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Posts from May 2009


Sotomayor's eminent domain stance: What does it mean for cities?

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is dominating the conversation in Washington as analysts begin  to dig into her past rulings. And while she has yet to weigh in on abortion, the judge has spoken loud and clear on an issue of interest to livable streets advocates: eminent domain.

2009_04_soniasoto.jpgSupreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (Photo: Gothamist)

As a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Sotomayor ruled against property owners in Didden v. Village of Port Chester, a case that centered on plans for a CVS drug store in Westchester County.

Lawyer and blogger Ilya Somin, who urged the Supreme Court to consider the Didden case, has a thorough—if undeniably subjective—summary of the case here. In an unsigned judgment, Sotomayor's court ultimately allowed the Westchester developer to condemn the land belonging to plaintiff Didden and build a competing pharmacy, despite the questionable public-use benefit that would result from the taking.

During her confirmation hearing, Sotomayor is likely to get pointed questions on Didden from conservatives who were dismayed when the nation's highest court ruled in favor of eminent domain rights in 2005's Kelo v. New London. But should urbanites, and livable streets advocates in particular, also be concerned by the nominee's stance on takings of private property?

In theory, eminent domain can and should be used for beneficial purposes, such as transit expansion. Yet a recent push along those lines was halted by the Colorado state legislature last year, and proposed curbs on eminent domain are also imperiling the future of light rail in the Houston area.

On the flip side, local governments often take private property for new development projects, claiming that commercial and office buildings justify a standard of "public use"—as was the case in Kelo and in Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards case, which was turned away by the Supreme Court last year. Another eminent domain case heard by Sotomayor's court, Brody v. Village of Port Chester, involved condemnation to build a Stop-'n-Shop supermarket parking lot.

Sotomayor's appeals court handed property owner William Brody a partial victory in 2005, ruling that his due process rights were violated but not requiring Port Chester to reverse the condemnation. In fact, the Brody opinion (available for download here) states that judges should not weigh in on the merits of taking land for "public use":

[T]he role of the courts in enforcing the constitutional limitations on eminent domain is one of patrolling the borders. That which falls within the boundaries of acceptability is not subject to review.

What do Streetsblog Greater Greater Washington readers think about the Didden and Brody cases, and the role of eminent domain in community development?

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.

Public Spaces

Around the network: Making room for people rather than cars

We talk a lot on this blog about the way that government policy can help to create livable streets. But we don't often discuss the role that individual property owners can play when they're inspired to create a more pedestrian-friendly space.

The owner of this property in Miami has decided to convert a parking lot to a terrace.
Today's post, from Streetsblog Network member Urban City Architecture, gives an example of how—by converting a small parking lot to a terrace—one business owner in Miami's Brickell neighborhood is contributing to an increasingly vital streetscape:

It seems that recent development and new emphasis on the pedestrian landscape has encouraged a property owner in Brickell to replace a small surface (parking) lot in front of a building with more pedestrian-oriented and occupiable urban space fronting the sidewalk instead. Over the last couple of months, workers have been busy transforming the old parking spaces into an elevated outdoor seating space for what I presume will be a restaurant (or expansion of the existing restaurant next door).

In essence, the integration of the building within the urban fabric has been reconfigured to make it more responsive to pedestrians and more fitting with its surroundings. Prior to these changes, the building?s parking layout served as a physical and visual barrier between the pedestrian and the building. Much in the same way that buildings are setback behind inhospitable and unwalkable parking in the suburbs—pedestrians walking the streets were not greeted by a building facade or window but rather by a long row of car exhausts and vehicle bumpers that contribute nothing to the urban atmosphere.

Luckily, the transformation of the space will change this unfavorable dynamic and create a more lively and active environment on the streets.

It's part of a process that the post's author, Adam Mizrahi, likes to call "automobile attrition." And it's an intriguing example of how, when a neighborhood achieves some livable streets momentum, the dead space created by cars and parking becomes more apparent.

More from around the network: Newton Streets and Sidewalks talks about how more roads don't ease congestion; Urban Milwaukee has a personal story about how senior citizens can get shut out of walkable neighborhoods; and The Infrastructurist looks at why Hawaii got complete streets legislation and Missouri didn't.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.


Then and Now: Third Church

Click on an image to enlarge.

Then (left): The home occupied by Justice Horace Gray. Gray was on the Supreme Court from 1882 to 1902. This structure later became the location of a Christian Science Reading Room.

Now (right): The Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. The church was built in 1971. Since opening, the building has not been well suited for the church, which has experienced declining attendance at its services. It currently has received the green light for demolition.

Thanks to reader Sean for the suggestion.


Polly Trottenberg tapped for senior USDOT spot

It's a happy Friday for transportation wonks: the White House has nominated Polly Trottenberg, executive director of Building America's Future, as assistant secretary for policy at the federal DOT.

trottenberg.jpgPolly Trottenberg, tapped as assistant DOT secretary (Photo: NewTalk)

Trottenberg's ascension signals that the Obama administration will make transit a serious priority and encourage a more equitable consideration of urban priorities during debate on the upcoming federal transportation bill. Her dozen years of Senate experience, including stints in the offices of Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), also will prove a valuable asset to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a veteran of the House.

But it's Trottenberg's independent analysis of the recent economic stimulus bill that stands out. She joined New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and former New York State DOT Commissioner Astrid Glynn for a series of progressive recommendations for the stimulus plan—some of which, such as the "fix-it-first" requirement for roads and bridges, were left out of the final legislation.

And in a panel discussion at NewTalk, Trottenberg acknowledged that the stimulus bill's speedy delivery of cash to state DOTs was at odds with the Obama administration's goal of promoting "green energy":

It appears that we have made some progress in advancing a more transparent and accountable infrastructure policy in the economic stimulus bill, but it's likely that we will not do much to achieve what should be our ultimate goal—resolving the more fundamental question of what we are trying to accomplish with our federal investments and targeting the funds accordingly.

For example, President-elect Obama has called for a "green energy" approach to economic recovery, which will focus on projects that reduce energy consumption. However, if you survey the potential list of transportation projects proposed by a number of State Departments of Transportation, it appears likely this legislation will fund billions of dollars in new highway capacity in suburban and exurban areas. These projects will exacerbate auto-dependent development and increase fossil fuel consumption.

It's too soon to say whether Trottenberg can combat the desire for political expediency that led to some bad transportation decision-making in the name of economic stimulus. Yet her arrival in the Obama administration is certainly good news.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.


11th Street bridges design makes some improvements

JDLand got a copy of the current design for the 11th Street bridges project. The original EIS showed a potential layout for the ramps and bridges, but DDOT asked engineering firms bidding on the project to design their own implementations.

The winning proposal, from Skanska/Facchina, would improve on the original design in a few ways. It places the two bridges (highway and local) closer together, shrinking the overall footprint of the project. It also lowers some ramps on the Anacostia side, allowing trees to obscure the view of the ramps from Ridge Place and other residential streets. And the firm claims that they can build 75% of the project without disrupting the existing traffic flow, by building new segments and ramps next to or around existing ones.

Top: Skanska/Facchina proposal. Bottom: Plan from 11th Street Bridges EIS. Click to enlarge (PDF). (Warning: EIS is a very large PDF file.)

According to DDOT Director Gabe Klein, DDOT was able to mix and match some features from various proposals. It's not clear whether this is the blended design or just S/F's original suggestion. A few potential improvements jump out. Southbound on the local bridge, the original EIS showed a fairly sharp right turn to Good Hope Road and the freeway. S/F, instead, places a gentler turning ramp to Good Hope while keeping a sharp turn to the freeway. They have space to do that because they've moved the local bridge closer to the freeway bridge. However, it would be even better to just keep the sharper turn, allowing for even more space in Anacostia Park uninterrupted by freeway ramps. The sharper turn would also encourage lower speeds on the local bridge, which is not supposed to be for high-speed traffic and will accommodate pedestrians, bicycles and potentially streetcars.

The freeway bridge seems to have two ramps exiting as drivers reach capitol hill heading northbound. The original EIS only showed one, to M Street I can't figure out why there are two here. These ramps seem to also spread more widely away from the freeway. That might be an effort to build more of the project without disrupting the existing project. However, if the ramps hugged the freeway more closely, that would leave land along 12th Street that could one day be developed. Similarly, from the drawing it appears they are moving 12th Street over a little bit. If so, it's not clear why.

JD also notices that some of the ramps are missing in the drawing; according to a commenter, DC only has $230 million of the $360 for the full project, and has bid out the first portion to start.

Update: kk points out that the current ramps let drivers use either the local or freeway bridges to cross the river from Capitol Hill and access 295. In fact, if the freeway bridge gets backed up, it appears to be very easy for drivers to get off 295, take the local bridge, and then hop back on the freeway at the other end. The purpose of the local bridge is to accommodate traffic between the neighborhoods on either end, not to function as even more lanes for through traffic or to be a very expensive, very long off-ramp from the freeway to Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the interchange with the Anacostia Freeway should prevent cars from getting off the freeway and turning onto the bridge, or entering the freeway from the bridge. If drivers on the Capitol Hill side want to get on the freeway, they should get on the freeway side of the bridge instead. Doing this would also simplify the intersection where C-1, C-2 and C-4 all meet. Plus, this could allow narrower ramps, which might save money that DC could use to pay for the rest of the project.


Even more links: New perspective in the Old Line

Photo by Kevin H.
Wilson Bridge trail makes connections: The Woodrow Wilson Bridge bike and pedestrian trail will open next weekend. To his credit, reporter Michael Laris doesn't just write the "how cute, there's a trail for hikers and bikers for fun" story, instead talking about the trail as an actual transportation link, writing, "The disjointed Washington region is about to be linked a little more tightly." (Post)

How about smart growth, not pro growth or no growth: The election of Nancy Navarro to the Montgomery County Council will likely tip the balance in the Council toward the current four-member coalition of Ervin, Floreen, Leventhal, and Knapp. The latter three, at least, are often described as "pro-development." Columnist Blair Lee predicts that the "pro-growth" view will now be on top in Montgomery, trumping the "slow growth" or "no growth" side. And the Council will soon choose a member of the Planning Board. But must the Council debate, or at least the press coverage, revolve around growth or not? The County needs to focus its growth around its Metro stations (like White Flint, while resisting plans for just more sprawl like Gaithersburg West. (Gazette, Post)

Village green or secret courtyard?: The Montgomery Planning Board approved a development in Fenton Village, near downtown Silver Spring, that will create a public green and add small streets inside a block, similar to Bethesda Lane. Neighbors argue that by putting the green in the middle of the block, it creates more of a "secret courtyard." (Just Up The Pike)

Affordable Bethesda: A group is buying and rehabilitating a 44-year-old office building and converting it to single-room affordable housing. It would mix in retail at the street level. (Post, Cavan)

To get Metro, Fairfax has to tax: Western Fairfax must create a special taxing district to fund its part of the Silver Line, but amid the economic downturn, the community is nervous. Tysons already has a similar district to pay for its piece. (Examiner)

U.S. calls timeout on 'roadless' forest projects: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a virtual moratorium on new development in "roadless" areas of national parks. Any such projects would need his personal approval before going forward. This is a move that environmentalists have been calling for since Bush authorized the construction of roads in such areas. (Philadelphia Inquirer, JTS)

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Breakfast links: Hitting back with words and song

Photo by DaigoOliva.
Woodley Park smackdown: Some other citizens' association leaders aren't pleased with CPCA's anti-democratic behavior. Peter Brusoe of the Woodley Park Community Association posted a strong rebuke to CPCA's actions, further saying that he'll introduce a resolution at the Federation of Citizens' Associations to expel CPCA. (Ward3DC)

A balanced view of the "war on drivers": Courtland Milloy covers the "war on drivers" issue in a much more balanced way, giving substantial time to Jim Graham as well as AAA's Lon Anderson. Graham is all on message. "I know it bucks the suburban tradition of thinking they can come into the city and drive recklessly and park in front of fire hydrants or anywhere they want, but I apologize to no one about enforcing our traffic laws. Get used to it. ... Just obey our laws." Even Anderson admits a small does of Entitled Driver Syndrome: "We have a sense of entitlement, a sense of self-importance that easily turns into aggression when we get frustrated," he said. (Post)

Singing about zoning: A professional musician who is also a City Council member in Pine Lake, Georgia composed six songs about land use and transportation, including one about cars taking over our lives and one about complete streets: "Just enough shade just enough light/ Just enough room for the neighbors in the middle of a hot summer night/ Just enough room for a car to pass/ But it has to slo-ow down/ It's a perfect little street, a perfect little spot, a perfect little town." (Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jaime)

Catoe is tops: John Catoe was named the nation's top public transportation manager by APTA.

NextBus in one month: Metro has announced that they will relaunch NextBus by July 1. (, Transport)

Trains are the future for airports: More and more domestic airports are building or planning rail links right to their terminals. DCA is one of the nation's most popular existing links, and of course the link to Dulles is on the way. (USA Today, Gavin)

MPD nixes broadcast: A Ward 5 community leader made plans to Webcast the local police and community Citizens Advisory Council meeting, but at the last minute, Chief Lanier squashed the idea until the department sets up "protocols." After a slow start, MPD is now talking to him about making it happen. (DC Wire)

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Around the network: We need a complete solution to climate change

The Streetsblog Network aggregates content from many local blogs advocating for similar policies as here on Greater Greater Washington. Sarah Goodyear regularly summarizes the best of those posts. You asked for more frequent "links" posts; since there often isn't so much local news, we're going to start including many of her roundups to tell you about important and interesting developments around the country. - David

This morning, Jeff Wood at The Overhead Wire points us to a newly released measure of CO2 emissions from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (which just won a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, BTW). He says maps like these help to show why changing land-use patterns is vital in the fight to diminish greenhouse gases:

Picture_1.pngCNT has released another Affordability Index update that shows transportation emissions is 70% less in cities than in the suburbs. Why is this? Because people don't have to drive as much. You can see already the benefits, and it isn't all about electric cars. Yet some in Southern California think that SB375, the landmark climate change bill, can be addressed with electric cars alone. Sorry guys. It doesn't work like that.?

But it's not just transportation, it's building as well. We need to look at this as a complete system. This singular focus on one method is somewhat maddening. I know there are a lot of people who are hoping for a magic green car or a magic green building but we're also forgetting our water usage and population growth among other things.

The CNT site has some very cool maps that compare not only CO2 emissions from household auto use per acre and per household, but also the cost of housing and transportation as a percentage of average household income in many regions across the country.

As The Overhead Wire points out, maps like these point out the importance of development patterns in limiting emissions, and the reality that only a holistic solution will make a dent. Zero-emissions vehicles aren't going to solve the nation's carbon bloat any more than a diet pill can provide a long-term solution for an obese individual.

Other fun stuff from around the network: Brooklyn by Bike protests the girlification of women's bikes (stop the flowers!); Cyclelicious has the news that French prisoners get to participate in their own Tour de France; and World Streets has data that suggests that swine flu killed more people with traffic fatalities in Mexico City than with germs.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.


Are you an architectural historian?

DC needs an architectural historian to serve on the Historic Preservation Review Board. John Vlach's term has expired, and while he's offered to remain on the board, Mayor Fenty nominated someone else, Christopher Landis, to replace Vlach. However, while he has architectural training who works on historic buildings, Landis is not an architectural historian. And that's a problem.

Christopher Landis. Photo from the DC Council confirmation hearing.

At last week's confirmation hearing for Landis, DCPL's Rebecca Miller pointed out that National Park Service regulations require a state preservation review board to contain an architectural historian (as well as a historian and an archaeologist). Without one, DC could lose about $500,000 in federal historic preservation funding, the Current reports.

Rather than disapprove Landis's nomination, DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray urged Mayor Fenty to withdraw the nomination and resubmit his name in July, when several other board members will be up for renomination or replacement. Meanwhile, however, HPRB needs an architectural historian.

A qualified "architectural historian" need not have a degree in architectural history; related fields, including art history with work in architectural history, also qualify. Vlach, for example, is an anthropologist. Here are the NPS guidelines:

The minimum professional qualifications in architectural history are a graduate degree in architectural history, art history, historic preservation, or closely-related field, with course work in American architectural history; or a bachelor's degree in architectural history with concentration in American architecture; or a bachelor's degree in architectural history, art history, historic preservation, or closely-related field plus one of the following:

1. At least two years of full-time experience in research, writing, or teaching in American architectural history or restoration architecture with an academic institution, historic organization or agency, museum, or other professional institution; or

2. Substantial contribution through research and publication to the body of scholarly knowledge in the field of American architectural history.

According to the Current, Miller submitted nine potential nominees. Who else? Do any of you meet these criteria? Do you know any DC residents who do, and who would be willing to serve on HPRB, spending one day a month at their meeting? Potential nominees ought to believe in the goals of historic preservation, but would ideally also consider the actual merit of each structure on its own, instead of simply landmarking a structure because of "momentum," as Vlach has argued in the past.


Metro board says no to food, "master licensee"

Today, Metro staff presented their proposal for retail vending in Metro stations to the Board of Directors' Customer Service and Operations Committee. The plan was the same or almost the same as the plan they showed the RAC earlier this month. Board members had similar reactions to many RAC members, expressing general support for the program but opposing any exploration of food sales and pushing for a greater emphasis on small businesses.

Image from WMATA.

The Post's Robert Thomson was liveblogging during the meeting, and has a detailed summary of each member's comments. DC Councilmember Jim Graham expressed strong support for a vending program, but said that he doesn't support "opening the door" to food. He relayed an incident from a few years ago where Metro police arrested a young girl for eating a french fry, which Graham said became an international press sensation. He fears that selling food, coupled with stepped-up enforcement, would invite more french fry incidents.

Chris Zimmerman of Arlington echoed Graham's concern, as did several other members. Zimmerman said that he had previously suggested Metro explore DVD rentals with a certain vendor that already appears in many drugstores and grocery stores, or other similar options. Staff said that a previous RFP for non-food vending had only yielded three unsatisfactory responses, but Board members expressed skepticism that Metro can't make something work.

Board members also criticized the focus on a "master licensee" to operate vending at twelve or more stations. Zimmerman said that Metro is used to making very large purchases from large organizations (like huge orders of rail cars), through heavyweight procurement processes. That, he suggested, wasn't right here. Instead, the Board instructed staff to write an RFP open equally to vendors that want to serve one station or many.

Before Board members spoke, I took advantage of the new policy allowing RAC members to testify at committee meetings. I summarized some of the objections that RAC members had raised, but speaking personally, recommended that the Board allow staff to release a very broad RFP to solicit proposals for food and non-food vending, from large and small businesses alike. More data is always better than less data, and the Board can better weigh the possibilities around food with a sheaf of bids in hand, for food or for flowers, from big and small companies alike.

Perhaps vendors would suggest frozen pizzas that would be almost impossible to eat on the train. Perhaps they will devise other ideas. At the very least, it would be helpful to know how much revenue we are foregoing. Maybe the cost of added enforcement would exceed the added revenue from food. If so, that would be good to know; if not, we should know that too. But the Board decided that they weren't willing to open that particular door, at least not yet.

Zimmerman did agree with me about keeping the RFP broad in some other ways, however. Some members, like Fairfax's Jeff McKay and Graham, suggested focusing on other stations such as Franconia-Springfield or Georgia Avenue-Petworth with limited retail opportunities outside the station. That might be a good idea, Zimmerman said, but he pushed to keep the RFP itself broad enough to encompass all stations, from Gallery Place to the most desolate park-and-ride. Metro wouldn't actually sign contracts for all 86 stations, but allowing potential vendors to choose the stations, rather than Metro, would bring in the widest possible range of non-food proposals.

The committee asked Metro staff to come back next month with a revised proposal for an RFP that gives more emphasis to small businesses and excludes food. Most likely, that will result in a better program for riders, with more diversity and less trash. At the same time, it may not attract nearly as much revenue as other programs might have. That's clearly a tradeoff the Board, many RAC members, and most members of the public were willing to make.

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