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Posts from February 2009


Zoning update opponents attack Office of Planning

There is a group of well-organized residents who aren't pleased with DC's comprehensive zoning rewrite process. The Office of Planning is reviewing DC's zoning code chapter by chapter to update it for the needs of a 21st century city. They have conducted almost 50 meetings on a wide variety of subtopics, solicited input online, and presented recommendations at public hearings to the Zoning Commission. But opponents, led by the Committee of 100 and the Federation of Citizens' Associations, are very unhappy with the recommendations.

George Clark and Barbara Zartman testify before the DC Council.

Yesterday, at a DC Council oversight hearing on the Office of Planning, they attacked OP's conduct of this process. Barbara Zartman, of the Committee of 100, said, "What began as an undertaking to update provisions and conform the regulations to the Comprehensive Plan has turned into an excursion into every new, often untested, idea about land use, often to the detriment of fixing existing provisions." George Clark, representing the Federation of Citizens' Associations, compared the process to a "runaway freight train, with a brick on the deadman switch, that will ravage our city and its neighborhoods." They alleged that OP misrepresented the opinions of the Task Force, disregarded consensus at meetings, and hired inexperienced staff who don't communicate enough with the rest of the office.

Quite simply, they and I disagree about the best direction for our zoning code. More importantly, the large community we have at Greater Greater Washington and many other residents who participated in the process show that many other residents of DC also disagree with the opponents. The Committee and the Federation have been organizing residents for a long time. Decades ago, when they were fighting the freeways and the wholesale demolition of our historic neighborhoods in the name of progress, they were protecting something very important. Now, however, it's these groups that have gotten off track.

Where once they opposed making our city a worse place to live, now they oppose its evolution into an even better place to live. As we have seen with the large numbers of Cleveland Park residents who organized to support the Giant development proposal against the wishes of the Cleveland Park Citizens' Association, there is a real majority in favor of positive change. Those residents might not have the time or energy to speak as loudly as some of the opponents, but they are real just the same.

The Committee and the Federation still valuable knowledge stemming from years of experience with DC's zoning, and I'm glad they are participating in the process. OP has incorporated many of their specific suggestions into recommendations, and sometimes deleted specific recommendations based on their feedback. But just organizing in DC for a long time doesn't give them a veto over new policies. Nor can they unilaterally declare newer ideas, that have worked to great effect in other cities around the country and the world, impractical or dangerous.

OP has done a phenomenal job reaching out to the public through this process. They've held countless meetings. They've solicited input online and even set up a discussion forum (which unfortunately sees little use). When opponents asked for additional opportunities to review a set of recommendations, OP has accommodated them. When opponents asked OP to study some recommendations further for low and moderate density residential development, OP delayed those recommendations by several months to study them further. Nevertheless, the Committee and the Federation continue to criticize both the process and its result.

Rather than attacking OP, we should hold them up as a model of the way a DC government agency should run itself. I can only hope that, under the leadership of new Director Gabe Klein, DDOT could become as transparent and as adept at communicating with the public as OP. The same goes for WASA, BOEE, economic development, and other agencies that have even poorer records of openness.

My complete testimony is below. You can also watch the archived hearing video here.

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. I also would like to thank my mother, who is here with me today. She is visiting from Boston this week, but the performance of the Office of Planning is such an important issue to me that she agreed to come down to the Wilson Building this morning.

I live in Dupont Circle, where my fiancée and I bought a historic townhouse this past year. I run the Web site Greater Greater Washington, which covers transportation and land use planning in the Washington metropolitan region. I write frequently about the work being done by the Office of Planning.

The Office of Planning is, quite simply, one of the best-run public agencies in any city. The staff of OP are first-rate, and we are very lucky to have them in the District of Columbia, from Harriet Tregoning down to the individual development review and historic preservation staff. Earlier this week, at the oversight hearing of the Department of Transportation, several ANC commissioners and other residents testified about their extreme frustration with that agency's lack of communication. They spoke about repeated experiences with letters and resolutions going unanswered. I myself have had similar frustrations with DDOT.

Fortunately, the new Director, Gabe Klein, understands these problems and I believe is working hard to rectify them. Even more fortunately, we don't have to struggle with these problems from the Office of Planning. As I've written on Greater Greater Washington, the best reforms DDOT can make would be to become more like the Office of Planning.

OP is currently engaged in a comprehensive process to update DC's zoning code for the needs of a 21st Century city. They have worked remarkably hard to solicit a very broad range of public input. The process has been going on for nearly a year and will continue for a year more. They have invited the public to participate in individual working group discussions. In several of the meetings I have attended, I have seen OP staff directly take a suggestion made by one participant and turn it into a component of their final product. They have a task force comprised of representatives appointed by Council and from citizens and civic organizations. They put meeting minutes and presentations online from each meeting. They set up an online discussion forum. The Zoning Commission hearings give the public multiple opportunities to participate through written comment or oral testimony. In short, OP has availed themselves of almost every conceivable avenue for public input into this process.

Some residents have criticized the Office of Planning's process. They alleged that OP is not really listening to the public. In my opinion, these people are actually unhappy not because OP hasn't listened, but simply because the residents of the District of Columbia, whose interests OP staff represent, don't always agree with those individuals' personal priorities.

Here in the District of Columbia, we have multiple avenues for residents to participate in the political process. The more traditional route is through civic and citizens' organizations and ANCs. That is an important, and valuable route to involve our residents, and I always dispute any suggestions to abolish the ANCs. The people who participate in these avenues have valuable opinions to which our government should listen.

At the same time, there are many other residents who do not or cannot avail themselves of these avenues. They may work late nights at their jobs, or have small children. They may find ANC meetings too lengthy or too divisive. They may not have time to attend hearings at the Wilson Building, which often last many hours. Their parents visiting from out of town may not be as willing to accompany them to hearings or community meetings.

Instead, they participate in our democracy in other ways. They read and comment on blogs, such as Greater Washington and many others. They engage in discussions on neighborhood email lists. They talk to their friends and neighbors. They send emails to the DC Council and the Office of Planning. And they vote. These residents' opinions are equally valuable, and our government should listen to them just the same. The Office of Planning's recommendations weigh the interests of both types of residents and all others. Any one of us will not always agree with each of their conclusions, but I absolutely believe they represent the broad-based view of the residents of the District of Columbia.

At a Zoning Commision hearing last week, Councilmember Mary Cheh spoke about the development proposal for a new mixed-use Giant in Cleveland Park. She said:

Inevitably, you will hear opposition. But you have to put it in context. Sometimes opponents are vehement; sometimes opponents can raise their voices; sometimes they can be more organized. As the representative, I can say they are not representative of the broad-based view of the people of Ward Three.
Mr. Chairman, the opposition you may hear today from some members of our community, while heartfelt, is not representative of the broad-based view of the people of the District of Columbia.

I don't agree with every decision of the Office of Planning. I've written about individual land use decisions that seem to run counter to the objectives of our Comprehensive Plan, either because of the form of the zoning rules or their interpretation. I'd like our historic preservation process to better consider whether the structures eligible for landmarking contribute to or detract from a sense of place in our city. I've disagreed with many individual rulings from HPRB. I never shy away from criticizing when I believe it is warranted, as DDOT engineers, members of the WMATA board, and land use planners in Prince George's County can tell you.

However, at least right now, the Office of Planning deserves our praise. I have never seen OP avoid communicating with residents or refuse to explain their reasoning on tough issues. OP staff are very good at returning phone calls, far more than any other DC agency. The Office of Planning is a paragon of the sort of professional, communicative agency DC strives for. I hope that we can keep Harriet Tregoning and all of the other first-rate staff working in the District of Columbia for many years to come, and would love to see more of our government agencies operate as professionally as this one.

Thank you.


"All you can eat" driving promotes vehicular gluttony

Yesterday, we discussed how "all you can eat" pricing can incentivize transit ridership. What about driving?

From the Sydney Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Charlie Brewer.

Traditionally, cars' pricing is almost purely unlimited use. You buy the car up front, or have a fixed monthly loan or lease payment. You pay registration, property taxes, inspections, and insurance regardless of how much you use the car. Parking is usually free, whether you are a tenant, employee or customer. Your only costs per trip are gas and maintenance, and those you don't even pay at the time you take the trip, but later, when your gas tank is empty or your tires are worn. There's a good summary of the per-mile costs of driving here. Insurance, registration, residential parking and car purchase costs about 50¢ per mile, and gas, maintenance, and tires cost about 14¢ per mile.

When you hop in the car, it's easy to not even think about these costs. Psychologically, once you own a car, keep the gas tank filled and maintain it properly, additional trips are "free". The psychological incentives today promote driving and discourage transit. If we want to rectify that balance, because of externalities like pollution or congestion, safety and noise, then we should move toward more pay-per-use systems for cars.

Charge tolls to drive on roads. Charge per use for parking. Daily or hourly parking charges are better for this purpose than monthly contracts. With a monthly contract, parking is already paid for on day one, so all additional days are "free". Other methods are less common: insurance can be priced per mile. Shared-car services like Zipcar charge by the hour. Taxicabs charge per trip and mile.

It's possible to make some of these changes without changing the overall costs, so it's not even necessary to get into a cars vs. transit debate. If someone pays $1,000 per year in insurance and drives about 12,000 miles per year, it doesn't cost them more if you charge $200 plus 6.6 cents per mile. It would encourage people to drive fewer miles, however (for comparison, gasoline including taxes is currently about 8 cents per mile). Also, if apartments typically rent for $1500 a month and include two parking spaces free, it's not an increase if the rent drops to $1300 per month and you pay $100 more per month for a parking space. Parking at work, which used to be unlimited at $120 per month, could be $6 per day against a pre-paid account instead of an unlimited per month charge.

If you change the way people pay for transit and cars, you can still fund both, but align the incentives so that they aren't pushing people to choose driving over transit. Because driving involves pollution, congestion, safety risks, and inefficient land use patterns, ending our structural economic bias toward driving would help society as a whole. Meanwhile, because increased transit use reduces the bad effects of driving, and increases the political will to run more frequent vehicles and expand the network, it's good for society to lower the barriers to transit use.

Public Spaces

Breakfast links: More pedestrians there, more cars here

Midtown Manhattan's Broadway to go pedestrian-only: Times Square and Herald Square are some of the nation's most crowded outdoor spaces. Diagonal Broadway jams up traffic on Sixth and Seventh Avenues, by taking away traffic signal time from the avenues. Yesterday, New York announced an innovative solution: close Broadway to traffic in these areas. Pedestrians may finally have enough room, and it'll actually reduce car delays. (Tips: Greater Greater Dad, Robert H.-D., Andrew K., and others.)

Future pedestrianized Broadway in NYC. Image from Streetsblog.

Go blogs! Yesterday's Broadway announcement is also a huge win for Streetsblog, the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, and other advocates who have persuaded the NYC government to completely transform its approach to transportation. A Wednesday segment about the future of news on NPR's Marketplace mentioned the rapid rise of small, online-only news operations focused on city government, local politics, and development.

T4A launches platform: The national Transportation For America coalition officially launched their platform on Capitol Hill today. It calls for this fall's transportation bill (TEA) to fund a 21st-century network that allocates transportation dollars based on objectives, like lowering carbon emissions and ensuring economic access, rather than set amounts for highways and (much smaller amounts) for transit.

PG neighbors debate highway widening, light rail: Residents of Temple Hills, Clinton and Brandywide debated widening Route 5 south of the Beltway. Some residents are eager for the widening, while others don't want the sprawl it will bring to southern Prince George's and counties to the south; some are pleased about the county's proposed light rail corridor, while others worry about the development that could result. (Gazette)

Reject a bungalow, get a skinny box: A developer built a 12-foot-wide modernist house on a lot in Arlington after neighbors rejected a zoning variance to put two bungalows in the place of one.

Up in Montgomery-land: The new Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville will be much worse for walkers (JUTP) ... The debate over Falkland Chase continues (Gazette) ... JUTP's Dan Reed and some friends encountered a Rockville leasing agent who said they "don't look like [they] could afford to live here" (Diamondback Online)

And: The Historic Preservation Review Board approved the revised design for the Whitman-Walker redevelopment project at 14th and S (CSNA) ... Metro has started layoffs (Examiner) ... the Senate passed the voting rights bill, with an amendment repealing DC's gun laws, but which will probably come out in conference. (Post, City Paper) ... The Virginia House rejected a bill to give residents the right to dry clothes on clotheslines.


Designing for walkability in Fairfax and Loudoun

In a suburban context, developers tend to propose suburban designs for new development. Those designs separate buildings with large amounts of space, fill that space with empty lawns and plazas, and channel traffic to wide boulevards around the periphery of a site. These designs don't lend themselves to walkable environments with lively ground level activity.

If Northern Virginia wants its growing areas, like those along the Silver Line, to become walkable neighborhoods like Arlington, Bethesda and Silver Spring, we need to ensure that new development builds the connected street grid with small blocks common to all of those places, and even more common in older cities like DC and Old Town Alexandria. Unfortunately, many of the developments currently proposed or under construction miss this opportunity.

Last week, DCmud discussed the Towers Crescent development just south of the Tysons Corner Center mall. They have already built several office buildings on the site, and are interested in adding several residential buildings on the west edge. Residential buildings are a good idea, but unfortunately, they've designed them, along with the already-completed buildings, in a very un-urban form.

No streets stretch all the way across the site. There are pedestrian paths from one side to the other, but require people to take a circuitous route around the various and motley buildings, plazas and gardens. Nothing lines up. The mall and Marriott on either side are just as bad, but planners are trying hard to evolve Tysons into more of a walkable place. This design will hinder that evolution.

The plan reflects a "suburban sensibility", a term I first saw used in the context of the Newport development in Jersey City, right across the Hudson from Manhattan. Suburban office park developers design something for a denser, more urban place that looks like a suburban office park, but with all the buildings a little taller and a tad closer together.

Some projects are trying harder. The Connection recently profiled the Dulles World Center, a proposed "town center" style project adjacent to the Dulles Access Road at Route 28, just outside the airport property. The property is very close to the future Route 28 Silver Line station.

The developer is excited about creating a "mixed-use transit-oriented development" including residential, office, and hotels. Of course, some people don't like that idea, including Loudoun Supervisor Andrea McGimsey, who isn't pleased that the project could devote 25% of its space to residential units.

According to the Connection, the project includes "a pedestrian-friendly grid network of streets, a large central park, public plaza and ... LEED certification." The grid is more pedestrian-friendly than most, though the blocks still lean to the large side. Based on this site plan, there appear to be eleven internal intersections, or 89 per square mile. LEED-ND calls for 150 per square mile.

The project still follows the suburban "towers in the park" design, with tall buildings surrounded by a lot of open space. That's far more open space than people could actually use, meaning most of the lawns will function more as voids than parks. On the other hand, by putting the buildings along streets and more of the space in the center, they maximize the opportunities to activate the street with cafes, retail and more.

The more mixed-use TOD we can get around the Silver Line, the more riders it will have and the more we can recoup our investment in this transit line. Still, all development isn't created equal. Entirely suburban designs like Towers Crescent will hinder Tysons' progress toward a walkable place. Dulles World Center, meanwhile, jumps ahead of most of its surroundings, but would look like horrible superblocks in Arlington or DC. We can and should do even better.


11th Street bridges, part 3: The New York Avenue trade

In part 1, we looked at the details of the approximately $500 million project to rebuild the 11th Street bridges across the Anacostia River. Part 2 discussed the conclusions of Smart Mobility's report, which said the project would substantially increase traffic through DC while lowering traffic on 295 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The Capitol Hill Restoration Society believes we should build the project with ten lanes (two each way on the local bridge and three on the freeway bridge) instead of the proposed twelve (two each way local, four each way freeway). The current bridges have eight lanes, meaning that CHRS's preferred alternative would add one lane in each direction instead of two. DDOT's only explanation is that AASHTO guidelines recommend this configuration. CHRS filed a lawsuit yesterday to try to force DDOT to consider a narrower alternative.

DDOT is intent on completing this project as quickly as possible, and plans to use stimulus money to do it. At the recent oversight hearing, Councilmember Jim Graham compared it to "a freight train." And it has many positive effects, including taking some traffic off local streets in Anacostia, adding a local connection between neighborhoods on either side of the river, and enabling a future streetcar connection.

However, the fact remains that this half billion dollars of DC's money will, whatever its positive effects, also draw some drivers onto the Southwest/Southeast Freeway who would otherwise have traveled over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. If we're increasing capacity into and through DC on one route, we should balance it by steering drivers away from another route.

As it happens, there's a perfect route: the Center Leg Freeway between New York Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. The Transportation Planning Board found that most of the traffic on New York Avenue is passing through the District. According to DDOT, New York Avenue also accounts for 21.5% of through trips passing through DC without stopping.

The 11th Street Bridges will give drivers an easier, all-freeway route from the BW Parkway and US-50 to the Southwest Federal Center area and Capitol complex. Those drivers can use up the new capacity on the 11th Street Bridge, removing the incentive for Wilson Bridge traffic to divert through DC. People entering DC from the east would no longer see what is perhaps DC's ugliest side. And then, we could do something with New York Avenue.

We could increase pedestrian crossing times and remove the freeway-style signs, as the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood wants. We could add an attractive median and plant trees. We could accommodate bicycles. In short, we could make this major radial avenue a real boulevard, like our other state streets, that balance all modes instead of acting as a freeway with some pesky traffic lights and the occasional pedestrian to dodge.

New York Avenue won't stop being a significant route for cars. But we can devote it to those cars that are actually traveling to NoMa and downtown DC instead of L'Enfant Plaza and Arlington. And to satisfy those who argue that we need freeways as emergency evacuation routes, we can even keep the closed segment around for emergency vehicles and a possible evacuation.

More traffic will affect the communities along the new, larger route, by bringing in more pollution from cars. A narrower bridge, as CHRS recommends, would be better. But it seems we're moving full speed ahead with that project, and it'll bring some positive benefits as well. If the 11th Street bridges are going to happen at their full width, let's at least seize the opportunity to enhance the quality of life for other neighborhoods already choked with traffic.


Transit pricing: Time to go "all you can eat"?

When you pay for transportation, whether it's for driving a private car or taking mass transit, there's a continuum of payment methods, with "pay-per-use" on one end of the scale, and "unlimited use" on the other.

Photo by gregula.

Does the choice of method matter? It should. People make choices about how they get around based on how much the next trip costs them. With unlimited use, the next trip is free. With pay per use, the next trip can cost a lot, because not only are you paying the cost of an additional trip, but you're paying a fraction of the fixed costs.

Most people pay per trip for transit in the Washington region. Meanwhile, many other transit agencies use an "all you can eat" model with their regular customers. In New York City, with the highest transit ridership in the nation, most riders buy weekly or monthly unlimited ride MetroCards. Unlimited ride holders don't think twice about hopping on the subway for almost any trip.

Metro sells about 35,000 unlimited weekly bus passes per week, and about an eighth as many rail passes. We should implement more convenient, reasonably priced monthly or weekly passes. WMATA's effort to integrate the existing passes with SmarTrip cards is a good start. However, the rail pass is still separate from the bus pass, and the rail pass only makes financial sense for those that ride the longest distances.

The difficulty with rail passes in Washington compared to other systems is distance-based fares. For other systems, the provider chooses a weekly price, which is typically 9-12 single rides. For distance-based fares, how should you choose the price to base it on? If you choose about 10 times the maximum fare, it's a terrible deal for most and you don't end up selling many passes. (This is almost what we do currently; it's $39.00 for a pass and the maximum fare is $4.50.) If you choose 10 times the minimum fare, it's expensive for the transit agency, and there's a lot of revenue loss compared to regular fares.

SmarTrip cards are smart enough to have customizable weekly passes. You could choose a fare level and pay ten times that amount per week automatically by subscription. All your rides that are less than that would be free, while any fare above that amount would be deducted from your account balance. This would have the effect of "pay for your commute and the rest is free". This is just like wireless phone service, where you pay for a certain amount of daytime (peak) minutes and get your nights and weekends for free. Right now WMATA has this policy, but there are only two potential fare levels, at around $26.40 for the cheaper "Short Rail" pass (equivalent to commuting downtown from approximately Bethesda), and $39.00 for the more expensive unlimited rail pass (which would be a good deal for anyone commuting downtown from White Flint or further). Someone who commutes a short distance isn't likely to buy one. Additionally, the passes are inconvenient, requiring purchase of a paper farecard, and for the short rail pass, carrying exitfare to make up the difference for each trip.

Image Courtesy GoBoulder
In addition to having reasonably priced unlimited passes, some transit agencies have taken the idea of unlimited pricing one step further. For example, the Denver area transit agency, RTD, sells an unlimited pass to an entire employer based on the number of employees and the distance from the city's downtown and transit centers. This is a form of insurance that spreads the cost out socially in order to provide a benefit. In this case, employers enjoy reduced parking costs and employees get free transit. The transit agency prices the passes to assure revenue neutrality. For a much lower price per employee than single pass purchases, everyone gets an unlimited yearly pass. The price per employee is lower (between $50 and $400 compared to $1800 for an annual pass) because the transit agency assumes some people will not use it.

Transit agencies still get the same amount of revenue, but instead of paying for each trip, the employees don't pay anything extra. This program reduced the number of parking spaces needed for Colorado UniversityUniversity of Colorado, and increased the number of employees taking public transit downtown. Boulder City staff were happy to talk to me about the program. Based on the materials they provided, the program seems like steroids for transit. People are many times more likely to use transit, even buses, when they have the pass. Neighborhoods are allowed to organize and buy passes for everyone on the block edit: RTD has placed a moratorium on new neighborhoods entering the program as they work to collect data from a soon-to-be-released smartcard. Even though the price of a ECO pass has risen dramatically (RTD has hiked the prices more than 50% since 2003), so has transit ridership and pass usage.

Unlimited passes are also an interesting idea for sporting or entertainment events. In that case, the stadium or ballpark would add a fee for every ticket, transferring the revenue to the transit agency. In exchange, the sporting event tickets would act as a day pass (perhaps after a certain time in the afternoon).

Having to pay for something creates a psychological obstacle to consuming more of it. In the case of transit, we want to lower those hurdles, especially off-peak where our transit systems have excess capacity, and more riders mean more revenue but not higher costs. "All you can eat" pricing does just that.


Breakfast links: Roadblocks and mental blocks

Room and Board not on board: Room and Board's financing fell through to buy the vacant commercial building at 14th and T. In December, an exciting proposal by Tryst, Diner, and Open City owner Constantine Stavropoulous to share the building among a diner, comedy club, yoga studio and dance company lost out to Room and Board. Will Stavropoulous be able to resurrect his original plan and bring more food and arts to 14th Street? (Tip: Scott G.)

Recently rejected Mount Pleasant library proposal. Image from DC Public Libraries.

Brown dreams of a DC covered in parking lots: New at-large Councilmember Michael Brown told the Kalorama Citizens' Association he wants to use public money to build municipal parking like Montgomery County's, the Current reports. Why is DC's newest member of the WMATA board eager to spend public money to make DC even more car-centric? As we learned from my interview with Brown before the election, Brown's heart is in the right place on transit, but he doesn't understand the relationship between subsidizing parking and discouraging transit use. Maybe that's because he can't remember the last time he rode Metro? (Tip: Reid.)

Would it have been the iPod wing? The U.S. Commission on Fine Arts has rejected a glass-box addition to the historic Mount Pleasant library. Anti-preservation Marc Fisher calls opponents the "taste police". What do you think?

Dueling Compact bills both pass: The Virginia legislature has passed both versions of the WMATA compact amendments, the "you get the house anyway" version and the "you get it as long as you pay for it" version matching DC's. Governor Kaine could sign Maryland Delegate Anna Sol Gutierrez (D-Mongtomery) has introduced the latter version in the Maryland House; the no-strings version is also in play there. All three jurisdictions have to pass the same one for anything to take effect.

How about some transit, PG? The Post's Get There is enthusiastic about Maryland's plans to widen MD-5 (Branch Avenue) south of the Beltway. It's too bad they doesn't recognize the problems in Prince George's headlong rush to sprawl. However, the Post does recommend toll or HOT lanes with transit. That's a step.

How about some transit, eastern shore? Maryland is thinking about adding a third span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, since so many people drive across it in summer. BeyondDC points out that if so many people are driving from DC to Ocean City, Route 50 BRT could move them all in much less space and much lower cost.

Why no Brookland deck: Richard Layman explains why decking over the railroad tracks around Brookland, as some neighbors want, is really not feasible.

Whither dead big boxes? Infrastructurist looks at reuse opportunities for empty big-box retail sites. Over in Brookland, residents have been discussing possibilities for the empty National Wholesale Liquidators store, the central anchor of a very suburban strip mall on Rhode Island Avenue.


Preservation and Smart Growth can be friends, not rivals

Kaid Benfield, NRDC's Smart Growth director, looks at the mistrust between Smart Growth environmentalists and preservationists. On the one hand, he points out, some of the most walkable communities are also our most historic, from Paris to Capitol Hill. On the other hand, preservation also sometimes becomes a tool to oppose sustainable neighborhoods, like the effort to landmark the Wisconsin Avenue Giant as a cudgel against development.

Photo by James Moore on Flickr.

As a result, many Smart Growth advocates think preservationists are just a bunch of NIMBYs, and many preservationists think Smart Growth people just want to tear down neighborhoods wholesale and put up giant high rises. Then there are the Smart Growth preservationists, who get caught in the middle. We need to recognize that both sides' goals matter. Historic buildings have value and need protection, and good urban design is much better for our communities and the environment than bad. When the historic is also the walkable, as in Georgetown, the two movements should reinforce each other and create a doubly strong case for preservation. When they conflict, as at Third Church, we must balance the two in a way that gives neither absolute supremacy.

Benfield asks,

Are we going to start saving Walmarts, which the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] has opposed in one community after another, when they are 50 years old just because they are 50 years old? The date is not all that far away. And, make no mistake: they will be representative of a period and style of architecture. If that's the principal test, they will pass. What about urban freeways that sliced through and destroyed historic neighborhoods? They, too, are now part of history.
Thus far, preservation movement leaders have resisted debate about whether there are significant structures we ought not preserve. At a DC Preservation League panel on modern structures, panelists focused entirely on how to convince the public to preserve any modern building, assuming that preserving was always the right choice. When Benfield posed this question to a preservation friend, he got "a roll of the eyes and a quick rebuke that modernist buildings are just as historic as any other, and what people hate today might be what they like tomorrow. History is history."

But, Benfield says, that misses the point. "I was not arguing against the landmarking of modernist buildings," he said. "In fact, I am a fan of modernist architecture ... My point, rather, was that we need to be more discerning about what is worth fighting for and what isn't, lest we lose our support. And that we need to be alert—preservationists and environmentalists alike—to those who harm our values by misusing them."

Historic preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism. When people trot out environmental or preservation arguments to defend something like the Wisconsin Giant, where strong community support stands behind change, it drives people away from the broader goals of that movement. And when advocates argue that their particular issue trumps all others, regardless of context, as preservation would if it started landmarking Wal-Marts across the nation, it risks moving into irrelevance. Environmentalists, preservationists, and Smart Growth advocates alike should bear that in mind.


Proposed Metro service cuts take more from DC

According to this presentation, which the Metro Board's Special Budget Committee will discuss Thursday, the previously proposed service cuts leave the District of Columbia with a $2.9 million surplus at the end. This means that those cuts to Metrobus and Metrorail affected the District of Columbia disproportionately through the funding formula. Chairman Jim Graham, Neil Albert, Michael A. Brown and Anthony Giancola, the District's representatives on the committee, should ask why the District should have service cut more than needed to keep their subsidy the same as last year, while other jurisdictions still need to give up more to balance the budget.

Photo by Mr. T in DC.

For reference, here are the other jurisdictions and the amount of additional service cuts to non-regional bus service needed to balance the budget:

Jurisdiction Additional non-regional bus cuts (increases)
needed to balance
DC ($2.9M)
Mongomery County 4.7
Prince George's 3.2
City of Alexandria 0.2
Arlington County 1.2
City of Fairfax 0.1
Fairfax County 1.0
Falls Church 0.0
Total $7.4M

These numbers are the amounts of non-regional bus service that would need to be cut (or added) in order to balance each jurisdiction's Metro budget, after already taking into account the administrative changes proposed in January and the service cuts proposed earlier this month. Non-regional bus lines are ones that don't cross jurisdictional boundaries, such as the U8 (Capitol Heights to Benning Heights) in DC, the 18s (Orange Hunt) and 17s (Kings Park Express) in Virginia, and the R4 (Queen's Chapel Road) in Maryland bus routes. Each jurisdiction directly pays for non-regional bus lines' costs after subtracting fares, rather than through the funding formula for rail or bus. Rail's funding formula takes into account population and density, ridership, and number of rail stations. Regional Bus's formula is based on population and density, service hours, the number of miles buses traveled, and ridership. Paratransit is paid for by the rider's home jurisdiction.

From the table, any further cuts are likely to hit Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, while the District may be looking at improving service compared to the previous proposal. WMATA staff is suggesting that the Board vote on March 5th to send these service cuts to public hearings. After listening to the hearings and written public comment, they'd approve final service reductions on April 23. As always, more to follow.

Washingtonian features Greater Greater Washington

The Washingtonian's "Blogger Beat" interviewed me about how we can make Greater Washington greater. Here are a few the topics we covered; check out the article for the more detailed responses.

Photo by macwagen.

Three reasons Washington is great: Walkable neighborhoods (and not just in DC), Metro, and resident engagement in local government.

Three ways it could be greater: More transit, more affordable housing, and transportation departments that aren't beholden to vehicular "level of service."

How would you fix Washington's traffic congestion problem? Priority bus corridors (in the short run).

Local leader you most wish you could fire: VDOT head Pierce Homer.

Purple Line or Silver Line? Both!

The best thing Barack Obama could do for Washington is: continue moving it toward [full] self-government, including the parks, prosecutors and judges, and voting rights.

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