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Posts from April 2012


Support CSG and WABA this spring

Many nonprofits hold major fundraisers in the spring, and that includes the 2 advocacy groups whose work most closely aligns with the Greater Greater Washington community: the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Both have fundraisers coming up, so please consider attending or just making a donation.

Image from WABA.

CSG's annual gala is its Livable Communities Leadership Award. This year, they are giving the award to Evan Goldman of Federal Realty, for his efforts to design and win community support for the transformative White Flint project in Montgomery County, and Riger Diedrich, longtime smart growth and transportation advocate with the Virginia Sierra Club.

Tickets cost $100. The event is on Wendesday, May 2, 6:30-8 pm at one of my favorite buildings, the Parisian-looking National Trust for Historic Preservation at 18th and Massachusetts, NW in Dupont Circle.

Friday, May 11 is BikeFest, WABA's big spring party. Eastern Market will become an old-fashioned speakeasy for bicyclists. Jazz music, a silent auction, a bike-building contest and more will make for a great party.

It costs $55, or $45 for WABA members. Buy your tickets here!



Walmart's 6 DC stores: Some will be urban, some won't

When Walmart announced it would open 6 stores in DC, many wondered whether the stores would use urban or suburban layouts. With the plans for all the stores finally available, now we know.

3 of the 6 stores will be unquestionably urban. 1 will be a hybrid with some urban characteristics. 2 will be almost completely suburban.

Gonzaga: The closest store to downtown is suitably the most urban. With apartments above and smaller-format retailers lining the street, Walmart's H Street location is a model of what urban big boxes should be.

Fort Totten: Almost as good as the Gonzaga design, this store is inferior only because it's in a much more isolated location, and because the building materials appear to be somewhat cheaper. But still, the design is unquestionably strong.

Georgia Avenue: Although this design lacks the mixed-use amenities of the previous two, it's still primarily urban, with greater emphasis on pedestrian access than vehicular. It greets the street and parking is provided underground. It's a reasonable choice for a neighborhood that has not seen much investment in recent years.

Skyland Town Center: Resembling something one might expect to see in Gaithersburg, this location is a bit like a shopping mall; it's internally walkable, but poorly connected to any surrounding neighborhoods.

Capitol Gateway: The farthest out proposal from downtown is clearly primarily suburban. It's a strip mall. But it does take a few tentative steps towards walkability, with both street-facing and parking lot-facing entrances.

New York Avenue: The intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road is probably DC's most car-oriented corner. And so it was predictable that Walmart would choose it for a store, and propose a totally suburban design.

The store faces away from the biggest street and fronts onto a big open-air parking lot. The only indication that this location is in a city instead of an exurb is that the Walmart will be stacked on top of another big box store (probably a Home Depot).

Is DC a testing ground?

Each of the 6 stores has such unique characteristics that one wonders if Walmart is using DC as an experiment to see which types of layouts work in the urban environment. By comparing the sales at the more urban stores to the more suburban ones, Walmart will gain many valuable insights.

Inevitably, Walmart will probably want to establish stores in other central cities around the country. The DC example will very likely influence the design of those future stores.

All images in this post are from Walmart.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Widening I-66 achieves little vs. cheaper alternatives

Virginians have debated widening I-66 for many years, but preliminary results of a VDOT study show that I-66 commuters could get the same benefits and save hundreds of millions by just converting existing lanes to HOT lanes instead. Drivers and transit riders alike would also benefit from turning the shoulder of US-50 into a dedicated bus lane.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

VDOT is close to completing its "multimodal" study of the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway. The study team looked at a wide variety of options, from Metro to buses to adding lanes to Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies like better rider information and dynamic ridesharing.

The full study isn't out yet, but VDOT has released information on four "packages" of improvements they modeled:

  1. Make both lanes of I-66 free for buses and HOV-3 at all times, and toll single-passenger vehicles (SOV) and HOV-2 at all times.
  2. Add a 3rd lane to I-66. Make all 3 free for buses and HOV-3, tolled for SOV and HOV-2 at all times.
  3. Add a 3rd lane to I-66 to be HOV-2 in the reverse peak. In the peak direction (eastbound mornings, westbound evenings), keep all lanes HOV-3. Off-peak, leave all lanes open to anyone (as they are today).
  4. Make the shoulder of US-50 into a bus lane. Add express bus service to downtown DC from places along the I-66 and Dulles corridors.
All of these assume that Virginia has finished all of the projects in the existing Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). That includes the so-called "spot improvements" that widen I-66 in select places, and also converting I-66 to HOV-3.

Packages 1 and 2, the HOT lane options, both would help SOV and HOV-2 drivers and hurt HOV-3 drivers, compared to the default of having I-66 be HOV-3 only. But there's not a whole lot of difference between the two. According to the model, having the extra lane would slightly harm transit and speed drivers by about 2%, at a cost of $310-685 million.

Package 1 (convert existing lanes to HOT lanes):

Package 2 (add 3rd lane, convert all to HOT lanes):

Package 3 induces more driving but doesn't do much to change travel times for anyone. Package 4, the US-50 bus lanes, would improve travel times on transit by 7%, and drivers benefit by a very small amount. The presentation says that a number of people switch from rail to bus because the buses improve, which should also help with crowding on Metro.

Package 3 (add HOV lane):

Package 4 (bus lane on US-50):

The packages also factor in projects like better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, TDM programs, Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) like digital signs and ramp meters, added bus service and more.

These graphs are all a tiny bit confusing because VDOT assumed as the "baseline" that I-66 has changed from the current HOV-2 to HOV-3, and that they've already widened in some places with "spot improvements."

It would have been more helpful for laypeople if we could also compare each alternative to what would happen if VDOT didn't build the "spot improvements" and didn't change to HOV-3. In fact, an initial impetus for this study was to find out whether the spot improvements are a good idea in the first place, or whether other options would work better.

VDOT will release the study, including more details and its recommendations, in June. It seems unlikely that they would recommend widening I-66 given these results. A combination of options 1 and 4 seems like it could deliver real improvements to both drivers and transit riders without spending a lot of money on complex, unpopular, and minimally helpful highway widening projects.

Residents can provide comments to VDOT by emailing

Update: The original version of this post showed incorrect graphs for packages 2 and 3. The graphs have been corrected to match those from the VDOT presentation.


Can a parking deck be "green"? New Glenmont garage isn't

County Executive Ike Leggett calls the new garage at the Glenmont Metro a "boon to transit and a boon to the environment." A truly "green" garage at a transit station would make room for people, not just cars.

The new Glenmont parking garage. Photo by Ben Schumin.

Last week, Montgomery County officials cut the ribbon on the new parking facility, located on the west side of Georgia Avenue at Glenallan Avenue. A press release notes that the garage, which earned LEED certification, was built from recycled materials and has energy-efficient light fixtures.

Meanwhile, WMATA cut down an acre of trees to build the 1,200 space, 80-foot high garage while violating the county's own plans for transit-oriented development.

Is there such a thing as a "green" parking garage?

Maybe if it's covered in plants, like this one in Miami Beach, Florida. While there's nothing wrong with accommodating drivers who'd otherwise drive all the way to work, just building more parking spaces won't help the environment - or Glenmont, for that matter.

How did this happen?

"Green" Glenmont Parking Garage
Site plan of new garage overlaid on the 1998 Glenmont Sector Plan, which proposed townhouses and retail along Georgia Avenue.

In 2006, WMATA proposed building a new parking garage on 10 acres of land they own along the west side of Georgia Avenue. The existing 1,700-space garage fills up often, they claimed. Neighbors didn't want a garage in their backyards, and county planners agreed, suggesting that it be built on the east side next to the old one.

However, WMATA staff estimated that it would cost nearly $23,000 a space to build a garage on the east side, compared to about $16,000 on the west. Seeing the potential for savings, the County Council voted to fund the construction of a garage on the west side of Georgia in 2007.

WMATA's design required tearing down an acre of forest the county wanted to preserve, but the Planning Board reluctantly approved it, arguing that sending them back to the drawing board would be a waste of time and public funds. Nonetheless, then-Chairman Royce Hanson called the garage "both an injury and an insult to the neighborhood."

The county and state of Maryland spent $24.7 million building this garage, or $20,312 a space. Not only did they spend more than originally planned, but they've wasted an opportunity to do the "green" thing: create revenue-generating, neighborhood-compatible development along Georgia Avenue.

What should they have done instead?

Hidden Parking Garage, Elm Street, Bethesda
This parking garage in Bethesda Row is partially hidden by other buildings.

In a presentation at Rail~Volution last fall, Jason Schrieber, principal at planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, noted that transit stations in town centers often have more riders than those served only by park-and-rides. In addition, placing other uses around transit creates both economic and public safety benefits for the surrounding community.

With about 5,800 riders each weekday in 2010, the Glenmont Metro station actually has more customers than neighboring Wheaton, which is in a town center. But it still pales in comparison to other Red Line stations in downtowns, like Bethesda (10,600) or Silver Spring (13,400). Meanwhile, just 17% of people living within a half-mile of Glenmont take the Metro to work, compared to 35% in Silver Spring. These are people who probably wouldn't drive to the station, so a new parking garage won't encourage them to use transit.

To truly increase transit ridership and help the environment, the new parking garage at Glenmont should have been designed to fit into a larger neighborhood scheme, like the one envisioned in the Glenmont Sector Plan nearly 15 years ago.

Parking Garage Over Shops, Clarendon At Fillmore
This parking garage in Clarendon is part of a neighborhood, not just a place to put cars.

For instance, the new garage could have included ground-floor retail, like this one in Clarendon, providing activity along Georgia Avenue and encouraging commuters to spend time and money in Glenmont. Or the garage could have been designed to allow other buildings around it, like at Bethesda Row, where a county parking garage is located in the center of a city block with housing, shops, and offices.

Though Glenmont struggles with disinvestment, it's one of the few Metro station areas in Montgomery County where private development is happening without public subsidiesAfter years of delays, local developer JBG is finally moving forward with Glenmont Metrocenter, which will turn a 1960's-era apartment complex into a mixed-use community with 1500 homes and 90,000 square feet of retail without a single dollar of county funds.

WMATA could have made money by selling the land around their new garage for future development from which the county could receive tax revenue. Meanwhile, the neighborhood would have more amenities, more residents or workers who could walk or bike to the Metro, and more "eyes on the street," making the area safer.

County planners are beginning to revise the 1997 plan for Glenmont, but a large chunk of the neighborhood's potential for revitalization is now be gone. There's only so much land next to Metro stations in Montgomery County and Greater Washington as a whole, and we have to use it wisely.

Hopefully, the mistakes made in Glenmont will serve as an example of what not to do elsewhere.


Breakfast links: Find a place

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.
Buses need a home: After being rebuffed from the Walter Reed site, WMATA is looking to buy land in DC for a new bus garage to replace aging ones in Friendship Heights and on 14th Street. (City Paper)

Nothing can get approval: 2 review boards in Georgetown disagree on what design they'd like for a GU athletic facility. One wanted something taller with less footprint, the other wants the reverse, and the project is "ping-ponging" back and forth. (Current)

Fare hikes likely a go: The WMATA board will likely approve a fare hike later today that would raise bus and rail fares as well as parking rates. The increases go into effect July 1, giving Metro time to update signs and fare gates. (Post)

Good for now: As the economy leaves some areas vacant, temporary uses can bring activity and people to an otherwise empty space. DC is starting to catch on to the trend with ideas like the Fairgrounds and LUMEN8Anacostia. (City Paper)

To err is human: It looks as though human error may be to blame for Tuesday's Blue Line derailment near Rosslyn. The operator and a crew apparently did not properly fix a faulty switch. (Post)

Green plan not black and white: Councilmember Orange claims some African-Americans are "scared to death" of being displaced as a result of Mayor Gray's new sustainability plan. Orange also worried about adding more residents when it "takes 45 minutes to get downtown." (City Paper)

Hine is fine: One group is calling on Tommy Wells use his influence to make the Hine project smaller. The arguments the group make are specious, and councilmembers also ought not interfere in the land use process. (RPUS)

But DC gave LivingSocial one!: Montgomery County Council staff suggests rejecting a tax break for Lockheed Martin. Ike Leggett claims the particular hotel tax in question should not apply to Lockheed. (Examiner)

Glen Echo loses last streetcar: NPS sold the last streetcar from Glen Echo Park's front gate to a Cheverly firm that plans on restoring it. NPS says they couldn't raise money to preserve it. At least one resident thinks they didn't reach out to the community enough. (Gazette, Robert Dyer)

Or just drive more safely?: Someone is vandalizing property to mark speed cameras, but MPD says the locations aren't secret. (WUSA9) ... A physicist puts math to work to get out of a stop sign ticket. (Buzz Blog)

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Public Spaces

Have an empty street tree box? Ask for a new tree now

District residents have until June 15th to suggest locations that need trees for the upcoming 2012-2013 street tree planting season.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) designates June 15th of each year as the final day for resident feedback on where to place trees during the roughly October through April annual planting season.

UFA's job revolves around the trees in tree boxes along city streets. The District currently boasts 130,000 street trees, which fill over 90% of the available tree locations filled.

With unlimited funding UFA could plant a tree in every empty tree box this season, but budget constraints require arborists to choose which spots to fill. They prioritize areas where residents have requested trees, and use any remaining funding to add trees in areas with more available locations and less existing tree cover.

A team of 12 arborists, including Supervisory Forester Earl Eutsler, monitors the approximately 145,000 available open spots for trees. The available space fluctuates for many reasons. For example, redesigned sidewalks or roads can eliminate tree boxes, or a large tree imposing on power lines may be removed and replaced with a number of smaller trees.

Eutsler encourages residents to use online service requests to provide information and feedback to the arborists. Alternatively, residents can request plantings by calling 311 or using the SeeClickFix mobile application. UFA staff are also available at 202-671-5133 to speak with residents about tree concerns.

Eutsler says:

Ideally, each customer would go through, where they can enter the comments for themselves, as opposed to relaying a message to a call taker where an abridgement may occasionally occur. Also, people who start with will enjoy a virtual file cabinet of every request they have put in, for reference. So customers should start with 311 and be as specific as possible. If they would like to move from the formal request into an actual dialogue with one of our arborists they should leave their email address in the contact information window and add a comment requesting a follow up message from the inspecting arborist.

Of course, our findings are entered into each service request, so the customer could also log back in to see our findings. Please convey that every official service request is reviewed by this office. Our arborists take each request with them into the field (virtually), and update the service request while on site at the tree in question. At the end of each day, our inspection results are pushed back into the main request system where they may be reviewed by the customer.

Residents can also track plans to plant and remove trees through a set of Google Documents spreadsheets. An ArcGIS map shows the locations of existing trees. UFA is moving toward only using ArcGIS to track the tree inventory, planting, and removal in the future.

An open data set of street trees lists the location, tree species, size, condition, and date of last inspection. By plotting the DC GIS data, residents can even analyze the ratio of open to planted spaces in their neighborhoods.

The arborists are limited in the amount of time they can spend caring for every street tree. Residents can adopt and care for newly planted trees through DDOT's Canopy Keeper program.

The non-profit company Casey Trees recently released a comprehensive online reference page about the District's street trees. There are other Casey Trees programs that complement UFA's efforts, such as a tree purchase rebate program for trees on private property.

Residents periodically notice newly planted trees that are not thriving because they haven't gotten enough water or care. UFA tries to avoid these problems by requiring its planting contractors to guarantee the tree for one year, and sets a demanding standard for what constitutes a properly established tree.

If you see newly planted or established trees that need trimming, maintenance, or removal, enter a service request to notify the UFA. Likewise, if you have an empty tree space near your home, enter a service request before June 15th for UFA to plant a new tree during the next planting season.


Window shopping is becoming window dressing

According to industry experts, retail is rapidly evolving into little more than an amenity to enhance the value of housing and office spaces above.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

The old retail model of traveling to a place simply to acquire goods is dying, thanks in large part to the Internet, they said at a panel on retail during ULI's April 17 Real Estate Trends Conference. Today's successful retail destinations are much more about entertainment experiences than shopping.

Developers want to attract younger and more affluent residents to mixed-use developments, but the kind of retail that these residents crave is very different from the retail that makes lenders want to finance a new building.

On the panel, moderated by Janis Schiff of Holland & Knight, mixed-use developer Grant Ehat of JBG/Rosenfeld talked at length about the decline of enclosed malls. The only mall to open in the US since 2006 is City Creek in Salt Lake City, which is adjacent to the Mormon Tabernacle and is heavily subsidized by the LDS church.

Tysons Corner is the only "super fortress" mall in the DC area that is viable for the long term, Ehat argued. In his view, even Montgomery Mall may not survive for another generation.

50% of the space at top-end retail destinations like Miami's Lincoln Road Mall is food oriented, said Ehat. Architect David Schwarz added that consumers are basically lazy, and that the most successful developments are the ones that contain the greatest number of attractive uses in the most convenient and concentrated places.

The economics of retail is shifting. According to Placemaker Michael Ewing, of Williams Jackson Ewing, retailers now rely on the "clicks and bricks" model, with their physical stores serving as venues for customers to see and learn about products that they later purchase online. Ewing said that people want to feel younger and more affluent than they really are, calling this "the psychology of aspiration."

From the developer's perspective, Ehat reported that he no longer even considers retail as part of the bottom line. Instead, in the context of mixed-use developments, the retail, dining, and entertainment offerings on the ground floor drive the image of the overall project and, hopefully, improves the financial performance of the apartments, condos, or office suites on the upper levels.

A final obstacle to retail developments is the balance between financiers and customers. Lenders still love "national credit tenants" (the big chains), the panelists agreed, but the younger and more affluent are not interested in such stores. Those are the shoppers and residents that developers want to attract, but they have little interest in living near the stores that lenders prefer.

Conversely, the independent retailers and restaurants that most appeal to target markets for new apartments often struggle to secure financing. For developments such as the 6 Walmarts planned for the District, the panelists concluded that this tension will be quite acute.


Small theater group runs afoul of zoning rules

Small theater company Pinky Swear Productions got some very sudden and frightening news yesterday: Their show Killing Women, which opened in a Dupont church basement on Saturday, may have to suddenly find a new location, as the zoning regulations prohibit theater in that space.

Update: Pinky Swear says they've gotten permission to finish the run of their show and won't have to move.

A resident complained about the production, and zoning officials said that the church, at 16th and S Streets NW, would need a zoning variance to hold performances, according to Andrew Huff in Councilmember Jack Evans' office. DCRA sent an inspector this morning to review the issue; we will report the results when they are available.

Fortunately, Capital Fringe has offered space at 6th and New York Avenue NW if Killing Women has to leave the church, though moving will surely harm Pinky Swear financially. According to co-artistic director Karen Lange, the set won't fit in the new space, moving would force them to cancel a few shows, cost more money for lighting rental, and more.

According to Lange, Pinky Swear is renting the space from Spooky Action Theater, which has a lease for the basement. A resident who lives nearby notes that Spooky Action hasn't been holding productions in the church for a while, which is why this issue is just arising now. Also, he said that the theater groups have been using the narrow alley, adjacent to homes, as the entrance rather than the front door of the church on 16th Street.

The policy question here is, are our zoning rules too restrictive?

On the one hand, zoning creates some predictability. Residents right near the church know to expect a lot of activity on Sunday mornings but not nighttime performances. Audiences coming out of theaters can sometimes be noisy, and could disturb people. That's especially true if they're using a back door adjacent to homes rather than a front door.

On the other hand, having more arts events contributes to a much richer city. Groups like Pinky Swear are small, have little money, and can't afford spaces in places like downtown. Established theaters have theater companies that already use those spaces most of the time. If our zoning keeps the arts corralled into a very narrow range of opportunities, that limits it tremendously, especially for young and emerging artists.

Any zoning changes take tremendous time and money. A developer of a large building can afford to do this, but a small theater company or church can't possibly do it just to put on a play.

There are significant parallels between this case and the recent regulatory disputes around secondhand stores and the car service Uber.

Uber was doing something new and innovative which the existing regulations didn't precisely predict. Their model might or might not have been legal under the regulations, depending how you interpret it. The Taxicab Commission decided that they were breaking the rules, and came down hard.

Used bookstores, vintage clothing shops, and more operated for years under a general retail license, but recently DC officials determined that they actually have to use a different license that mainly covered pawn shops. That license is much more expensive, and requires far more detailed reporting requirements, which made sense for pawn shops to avoid stolen merchandise but is less applicable to stores which buy used goods from distant wholesalers.

In all 3 cases, one can make a case that DC needs to enforce the rules as written. Should we really turn a blind eye to unlawful behavior? If so, how do we decide which unlawful behavior to ignore?

On the other hand, bending zoning rules has sometimes brought tremendously positive results. In many of the warehouse districts of older industrial cities, for instance, revitalization began when people moved into the vacant spaces and started living there. Often, though, they weren't zoned for residential. As New York's Soho became a popular loft space, for many years all of the residents were breaking the zoning rules.

In this case, the zoning code could be more permissive toward arts uses. Arts performance could be one of the "corner store" type uses that can locate in residential zones subject to various restrictions, as I previously suggested. The new code could also allow arts uses in residential zones under a "special exception" rather than a variance, which still requires a long and complex process before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, but lets the BZA grant permission more easily.

For cities to thrive, neighborhoods need to evolve as the desires of their residents changes over time. Zoning can rarely keep up. The best thing we can do is err on the side of more flexibility and fewer regulations.


Breakfast links: Off the rails

Photo by drewsaunders on Flickr.
Metro derails: A Blue Line train derailed near Rosslyn last night. It was quickly evacuated and there were no injuries, only delays. (Examiner)

Diner on the move: The train car that housed the recently-closed Capital City Diner has moved to the former DC Farmer's Market. One of the developers of the Florida Avenue Market purchased it and plans to incorporate it into the project. (Post)

Who are the new residents?: Residents that moved to DC recently tended to be young, well-off, and childless. The District's challenge will be to keep these residents as they start families and remain affordable to the less affluent. (Post)

Farm the roof: Taking green roofs to a new level, one developer wants to put farms on the roofs of the planned Capital Crossing I-395 air rights development. He hopes the small farms will be an attraction for certain restaurants. (Post)

3-foot confusing: Maryland's 3-foot passing law is a mess of confusing exceptions. In fact, the only ones who would likely understand all the exceptions are experienced cyclists who happen to be driving. (WashCycle)

What's libertarian transportation?: There's little consensus among libertarian thinkers on transportation policy. While some think that multi-modal choice has a role to play in a market based system, others think cars are the only way to go. (Streetsblog)

Rental units not all in big buildings: Across the country, more people rent in houses than in high rises, a trend which will likely continue as foreclosed homes are offered for rent. Locally however, thousands of new units in large buildings will come online in the next few years. (Urban Turf)

Barry makes point poorly: Marion Barry compared charter schools to Asian-owned restaurants in a comment at a hearing. His statements about the restaurants created a major controversy recently, but this time he was making a serious point about whether charters should or should not favor local residents. (Examiner)

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"Adaptive reuse" brings old warehouses and garages to life

I recently visited an American city with many downtown buildings from a long-departed industry. The city's downtown is now experiencing new life, and many of the historic buildings are finding new uses after sitting vacant for many years.

This is a complex of old warehouses which have now become retail and offices. The developer added a really amazing water feature, a long river which cascades down waterfalls at various intervals. There are small footbridges across the river and even stepping stones to cross in one place.

The old chutes for the products remain and now serve as decorative flourishes. In the center is an old railcar, like those that once transported goods to and from the facility.

At another location nearby, people have turned several old garages into bars and music halls. They've also become a popular spot for food trucks, and 2 were sitting outside as we passed by on a Saturday.

Both of these demonstrate the preservation concept of "adaptive reuse." Old, historic buildings can become a valued part of a changing community by taking on different functions that residents need today. The distinct architecture of the structures and the small details that nobody would build today adds character and interest.

Bonus question: Can you guess the city?

Update: Several commenters got it very quickly. This is Durham, North Carolina. The large development is the American Tobacco Campus, where tobacco warehouses have become high-end retail adjacent to the new stadium for the Durham Bulls. The garage-turned-bar and music hall is called Motorco, in honor of the building's historic use.

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