Posts from March 2010
Congratulations to readers Dustin, Brad, F. Sheehan, Kevin, Arnold Berke, and Reid for landing all three answers to this week's What's That?
If you drive to work, you probably battle ever-worsening traffic, making you stressed, tired, and sometimes late. What if for the cost of your morning coffee pick-me-up, you could stop being dragged down by your commute?
A congestion charge would improve mobility in downtown DC, but rather than funding local roads, the money should pay for regional improvements that aid commuters from Virginia, Maryland, and outer DC neighborhoods.
The Washington area ranked second most congested in the Texas Transportation Institute's 2009 Annual Urban Mobility Report. Washingtonians on average spend 62 hours stuck in traffic during the year and waste 42 gallons of gas. We all could find a better use for this wasted time and money, like spending more time with family and friends.
More frequent transit service or new bike lanes can only incrementally improve commutes, and even projects that increase automobile traffic flow never seem to end the congestion. Such projects may even add to traffic congestion in the long run.
A congestion charge would create a cordon around downtown DC and charge motorists to enter during weekdays. As drivers pass through the boundary, cameras would collect license plate numbers and charge drivers online, through a monthly pass, or at any multispace parking meter. There wouldn't be any tollbooths.
The charge would be enough to encourage some motorists to carpool, some to take transit or commuter buses, some to telework, some to shift to other times, and some to not make the trip unless it was necessary. With fewer automobile trips into downtown DC, traffic would lighten and the remaining drivers could get to their offices or other destinations more quickly.
This worked well in London, which implemented a congestion charge in 2003. London charges $12 (£8) for drivers to enter central London on weekdays between 7 am and 6:30 pm. They have until 10 pm of the day they crossed the boundary to pay the fee, or else it increases with time.
The charge has been successful. 21% fewer automobiles enter central London (70,000 fewer each day). Bus ridership increased 6%, and the system raised $206,000,000 (£137,000,000) in fiscal year 2008 for transportation improvements.
In the past, the District had proposed that the money collected from this charge would go towards improving DC's streets and transit. However, we are a region of 5 million people, and need to function more like one in solving our transportation woes. Just like with the natural environment where everything in the ecosystem is connected and works together, the same is true with transportation. Jurisdictions throughout the Washington metropolitan area are connected in a transportation ecosystem.
Rather than having DC keep all of the revenues generated by such a plan, the revenues should be shared regionally and be required to fund weekday downtown-bound commuter transit services, services which provide alternatives for the very commuters who would otherwise pay the charge.
The revenue could pay for dedicated bus lanes, to provide guaranteed funding for our world-class Metro service, or improve transportation demand management and telework options. And perhaps the potential for funds benefiting their constituents could make this concept palatable to regional state and federal elected officials who would have to support such a plan.
If regional Congressional and state representatives supported the idea, it could conceivably still happen despite obstructionism in Richmond: Congress lets DC impose charges within its own borders, and DC agrees to dedicate the funding to a regional authority that includes representation from Virginia and Maryland. Could it really work?
On Thursday, the WMATA Board heard a report from staff on the procurement of the new 7000-series railcars. The Board decided to hold off approving the contract until it can decide on options for additional cars.
Of the three companies vying to produce up to 748 railcars for Metro, Kawasaki Rail Car, Inc. scored highest on both technical capability and price, beating out Alstom, which recently built the 6000-series and rehabilitated the 2000- and 3000-series, and Bombardier.
While staff is recommending Kawasaki be chosen, the WMATA Board postponed their decision until mid-April, in order to have more time to consider finances.
The base order is for 64 railcars needed to run service on the first phase of the Silver Line, to Tysons Corner and Wiehle Avenue. The order also carries four options:
- 64 cars for Silver Line phase II to Dulles/Loudoun
- 130 cars for 75% 8-car train operation
- Rehabilitation of the 4000-series (100 cars)
- 300 cars to replace the aging 1000-series.
- 90 cars for 100% 8-car train operation when added to option 2
WMATA staff is currently proposing that Metro only exercise the Base Order and Option 4. The purchase of these 364 cars would cost about $765 million.
Currently, the Base Order is funded with money that comes from the Silver Line project and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. WMATA is also considering how to fund Option 4 through lines of credit and bond issues.
By exercising Option 4 at the time the Base Order is awarded, WMATA would save $5 million. For that reason, the Board held off making the decision on Thursday until they can decide how to fund Option 4.
Blagden Alley-Naylor Court is a designated historic district in the Shaw neighborhood, contained between O and M Streets and 9th and 10th Streets. What makes these blocks significant are the alleys that remain almost perfectly intact in their original 1865 alignment.
Many homes were built on alleys throughout the city in the late 19th century, particularly to house an influx of African American residents. Living conditions were difficult, and most of the alleys had been cleared of residential use before the city's 1934 Alley Dwelling Elimination Act.
Using historic survey maps, I've reconstructed the blocks around Blagden Alley-Naylor Court to observe how the alleys were formed and used. Click on any of the images to see in full size.
The 1861 model is based off of the Boschke survey, carried out between 1857 and 1859. This is probably how the blocks looked immediately before the alleys were installed. Some of the structures were built right up against the street frontage, but many more were simply scattered haphazardly in the interior. Since the blocks of the L'Enfant plan are quite large, measuring roughly 500x500 feet, more access was obviously needed to allow for orderly development. As far as I can tell, none of these buildings are currently in existence, at least not in any way resembling their original form.
The 1888 model is based off of Sanborn fire insurance maps. By this point, the blocks are just being fully built out. Many residential row houses have been completed on the outside, including the Victorian home on M Street where Blanche K. Bruce, the first African American senator, lived. 9th street was emerging as the commercial corridor, but N street had a bakery and other shops. Many of the small tenant homes were already completed on the alleys, especially in the southern block around Blagden Alley. Stables were spaced throughout, with the major livery housed on Naylor alley.
This is a closer look at the shape of the alleys themselves (north is now up). Blagden Alley was formed in an H shape with a central vertical axis, a design that was latter maligned as a "blind alley" for its tendency to attract crime. The Naylor Court block is formed completely differently with a strong east-west axis. At this point each of the alleys in this block had different names, but all of the others have since been dropped.
Much has changed by 1928. The first five or six story apartment buildings have been constructed, particularly the Atlantic and Henrietta apartments on N Street. The effects of the transition to automobiles is obvious. A large number of the residential units on the alleys now serve as garages for the homes fronting the outside streets, with a 21 car parking garage and gas station located just off of 9th street. There is some industry, mostly auto body shops, in the interior of the blocks. The first floor of the old livery is used by DC street cleaning, but the second floor still functions as a stable. North Presbyterian Church had been replaced by Salem Baptist Church in 1925.
Today the blocks look much the same, with the exception of a number of gaps in the urban fabric. These lots are either currently vacant or serve as parking lots. Some buildings on the internal alleys have been re-purposed for commercial or office use, something that was not common in the earlier days. The old livery became the host of the DC city archives in 1988, but the buildings labeled industrial are actually still vacant as far as I can tell. All of the brick alleys retain their original shape.
On Page 1: After Kwame Brown scored political points with River East by suggesting a Circulator there, DDOT is studying the broader potential for Circulator expansion but "pausing" actual growth. Maybe turning the 30s into a Circulator would satisfy both Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown and make DDOT prioritize H and I Street bus transit?
Also on page 1, MWCOG isn't about to study tearing down the Whitehurst as the Foggy Bottom Association reported, though Carol Buckley quotes me saying it's not a bad idea to discuss what we'll do in 10 years when the road needs major maintenance. This was just on COG's list of projects, from which ideas (good or bad) never actually get deleted.
The above-the-fold story covers the proposed "N Street Follies" hotel. Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull seemed to express his agreement with some of the points I made, that the hotel should have less parking (since the N Street dead-end alley couldn't possibly accommodate parking traffic), and that the shadows cast on the Tabard are specifically disallowed by zoning.
Page 3 discusses the great streetcar wire debate. Dupont Circle Conservancy President Rauzia Ally talks about the organization's decision not to sign onto the anti-wire resolution, instead choosing to ask questions about power systems but being open to the hybrid approach if wireless is more expensive. Buckley quotes me again in the page 7 continuation where I actually praise the Committee of 100's efforts, insofar as they seek to get information to the public about the various options.
Earlier this morning I contributed to a group post about the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry. While the group piece included many of my thoughts, I wanted to expand upon my personal reactions.
My overall impression of these initial images is that Gehry's design is thoughtful and inoffensive, but also underwhelming. Gehry has always been a better sculptor than architect, and is usually at his best when designing things that aren't traditional buildings, such as the Pritzker Pavilion.
Memorials, unlike traditional work/live buildings, are great opportunities for sculpture, so disappointed to see one of the world's great sculptors essentially punt.
The semi-circular inner plaza element is evocative of the FDR and MLK memorials, with its informal placement of decorated stone blocks. The look is attractive enough, but it's beginning to be a cliche. In my opinion it's the least ambitious part of the memorial, ironic considering it's the focal point.
In any event, the restrained central plaza should present an interesting dichotomy to the much more formal and monumentally-sized outer elements, the cylinders and metal tapestries.
The cylinders do more than any other element to make the memorial visually striking from a distance, and so are indispensable to the design, but at 80 feet tall and lacking any details whatsoever they will be too bare up close. Like the lackluster inner plaza, the cylinders are a missed opportunity for sculpture. If I were the designer I might go classical, but Gehry could propose something like bareiss columns and that would be just as good.
I also have mixed feelings about the other major element of the memorial, the metal tapestries. I appreciate and agree with the desire to cover up the Education Department building, but to do so with oversized picture panels is a touch contrived, a little too easy. It's like we've taken the tarps that are supposed to hide the parking garages at Nationals Ballpark and turned them into a monument. It's a difficult problem, but is that *really* the best we can do?
Gehry deserves credit for restraining himself from retreading his own familiar shtick. Another mass of crumbled titanium would have been inappropriate; it would be memorial to Gehry himself more so than Eisenhower. But at the same time I have to say I'm disappointed that there's nothing daring in this proposal. Such rare opportunities for artful civic sculpture shouldn't be ignored. This memorial could be worse, but it could also be a lot better.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Last Friday, five local skaters met with a designer and staff from the county Department of Parks to discuss building a temporary skate spot at Woodside Park in Downtown Silver Spring. Everyone hopes it'll be open by this summer, but concerns remain about how other park users will interact with the facility.
The proposed skate spot would be located on the north side of the park located at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street, in a clearing between the gym and the basketball courts. It's about 65 feet wide and 56 feet long, or about 4,000 square feet. It's next to an existing set of stairs that skaters already do tricks on, affectionately called Big Four.
Plans for the skate spot, shown above, would contain several modular pieces like a pyramid, a "fun box" or low shelf, and a quarter-pipe that would be dropped into a concrete slab. The pieces would be arranged around a new, ornamental tree. Planners envision ledges around the tree for sitting and a short ramp for doing tricks on. They say the tree's a way to make the skate spot look more attractive.
But skaters worried it could be disruptive or even dangerous for those using the space. Keir Johnson, a skater who grew up in Silver Spring, explained the "flow" of skate parks: users will start at one end and build up speed to do a trick on the other before turning around and doing it again. The tree would block flow or potentially be a hazard if kids can't slow down before running into it. "It feels cramped," said Johnson.
"It looks like it was designed for prettiness," said Downtown resident Maryam Balbed, who began skating with her kids a year and a half ago and goes by the nickname Sk8ter Mom. "We have to design it for children's health and safety."
Aaron Spohn of Industry, California-based Spohn Ranch, the company contracted to build the modular pieces, agreed to take out the tree from their final design. Spohn shared catalogs of Spohn Ranch skate parks across the United States, including one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for sailors stationed at the naval base there and their families.chased off real-life versions of it across Downtown Silver Spring.
Johnson rattled off a list of things that local skaters like to use: ledges; a flat bar, a long, thin metal rod for grinding on; steps; a pyramid; a quarter-pipe, and a bank. "I think if we want to make the best use of the money and the space, we want things we're gonna use," he says. "If it has those five things in it, people will be psyched."
As a high school student in the 1990's, he managed East of Maui, a skate park on Ellsworth Drive that closed to make way for the Downtown redevelopment, where he and his friends ran camps and arranged skate demos. "I loved that place," says Johnson, who currently works as a field producer for reality TV shows. "It was a huge thing. It made Silver Spring very prominent."
Given the size and significance of East of Maui, it's unlikely that the Woodside skate spot could meet the need of Silver Spring skaters. Last fall, JUTP crunched a formula from Skaters for Public Skateparks that determines how large a skatepark needs to be based on an area's population. We estimated that approximiately 900 people in Silver Spring would use one on a regular basis, requiring a park nearly three acres in size.
Citing those figures, Sk8ter Mom worried that the Woodside skate spot could be overwhelmed. "This is like throwing a sandwich into a hungry crowd," she says. "All the little kids who don't go downtown, their parents are gonna bring them here."
The skate spot will cost approximately $69,000 to fabricate and install the modular pieces, according to project manager Ellen Masciocchi, in addition to the cost of laying the concrete slab, which is currently unknown. By comparison, planned parks in College Park and Clinton could cost $250,000 and $300,000, respectively, while a temporary skate spot built by police officers in Germantown cost only $1,000.
If all goes well, construction could start on the skate spot this spring and it could open in time for Go Skateboarding Day on June 21. One year after the skate spot opens, the Parks Department will conduct a review, seeing how well it's used, how expensive it is to maintain, and how many complaints it has generated.
After that, they'll decide whether to keep the temporary park or start planning for a permanent one. Even then, a permanent skate spot won't be built until Woodside Park is scheduled for renovations, likely within the next seven to eight years.
Sk8ter Mom questioned how much sway the park's neighbors will have. While most in the adjacent Woodside Civic Association support the project, a handful of neighbors managed to stall the project last fall, while plans several years ago to build a larger skatepark on Fenton Street were scuttled by neighbors there. "How much power do we give the residents?" she asked. "They own their homes, but they don't own the park. Do they get to dictate this project?"
This is the second meeting that the Department of Parks has held with skaters about the project, and despite the lingering concerns, local skater and Blake High School student Christian was happy about getting results. "We got rid of the tree," he says. "We got a lot covered."
Fellow skater and high school student Alex felt similarly. "At least we got to put a say into what we want in it," he says.
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- Vienna Metro town center won't have a town center
- DDOT agrees to repave 15th Street cycle track
- Residents organize for positive change in Bluemont