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

Posts from April 2009


Metro restores almost all service cuts

The Metro board voted today to restore almost all of the proposed bus service cuts. They will close the rest of the $29 million budget gap with money from their "rainy day" operating reserve and some increase in contributions from Maryland.

Photo by treevis.

Only Chris Zimmerman of Arlington voted against the proposal. Mr. Zimmerman had previously objected to closing any of the gap using a one-time transfer, since it doesn't address the longer term problems. Zimmerman's office has told us they will provide a statement soon.

Of the $29 million gap, $13.7 million will come from the operating reserve. Montgomery County has already agreed to restore Ride-On cuts that forced Metro to pick up those services and cost $1 million. The State of Maryland and Prince George's County will also contribute more.

$2.5 million of bus cuts remain, mostly from Maryland. Maryland is cutting the Z2, C7, C9 and L7, and raising express bus fares to $3 on the J7, J9, and W19. Virginia will be restructuring the 21A/B/C/D/F, and Arlington Transit will take over the 22B and 24P. DC is no longer cutting any service.

General Manager John Catoe said that Metro expects to replenish the operating reserve because, due to conservative assumptions made during budget development, Metro typically runs a surplus compared to the approved budget. They currently project a $9 million surplus for this year, and had they not closed the budget gap with operating reserve, would have had to give all or most of that money back to the individual jurisdictions.


Dinner links: Save the planet

Image from Philips.
Streetlights of the future: Streetlights make up 2% of nationwide electrical demand. Some cities have started experimenting with innovative new streetlight designs. Some turn themselves off in bright moonlight or power themselves from nearby rivers. Others totally rethink the classic streetlight shape (which would never fly in most of DC). (Infrastructurist, Jaime)

30-plus years behind the times: NPS of course: The National Mall will start "studying" instituting a recycling program, which would be their first ever. (Post, Gavin Baker)

DC gets a B on trees: Casey Trees issued a report card on DC's trees, giving the city a B. It fared worst on tree protection, and best on the overall health of trees. (Washington Business Journal, Gavin Baker)

Have Obama’s first 100 days greened DC?: The Obama administration has now passed 100 days. City Renewed looks at his environmental impact so far.

Energy efficiency stimulus will go to solar panels and bags: DC will use its energy efficiency stimulus money for two projects: solar panels on schools, and free reusable bags. Chris C isn't so sure those are the best priorities, wishing for weatherization, green building, and private solar panel grants. (Green Building Law Update)

U Street hotel gets a little shorter: The developers of the proposed hotel on U Street, which I kept meaning to write about but never got a chance, have cut one story off the top. 14th and You liked it better taller.

5th and Mass gets a little safer: DDOT is expanding a triangular pedestrian refuge at 5th and Massachusetts, NW, taking a lane away from a tiny piece of I Street. (The Triangle)

1904 book promotes Columbia Heights: The booklet discusses ways to attract "home-seekers of the desired class" by promoting the neighborhood's advantages, including schools, churches, transportation, and having a cooler climate thanks to its higher altitude than downtown. (Red Sky at Night)

Hugs and helmets: Danish police stop bicyclists and offer a couple of surprises. (Lynda) Update: the video is fake.

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Lost Washington: Loew's Palace Theater

Opened on November 4, 1918, the Loew's Palace Theater was Washington's first movie palace and the site of numerous early premieres. Loew's was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb as a 2423 seat single screen theater and was located at 1306 F Street, NW.

In addition to motion pictures, stage shows began in 1926 and continued until 1932. The Loew's Palace Theater was also reportedly the first DC movie house with air conditioning, which was installed in 1926.

As the theater began to decline, Loew's spent $225,000 to renovate the theater in 1964 which changed the paint, walls, and carpeting at which time orchestra and balcony wall boxes were also removed.

In 1968, a robbery occurred in which two people were shot and wounded and a year later Loew's put the old movie palace up for sale. The Loew's Palace was finally closed for good in 1978, and was torn down in late 1979.

History from Cinema Treasures. Photos from the Library of Congress Harris & Ewing Collection.


Balancing neighborhood retail, part 2: Incentives and supply

Yesterday, we discussed DC's current 25% linear-foot cap on restaurant and bar uses in some neighborhood commercial districts. Prohbiting restaurants is one possible tool for ensuring that restaurants don't completely push out other businesses. What other techniques could accomplish the same goal?

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

Locally serving retail isn't the only use that zoning might encourage. The Comprehensive Plan also calls for zoning to encourage "small-scale office space" and arts and creative industries in neighborhood commercial areas. Office uses bring daytime activity to an area, boosting area business, and many of those businesses (like accountants or medical offices) can directly benefit the local residents.

Some districts currently contain specific incentives for certain uses. In the Uptown Arts Overlay (14th and U), a new building can receive an FAR bonus if it includes a theater. Downtown, buildings have to contain some residential use, but a "Child Development Center" satisfies 50% more of the residential requirement than equivalently-sized apartments. And on H Street, there's a specific FAR bonus if a developer puts a grocery store in Square 776 (bordered by 3rd, 4th, H, and I Streets NE).

In other areas, simply making some uses easier to create is the incentive. Normally, hotels require a "special exception," where the Board of Zoning Adjustment must ensure that they won't conflict with the public interest and other factors, but some areas allow them as a matter of right. Some districts have specifically permitted artist live-work studios in residential areas.

Likewise, new zoning rules could (and should) allow many uses as a matter of right, and could provide specific bonuses for the ones that communities most wish to encourage. However, DC's range of bonuses is limited. Arlington accomplishes much of its planning by giving developers extra height in exchange for good urban design and desirable amenities. However, Arlington's buildings can get much taller than in DC.

Another way to encourage more retail, especially neighborhood-serving retail, is to allow more opportunities for these stores to open. When high rents in popular commercial districts push out other stores, the rents can only keep rising because the supply of usable commercial space is limited. Most neighborhood commercial areas are small, and the surrounding residential zoning prohibits commercial activity. If restaurants are crowding out a small florist, we could let the florist open up in the basement of an adjacent residential townhouse, for example.

On the other hand, neighbors are often reluctant to allow commercial expansion because of the trash and loading truck traffic they generate, especially food establishments which create garbage that often attract rodents. However, zoning could restrict this expansion outside the commercial district to establishments, like clothing stores, florists, and pharmacies, which don't generate as much trash, and put strict limits on loading times and other impacts.

Parking policy can also promote certain types of businesses. The Pennsylvania Avenue performance parking pilot in Capitol Hill, which added market-rate meters to many blocks, has particularly helped daytime businesses which benefit from quick turnover. The right parking policies could help those businesses better compete with restaurant uses.

Which of these techniques do you think would help encourage thriving and diverse retail areas in our neighborhoods? Are there other tools that could help improve neighborhood commercial zones?

Update: Matt Yglesias posted an article on this topic right around the same time I posted this one, making the same point that limited supply due to the constrained size of neighborhood retail districts is the biggest market distorter.


All BRT plans are not created equal

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich believes that his proposed Bus Rapid Transit network is a key tool to deal with the huge amounts of traffic that the controversial Base Realignment and Closure plan (BRAC) will bring to military facilities in the county. Elrich cited two of his proposed BRT lines, from Olney and Germantown to downtown Bethesda, as key links from housing to BRAC jobs.

Photo by Los Angeles Metro.

Councilmember Elrich clearly sees Bus Rapid Transit as a piece of our region's future mobility infrastructure plans. Back in December, he articulated a plan that would implement BRT in selected Montgomery County corridors. While BRT has its own unique strengths and weaknesses and should never be used as a direct substitute for heavy rail, light rail, or streetcars, it can be a complimentary piece of the regional transportation system.

On a positive note, Elrich seems to understand that BRT is not BRT without its own dedicated right of way:

Elrich said although he had not had detailed discussions with Navy Med about the project, he thought the necessary 20 feet of right-of-way could be obtained along the east-side curb along Route 355 at Navy Med. ... The BRT lines would feature dedicated lanes in the median or curbside, real-time travel information for customers, and flexible routes, with six to eight minutes between stops at each station.
The biggest danger is for political pressure to convert the BRT late into first an HOV lane, then just another general traffic lane. Any asphalt is inherently attractive to cars' unquenchable desire for more asphalt. Motorists, often through civic associations, will call their Councilmembers and lobby for any dedicated bus lane to be opened up for all vehicles. This would then negate the entire point of BRT. The lines would become as slow as the Q2 or the 30s lines because of the car traffic.

This happened with the Shirley Busway, in the median of I-395 in Virginia. The Shirley Busway began as a bus-only lane. Then it became a bus and HOV lane. Next, hybrid vehicles could use it too. Now, the lane is becoming a HOT lane. Our region is not the only one that has devolved dedicated bus lanes. The New York State DOT just coverted bus lanes to bus-and-HOV, slowing buses, on the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City (via The Overhead Wire).

Elrich is also touting "flexible routes" as a positive feature. However, flexibility is also a drawback of BRT and such a "feature" could doom a BRT system to failure. Developers hesitate to invest in transit-oriented, human-scale street grid development near BRT stations because of the possibility of a route change in the middle of the night. Transit is most convenient, efficient, and cost-effective when it connects and/or operates completely within walkable urban human-scale street gridded places.

Convenient, efficient transit cannot coexist with a low-density car-dependent environment except as commuter rail or commuter bus. And those commuter services still need dense job centers at one end of their routes. No bus or train can go to every little subdivision and strip mall and be convenient enough to attract riders who also own automobiles.

Asked by The Gazette if the Olney and Germantown lines specifically would help move large numbers of BRAC employees, Elrich indicated that generally speaking the system accounted for connecting population centers with employment centers, and that these routes could move more new BRAC employees than the proposed Purple Line light rail project between New Carrollton and Bethesda. BRAC is expected to bring in about 2,500 new jobs to Bethesda.
Mr. Elrich doesn't seem to understand the connection between transportation and land use. His environmentally-friendly vision of creating a BRT should be applauded. However, he is trying to do the impossible: build a mass transit system that is convenient for all residents of the miles and miles of car-dependent un-places in Montgomery County. He is trying to envision a system that improves upon the status quo, rather than acknowledging that the land use status quo is the problem. The fundamental characterics of a low-density car-dependent land use arrangement is inherently prohibitive to transit that is convenient enough to attract riders of choice from their cars. When he talks about his BRT vision, he acknowledges that traffic is a problem and touts his vision as a tool to address it. However, just like every other car-dependent place, the traffic is a symptom of an arrangement that requires its residents to drive for every basic life function. Building a BRT system won't change that. However, enacting policies that provide incentives for human-scale street grid development around transit hubs will. However, the problems associated with lack of development around bus stations would rear their head in such a scenario.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, however, noted that the general idea for BRT is not new, and that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority was already looking into similar ideas. She also mentioned cost figures and ridership numbers as potential problems. Floreen is chairwoman of the county's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.
While transit advocates often disagree with Councilmember Floreen about transportation issues, she has a valid point in this case. Despite the fact that the separate jurisdictions in our region have their own county and city councils, we have all prospered together with regional transit cooperation. The Metro has been an unquestionable success in our region for a variety of reasons, one of which being the improved access to jobs and amenities across jurisdictions. Because of our positive experience with regional transportation, it would be a better idea to plan a complementary BRT system on a regional scale , while focusing development on heavy rail Red Line stations and on future light rail Purple Line Stations.


Breakfast links: Zealous enforcers and budget maneuvers

Photo by cliff1066.
Yo building is so ugly, only terrorists want to photograph it: Security guards harassed Beatus Est's boss for photographing the monumentally ugly Forrestal Building, but not other, more attractive government offices. Those London cops also seem to have gotten suspicious when the tourists photographed the Modernist Vauxhall bus station. Could it be that security guards get more suspicious when people photograph ugly and/or modern buildings, since they less commonly attract tourists?

Maryland offers more money for PG buses: The State of Maryland has offered to pay half the cost to restore the Metrobus lines cut from Prince George's County, as long as the County pays the other half.

MoCo may allow parking revenue to fund transit: The Montgomery County Council is discussing a bill to allow parking district money to fund transit which helps people reach that area without parking. This is an important change and is a key part of Donald Shoup's recommendations for good parking policy. If they can fund other transportation modes, parking districts can meaningfully enhance mobility in a high-demand area; if they can't, then they just take choices away from the county and force more and more parking. If you live in Montgomery County, tell Councilmember Floreen you like the idea on her site.

Performance parking working in Philly: As a result of a recent parking meter fee increase in Philadelphia's Center City, occupancy at on-street meters has decreased from 97% to 77% and it's now easier to find a parking space. But contrary to performance parking principles, the city is considering raising meter prices even more. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael P)

Berliner proposes more Metro stops in Bethesda: Montgomery Councilmember Roger Berliner suggests adding a Metro stop between Grosvenor and White Flint. He said the station should cost $70 million, but WMATA says it might be more like $140 million. (Gazette)

Arlington picks stimulus projects: The County will spend its transportation stimulus money to put Columbia Pike's utility lines underground, purchase new buses, and "upgrade the county government's transportation system management plant." (Arlington Sun Gazette, Gavin Baker)

Clarendon zoning adjusted: The Arlington County Board adjusted zoning rules to allow some more density in exchange for greater review around Clarendon Metro. The Board hopes the changes will encourage the desired walkable development in the area. Some neighbors oppose the changes. (Arlington Sun Gazette, Gavin Baker)

Park Service cracks down on pedicabs: The U.S. Park Police have been intimidating pedicab operators around the Mall. One Park Police officer said Tourmobile was pushing for the crackdown. (We Love DC, Jaime, Tom A.)

An even greater Thomas Circle vision: BeyondDC expands upon Chris Loos' Thomas Circle sketch, adding verdant trees in addition to benches and a nice usable public plaza.

Twice a day?: Thanks to all of you sending in lots of tips, the links have gotten longer. Today, I even held many good links back. Would you like to see more frequent but shorter links posts, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, at least some of the days?

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Then and Now: W.B. Moses & Sons

Then (left): Circa 1910, the W.B. Moses & Sons building at 11th and F Streets, NW. W.B. Moses moved to Washington from Philadelphia during the Civil War, and within 50 years established the largest exclusively retail furniture, carpet, and drapery business in America. W.B. Moses settled on the corner of 11th and F in 1884, and the building was added on to in 1887, 1889, and 1898. Image from the Library of Congress National Photo Company Collection.

Now (right): Yet another, largely nondescript, office building.


Arlington wants your help counting bikes and pedestrians

Arlington County transportation programs BikeArlington and WalkArlington are looking for volunteers to help collect bicycle and pedestrian counts in Arlington County on May 7th and 9th. This regular data collection is part of a national project to document walking and cycling as a mode of transportation. Collecting better data on usage and demand is essential to build long-term support for walking and cycling.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

Count locations include shared use paths, sidewalks, and on-road bike lanes. Many of the sites are easily accessible by Metro. Arlington will provide training and materials. Shifts are two hours long in the morning and evening on Thursday, and noon to 2:00 PM on Saturday. In addition to counting the number of people traveling, Arlington's volunteers may count the number of cyclists wearing helmets or other demographic data.

If you'd be interested in helping with this study, email Last time we were able to help Arlington out with some volunteers, let's see if we can provide even more support this time.


Balancing neighborhood retail, part 1: The 25% rule

Fostering a diverse range of retail in a neighborhood commercial area is a difficult balancing act. DC has tried several techniques for managing this balance, including limiting the frontage devoted to restaurants, limiting liquor licenses, and offering bonuses to new development that contains certain uses.

Adams Morgan. Photo by randomduck.

Restaurants, especially those allowed to serve alcohol, can afford higher rents than neighborhood-serving businesses, like grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and dry cleaners. As bars and restaurants become successful, an area draws more foot traffic, attracting more of those businesses. Landlords can charge higher rent, which pushes out the local businesses. This is basically an economic game theory problem: the most natural equilibrium states are a mostly-vacant corridor on the one hand, and nothing but bars on the other.

Can zoning or other regulations help keep corridors in more of a balance? Is that desirable? One options is to allow market forces to determine the retail mix. But many residents are concerned about their neighborhoods becoming "another Adams Morgan." At the same time, regulation also hampers business, leading to more vacant storefronts. Is there a way to strike a balance, encouraging free enterprise while also maintaining some diversity of store types?

At last week's Commercial Corridors/Areas working group meeting, participants discussed the current 25% limitation on restaurants. This restriction allows at most 25% of the "linear frontage" within the district to be used for bar and restaurant uses. It applies to many of the city's neighborhood commercial areas, including the 14th and U "ARTS Overlay," Cleveland Park, H Street, and lower Georgia Avenue. This map shows DC's commercial zones outside downtown, with the ones subject to a limitation filled with the darker color.

The ARTS overlay is nearing its 25%, though there is some ambiguity about which establishments count. Cleveland Park residents disagree about their 25% limitation, a debate which recently resurfaced when Starbucks announced it would close its location near the Cleveland Park Metro.

The workgroup meeting focused not on whether such restrictions are appropriate, but how best to implement them. Is measuring the linear frontage of restaurants the best way, or something else? The Office of Planning presented five options:

  1. Linear frontage: This is the existing approach. Measure the frontage of bars and restaurants and compute the percentage of the total frontage in the district. This allows multiple restaurants close to each other, as long as some other uses offset them elsewhere. However, it requires administration to keep the measurement up to date as businesses open and close.
  2. Total occupancy limit: Allow a certain maximum number of bar and restaurant uses in the district. Berkeley, CA uses this for restaurants. This is very easy to administer, but since it treats a small restaurant the same as a large one, would probably create a disincentive for small establishments.
  3. Building area limit: Allow bars and restaurants to occupy at most a percentage of the ground floor of each block or building. DC uses this downtown to limit banks and ground floor office uses. This is also easy to measure, but is trickier in small blocks and small buildings.
  4. Distance separation requirement: Prohibit a new establishment within a certain distance of an existing one. Oakland uses this for liquor and restaurant licenses. This is very simple to administer but prevents small clusters of restaurants, and it can be difficult to define and measure the distance if the nearest other establishment is through a building.
  5. Average concentration per capita: Allow a certain number of locations per capita in each Census district. As an area grows in population, more bars and restaurants could open. California uses this for liquor and restaurant licenses. This probably isn't right for DC, because the supply of available retail spaces doesn't necessarily change as population does.

Illustrations of options for use limits. From left to right: linear frontage, total occupancy limit, building area limit, and distance separation requirement. Images from the Office of Planning.

The current linear frontage system has one additional advantage: it creates an incentive for buildings to fill the sidewalk with a greater number of doors to more businesses. Drugstores, bars, and many other establishments can easily locate most of their square footage underground or in the back of the building, occupying a smaller amount of street frontage.

If we stick with a linear frontage rule, we also should consider breaking up the larger zones. The ARTS overlay, for example, is very large. Should a restaurant at 7th and Florida really affect whether one can open at 15th and P? We could divide these zones into blocks of ¼ mile, and compute frontage only within each zone.

Today, though, a zone has either hit the limit or it hasn't. If it's not at the limit, there's no incentive for a new building to restrict frontage, whereas if it's at the limit, there's no opportunity to add a restaurant at all. Ideally, a market could set a value on restaurant frontage in all zones, whether they have 10% restaurants or 50% restaurants, and allow establishments to buy and sell credits, something like a cap-and-trade system.

A developer building a new building could make some extra money by designing the structure to put more establishments into the limited frontage, with more of the square footage behind. This could even apply to banks, drugstores, and office building lobbies.

Finally, 25% is probably too low. Maintaining some number of other stores doesn't require devoting 75% of the commercial district to those establishments. 17th Street in Dupont Circle, for example, has a very wide range of neighborhood-serving stores, but far more than 25% restaurants. We could still protect a balance if a restaurant restriction allowed 50% instead of 25% linear feet, for example.

Tomorrow, part 2 will cover incentives and other possible techniques for encouraging neighborhood-serving retail and other desired uses.


Live chat: Mary Cheh, Friday at 1 pm

This Friday at 1:00 pm, Greater Greater Washington will host Mary Cheh, DC Councilmember for Ward 3, and Chair of the Council's Committee on Government Operations and the Environment. Ms. Cheh is also a tenured law professor at GWU.

Councilmember Mary Cheh.

Please tune in live on Friday when Ms. Cheh will take your questions. If aren't available then, feel free to leave your questions in the comments and we'll select some for the discussion.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City