The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts from February 2008


Pay-as-you-drive insurance

One obstacle to transit ridership is that cars are mostly a sunk cost. Once you've already paid for the car or car loan, registration, insurance, maintenance, etc., the incremental cost of driving the car more is small (though growing, as gas prices rise). The variable costs are also largely hidden: you pay for gas ahead of time, not when you make the drive vs. train decision, and pay for maintenance later. Meanwhile, you pay per-ride for transit, unless you live in a city like New York with unlimited-ride options.

Pay-as-you-drive insurance would reduce the sunk-cost effect and is just farirer, argues Jason Bordoff in Democracy. It's simple: base insurance rates on miles driven, since the more you drive, the more the risk. As with VMT fees, a few advances in technology to make it feasible would enable the costs of driving to be fairly tied to actual driving.


14th and U project moving forward

Yesterday, the HPRB approved the general form of the proposed project on the southwest corner of 14th and U. Almost everyone who testified, as well as the HPRB staff and board members, were pleased with the improvements that architect Eric Colbert made to the project since the initial sketches.

The rear of the building, away from 14th Street, is 7 stories on the southern end and 10 on the northern (the U Street end), including a portion that will overhang the historic brick rowhouses on U (first picture below). The front of the building on 14th will replace the ugly non-historic fast-food chains and parking lot (second and third picture) with a mostly three-story front portion as well as two taller towers toward the U Street end.

What disagreement existed revolved around three issues: the size of the building, symmetry in the northern towers, and the curb cut on 14th Street for the parking entrance.

Ramon Estrada of the ANC was most vehement in his opposition to the project's size, asking for five stories in the south and seven in the north. But he was the only voice strongly pushing for a reduction; the HPRB staff and board agreed that the project as conceived, about the same height as the storage building in the north and an apartment building on T Street in the south, is generally in keeping with the neighborhood. The preservation groups who testified also offered little objection. Chairman Tersh Boasberg pointed out that the board's "touchstone" is the zoning, which allows for a building of that height. The board can ensure the building is "compatible" with the existing historic district, and the consensus was that it achieved compatibility.

The meeting also achieved an entertaining debate about "balance" or "symmetry" between the two northern towers. The staff report praised the "symmetry" of the southern end and recommended greater "balance" if not actual duplication between the two taller northern towers. But then, Patrick Burkhart of the DC Preservation League actually suggested less symmetry, perhaps a one-story height difference between the two. Anne Lewis came down generally in favor of asymmetry, Calcott clarified that he was asking for "balance" rather than "symmetry," and everyone had a good laugh about the debate over an issue that in the end is fairly minor.

Finally, the board clearly expressed their disinterest in debating the issue of the curb cut on 14th, which they don't approve of. Cheryl Cort testified on behalf of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association as opposing any parking entrance on 14th Street, while Phyllis Klein, who lives in the alley behind the site, pleaded again to move the parking entrance so that only loading would take place in the alley. Cort argued that removing the Dominos pizza delivery as planned would significantly improve alley traffic.

The curb cut question is in the hands of DDOT now and a traffic study; as I've said, I think that the best way to mitigate this concern is by reducing the parking. With less parking, there is less traffic, meaning the alley impact might be reduced if the garage entrance goes in the back. If Klein and others succeed in their efforts to move it to the front, the garage entrance will still harm the street-level appearance and feel of the block, but less parking would at least reduce the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts that result.

Ultimately, the most important issue is that this project should get built. However historically compatible the building will be—and more is better—the ugly fast-food buildings, check cashing, and car dealership are a blight on the otherwise vibrant area. We should build this to bring more retail and residents to a very transit-accessible area, and ensure that the parking lot doesn't remain so long that it itself would become historic.


Parking review part 2: But for spillover, we all agree

In my earlier parking post, I concluded with this key slide from the Nelson\Nygaard presentation that kicked off the zoning review process (at right). The minimums in the zoning code operate on the premise that since some people will drive and park, we need to provide parking. If we don't, they'll park on the street, interfering with residents. Therefore, we must require enough parking to handle the peak demand, which means that most of the time, there is too much.

Even in dense, transit-oriented areas, some parking is necessary. But just the street parking might be enough, or private pay lots nearby can serve. Maybe the developer will decide to build some underground spaces. But should we ever force them to build more? Which answer people gave to this question at the parking zoning review meeting came down to one question: whether they believe we can effectively manage on-street parking.

Especially in areas where denser commercial development adjoins lower-density residential (which is a lot of the city), the current residential parking rules don't ensure spaces are available for residents, because anyone can park for two hours for free during the day and as long as they want at night. On the other hand, imagine that (to go to an extreme) all streets were restricted to residents of the nearby few blocks only. In that case, there'd be no need to force a commercial developer to build parking. If they want their shoppers to have a place to park, they can pay to build it. If they think shoppers will arrive by Metro, they won't. They'll determine a mix that's probably lower than what we have today.

We're not going to prohibit anyone but residents from parking on residential streets, but I believe we can do almost as well with parking demand management. With a combination of stricter limits and charging nonresidents for parking on the street, like that proposed for the ballpark and Columbia Heights, people who are visiting an area can make a simple choice: drive, and pay a market rate to park, or don't drive. The market rate will ensure some availability, so residents can get spaces. In that case, even the staunchest advocates of more parking at the zoning review agreed that there would no longer be a need for parking minimums.

How about parking maximums? There was surprising consensus here too, at least in some areas. Where a zone is defined as "transit-oriented," however that is exactly determined (which future zoning review working groups and DC agencies will decide), everyone agreed to take the "aggressive" approach, of setting some maximum for the amount of parking that can be built, and utilizing other tools like shared parking, in-lieu fees, unbundling, and more.

We also agreed about utilizing some of these other tools along with a dual parking minimum and maximum in non-transit-oriented mixed-use areas. These areas tend to be more car-oriented, but also walkable, so a balance is important. The consultants suggested an approach similar to what Arlington uses on Columbia Pike (currently served only by buses): a minimum, but one that can be served by shared parking, and a maximum on reserved parking. Reserved parking is parking dedicated only to a single business; Shared parking, as the name suggests, allows customers from multiple businesses to use the same parking. By pushing shared parking and capping reserved parking, you avoid situations like that I often encountered on El Camino in Palo Alto, where a restaurant's lot would be jammed to capacity while the nearby liquor store's was nearly empty, filled with signs forbidding anyone but that store's customers from parking there.


Parking review part 1: Parking choices matter

Which kind of city do we want DC to be in the future?

Left: 27th and O in Georgetown. Right: 7th and O in Shaw.

Driving-oriented versus pedestrian-oriented streets. Source: Nelson\Nygaard presentation

Our parking policy decisions decide which city we will be.

According to our current zoning, if the typical townhouse burned down tomorrow, it would have to be rebuilt with more space for parking, even in dense areas. The land under my building, with about 12 units, is probably not even big enough for the parking lot that the zoning code would demand. Our zoning requirements, mostly dating from the 1950s, assume most people will drive, and force new buildings to contain large parking lots, which makes driving cheaper compared to transit and spreads out the development, encouraging more driving.

The average American family spends 19% of their income on transportationgetting to and from work, school, friends, and activities. Out in the most auto-dependent exurban regions, this jumps to a whopping 25%. But in transit-oriented areas, transportation is only 9% of the total pie, leaving up to 14% more money—tens of thousands of dollars a year per family—for other needs.

The parking zoning review working group saw this information and more from Nelson\Nygaard at the kickoff meeting a week ago. Rob Goodspeed wrote a great article on it as well. What turned out to be the key question for the group was this slide: "If spillover effects can be prevented by other means, minimums become unnecessary." Can they? On this, not everyone agrees. I'll go into more detail in the next post.


Skybridges don't make the connection

It sounds simple and appealing. Your city has a major road with a lot of traffic, but city planners and citizens want to make it more pedestrian-friendly, encouraging more walkable stores in place of purely big box strip development. How about pedestrian overpasses? With a walkway, people can cross in complete safety and not interfere with the existing traffic. You can even build new stores with entrances on the second level, so that people can walk directly from stores on one side of the street to the other. What could be wrong with that?

Vision of the future from GM's "To New
Horizons" exhibit at the 1969 World's
A lot, actually. This was a topic of discussion and disagreement at Wednesday's Rockville Pike community meeting. One member of our table, a former urban planner, felt very strongly that new development should not impede the existing traffic, and heavily used at-grade crosswalks would indeed slow down traffic. The solution, he argued, was a system of pedestrian overpasses.

But skybridges connecting retail above the street simply don't work, and many cities are actually removing the ones they built in the 1970s. Elevated walkways as an urban design (or even suburban design) element are one of those 1960s ideas that, like ubiquitous freeways criss-crossing the city center and single-use zoning, we now realize to be detrimental to a well-functioning city. In fact, elevated sidewalks were one of the centerpieces of the "To New Horizons" film by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair that inspired a generation of Americans toward a shiny future that ended up destroying their cities. (Fast forward to about 20 minutes in to hear about the skybridges.)

Freeways, skybridges follow a similar principle: we should separate uses. "Put the people with the people. Put the business with the business. Put the industry with the industry." Separate the cars from the people so the cars can go fast and the people stay safe. But as we now know thanks to Jane Jacobs and others, separation is dangerous. Separation means there are fewer "eyes on the street" in any one place. Pedestrian overpasses in Minneapolis make the sidewalks more dangerous. Overpasses themselves can be dangerous, keeping people enclosed in a small space that may be empty much of the day and an appealing spot for crime.

Skybridges also foster less public investment in the street. After all, if people are supposed to cross upstairs, we don't need those crosswalks any more. Maybe we can get rid of this light. How about an extra turn lane in front of this new complex? Wouldn't traffic move better with a flyover ramp in addition to the walkway? And before you know it, the street that was formerly a suburban arterial has practically turned into a freeway—the exact opposite of the boulevard citizens want. Once you take away pedestrians, there's no reason to engineer what remains for pedestrians, and the cycle of auto dependency gets deeper.

That's particularly bad because people often don't use skybridges even when they are there. Pedestrians generally don't want to climb two flights of stairs on each end just to cross a street; they will take the shortest path. When leaving the meeting, I crossed the Pike at Bouic Avenue, where there is no crosswalk, instead of trekking a whole (long) block north, out of my way, to Halpine Road which is farther from the Metro. After all, I only had to cross three lanes, then wait at the island, and cross three more.

A 1960s city planner would say that means we need a fence to keep pedestrians off the street. A 21st century city planner would say that means we need a crosswalk, a traffic light, and a better pedestrian refuge in the median. People will walk across the street whether there are elevated walkways or not. The best thing we can do is design the street for it, balancing the pedestrians with the traffic so neither is unduly inconvenienced.

Right now, Salt Lake City is grappling with a proposed skybridge across Main Street. Denver's are almost completely deserted and many are neglected. Des Moines' Skywalk has caused 60 percent ground-floor retail vacancy rates. As Rockville tries to make its Pike into a low-density urban environment, similar to the density of some of the mid-size Midwestern and Mountain West cities, it should turn away from GM's 1939 vision and toward true new horizons without skybridges.


Consensus and controversy in Rockville's Pike

Last night I attended a community meeting in Rockville about "envisioning a great place" for Rockville Pike, specifically the segment from Twinbrook Parkway to Richard Montgomery Drive (just north of Wootton Parkway). This section is almost entirely filled with strip malls behind large parking lots—the cookie-cutter suburban retail that makes Rockville's main street "Anywhere USA," as the consultant team running the meeting put it. It's the retail where, as Christopher Leinberger writes,

During the last fifteen minutes of design, the architect will ask, "Where will this center be located?" If he is told it will be in southern California, a Mediterranean tile roof and stucco will be specified. If it is to be in Washington, D.C., it will have an eighteenth-century Federalist-style brick façade with white pillars.
Can the Pike be more? All citizens of Rockville at the meeting thought so. But more how? Does it need more free parking, more through lanes, and more places to turn in and out of the shopping centers? Or should it be a walkable district with mixed-use development, a shuttle bus or trolley, stores built to the sidewalk edge, public spaces and cafes? Which one people supported depended on whether they saw the space used as it is now, or as it could one day be.

We were randomly assigned to tables, with each table tasked with marking good and bad places on a map of the Pike, around one of five factors: walking, driving and parking, living on the Pike, commercial areas, or community appearance. At my table was a 35-year resident, a retired teacher and 37-year resident, a zoning attorney and former city planner, an owner of a car dealership on the Pike, and two hairstylists with salons on the Pike, one of whom does not own a car and travels entirely by walking and public transportation up and down the pike. There was also a moderator and myself.

Our table was assigned the topic of driving and parking. By virtue of the topic's wording (about making driving easier and safer), it steered much of the thinking toward classic car-oriented solutions like adding lanes and parking garages. But the group resisted just thinking in those terms, also strongly desiring a free shuttle between the Metro and the shops.

I promoted the "park once" concept, where design development to encourage parking a single time and walking to multiple stores, or even schools, offices, and houses, rather than driving between a series of separate parking lots for each store. "Park once" districts lead to significantly than traditional design. Some members of the table liked the idea, while others felt that the area was unchangeably oriented toward large purchases at large stores, a pattern less conducive to walking between stores.

When each table presented their ideas, there was a large degree of overall consensus around building more mixed-use, walkable development on the Pike. Still, some table presenters revealed clear divisions within their own tables: one said that they'd had a "difference of opinion" between one member "more into the freeeway aspect" of the Pike, while others "were more into the pedestrian environment and boulevard-type feel." At my own table, one participant insisted that our notes supporting walkability be qualified by language that walkability must not interfere with the current traffic movement.

It's great that Rockville citizens agree on making the Pike more walkable. It'll be tougher when the city must make trade-offs. Will the community be willing to slow the traffic to increase pedestrian safety? If stores can't or won't pay to replace giant surface parking lots with garages, will the community be willing to pay a moderate fee to cover the costs? (Ironically, in the conversations about shuttle buses, several people said that while they'd like to make the shuttles free, they'd understand if a nominal fare were necessary; but nobody suggested that perhaps the garages might by anything other than free.)

It's true that people today buy bulky goods from Trader Joe's or Bed Bath and Beyond, and expect to park near the store for this shopping, as one person at my table insisted; it's also true that "our mindset makes it that way" and shopping patterns need not always be the same, as another table member pointed out. Even BusinessWeek agrees that the best way to improve cars is to make them unecessary. Will Rockville be willing to make the tough choices to make the Pike a 21st-century metropolitan space? Early signs are promising so far.

Public Spaces

Barricades of the Federal District

This weekend I visited the National Portrait Gallery, the museum that recently garnered headlines (and a huge spike in attendance) for displaying Stephen Colbert's portrait as a joke. The building holds many amazing pictures of great people (greater, even, than Colbert), as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That museum's diverse and interesting works range from wall-sized graffiti to posters made by the Center for Land Use Interpretation of Culver City, California, including one from a 2001 exhibit, Barricades of the Federal District.

After 9/11, Federal agencies rushed to barricade Washington against potential threats, both real and imagined, which meant bollards, concrete barriers, and more. This was part of the impetus for the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. New York eventually removed the barriers that office buildings had thsemselves put up, and in Washington, some of the security barricades have gone while the NCPC and NPS have worked to make others less intrusive. Still, many areas like that around the White House continue to feel extremely forbidding.

Image from Penn Quarterlife
Speaking of forbidding, the Greek Revival Old Patent Office Building that houses the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum is a great example of the best and worst of Federal Washington. A beautiful, historic building, it adds a visually stunning contrast to the modern buildings of Gallery Place. Yet unlike the nearby, newer Spy Museum, it does not engage the street at all, with the entire perimeter of the block a wrought-iron fence except for the two grand staircases to the entrances and a loading dock.

Its dramatic public space is a courtyard on the interior, cut off completely from the city around it. At night, when Gallery Place is at its most vibrant, the Gallery itself is a dark empty zone in an otherwise energetic area. While the interior was recently renovated to restore the building's glory, the exterior retains the standoffishness of too many federal structures downtown.


Tysons stepping away from the edge

Tysons Corner is the classic Edge City, and perhaps the original inspiration for the term. They're the cities created entirely around the automobile, the mall, and the suburban office park style of architecture—what Christopher Leinberger calls the "Futurama vision" of the shiny new America that looked so exciting in the 1950s. Now that we've seen that world and decided those old cities aren't so bad after all, Tysons is trying to follow in Arlington's footsteps and become a walkable place. And they have some plans.

The Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force has spent some time figuring out how to turn a huge area full of big box stores, office towers, two malls, and innumerable parking lots into a walkable place.

The urban design presentation looks good, with a dense grid of streets and mixed-use TOD around Metro stations. This is pretty standard stuff nowadays in jurisdictions that understand modern urban design ideas, like DC and Arlington. It's also the same kind of somewhat generic big buildings that take up most of the block that's common to contemporary urban redevelopment, and probably unavoidable in a real estate industry that turns everything into nineteen standard product types. The two alternatives presented differ little, except for a circulator that would enable other higher-density corridors away from the Metro station.

The transportation presentation provides a clearer choice, between transportation decisions that facilitate driving or those geared toward pedestrians. The specific diagrams are subtle in their differences, but the pedestrian-friendly improvements would transfer 4% more trips to transit with no loss in job growth, according to the consultants' model.

Ultimately, these presentations suggest minor variations on a central theme: Tysons, America's "Futurama" model edge city, is committed to becoming a walkable urban place. If we could convince Maryland's more recalcitrant areas like Prince George's County to embrace walkable urbanism, Greater Washington truly would become greater.


Parking reformers have some educatin' to do

Image by emily geoff on Flickr
When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, almost everyone from planners to the public believed in freeway construction, single-use zoning, and urban renewal projects. Today, you're not going to see a lot of people commenting on a blog like DCist arguing that we should run a freeway between Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, though some still dream about drawing lines through the city.

The Jane Jacobs of parking policy, Donald Shoup, published his groundbreaking book in 2005, giving us 44 fewer years to educate people about the fallacy of free parking.

That's why DCist's article yesterday about parking debates in Columbia Heights and the ballpark district generated comments like these:
I would like to see new apartments, offices, and commercial buildings built with additional below-ground pay/free-with-validation parking lots for visitors. These public lots should be accessible via separate entry gates so that residents and employees that have assigned parking would be unaffected by the lines, and enter quickly and directly through private entrances.
A city where everyone drives from the garage under their apartment to the garage under their office and then to the garage under their grocery store is a vision for urban life, but it's a lousy one. Free parking encourages driving, but someone is paying the costs. In the case of stores offering free validation, it's higher prices charged by the store, only you pay that price whether you drive there or not. In the case of apartment buildings, it's adding $30,000 or more to the cost of the units, making everyone's housing more expensive.

This opinion was alive and well at last week's parking working group meeting for the zoning review, where Marilyn Simon of Friendship Heights wants the zoning code to require larger parking garages under commercial buildings and mandate validated parking from all stores.

Fortunately, her views were a minority, but a lot of people—even progressive, urban-dwelling, thoughtful people—are so accustomed to the idea that parking should be free, government-provided and plentiful, that parking reform faces a tougher road for now. But one day, I'm sure average blog readers will intuitively understand that subsidized garages don't solve parking problems, just as they now understand that building freeways doesn't solve traffic problems.

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