassicism, architects of the past didn't make replicas. They got their inspiration from different parts of history, mixed them up with ideas around at the time and made them into something new.

On this side of the pond, Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham's criticism of the 350 Boyston St proposal sounds a lot like these pastiche-crusading Brits. I don't particularly love that building, but react so negatively to calling anything a "generic genuflection to 19th-century architecture" as if incorporating any elements that worked in the 19th century is an architectural sin.

Adam continues:

"Pastiche" has just become a dumb shorthand that says "traditional architecture is bad" and "to be modern you have to keep reinventing the wheel". But when the government announce that they will be "giving good design the same status as sustainability" how will the bureaucrats interpret something as woolly as this? The bigots have already given them the tools.
At the recent panel on modernism Theodore Prudon of US DOCOMOMO said that Americans participate much more in preservation, while Europeans tend to leave the decisions to experts and government officials. It sounds like the backlash against modernism has progressed much farther on this side of the Atlantic. Hooray for the American democratic spirit.


Google Transit is not about the $68,000, it's about openness

The Examiner got a few more details from WMATA on Tuesday about the Google Transit issue. They make $68,000 per year from ads on, which is a pittance. DCist commenter Mainland pointed out that this comes to $186 per day. Surely Metro would get at least $186 per day in additional fare revenue from making it easier for people to find routes and schedules.

With permission from {ryan} on Flickr.

At today's Metro Board meeting, the staff will brief the Board on this issue. Unfortunately, they're doing it in executive session, so the public still doesn't get to participate in any sort of dialogue with them about this except through the petition. That's the thrust of what I plan to say during the allowed two minutes for public comment at the meeting:

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Board,

My name is David Alpert and I live in Washington DC. I run Greater Greater Washington .org, and along with Michael Perkins organized the Google Transit petition which generated 746 letters this past week.

These 746 people are baffled by Metro's resistance to releasing schedule data. But more importantly, they are frustrated by Metro's stonewalling on this and many other issues. We have tried to engage with you by emailing staff, speaking during public comment, and submitting PARP requests, but to no avail. Metro's culture seems inherently resistant to cooperation.

I realize that you are all very busy, and that everyone among the public fashions himself a transit expert. But Metro is a public agency, and the public deserves some way to have a dialogue with you. Yet even emails to the Board of Directors email address don't actually go to the Board.

Only after we did this petition did Metro staff finally explain their reasoning on Google Transit. We disagree, but at least now we can begin a real discussion. I was disappointed that some insinuated Google was behind the petition. They were not.

It's not just about Google Transit or $68,000 in ad revenue, but about openness of information. We should make this data available to all who can build even more innovative tools, like those built for DC CTO's Apps for Democracy contest. Sadly, Metro's culture is even less "open source" than it is open to communication.

I know that some of you didn't like receiving emails directly. I want to assure you that I considered this petition a last resort. After it became clear that the emails had made their point, I stopped them going to you individually. I hope we can address future issues without recourse to this messy method.

I like to praise Metro when you do a good job, like on the rush hour fares for Inauguration, and I've lobbied for your priority bus corridor plan. I hope that you will see last week's email barrage not as a nuisance but as an opportunity to hear the public's frustration and see the need for a new culture of openness and cooperation at Metro. I look forward to working with each of you to improve transit in our region.

Thank you, and I would be happy to answer any questions.

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