Posts from April 2011
Some neighborhoods argue that a saturation of restaurants saps a neighborhood's vibrancy. NoMa, a neighborhood recently recreated from old industrial land, lacks vibrancy at night because the neighborhood's restaurants close soon after the office workers go home.
Though office, residential, and hotel development took off in this area once dominated by parking lots, the new buildings have not brought the street vitality of Washington's other cherished neighborhoods.
NoMa is a unique local example of trying to create a neighborhood where one didn't exist before. Though it's surrounded by well-established neighborhoods, NoMA itself used to be industrial space adjacent to the railroad, once the main conduit for freight into and out of DC.
I live in Bloomingdale and work near Union Station. I worked until 7 pm recently and expected to be able to grab a bite at one of the new restaurants on 1st Street NE, NoMa's main street.
Much to my dismay, I got there just as Roti and Potbelly were closing, and Tynan Coffee & Tea was already closed, along with Heidi's Brooklyn Deli on 2nd Street. My only remaining food options were Harris Teeter, 7-Eleven and no less than four burger joints: McDonald's, Wendy's, Five Guys, and Burger King.
Being a vegetarian, Harris Teeter offered by far the greatest selection, so that's where I wound up. But what do the limited hours of NoMa's healthier restaurants mean for the NoMa BID's efforts to create a more vibrant neighborhood?
Presumably, as more residents fill the new apartments and condos around New York Avenue Metro, they will increase demand for neighborhood venues that offer a dining experience a cut above fast food.
Yet it is somewhat surprising that Tynan and Roti aren't open later, given how much residents of nearby Truxton Circle and Eckington have been clamoring for sit-down restaurants in their neighborhoods. With the opening of Rustik Tavern and the extension of Big Bear Cafe's hours, Bloomingdale now has two restaurants, and both are often crowded.
More eateries like Roti and Heidi's would fill a niche for a dinner that is better than fast food, but less expensive than a restaurant like Rustik. Perhaps one of them should try staying open until 9 or 10 pm one or two days a week, promote the special hours to the nearby neighborhoods, and see how many customers come in after 7pm.
Restaurants improved Barracks Row and have a similar opportunity to revitalize NoMa. The neighborhood has the potential to become a destination not only during the day, but after the offices close for the night as well.
Remember January? Relative unknown Sekou Biddle narrowly beat out the establishment, insider candidate, Vincent Orange in the DC Democratic State Committee voting to become interim councilmember. Last night, Orange won in a crowded field including a poorly performing insider Sekou Biddle.
Looking back, was the January victory really a good thing for Biddle's campaign?
In the lead-up to the State Committee vote, a group of people affiliated with progressive organizations in DC had begun mobilizing with the expectation that Orange would get the nod. I was among them. We planned to visibly launch an effort to seek a more progressive alternative to Orange and harness some of the frustration from a very insider process picking a very insider candidate from a decade past who brought nothing but old ideas to the debate.
Instead, that distasteful insider process picked Biddle, and Orange got to claim the outsider's mantle. A lot of the energy dissipated. Then Biddle spent most of the next few months racking up insider endorsements, challenging people's signatures, and not standing for much of anything.
Plus, the scandals around Kwame Brown's Navigators and campaign finances and around Vincent Gray's hiring then made being the insider a real liability. Back in January, those scandals hadn't broken, so it wasn't as clear that his support from Brown and Gray would be so damaging. But even at the time, I wrote that he needed to show some independence, and that never happened.
Neither did he ever find a strong message or make a clear case for his candidacy. When writing the article on the strategic voting quandary, I asked folks from his campaign to explain some ways Biddle differs on policy from Patrick Mara. Since Mara is a member of the Republican party, you'd think there would be some. They couldn't give me any.
I met with Sekou Biddle early on and liked him. I still do. He'd make a good member of the Council, but needs to learn to be a good candidate first. Successful politicians are always running as if they're about to lose their seat (exhibit A: Jim Graham.) Instead, Biddle ran as if he had a huge lead, hesitating to take bold or courageous stances that could have won him strong supporters but also risked losing some shakier voters.
He claimed to be the education candidate, but never really defined how exactly he would improve schools. This left him with a lot of soft support that quickly faded for want of a clearly articulated argument for why he's the best, instead of just okay.
What would have happened if Biddle hadn't won the State Committee? He would have been more of the outsider. On the other hand, Orange might have picked up some Council endorsements and even more unions.
Maybe he would have run the scrappy campaign that he needed to run, and taken some stands to make a group of people more enthusiastic about supporting him. Or maybe his campaign would have been the same.
Biddle needed to explain to the public why he was the best candidate, instead of just a candidate with a good resume. If he had still been the challenger trying to break the control of insider Orange, maybe he would have recognized the need to do that.
On the other hand, maybe an interim Orange would have created even more energy for a candidate other than Biddle, like Bryan Weaver. Or maybe we would have been split anyway and it would all have ended up pretty much the same after all.
Looking ahead, the method of picking interim councilmembers seems to be fairly poor, since the last two times it was employed the candidate lost, and special elections need an instant-runoff or some other method that reduces vote splitting. Might the Council now seriously consider any kind of voting reform?
Don't forget that Greater Greater Washington is hosting a happy hour this evening. We'll be gathering starting at 6pm at Tynan in NoMa.
The venue is just steps from the New York Avenue Metro station, located at 1275 1st Street NE. They've offered us $2 off beer and wine, so you won't want to miss this meetup.
Tomorrow, be sure to come out and support new rules proposed by the Office of Planning to restrict the construction of parking in front of buildings. The hearing will be held tomorrow night at 6:30 at 441 4th Street NW (One Judiciary Square), Suite 220-South.
Some people have lamented that the new Paul Bakery restaurant that is to open next to the Banana Republic in Georgetown is a chain. While it's fair to complain about the lack of genuinely exciting or even interesting restaurants in Georgetown, one of the things Georgetown's definitely not is chain-dominated.
As of my latest count, there are 126 restaurants in Georgetown. Of those, only 20 are part of a big chain. An additional 5 more are part of a regional chain (i.e. Five Guys).
So even if you lump the regional chains in with the national chains, there are still only 25 chain restaurants in Georgetown. That's less that 20%. And the number of chains is unchanged from last year, while the number of independent restaurants has increased.
Is the Georgetown restaurant scene a little threadbare? Absolutely*. Does it seem like no new and interesting restaurants open here? You bet. But that's a product of a lot of forces, only some of which are controllable.
The two largest factors are the liquor license and the rents. With the Georgetown moratorium, unless you were one of the lucky few that snagged one of the new licenses that were issued last year, you're stuck buying an existing license, which can run upwards of $70,000.
And even if you secure a license, you've got to find a good space that you can afford (and that doesn't require much construction). There just are only so many of those spaces available, partially because there are already 126 restaurants in Georgetown!.
But neither of those factors is likely to change in the near future. Is there anything we can do to attract new and interesting restaurants (of the kind that opens up in Logan and H St. every week or so) if we can't change these two factors? I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I suspect the answer is "no".
*Are there places I still love? Sure. But most people would agree that the vast majority of Georgetown's dining fare is pretty boring.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
On Earth Day last Friday, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell issued a "transportation challenge" to the people of his state: to "try a form of transportation other than driving alone once every two weeks."
The language he used would please any reformer:
Virginians must begin a fundamental shift in the way we travel to take greater advantage of the transportation options available to us today.
Using the vast array of transportation options available in Virginia can deliver significant benefits. Public transportation options reduce harmful gas emissions in our environment and gallons of gasoline used each year, remove cars from our congestion highways [sic], and can help families save thousands over the cost of owning and operating a car. Options such as telework can remove the need to commute completely, saving millions of vehicle miles traveled.
Two days before Earth Day, however, McDonnell had announced more than 900 projects that would be funded by his transportation plan, which he calls "the most significant investment in the Commonwealth's transportation system in a generation." The plan would spend $3 billion to "not only address the needs of the aging highway system upon which we all depend" but also "provide a needed injection of funding into our economy to spur recovery from the difficult recession of the past several years," according to McDonnell.
Experts are still analyzing the numbers that came out last week, which are exceptionally confusing. For instance, the first slide of a VDOT powerpoint presentation Streetsblog obtained shows that $8.1 billion will go to highway construction with $2.3 billion for rail and public transportation—
Indeed, in its announcement of the 900 recipient projects, the state DOT highlighted 14 flagship projects that would be funded—
"State law requires that at least 14.7 percent of the [Transportation Trust Fund] go to transit," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "I would be quite surprised if the total six-year plan surpasses this share."
Throughout the development of the transportation plan, McDonnell's rhetoric has been almost exclusively about roads, and when the final numbers are crunched, many expect that the dollar allocation will show the same bias.
If the governor wants people to stop driving alone, this is probably not the plan he should be putting forth, said Schwartz. "Given the energy crisis that our nation faces and our oil dependency," he said, "we could be doing much more to invest in transit, local streets, and pedestrian and bicycle and carpooling needs than his plan calls for." Schwartz went on to say:
What are we buying with this money? The governor has never talked about the maintenance backlog in the state. This is all capital expenditures—
it's not maintenance. So how are we going to meet the backlog of $3.7 billion in structurally deficient bridges; what's the plan? What about the billion in structurally deficient pavement— or more? That's never been discussed.
So, if we're using scarce transportation revenues we'd like to see us first address the maintenance needs of roads, bridges and transit. Certainly we could make up for the operating shortfalls transit is facing so desperately right now. After that, we'd like to see that we're supporting a more energy efficient future for Virginia and investing in energy efficient transportation and land use solutions.
That would argue not just for spending on transit, but really for a transportation system that would support smart growth outcomes such as revitalization of the cities, development near transit stations, revitalization in all of our suburban communities and commercial corridors, more compact and walkable, bikable land uses with good transit.
That does not appear to be the vision Gov. McDonnell has laid out.
Kala Quintana of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, also still combing through the numbers, said the governor's expressed support for transit has been heartening. "There seems to be an acknowledgement that, hey, there are alternatives out there, and we want to encourage people to use them," Quintana said. "This is not news to us, but we think it's great that it's coming from the governor's office, that he's trying to encourage people to seek out alternative forms of transportation."
But she wants to see a greater commitment from the governor to actually funding transit. Already, public transportation systems in Northern Virginia are at capacity, she said, and the only thing stopping them from adding more is that there hasn't been enough money allocated to buy more buses and pay more drivers.
While details of the plan are still coming out, what we do know is how it's funded. The debt the governor is planning to incur for the commonwealth of Virginia is by far the most controversial part of the plan. Of the $3 billion, $1.8 billion comes from 10-year loans approved by Governor Tim Kaine in 2007, which Gov. McDonnell is extending for 25 years—
Last spring, the McDonnell administration did an audit of transportation funds and found that Gov. Tim Kaine had significant unspent balances. Rather than praising Kaine's fiscal discipline or keeping some of that money for what it was meant for—
But many transportation advocates criticize the governor for going so deep into debt for transportation investments that may prove to amount to little more than road widening. David Alpert wrote, "Borrowing in this way, of course, essentially means spending future decades' transportation money. From McDonnell's point of view, why not? He won't be governor. The easiest way to get credit for starting a lot of projects when he has no money is to spend future governors' money."
What does it look like when a group of neighbors, a non-profit or two, a couple of federal agencies and a handful of DC government offices partner effectively? Swing by 13th & C Streets SE, and see for yourself.
Photo courtesy of TheBarneyCircular.com.
Nearly four years after neighbors rallied to turn a vacant lot owned by the DCHA into a community park and garden, twenty to thirty volunteers gathered to plant nine trees in the newly constructed space under the supervision of Casey Trees, a DC nonprofit dedicated to "restoring, enhancing and protecting" the canopy of the nation's capital.
The ribbon-cutting that was to follow was postponed due to weather until sometime in May or early June. But despite the drizzle, the event was an enormous success.
Once complete, the space will play host to a number of garden plots, a water feature, plenty of turf for enjoying the greenery and even a wall reserved for outdoor movie screenings. 13th Street Park & Garden, Inc., the 501(c)(3) that oversaw the lot's transformation, will also organize educational events to take place on the property throughout the year.
The story behind the project's success is one of collaboration and cooperation among a number of offices and organizations that is nothing short of inspiring (if a bit drawn out).
When residents approached the DCHA and Tommy Wells in 2007 with the idea to turn the property around, both rallied behind the idea of revitalizing the space. At the time, the lot played host to a single dumpster and a colony of mosquitos. The DCHA, which manages the Kentucky Courts retirement community immediately adjoining the space, saw particular value in the project. Upon receiving a formal proposal for the park's design prepared by a handful of volunteers on the basis of broader community input, the DCHA responded by allocating $250,000 to the project.
Initial construction began in 2008, but a funding gap soon developed, as prepping the lot for construction proved costlier than expected. Though progress stalled for a time, the DCHA partnered with 13th Street Park & Garden nonprofit in applying for a Stimulus grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the fall of 2009, the project received an additional $650,000 investment from HUD. Not long thereafter, work on the property resumed, and today, the park stands nearly complete.
In the most recent phase of the project, Casey Trees donated nine trees to the development. This past Friday, representatives partnered with volunteers from around the neighborhood for the planting. In the process, residents got a sneak peek of the park and the reaction was undeniably enthusiastic.
Once construction wraps up, oversight and management of the space will formally pass from DCHA to 13th Street Park & Garden as per a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two parties.
With greater community engagement, a safer, more functional neighborhood and one less lot for the DCHA to manage, everybody wins.
So, once again, what does it look like when a group of neighbors, a non-profit or two, a couple of federal agencies and a handful of DC government offices partner effectively?
It looks like a walk in the park.
The DC Council can take a strong step toward addressing its recent ethics issues by appointing a strong and independent ethics commission.
The council's small size and unavoidable conflicts of interest mean that no credible ethics body can have sitting councilmembers on it. An independent commission will also take a burden off members, who will no longer have to sit in judgment of their colleagues whose votes they need to pass their own legislation.
Over the past few years, councilmembers have faced credible allegations of cronyism, lavish spending on fully-loaded SUVs, failure to pay property taxes, failure to pay income taxes, illegal construction work, unpaid parking violations, and working for companies that have business before the council. That's a long list.
No legislature can police itself effectively. Even legislators with clean records will face conflicts of interest and, as the DC Council illustrated earlier this year, few legislators will be eager to serve on an ethics committee. Legislators risk alienating their colleagues and limiting their ability to effectively govern by strongly pursuing ethics investigations.
Passing legislation requires ad-hoc coalition-building. Any legislator on an ethics committee will feel compelled to restrain himself when investigating colleagues whose votes he needs for his own legislation.
This problem is especially true of the DC Council because it is only a 13-member body. In investigating just 2 colleagues, a councilmember risks alienating 29% of the 7 votes he needs to attain a majority for his own bills.
Furthermore, if councilmembers are policing each other, it will become too easy for political motivations to override ethical ones. If 2 sitting councilmembers want to run for chairman, mayor, or attorney general, and if one is investigating the other, it is reasonable to doubt the sincerity and fairness of the committee's investigation.
Here again, the DC Council's small size makes this conflict likelier.
The Council could appoint an ethics commission to solve this problem. It could consist of qualified residents to serve set terms detached from any political cycle. The mayor or attorney general could also be given appointment power to avoid any impression the the Council was loading the commission with unduly deferential candidates.
The commission would be charged with recommending ethics rules and investigating alleged violations. The commission would be given the power to subpoena relevant records and compel testimony in the course of its investigations. This power can, of course, be challenged in court to prevent the commission from abusing its subpoena power.
While actual sanctions would likely be the choice of the Council, it is important that the commission publicly publish its findings and recommendations so that the public and the media can decide whether violations merit sanctions. Private reports are useless since there is no way for the public to know if their councilmembers are failing to address legitimate ethics violations.
The various scandals uncovered recently have disappointed many residents, even those who don't normally engage in city politics. The best way to restore and maintain public trust is through an independent ethics commission for the DC Council.
WMATA is finally nearing a sale for 3 lots it has been trying to sell for 9 years. The drawn-out saga illustrates how financing struggles and board politics bogged down a real estate decision for nearly a decade. A sale plus DC's urban design requirements for the area mean that walkable urban buildings will likely finally fill these empty spaces.
The 3 vacant lots are on the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida Avenue NW, on the east end of the U Street corridor. The agency has just put the lots out to the development community for the fourth time in 9 years. Judging by the brief sales window and by developer JBG's previous hefty offer, I suspect the lots will be sold for a mixed-use development quite soon.
First let's revisit the past 9 years of ill-fated sales attempts.
The agency acquired the lots decades ago to build the Green Line, which cuts under them as it turns from U Street to 7th Street. The lots have remained vacant, save for weekend flea markets, ever since.
In the 1990s, WMATA considered selling the easternmost lot to Checkers, which likely would have built an asphalt-heavy, auto-oriented drive-thru like their location at 14th and Maryland, NE in Capitol Hill. The deal fell through and nothing was built.
In 2002 WMATA put the lots out for proposals and tentatively set a deal with Howard University in 2003. The university already owns the lot occupied by the CVS and its surface parking lot on 7th Street between Florida Avenue and T Street NW.
These 3 lots are above the Green Line between the Shaw and U Street stations.
Litigation brought that Howard deal to a halt, and WMATA offered the lots again in 2007, this time for a long-term lease. Banneker Ventures LLC, infamous for its park contracts, won that round and aimed to lease the land for redevelopment into apartments and retail space.
The deal with Banneker was ill-fated at best since it appears that DC's representatives, Councilmember Jim Graham and City Administrator Neil Albert, were at odds over the lease. On the Kojo Nnamdi show, Banneker's head, Omar Karim, accused former WMATA board member and current Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham of delaying the project so it could be awarded to another developer. Albert, a Fenty appointee, was supportive of Banneker, which was accused of receiving undue favorable treatment in city contracts.
Leasing rather than selling the land brought in other complications. Some parcels adjoin others and some developers were hoping to combine parcels to create a larger development project. But it's difficult if not impossible to structure a lease where someone then builds a building half on the leased land and half on adjoining land owned by someone else.
A lease doesn't require the developer to put much money down, and therefore some, possibly including Graham, feared that as a less experienced developer, Banneker might not ultimately be able to make a high-quality project work. That could either leave the property mostly vacant for longer or result in buildings not worthy of being the eastern end of the U Street commercial corridor.
Finally after multiple extensions, the WMATA Board last year voted to end its engagement with Banneker and the agency put the lots on the table yet again. This time, they structured it as a much simpler "excess property land disposition" process rather than the more complex and collaborative "joint development" process, for either sale or lease. U Street land baron JBG offered WMATA $11.5 million, by far the highest price for the lots.
For esoteric technical reasons, the agency recently determined that in this round, none of the offers were "technically compliant," and no sale could be completed. (WMATA used a bid procurement process typically used for buying very specific items with no variation; adapting it to real estate is challenging for anything except an outright fee simple sale. WMATA included a standard lease form in its package of bid materials, and a successful bidder would have to meet all bid forms' criteria precisely with no deviations or risk being disqualified.)
Now, more than a decade after the initial Checkers idea, WMATA is requesting bids again. These will be due May 2, leaving a 3-week window for offers. It's less likely, therefore, that any new bidders will come in, though the previous bidders might change their offers for this round.
WMATA parcels should be developed to include active, ground floor arts and retail with offices and residential above. Preference may be given to projects which include specialty restaurants, a small-format anchor and/or a cluster of retail shops, small clubs, and/or museum uses themed to the African American culture and experience of the district.For this specific site, the DUKE plan has several requirements which WMATA has incorporated into their solicitation:
- Any tall building must provide a "meaningful cornice" at 65 feet and then step back at a 1:1 ratio above that point.
- The ground-floor commercial or cultural bays must be 14 feet tall, thus creating welcoming retail spaces.
- No parking will be permitted on or above ground.
- All buildings must have zero setbacks, meaning they must be built up to the street-fronting property lines.
The DUKE plan requirements mandate design features that create vibrant streets. Ground-floor retail or cultural space, and the fact that the buildings will go up to the sidewalk, are qualities that will enliven the sidewalk, especially at night. Prohibiting above-ground parking will prevent unsightly parking decks and will limit the ability for projects to induce car traffic.
Hopefully, this last round will finally transform these vacant lots into productive uses that enhance, rather than detract from, the area. With Progression Place and the Howard Theatre already in the works, and Howard Town Center just a few years off, these blocks are slated for some much-needed rejuvenation.
The WMATA Board still gets to ultimately approve or reject any winning bids, but this more straightforward process involves them less deeply in specific decisions. Plus, with new Board members less interested in managing details, it's likely the political fights of last year won't repeat themselves, and neighbors won't have to suffer another decade of vacant lots.
- Consumers say they like trains. Why don't economists care?
- To bike without worrying about nearby cars, I'm happy on the MBT
- Alexandria has identified locations for its next 16 bikeshare stations
- Transit to Wolf Trap will still run through West Falls Church
- There's history to behold on some of DC's manhole covers
- Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base
- The Washington region is the world's 77th largest urban area