Posts from March 2008
The Federal Government has an enormous impact on the shape of DC through the large number of Federal properties. It represents some of the worst planning and also the best planning at the same time, through different agencies and boards that have very different approaches to design.
The proposed Armed Forces Retirement Home development shows off both the good and the bad. Founded in 1851 to house disabled and homeless war veterans, and used as a getaway by President Lincoln, the Home ran into financial difficulties and decided to sell some of their land at the edge of the property for development. Here is their proposal. Neighbors want the open space preserved, while others want even more urban development. NCPC recently scheduled a neighborhood meeting for April 14th in advance of their May 1 regular meeting where they will review the plan.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the other federal board along with NCPC that reviews architecture and urban design, discussed the plan in January. CFA and NCPC usually have been very good in their approach to development, and CFA's criticisms of the AFRH proposal justified my respect for them. Below are some of the key points of AFRH's plan, my reaction, and CFA's objection in architect-ese.
Zone A: "Semi-urban" means what?
If semi-urban means anything, it's urban forms that are only semi-well-designed. That describes this section of the plan. (Or as the CFA put it, "The proposal does little to acknowledge the urban context, including a lack of expression of the North Capitol Street axis in the proposed development.")
- Buildings built out to the street are a good urban design.
- Most of the street alignments point at the grand historic Forwood Building, creating dramatic views along the streets.
- Retail corridors that line up with the roads connecting across North Capitol and Irving, meaning pedestrians (and drivers) coming from CUA or the hospitals will pass the retail.
- Single-use zoning, discredited since the days of Robert Moses, is in force. The southern half of the site is marked commercial, the northern half residential, instead of a better mix.
- Parking. There's a huge amount of parking, and no real discussion of TDM (more on that below). The courtyards of the buildings along Irving Street are proposed to be filled with parking garages that front onto Irving. On the other hand, they do require the structures to "not express their use on the outside of the buildings", and Irving in this area is configured mostly as an expressway, but as the HPRB writes, garages of this type "tend to look like garages nonetheless. It is a good thing that such structures are not oriented toward the interior of the campus (indeed, they take advantage of the grade falling to the south and east), but more care has to be taken to not turn a bunch of parking garages toward the surrounding city either."
- Lack of a street grid. While aligning the streets with the Forwood Building looks nice, the rest of the streets are a hodgepodge that don't line up with each other.
- All big buildings. This one is pretty typical of all building projects, but with each block containing 1-2 huge buildings, it won't get the variety of older areas with more individual buildings.
- Lack of transition. Good design transitions gradually from tall buildings to shorter ones to open space; this plan would create tall buildings across the street from open fields (not urban parkland, which like New York's Central Park looks nice flanked by tall buildings).
Zone B: Park or retail?as does CFA and HPRB. If development does happen here, this plan has some good features, though some bad ones as well.
- The size of the buildings step down gradually from taller buildings on the east to shorter ones near the rowhouses of Park View.
- Retail directly on Irving Street could serve the hospital center and the neighborhood.
- This area doesn't connect to Zone A, or as CFA put it, "the proposed development treats the site as a patchwork of separate parcels rather than presenting a comprehensive vision."
- Like Zone A, it's mostly block-sized buildings and a lot of parking, which is unfortunately typical of developments like this.
Zone C: Townhouses without a gridHPRB feels quite strongly that it should not be developed.
Putting that aside, though, it also looks like the architect just came from designing an over-55 country club in Florida. Immediately next to a neighborhood of townhouses arranged in a traditional grid, this area sticks with the townhouses but arranges them in arcs and lines with no connectivity except through one main street, and a barrier separates them from the adjacent neighborhood. CFA also objected, calling this an "inappropriately suburban treatment of the residential buildings," and argued that "the plan should relate to the adjacent neighborhood's urban pattern and scale to generate the layout of the proposed residential buildings."
Transportation Management "Plan"Since they are required to have a transportation management plan, they have one, which mostly amounts to "we'll have one later." The document encourages carpooling and promises a shuttle to Metro, but will also have so much parking (almost 6,500 spaces) and one per residential unit that this development will certainly increase vehicle trips. I've seen and heard reference to a "strongly worded letter" from DDOT about the transportation impacts, and am trying to get a copy.
The L2 bus travels along Connecticut Avenue from Friendship Heights, detours through Adams Morgan, down 18th and New Hampshire through Dupont, and then along K Street to McPherson Square. It also runs right past my window. I started keeping track of its actual times and compared them to the schedule. (Click for a bigger version).
This chart shows how much time you are likely to wait at 18th and S based on when you show up. The darkest area is 10% of the buses: for example, at exactly 8:00, 10% of the time a bus will come within 3 minutes, but 90% of the time it will take longer than 3 minutes. The lightest area is 100% of the buses (that I've observed); at 8:00, 100% of the time a bus will come within 8 minutes (not bad).
The red dotted line represents the schedule. The WMATA trip planner reports that this bus should arrive at 7:48, 8:04, 8:23, 8:36, 8:48, 9:01, and 9:16. If all buses showed up exactly on time, the entire chart would coincide with the red line.
You can see that many of the triangular areas deviate to the left of the red line. That means that the bus often shows up early. If you get to the stop at 8:46, two minutes before the scheduled 8:48 arrival, 30% of the time the bus will show up within four minutes, but 70% of the time it will take 12 minutes or more because 70% of the time this bus shows up before 8:46. And it's been as early as 8:41 (that's where the tall light blue spike appears), which means to be safe and avoid risking a 23-minute wait for a 9:01 bus that may show up at 9:04, you have to arrive to the stop seven minutes ahead of time.
The tighter the triangle, the more accurate the bus's appearances. As you can see, the 8:04 is pretty good, only deviating to the left (early) occasionally and then not very far early. At the same time, it's not late much; the big dark triangle means that the bus isn't usually more than a couple minutes late either. On the other hand, its light colored spike is very high, meaning that occasionally even if you show up a minute early you might be stuck waiting 28 or 32 minutes if the 8:23 is late.
The 8:23 and 8:36 appearances aren't very consistent, leading to the lack of visible shape in those areas. Those buses are often early and often late, and several times have shown up within one minute of each other.
You can see all my data on this Google Spreadsheet. The first tab is my direct observations; the second tab is the calculated data that generated the chart.
In conclusion, the 8:04 is fairly reliable, while the later buses are not so much. WMATA is working on offering real-time bus info which would help since someone could see how much time actually remained until the next bus, and see this before leaving home. The other big recommendation I see from this data is for the drivers to try harder to avoid being early. They should wait at certain key stops until the correct departure time. That way, commuters could at least know for certain that if they showed up a minute or two before the bus's scheduled arrival, they wouldn't be left waiting at the stop for 20 minutes.
The NYT writes about DC's Capitol Quarter project, which is replacing the failed Capper/Carrollsburg housing projects with new mixed-income townhouses. It includes enough low-income units to accommodate all residents of the old projects, but also has its critics.
The photo of Housing Authority Director Michael Kelly reminds me of another famous photo of an influential figure in housing project construction...
(Left: Photo by Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times, 2008. Right: Photo by Arnold Newman, 1959.)
Woodley Park sits right atop a fault line between walkable urbanism and the dense sprawl-style architecture you get when architects and developers simply transplant suburban forms onto smaller city lots, like the Hilton in Dupont. Despite having a Metro station, most of the larger apartment towers follow the Le Corbusier-style form of large islands in a sea of parking set far back from the street. And the neighborhood contains several large hotels, all built mid-century and all creating a pedestrian-unfriendly experience with huge driveways and parking lots between them and the neighborhood.
Congrats to capitolcub who correctly guessed the two photos I posted last week.
On the left is a somewhat urban street, with some nice houses whose front porches make it pleasant to walk along. It's the north side of Woodley Road in Woodley Park. But across the street, it looks entirely different. Enormous driveways traverse a giant expanse of empty lawn which contains an underground parking garage. The Marriott Wardman Park is set far back from the street, with a classic car-circle entrance that's not inviting to pedestrians, like at the Hilton.
The other end of the Marriott, closer to the Metro, is no better. A driveway runs right from the Metro to the hotel, but it's very narrow (to accommodate a lot of parking next to it) and is the hotel's main loading access. As a result, it has only a very small sidewalk onto which crowds of people, well, crowd, while only the occasional truck uses the rest of the space. And the driveway leads to, you got it, another car circle.replaced an above-ground garage, demolished to make way for a condo building that does, indeed, fit in reasonably well with the architecture of the neighborhood. The developer plans for trees and a small park on the lawn. But it's still a suburban building in an urban setting.
It doesn't face the street but instead looks sideways. The side closest to the Metro has a big circular oval driveway and a small surface parking lot. When future residents want to walk from their building to the stores on Connecticut or the Metro, they'll have to cross the parking lot as well as the hotel's two driveways. And whatever goes in the front lawn is isolated from the street. Since the hotel just built a big underground garage, why not just add the condo's parking (of which they're probably building too much) to that same garage with the same entrances as the neighborhood association wanted? Or use the existing driveway to Calvert Street?
My car got towed last week (for accidentally violating a Pepco temporary no-parking notice). When I got back today I immediately went to get it out of the impound lot, at 2nd and Q
Southeast Southwest. I got into a cab, but upon hearing the destination, the driver claimed not to know where that was (bogus) and refused to transport me.
This is my first direct experience with this (taxis are usually happy to go to Dupont), but I'd read plenty of articles. It was certainly the kind of fare a cabbie doesn't want; it's just $9.80 (two zones) for a five-mile trip across all of downtown, and ends in a bad neighborhood.
However, the law says I get to go (and besides, if I'd been going to the Cannon House Office Building, only one zone and almost as far, I bet he'd have taken me). I decided to see if DC's taxi enforcement was really a joke, as some had written, or not.
Sitting in the taxi, I called the number on the Passengers' Bill of Rights. I reached an operator right away, who assured me that the driver ought to know where it is. (Obviously. It's a grid, after all.)
She asked me to relay the driver's license number, posted on the right visor. However, the visor was flipped up (as it often is). When I reached over to flip it down, the driver grabbed the visor and refused to let me see his license.
Hearing this, the operator transferred me to her supervisor, who turned out to be Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain. Swain asked to speak to the driver, which I set up via speaker since I didn't want to hand my phone to this man.
Swain asked the driver why he wouldn't transport me, and the driver replied that he wanted the fare in advance. This hadn't come up earlier, but I had no objections; besides, having read the Taxi Bill of Rights many times while bored in a cab, I knew the driver was entitled to the fare in advance. (I was about to shell out $240 cash to get my car back. $10 was not the issue.)
Swain then told the driver to show me his license placard, which he did so I could read it over the phone. We then confirmed the driver's name. Before closing the call, Swain told the driver in no uncertain terms that he expected to see the driver in his office this afternoon, as soon as he had dropped me off at 2nd and Q, Southwest. Thanks, Leon Swain!
Will this driver face actual penalties? I don't really care. I didn't want to ruin his day; I just wanted to get my car back. I do hope that this deters other drivers from refusing to transport passengers. Blog posts I'd read in the past say that DC's enforcement is lax. Is this kind of treatment new? Old and ultimately ineffective despite appearances? Something else?
Does DC need a citizen Planning Commission to oversee planning decisions, the way the HPRB oversees historic preservation or the National Capital Planning Commission governs the use of federal property? The Post's Roger Lewis is skeptical. This week's Current quotes various members of influential neighborhood groups who are disappointed with an interim report that seems to frown on the idea. (The article continues here).
Many of the people quoted in the article are from the same groups that already organize on development issues, some of whom tend to assume a NIMBY posture. Meanwhile, the Office of Planning tends to favor development. Whether you want a commission seems to depend on whom you agree with more often. The Current article closes with an ironic quote from Barbara Zartman of the Committee of 100: "We all remember a time when politics shaped land-use decisions. Let's hope the planning commission is not derailed." This reminds me of the saying that it's "politics" when you don't like a policy and "responsible governance" when you do. Would a planning commission create more politics or less?
What do you think? Does the DC Office of Planning make good decisions? Do we need a Planning Commission?
While I was debating parking zoning regulations, Councilmember Jack Evans announced a new bill that would exempt religious institutions from being designated as historic sites against their will. This is clearly aimed at the Third Church landmarking.
I oppose protecting that building, because I see the role of historic preservation as retaining the character of neighborhoods, not about protecting a set of standalone pieces of art by various famous architects despite their impact on the street fabric. However, I also recoil at laws that prescribe favored treatment for religious buildings. The HPRB decision was wrong not because Third Church is a church, but because it is a bad building that deadens a street corner. Its treatment should be the same whether it is a hotel, a house, or a church. Richard Layman hates the bill too.
Historic preservation has been great for DC, preventing this from turning into this. But if we already have this, should we really use law to keep it the way it is? Is it more important to maintain a variety of buildings that make DC's architecture more interesting, or preserve neighborhood fabric that also fosters a lively streetscape?
Just what the Penn Quarter needs: another blank wall building with no retail, right next to the MLK Library. The architects even drew in a relatively dead street, with only a few scattered pedestrians and more parked cars than people. At least they know what they are going to get. Via DC Metrocentric.
Since this isn't a historic district (unless I'm reading the list wrong), and we don't have any design review outside historic districts, nobody is forcing these types of buildings to engage the street more directly. I'm hoping the zoning review, perhaps the Retail Strategy group, will be able to require retail and/or other active street uses in these commercial districts. Apparently the blankness is because the bottom will be a church, replacing the church that was already there. But since the church is surely profiting greatly from the development on the parcel, requiring an urban-friendly design (and they do exist) and some windows or stores on at least part of the block doesn't seem too much to ask.
There are a lot of good meetings happening this week in DC and Rockville around local planning, from encouraging the arts and retail through DC's zoning to improving Rockville Pike.
I highly encourage all of you, readers, to attend these meetings in your city or neighborhood. Many of them, especially the DC Zoning Update and the Pike planning, are significant opportunities for you to speak up and have an impact. The Parking and Loading zoning meetings, which I attended, had about 15-20 participants and the consensus of the group made a meaningful difference in what the Office of Planning will be putting into the draft revised codes.
Here's a list of some upcoming meetings. If you know of something good that I missed, post it in the comments. In particular, I'd really like to know about important meetings happening outside DC; I found the Rockville Pike one somewhat serendipitously, and would love to know about similar meetings in Arlington, College Park, and the rest of the region.
Citywide in DC: Two new working groups are starting this week. The Retail Strategy group (Tuesday, 6:30 pm) will be discussing topics like encouraging more retail downtown, use of public space like sidewalks, fostering diversity of retail establishments (i.e. more grocery stores, not all banks), and more. The Arts & Culture group (Wednesday, 1 pm) will discuss how zoning can help "transform the District into an even more vibrant cultural capital in the future than it is today" including where arts venues can be located and affordable housing for artists.
Rockville: The third public meeting about transforming Rockville Pike into a more walkable, mixed-use place is Tuesday evening at 7. I attended the last one; this meeting will focus specifically on transportation on the Pike.
Meetings about Union Station bike parking, the GW campus, AFRH, and the Old Convention Center after the jump.
Capitol Hill/H Street: ANC 6A, which covers northeast Capitol Hill and the eastern H Street area, is having their Transportation and Public Space Committee meeting Monday at 7, where they will discuss Union Station bike parking and hear a presentation from Zipcar.
Foggy Bottom/West End: Your ANC meeting, ANC 2A, is Wednesday at 7 and will discuss the GWU campus plan, among other topics.
Everyone: The Commission on Fine Arts, which reviews art and architecture on Federal property in DC and various other things, will be discussing the Armed Forces Retirement Home develppment plan and the proposed development at the Old Convention Center site (the huge parking lot around 10th and I). This is much less participatory than the others, but should be interesting.
And for future events, there's always a calendar on the right sidebar of this site.
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