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Posts from April 2011


Printed voter guides are a necessary service

While the DC Board of Elections and Ethics' efforts to cut costs in the April 26th election were logical, they may have been detrimental to those without Internet access or extensive knowledge of the long slate of candidates.

Photo by antisocialtory on Flickr

In an effort to cut costs for the low-turnout special election, DCBOEE decided to forgo their usual practice of mailing an election guide to registered voters. Instead, they mailed a postcard notifying voters of the upcoming election and published an online-only voter guide. DCBOEE should consider implementing an amended version of this process in the future in order to ensure that all registered voters have access to important election information.

We live in an increasingly digitally-connected world. However, not everyone has, or wants, access to the internet. According to a 2010 report by DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer broadband adoption rates sit near 40% in Wards 5, 7, and 8 but soar to 90% elsewhere in the city.

In a normal election, information would have been available through traditional media sources such as the Washington Post and local television news. Unfortunately, the special election attracted little media attention, the best of which was available exclusively online.

It would have been fairly difficult for a voter to learn about the candidates unless they were targeted specifically. As ANC 7C04 Commissioner Sylvia Brown has pointed out, only a small number of voters received personal attention from the candidates.

A helpful anecdote can be pulled from my own election day experience. An elderly woman approached me after voting, dismayed that she had never heard of most of the candidates. She was relatively new to town, so the campaigns weren't targeting her. And since she didn't have Internet access, she was relying on traditional media sources for information. She would have benefitted greatly from a physical voter guide.

DCBOEE should consider a hybrid system that allows voters to opt out of receiving a physical voter guide in favor of an online one. The Pew Center on the States recently found that such a system could provide significant savings, while informing a large number of voters. This would provide access to a voter guide that was conveniently tailored to their needs.

Current voters could be informed of the option through social media and Internet outreach. Voters registering for the first time or submitting changes to their registration status could note their preference while filling out necessary forms.

An online voter guide was a good cost saving option for this special election. However, a hybrid process would create long-term savings and provide voters without Internet access necessary information. Until the Internet access is more equally available citywide, the practice of publishing physical voter guides should be maintained.


Weekend links: CaBi CaBi everywhere

New CaBi station at 7th & F Sts NW. Photo by the author.
CaBi in your CBA: Some developers will install CaBi stations as part of their community benefits agreement. The $50,000 price tag for each station is about equal to the cost of building a single parking space. (Housing Complex)

CaBi in the CBD: Capital Bikeshare installed new stations at 7th and F and 17th and K yesterday.

Arlington businesses fine with CaBi: Despite the Arlington GOP accusing CaBi of hurting small business by replacing 8 parking spaces with stations, business owners actually don't oppose the change at all. (TBD)

How to get parents to let kids walk or bike to school?: Fairfax County wants to reduce the number of children driven to school to reduce congestion. But parental attitudes are as much an obstacle as the walking and biking infrastructure. (Oakton Patch)

Neighborhoods exacerbate kids' obesity: Overweight kids face a host of problems, including several of the built environment. Neighborhoods lack healthy food options, and unsafe or poorly designed neighborhoods discourage physical activity. (WAMU)

DC lacking public spaces: Many of DC's neighborhoods are distinctly lacking in small public spaces that in other cities are interspersed through out the urban fabric. Instead, the city has relied on privately provided pocket parks and plazas. (RPUS)

Reward for not using Gehry: A philanthropist has offered $300 million to any city that builds a major concert hall but doesn't hire Frank Gehry to build it. His distinctive but controversial style has become extremely popular for cultural centers worldwide. (WSJ)

US exceptional, and not in a good way: Despite having more highways, the US . Despite having the world's largest economy, the US is investing very little in transit and also not maintaining its existing roads. What to do? Raise new revenues and invest more in sustainable transportation systems. (Economist, Veronica Davis)

And...: In WWII, a war plane factory in California camouflaged itself as a subdivision. (Barnstormers, Stephen Miller) ... It may be cheaper to buy than to rent in DC. (Post) ... Some legislators want to address distracted walking. (CBS)

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Weekend video: Sesame Street local

Second Avenue Sagas shared this great Sesame Street clip from the 1970s. In it, all the famous puppets venture down into a very detailed model of the subway.

It's great that Sesame Street included a lesson to teach kids about riding transit. And while you can't buy tokens anymore, the ride is still "super wow".

I'm sure Kermit, clearly a transit rider since the 1970s, can't wait for the Purple Line. After all, it will stop right in front of the University of Maryland, his local address and creator Jim Henson's alma mater.


Just two days left to redesign the Metro map

The contest to design a new Metro map is almost over. Is your map done?

Image from Wikimedia.

Since the end of the month falls in the middle of the weekend, we'll give you an extra day to finish the maps. They're due at 11:59:59 pm on Sunday night.

We'll be picking winners two ways. You'll all be able to vote for your favorite map (using IRV), and we're also putting together a jury of experts to review the maps.


Two-wheeling by the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

U Street. Photo by Vileinist.

Van Ness. Photo by ekelly80.

Meridian Hill. Photo by Vileinist.

Shaw. Photo by rockcreek.

14th Street Bridge. Photo by urbandispute.

Dupont Circle. Photo by ok-oyot.

Logan Circle. Photo by fromcaliw/love.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!


Preservation League revives Wonder Bread Factory

Last week, the DC Preservation League celebrated its 40th anniversary by throwing a lively party at the long-dormant Wonder Bread Factory at 641 S Street NW in Shaw.

Photo by DreamCity4Life on Flickr.

The building is located half a block east of 7th Street and the Shaw-Howard University Metro station. It has long been a well-known structure in the neighborhood.

According to Streets of Washington, "the oldest section of the building was built in 1913 as an expansion to an existing bakery run by Peter M. Dorsch (1878-1959)."

Dorsch and his brothers worked at bakeries all across the city before opening the bakery that would eventually become the Wonder Bread Factory.

Douglas Development Corporation currently owns the property. A search of the city's property records show the property was purchased in October 1997. It is currently assessed by the city at $6,810,580.

According to the evening's program, the property "is currently being marketed for adaptive reuse." Numerous people I spoke with and a report last fall in City Paper indicated condos are coming, but there seems to be no immediate timeline.

The long-awaited development of the northeast corner of 7th and S Street is now finally underway with Progression Place, which plans offices, flats, and shops. Construction teams have been working steadily since December and have now nearly dug out and secured the foundation. When this project begins to take tenants it should increase the desire and ability to secure financing for the Wonder Bread Factory site for similar uses or for residential units with commercial on the first floor.

Memories of the Wonder Bread Factory

"When I would take the streetcar to Griffith Stadium as a child from my Northeast neighborhood, you knew you were getting close when you began to smell the bread and the bakeries. You could close your eyes and know when you were within three blocks," said Dr. Sandy Berk, distinguished by his white shirt and jacket adorned with the same small tri-color circles that mark a loaf of Wonder Bread.

"DC wasn't known as being an industrial city. This building is an example of one of the few early 20th century examples in the middle of a residential neighborhood," said Howard Berger, a former DCPL trustee and current architectural historian.

"This is a really great and strong structure. You don't see this type or cast iron work anymore," said Wilford Williams, a member of the large security team that protected the entrances of the factory and were asked by nearly everyone who passed by on the street what was going on inside. "When it closed it was a sad event. A lot of people depended on them. Wonder Bread has always been a number one seller. It beats Sunbeam and Giant brand. You know that Wonder Bread makes the best sandwich and their prices are reasonable," he said.

At a table Eric Wingerter, 6th and S Street NW, and Martin Moulton (the 39th citizen recently arrested by the Capitol Police), 5th and P Street NW, spoke about their memories years ago of being excited when a restaurant would open on 14th Street NW. They agreed the neighborhood continues to lack a variety of food options and would like to see a restaurant included in future development plans.

"It's great to be here and have it alive. For too many years this has been a landmark in the neighborhood for the wrong reasons," said Wingerter.

DCPL pulled it off

Founded in 1971 as "Don't Tear It Down," DCPL hosts its annual gala in a dormant city building, warehouse, theater or other site ever year. There was open discussion and anticipation by gala goers that next year's party will be thrown in Dupont Circle's underground trolley station which in recent years has drawn the attention of local artists.

Despite concerns that the building would not be ready in time for the party and a city inspector declaring the property "structurally unsafe" last month, more than three hundred DCPL supporters joined leaders of the city's development and preservationist communities to celebrate the former bakery. The building has been out of commission for the past 25 years, according to the league.

"It was pulled off with a lot of work by Douglas Development getting the space ready for the event. Four solid weeks of fixing a failed beam, holes in the flooring and water damage," said Rebecca Miller, DCPL's Executive Director.

One new DCPL member, who joined the organization after seeing a recent ad on Groupon, said, "I thought they might be handing out hard hats."


Anti-height frenzy dominates preservation meeting on Hine

A few Capitol Hill residents gave long and sometimes angry speeches yesterday against allowing mid-rise buildings at the Eastern Market Metro at a hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board yesterday.

View from Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from the developers.

But the Historic Preservation Review Board avoided letting height hostility co-opt historic preservation, and instead adopted The Historic Preservation Review Board has still to decide many issues, while an excellent staff report focused on other issues with the project's design.

The project will create four separate buildings, some residential and some commercial, on the block between 7th and 8th Streets SE north of Pennsylvania Avenue, including a public piazza. It will also reconnect C Street across the site, which can be closed on weekends as 7th to add even more public space.

The buildings will range from 4 stories across the street from townhouses to 7 stories right on Pennsylvania Avenue. On some residential façades, ground-floor units will have separate entrances to resemble the townhouses nearby. On the commercial streets, the buildings will have ground-floor retail and possibly some retail on the floor immediately below ground as well.

Opponents of the Hine project focused on a key word in the historic preservation law: "compatible." Any project in a historic district must be compatible with the neighborhood. But what does "compatible" mean?

To many people, a project is only compatible if it's no larger than any other buildings. One resident, in fact, argued that no project in a historic district should be allowed to be more than a single story taller than any other building nearby. Since Eastern Market is 2 stories, that means he opposes anything more than 3.

But that's not what "compatible" really means. Already on Capitol Hill are some 2-story buildings across the street from 5-story buildings. There are some 6- and 7-story buildings. Another resident argued that those buildings aren't compatible either, and shouldn't be built if they were proposed today. That's not how the historic district rules work. Compatibility takes into account all the conributing buildings in a district, not just the shortest ones.

The man also argued said this would become the tallest building between the Library of Congress and around 11th Street, SE. That is based on the building's tallest point, which is only a small piece of the building, but even so: it'll be the tallest between the next Metro station to the west and the next Metro station to the east.

That's how an urban form ought to look. Buildings right on commercial corridors and at transit nodes should be the largest, with smaller buildings like townhouses in the spaces between.

Fortunately, the Historic Preservation Office agrees. In an excellent staff report by Amanda Molson and Steve Callcott, HPO argued that the height of a building is not the only criterion for compatibility, and that at this prominent corner, something taller may be just what belongs in the historic district:

The Board's design guidelines for new construction do not explicitly lay out an acceptable ratio of the height of new construction to surrounding buildings. Instead, the guidelines state: "Perhaps the best way to think about a compatible new building is that it should be a good neighbor, enhancing the character of the district and respecting the context." As has been shown in historic districts throughout the city, this can be done with taller new construction if careful attention is paid to the design, proportions, materials and other characteristics that collectively work to achieve compatibility. ...

The Pennsylvania Avenue office building will be the project's "beacon" as viewed from the avenue, attracting the attention of riders emerging from Metro and drivers on the avenue. It will also likely be the tallest building on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, being the tallest building doesn't necessarily mean that it will be incompatible with the historic district. This location facing the commercial corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street is certainly the most logical place to locate taller construction.

Historically, the Wallach School, while not as tall as the proposed office building, provided a similar punctuation on the avenue with one of Capitol Hill's most important civic buildings. Given the breadth of the wide avenue, the relative hierarchical importance of this building in the totality of project, and the site's frontage on a L'Enfant square and adjacency to a Metro station, additional height in this location is not inappropriate provided that the
building is otherwise designed to "enhance the character of the district and respect its context."

The staff report had plenty of specific quibbles with design elements. It suggests angling the top floor of the office building to provide visual interest and reduce a bit of the perceived massing. (One thing height opponents often don't realize is that small changes to a roofline can greatly affect how tall a building looks, without changing how tall it really is.) Likewise, they suggest shrinking some of the retail bays or adding projections.

HPO staff also recommend rethinking the design of the northern residential building, which was designed as a "single pavilion" to evoke elements of Eastern Market. The staff feel that Eastern Market shouldn't get a "companion" and remain distinctive, and want to replace horizontal architectural elements with vertical ones, a common request HPO has also made elsewhere.

After much debate, the ANC came up with a resolution that also supports the overall density, though they do also ask to lower the heights of several buildings, creating two somewhat incompatible requests. Maintaining density while decreasing height might be possible if the developer can move some more retail and mechanical equipment to basement levels, though this is probably only feasible to a small degree.

The ANC made several other reasonable recommendations, including keeping the central courtyard open to the public instead of just to residents, and rethinking some of the architectural aesthetics that yielded negative reactions from residents.

There are plenty of architectural elements that could change for this project, and the design review that comes with historic preservation regulation as well as community involvement often makes buildings look much better than the initial proposals. Preservation the and ANCs are filling a valuable role when they focus on these elements.

If preservation instead gets hijacked by those who simply oppose new residents or don't want to look at any moderate-sized buildings, it not only starts to stretch beyond its mandate but risks politically alienating the majority of residents who think more neighbors and more stores to patronize would be lovely.

HPRB has deferred some of the decisions to next month. They should be very restrained in those to avoid cutting down on the overall ability of the project to bring in new residents and stores.

Update: The original version of this article suggested that the HPRB had fully adopted the staff report. Instead, they made comments in support of many elements but deferred other decisions. I've updated the post to reflect this.


Breakfast links: Some good changes

Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.
Will Four26 prompt reforms?: Keith Ivey suggests ending the at-large interim appointments, instituting IRV, and having more flexibility in election dates. Martin Austermuhle adds reforming the petition signature challenge process and fixing campaign finance loopholes. (Four26)

IRV explained, British style: A British video explains how Alternative Vote, called Instant Runoff Voting in the US, is not that complicated and is really like the way a group of "mates" might decide what "pub" to go to. An upcoming referendum could implement IRV for the UK parliament. (Gavin)

Higher ridership shrinks gap: Higher-than-expected ridership has buoyed WMATA's finances some, shrinking the $72.5 million budget gap by approximately $6 million. Service cuts will still be on the table to close the remaining gap. (Examiner)

Swain's ouster political payback: Mayor Gray had made a promise to the taxicab industry who heavily supported his campaign to fire Commissioner Leon Swain. Gray may reappoint a Commissioner from Marion Barry's fourth mayoral term. (Post)

Barry wants Near SE, Near SE doesn't want Barry: Marion Barry has made clear he wants the ballpark district added to Ward 8 in the upcoming redistricting. That's very unpopular with residents of the area, who are organizing to oppose the idea. (JDland)

Residents oppose development in Bluemont: The civic association in Bluemont, west of Ballston, commissioned a proposal to create a walkable village center in place of some strip malls and warehouses. It's not a real proposal yet, but some residents at a meeting already are objecting to potential development. (ARLnow)

Workers fired after accident: Two Metro workers were fired after leaving an escalator hatch open overnight at the Pentagon station. The hatch remained open after the station opened and a woman fell in. (Examiner)

Important wedding today: We don't mean the British monarchy. Coalition for Smarter Growth policy director Cheryl Cort and her partner are getting married. Mazel tov! And thanks, DC Council (except Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry and possibly Vincent Orange)!

And...: PBS Newshour profiled DC's second-class status in Congress, hopefully raising awareness of DC's struggle for representation. ... Since the incentive for buildings to create street-fronting arcades was removed, at least one was enclosed. (City Paper) ... 30 bridges, or 12% of those in DC, are structurally deficient. (TBD)

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Replacing street parking with bike sharing is good policy

The Arlington County Republican Party recently chose to make a stink over the fact that as many as eight metered parking spaces have been replaced with Capital Bikeshare stations.

However, this is really a non-issue. Prior to this, 100% of street parking in Arlington was for cars; now it's maybe 98-99%. That is still remarkably unbalanced.

TBD interviewed me for a story about the issue:

The contention that replacing these parking spots with bikeshare parking costs the county money and is a bad idea is wrong in so many ways.

First, the only way it costs the county money is if every single spot within blocks is completely full. That's because someone seeking street parking (like the woman in the video) will likely find another spot and pay there, although it may be less conveniently located.

Second, these spaces will get utilized much more than a car parking spot. If even 2-3 people use the bikeshare station over a two-hour period, that's likely more people than would have used the metered spot it replaced anyway.

Third, it's good for business. As this recent economic article clarifies, the use of public space for bike parking is far more cost effective than for car parking.

Fourth, it actually can make it more convenient, even for car drivers. As I point out in the video, I parked my car near a CaBi station with plenty of adjacent street parking and then took the CaBi bike the 5-6 blocks to where I needed to meet my friend.

This was quicker and easier than trying to find a spot (whether or not any had been given to bikes) near the intersection of Moore and Wilson in Rosslyn. I would have almost certainly circled the block at least once and, if I had found a spot, it would have been not that close to where I was trying to go--forcing me to walk several blocks anyway. What I did was much faster and more convenient.

Thus, having plenty of Bikeshare stations sprinkled throughout a dense area can make it more convenient for drivers, because it greatly expands the area where they can find parking and still easily access their destination.

Occasional GGW contributor and Arlington resident Erik Bootsma wrote:

As a Republican (gasp!) and an Arlington resident, and I can tell you that using the CaBi is something I would use extensively. ... I can't tell you how frustrating the GOP here can be, with their 100% dashboard mentality. Freedom of choice also means freedom from HAVING to own a car, so having options is great.

I have a car myself and like having it, but also like having the option to use transit, to have a bike and to walk. If the GOP here doesn't wake up to the reality of Arlington/Washington urban life they will remain at 20%.

They need to be more responsive to the real desires of their constituency and realize that if I wanted to live in a sea of asphalt and parking lots, and wanted to avoid walking at all costs, I'd live in Manassas, not in Arlington ... Just because I'm in favor of living in a city, doesn't mean I'm a central planning statist bent on taking away freedom.

Arlington also removed a few parking spaces in Pentagon City to plant more trees, but the local GOP either didn't know about it or didn't object.

Improving flexibility of travel options and making parking more equitable and convenient for everyone increases access and foot traffic to local businesses, and that's something any political party ought to support.

Public Spaces

What trees are on your street?

Casey Trees used data from DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration to create a great interactive map of street trees:

Blue dots show maple trees, red dots are oak, pink elm, green sycamore, and yellow dots show all other trees.

Erik noted this in a Breakfast Links recently, but it's interesting enough to show in more detail. It's fascinating to see how most streets have one or two types of trees. In many neighborhoods the oaks line more of the major streets and maples smaller ones, though in some places, like Georgetown, there are many trees but almost no oaks.

Clicking on a tree also shows its size. A future improvement to the map might be to show larger dots for larger trees, to help people visualize the overall tree cover.

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