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Posts from March 2008

Public Spaces

No, architecture is not (just) art

A building can be a beautiful object in its own right. A building is also a component of a larger whole. It fits in with the surrounding environment, whether other buildings in a series of row houses or the natural landscape in a more pastoral setting. It interacts with the humans who go in it and those who walk around it.

A good piece of art, maybe.
A good piece of architecture. no.

When we only see a building as a piece of art, we end up with an architectural profession that reveres bizarre buildings that look impressive in a model but don't accomplish their substantive purpose very well. We end up with New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff who never met a famous architect whose plan he didn't like. And we end up with exhibits at the Kreeger Museum on "architecture as art" that train future architects to think they should aspire to buildings like Philip Johnson's.

There's nothing wrong with making spectacular buildings, nothing wrong with being a famous architect, and modern buildings can be beautiful. But I'd like architecture critics to write about a building's influence on the street as much as they write about the "chiseled setbacks and crisp vertical lines". When is the Kreeger going to have Vibrant Streetlife as Art? From the look of their building (designed by the same Philip Johnson), creating outdoor public spaces may be furthest from their minds.


Zoning Review discusses retail

Wednesday's Zoning Review meeting on Retail Strategy discussed the good and the bad of retail.

The previous meeting's notes included a line that the Cleveland Park overlay may not be serving the community well. This brought out several overlay defenders including George Idelson, president of the CP Citizens Association, who argued that the overlay works very well. "Thanks to the overlay, we are not a restaurant row," he said. The overlay may have had some problems, like being hard to change or update, and DCRA hasn't always enforced it effectively.

The group didn't spend much time of this topic, but a few people defended the overlay while a few others criticized it for "retarding vibrancy" and being "too formulaic." I don't know all the history of this issue (please fill me in!) I did find this summary of the conflict over a Cosi last year.

Most of the workshop focused on a series of exercises where people answered certain questions. For example, "Retail and related uses should acommplish the following goals to help our city: they should..." Responses included:

  • foster interactivity on the streets
  • generate sales tax
  • meet residents' daily needs for goods and services
  • serve visitors and workers
  • help create a whole community
  • encourage pedestrian traffic and 'serendipitous' moments around the city
  • not negatively affect residential apartments
  • boost employment
  • encourage balance in the retail mix
  • exploit buildings in neighborhoods that were built for commercial purposes
  • remove the necessity of driving to accomplish everyday tasks
  • create entrepreneurship opportunities for existing neighborhood residents
  • retain existing residents
What's a bad use of ground floor retail space?
  • a dentist's office
  • a gas station
  • check cashing
  • offices
  • parking
  • blocked-up windows that don't let people see into the store
  • have retail off an atrium instead of facing the street
  • have too little pedestrian access to retail frontage
  • don't maintain a fair proportion of green space
Speaking of blocked-up windows, the rules for development in Reservation 13, near the old stadium, where all stores will have to keep their interiors visible to a depth of at least 20 feet from all windows.

Finally, the group briefly discussed ceiling heights. National retailers now want 14 foot ceilings in their spaces, but few existing DC buildings don't have that height. In new developments, with the height limits, if a developer builds a 14 foot first story, then they have to sacrifice a story higher up in the building to stay under the limit. Business groups have proposed allowing a few extra feet of height on buildings in retail corridors that put in 14 foot ground floors.

Public Spaces

NPS considers less traffic an "adverse effect"

The National Park Service's mission is to "preserve the natural resources of America." Apparently, they consider traffic to be a natural resource.

The historic appearance of Rock Creek.
Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Back in 2005, the NPS went through a public process to revise the General Management Plan of Rock Creek Park. They considered four options: A) install a few traffic-calming measures on Beach Drive and some trail upgrades; B) do nothing; C) permanently close the parts of Beach Drive that are closed on weekends; and D) close those roads weekdays off-peak but keep them open rush hours.

In the spirit of their stewardship of America's wilderness, the Park Service preferred alternative A, keeping all roads open to traffic all the time. They only included alternatives C and D because of public pressure, but rejected them. Closing the roads, they argued, "would result in a major adverse effect on the existing pattern of park use and visitor experience. Historic park roads are considered a cultural resource. By closing them to motorized traffic, Alternative C would modify some of the design features that define their significance."

So, having the park crowded with cars and filled with noise and pollution is "historic", despite the traffic now being triple the original design capacity and the fact that 60 mph is not a historic speed.

More bafflingly, NPS concluded that "all four alternatives would have fairly similar effects on air quality, the water quality and hydrology of Rock Creek and its tributaries, wetlands and floodplains, deciduous forests, and protected and rare species." The amount of traffic has no effect on the air quality? What school of environmental management did these people go to?

What's going on with the National Park Service? At the NCPC meeting I went to, the NPS representative seemed to be, by far, the least interested in good design and the most eager to simply build anything. Even Bush presidential appointees on NCPC seemed to value the Mall more highly than the National Park Service. Is this bad management from the Bush administration, or has NPS always been like this?


Get involved this week in PG Co., Arlington, DC

It's the first week of the month and that means lots and lots of great opportunities to speak up in local government!

Prince George's County: The county is working on a Transportation Master Plan to include new highways, transit lines, and bike and pedestrian improvements. Go speak up at the meetings to make sure the transit and bike trails get the importance they deserve in an area that's one of the region's least transit-oriented, least walkable and least bikeable. There's a meeting tonight in Suitland and Wednesday in Greenbelt. Here's the meeting info (PDF).

Arlington: The public forum to discuss legalizing accessory dwellings like basement apartments is tonight. I'm sure the opponents will show up. Speak up to allow property owners to rent out their basements if they want to and allow more people to live more affordably in Arlington.

DC Zoning: Tonight, Low and Moderate Density; Tuesday evening, Arts and Culture; Wednedsay, Retail Strategy in the afternoon and Parking and Loading including bike parking in the evening; Thursday evening, Historic Structures.

These meetings aren't 50 people in an auditorium with each person speaking for 2 minutes and bored government officials not really listening. These are all small groups of 10-20 people who engage in real discussion about how to change zoning, and the recommendations do reflect what was discussed. The Parking and Loading draft is out, and I can't post it yet, but it really is based on what we discussed. One Smart Growth advocate can and did singlehandledly get provisions in there to require parking to go behind new buildings instead of on the side; one NIMBY-ish neighborhood advocate can and did get higher minimums when higher density abuts lower density. We need more advocates for livable communities to make sure those who want to prevent change of any kind don't get their wishes enacted into law.

ANC meetings: Tuesday, Georgetown and Mount Pleasant; Wednesday, Shaw/Mount Vernon Square, Logan Circle and Adams Morgan; and Thursday, Columbia Heights. I only have Wards 1, 2, and 6 so far; check the DC ANC site to find yours.

As always, check the calendar in the right sidebar for upcoming ways to make your voice heard. DC is not that big a city, and the numbers of people who participate in these meetings are not so great. And the other cities and towns are even smaller, of course. You can make a difference!


New Haven next to boulevardize a freeway

In 1957, New Haven tore down a neighborhood near its waterfront to build a freeway. It created a barrier between downtown and Union Station, cut off streets, created dark shadows under huge ramps, and fostered more car-oriented and pedestrian-unfriendly development in the hospitals and huge parking garages that were built there.

Pre-freeway, post-freeway, and hopefully post-post-freeway.

The freeway never went anywhere, with other neighborhoods successfully fighting the destruction that the freeway wreaked on Oak Street. Now, Tri-State Transportation Campaign reports that New Haven is proposing to tear down the freeway, develop new mixed-use buildings in the space, and reconnect the street grid.

Why is Washington DC's Mayor instead intent not only on keeping those freeways that should be boulevardized, like the Whitehurst, but also rebuilding long-gone roads through our parks?


Alexandria gets a "trolley"

The first time I went to Old Town Alexandria, I thought, "there needs to be a trolley along King Street from the Metro to the waterfront." Well, now there is. Sorta. It's really a bus dressed up as a trolley, which DC Metrocentric sneers at but I think has merit: a dinging trolley probably would be more appealing to visitors who shop at the high-end boutiques and chain stores on King.

Trolley/bus in Chicago. Photo by
Springsun on Flickr.

A real trolley would be even better, but it's a step. More prominent signage (or, rather, any prominent signage at all) would help a lot. This trolley/bus will run every 15 minutes, more than the bus it replaces, but 10 minutes would be better, as would real-time info displays. 15 minutes is a little long to wait standing on the street corner in the cold while deciding whether to walk to the Metro station or regret not just driving instead.

Update: more good discussion on DCist.


Where to put the noise?

Mixed-use development is the best kind for so many reasons, like enabling people to live near where they work, and maintaining "eyes on the street" all day. However, it does create a few problems, like noise. There's a big market for restaurants, bars, nightclubs and live music, but it can also be disruptive to residents.

Photo by Capannelle on Flickr.

At yesterday's Retail Strategy meeting, Barbara Kahlow of the West End Citizens' Association spoke of noise concerns as a primary issue for the community. Residents along 17th Street in Dupont have been at odds with the local restaurants over noise for many years. The property owner of the corner store at 14th and T told the Dupont Circle Conservancy that they can't find a tenant because the ANC is preventing any new liquor licenses in that area. Sometimes the residents have a point, other times they might be demanding too much.

The usual solution is to put restaurants and bars in less residential, less developed areas, like the new Ballpark district, which was mostly warehouses and parking lots until recently, and whose few residents would welcome stores and restaurants to improve the neighborhood. But eventually, the numbers of residents increase and so do the bars, and the amount of noise, and complaints rise. This is happening in the Gallery Place and Mount Vernon Triangle area, where the neighborhood's own success is now an obstacle to further growth.

Neighborhood blog The Triangle reports on the controversy over what kind of retail to put at 5th and I. One proposal includes a small jazz club. One commenter on Penn Quarter Living wrote, "I don't think clubs of any type directly next to housing works," while FourthandEye, author of the Triangle post, disagrees. "Do people really want this area to be 15 blocks of highrises, Quiznos and dry cleaners? ... This is downtown city living!"

If we build mixed-use, then every club is going to be near housing. We can avoid having too many clubs in one place, to spread the noise around; on the other hand, districts like Adams Morgan and U Street draw more people because of the wealth of choices and proximity of one to the other. Soon there won't be a place for a bar that's not next to a residential neighborhood, meaning every one will generate complaints. Yet we need them. It's not a debate that will go away.


How to encourage retail?

This afternoon is the second meeting of the Retail Strategy group of the DC Zoning Update. This group is discussing how zoning codes can encourage retail in DC, including where retail is allowed, and how to encourage smaller retailers as well as large.

I'll be there pushing for zoning that fosters as vibrant a retail environment as possible. What do you think we should do? Here are some general questions to get you thinking:

  • Requiring retail. Should we require buildings to have ground-floor retail? What if the owner tries to rent out the space and can't? Should they be able to switch to offices, or should they have to lower their prices to get something?
  • Consolidating retail. Some areas like Georgia Avenue have long strips of shops, but the population really isn't enough to support quite so many stores, so you end up with a lot of check cashing places and some unprofitable businesses that don't maintain a nice appearance. Should we push to consolidate retail in more defined districts?
  • Downtown. Maybe we should require retail uses more strongly downtown? There, the office rents are so high that we may need zoning more urgently to make sure there is also enough retail.
  • Neighborhood stores. Many neighborhoods are residentially zoned even on main streets, preventing convenience stores, cafes, and dry cleaners. Should we allow some of this? Do we need to create little commercial zones everywhere, or could we just let businesses under a certain square footage locate anywhere along larger streets?


BeyondDC's map

Continuing the trend of transit expansion maps like mine and Track Twenty-Nine's, Dan of BeyondDC has a transit vision. He won't call it a "fantasy map" because this is no fantasy: by building only half the Silver Line and using the money for more streetcars, the construction cost ought to be little more than what has been seriously proposed in recent years.

That Metro-versus-streetcar funding debate turned into a fascinating debate on Ryan Avent's blog. On the one hand, we can build eight streetcar lines for the cost of one Metrorail line. On the other hand, as Ryan writes, "There is more to these choices than just cost per person per mile. The density and capacity that can be supported by a Metro station significantly increases the value of surrounding property."

I think they're both right; streetcars are generally the best bang for the limited buck today, but we also need to think big. It's ridiculous that governments are fighting over scraps of federal money while we keep building expensive highways (not to mention wars). Streetcars versus Metro? BRT versus light rail? FTA formulas? We know that transit drives economic growth and higher land values in the long run. With apologies to the military and schools, perhaps one day transit will have all the money it needs while the road builders have to hold a bake sale to buy an off-ramp.

Public Spaces

Klingle: Even more cars in Rock Creek?

San Francisco has the Embarcadero Freeway. New York has the West Side Highway. In both cases, nature forced the city to close a road which it would never have had the political fortitude to do otherwise. In both cases, residents realized they didn't really need the road after all.

Rock Creek Parkway. Photo by
bankbryan on Flickr.

Would DC do this? If the Southwest-Southeast Freeway fell down, would we restore Virginia Avenue? Actually, we have an example. In 1991, Klingle Road, an express bypass through Rock Creek Park from Mount Pleasant to Woodley Park, flooded and had to be closed. For 17 years, people have gotten by okay. But Mayor Fenty and Jim Graham are set on rebuilding the road, even using DC money to do it. And most DCist commenters agree. "It's a road, and always has been a road." So was the Embarcadero Freeway.

We already dedicate too much natural space to cars. Biking or walking along Rock Creek Park means navigating a very narrow, windy path alongside a four-lane expressway. Rock Creek Park may be nice in the far north, but for most of the stretch is far from a peaceful natural oasis, of which we have precious little.

And advocates of reopening Klingle are ignoring the reality of induced demand. In 17 years, traffic patters have adapted to not having the road. If we reopen it, people will choose to drive instead of take the bus, or choose to live across the park from their workplaces knowing that they have this shortcut. I'd rather all of Rock Creek Park be a park, not a freeway; it's nice for residents of Mount Pleasant or Crestwood to be able to zip downtown at high speeds, but that just means it's appealing to live up there and zip downtown at high speeds, or even to work in Virginia and drive every day. This may be the reality today, but we should absolutely not encourage any more.

Let's make this road a walking and biking trail instead.

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