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Posts from May 2010


What's That? #26

It's week #26 of What's That?

Each week I show small close-up photographs of three different well-known places and things related to the Washington DC area.

Post your guesses in the comments. Comments will be hidden until the answers are revealed in a few days.


The Variety of American Grids

I wanted a nerdy planning-related poster for my wall (other than the periodic table of city planning), so I made one this week. I scoured Google Earth and measured that quintessentially American grid in about a hundred downtowns around the country.

Of course, there are variations in block proportions within downtowns, but I tried to pick cities that had more uniformity than average to come up with a single prototype. (Washington, DC has very little uniformity.)

Click for the poster-quality version (large PDF).

Exploring these grid proportions messed with my preconceptions. I assumed the more western and newer cities would have larger grids than the more eastern and older cities, but no obvious pattern is discernible to me. Mobile, AL, settled by French colonists in the early 18th century, Tulsa, OK, a 19th century farming town, and Anchorage, AK, a 20th century frontier town, all share the same 300' x 300' internal block (street widths vary a little). What compelled the early settlers of these towns to choose, say, 220' over 440' lengths? I can't say I have any idea right now.

Manhattan is also a curious story. According to Witold Rybczynski, the expanding nation unequivocally chose the 1811 Commissioner's Grid of New York City over L'Enfant's baroque-influenced plan for Washington, DC as the model for new towns. While this is surely true, it begs the question: why are New York's long and skinny blocks not found anywhere else in the country? You would think at least one group of western settlers would seek to emulate their home town of New York more exactly.

I'm leaving aside the interesting value questions around block size. Ever since Jacobs, conventional wisdom has held that smaller blocks are preferable for walkability, but urban designer Fannis Grammenos challenges the grid somewhat in a Planetizen post.

Crossposted on Discovering Urbanism.


Cuts spur new New York subway map

New York is getting a new subway map.

Budget cuts have led to the consolidation of several lines, such as the W and Q and, most interestingly, the V and M, which is turning the M from brown to orange and giving riders from parts of Brooklyn a one-seat ride to Midtown.

But, as the New York Times explains, the MTA has also taken the opportunity to tweak its map to add some information, delete some other distracting information, and make Manhattan far wider than in reality while making Staten Island much smaller.

Comparison by Second Avenue Sagas.

Second Avenue Sagas juxtaposed several parts of the map with their previous incarnations to illustrate some of the most meaningful changes.


Wells to introduce bill for overhead wires on H, Benning

On Tuesday, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells will introduce a bill to modify the existing ban on overhead wires in the L'Enfant City, his office announced last night.

Streetcars in Frankfurt. Photo by Ralph on Picasa.

The new bill would not allow wires across the District, but would maintain the current ban with an exception for streetcars on H Street NE and Benning Road.

To add wires to any other areas, DDOT would need to formulate a citywide streetcar plan and seek Council approval. They would also need to protect important viewsheds using some kind of hybrid approach.

The existing laws, passed by Congress in 1888 and 1889, prohibit overhead wires of all types in the L'Enfant City, the area north of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, south of Florida Avenue, and east of Rock Creek. It's often been claimed that "federal law" prohibits wires, and therefore the DC Council can't modify the ban.

However, in a legal memo for DC Surface Transit, noted historic preservation lawyer Andrea Ferster argues that the Council can indeed modify the law (subject to the usual Congressional review). Congress passed all laws in the District before 1973, and when they granted Home Rule, they gave the Council the right to modify those laws, with certain specific exceptions.

One exception was that DC can't allow buildings that exceed the 1910 Height of Buildings limits. Only Congress can do that, and has from time to time, such as for the current tallest building, the National Shrine, constructed in 1959. DC also isn't allowed to impose a commuter tax, or to modify the DC Courts or the U.S. Attorney. They also can't override any federal laws that apply beyond DC, but the wire ban isn't one of those.

The Home Rule Act and District Charter do not mention the wire ban as one of the non-changeable laws, and therefore, argues Ferster, the Council can modify it just as they could modify any other DC-specific law that was in effect prior to 1973. There were lawsuits about this in the 1980s, such as District of Columbia v. Greater Washington Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO in 1982, where the courts allowed the Council to repeal a federal law that applied federal workers' compensation laws to DC private employers. The wire law appears to fall into the same category.

DC also isn't allowed to legislate about the property of the United States, and the U.S. technically "holds title" to streets in DC, but laws allow DC to close streets without Congressional approval, and in the 1986 case Techworld Development Corp. v. D.C. Preservation League, a court held that streets are "precisely the sort of local matter Congress wishes the D.C. Council to manage" through the Home Rule process.

Another opinion by the DC Office of the Attorney General says that the Council's right to allow wires won't apply to a few specific areas: the land controlled by the National Park Service or the Architect of the Capitol. They also can't build wires that exceed the Height of Buildings Act or local zoning, and are required to respond to (but not obey) NCPC's recommendations for in-ground power systems instead of wires.

The Wells bill also requires DDOT to submit a report by January 2014 on whether it's feasible to remove existing streetcar overhead wires and convert the lines to wire-free operation. Based on the information presented at the streetcar technology forum, it seems that completely wire-free operation is indeed likely to become possible and practical in the not-too-distant future.

The PowerPoint presentation from APTA on streetcar technology is now online, and DDOT has posted video of the Q&A segment of the technology seminar (part 1, part 2).


We saved transit, but everything isn't peachy for everyone

This week was a very exciting one for transit supporters. Not only did we reverse the DC Council's sudden cut to streetcars, but what started out as a massive set of service cuts were whittled down to none, at least in DC and Virginia.

Bread for the City provides holiday meals.

Yes, we have shown that transit matters to the residents of the region, and politicians should cut it at their peril. Transit service is very important to the less fortunate residents of our region as well, but it's not all that matters.

Metro fares are going up substantially. It's a better outcome than cutting service, and fares will go up more at rush hours which serve people who have jobs, but most of us probably make more money than the average worker. Most of us have jobs, but many people don't.

And in Prince George's County, the region's poorest, bus service is still getting cut.

The cost of health care for an elderly parent or sick child can drive families to and beyond the brink of bankruptcy. Many people who didn't grow up in families that had computers, read to their children on a regular basis, and sent their children to top schools need training to compete for today's knowledge economy jobs. Single parents find it difficult to afford decent housing. Homeless people often suffer from mental illnesses and cost a city more in police resources than it would take to treat.

As our political voice gets louder and elected officials start to listen more closely, let's be careful not just to advocate for the needs of the most fortunate residents of the region. With transit and development, they often go hand in hand, which is one reason I enjoy advocating for these so much. But we must still be mindful of the impact of changes we champion. More condos are great, but some must remain affordable for people at all ranges of the income spectrum. Transit is terrific, but it must serve all communities and at a reasonable price.

Save our Safety Net was pushing for new tax brackets for people making over $200,000 and then $1 million per year. As a resident who might well be in one of those tax brackets depending on the stock market, I can say for sure that I would not have been packing up to leave DC if the Council had enacted such a plan.

I didn't write much about the ongoing campaign because, frankly, I didn't have time to wrap my head around all the issues. For next year, we should do better.

But covering the needs of lower-income people and communities shouldn't wait until budget time. When we have debates about things like nutrition, some comments reveal that many people are misinformed about some of these issues. (For example, obesity in poor areas has a lot to do with federal subsidies for corn and high-fructose corn syrup.) We need to be taking the time to understand what life is like for folks who don't live in the nicest DC neighborhoods and richest suburbs.

The outpouring of energy for streetcars didn't just happen because we suddenly posted about streetcars when they were about to be cut. It happened because supporters, like Sierra Club, the Downtown BID, and DDOT had been building support for months. It happened because we had been talking about streetcars for months, and debating them, so that people could make up their minds.

To make a political issue successful, it isn't enough to talk about it when the time for action has come. It's important to talk about it beforehand and educate people who are sympathetic but haven't really thought about the issue thoroughly.

While I am not an expert on poverty, I would love for some folks who are to come start a conversation on a regular basis about how we can make Greater Washington greater for its neediest residents. If that's you, let us know at


Charrette participants embrace Silver Spring's new urbanity

Yesterday, we talked about the issue of "style vs. character" at last week's Fenton Street Market charrette. That was just one of the concerns raised by the residents and stakeholders who came out to offer their thoughts on the future of Silver Spring.

Writing comments at the charrette. Photo by Dan Reed.

Charrette participants gave us their thoughts on large easel boards. Reading those, you could see the split between those averse to change and those excited about recent and future changes in Silver Spring. For every "No Purple Line" or "Too Much Density," there were calls for more housing, more shopping, and more transit.

"Build The Hell Out Of It!" one person directed. "It's An Urban Area—Accept It!" said another.

While those who were uncomfortable with new development tended to be older, those in support of it were of all ages. Take Florence and her husband. They're retired and live just across the DC line in Takoma, a neighborhood with history to spare.

They come to Silver Spring "every weekend," for dinner, a movie, and a walk along Ellsworth Drive, Florence says. Her husband was an architect, as is her son now. But they don't have much complaint about "fake" buildings. "We love the vibrancy, the people," she says of Silver Spring.

Angela, meanwhile, notes that Silver Spring doesn't feel as "old" as other cities she's lived in, like Boston. But she's worried about the lack of places for her tweenaged son and his friends to go skating.

"We break all the rules to let him go out," she says, clutching a longboard. (Is it for her or her son? I wasn't sure.) "Otherwise, I'd be chasing him around downtown."

She points to a picture of the National Institute of Dyers and Cleaners at Georgia and Burlington avenues. It's been abandoned for decades, but there are plans to turn it into condos. "I tell myself that when I strike it rich, I'm gonna buy that place and turn it into a skate park," Angela says.

One concern almost everyone I spoke to raised was pedestrian safety. Jonathan lives in nearby Seven Oaks and walks to Fenton Street Market. He knows that a denser, busier downtown Silver Spring will require more people to be able to walk places - but "Silver Spring is quickly becoming unwalkable," he laments.

Wayne & Fenton Intersection (Dan Reed)Colesville Road Section (Dan Reed)
Left: redoing the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street.
Right: A median strip for Colesville Road. Drawings by Dan Reed.

Foot traffic has grown in recent years, but pedestrians are often no match for wide roads designed to move lots of cars. In the CBD and surrounding neighborhoods, many sidewalks have no buffer from traffic, giving pedestrians as little as three feet of concrete between them and cars whizzing by at 50 miles an hour.

The suggestions are simple: Street trees to buffer walkers from traffic; raised crosswalks at busy intersections to slow cars down; and swapping the reversible lanes on main roads like Georgia and Colesville with landscaped medians.

These changes are expensive, and it's often more palatable for county officials to install cameras to ticket speeding drivers instead. But pedestrian improvements could be done while building the Purple Line, which will require redoing many downtown streets. That's already happening H Street in DC, which is being rebuilt with new streetcar tracks.

This kind of pragmatism is a great outcome for any planning workshop, but organizers Hannah McCann and myself were hoping to spark some creativity as well. I was excited by the guy who said Silver Spring "could really use some flying cars," and by our architects, who by the afternoon had turned to their markers and trace paper and sketched out their own visions for downtown.

Vision of Fenton Village (Darrel Rippeteau)Fred and Ginger (Laurence Caudle)
Left: Darrel Rippeteau's vision for Georgia Avenue.
Right: Laurence Caudle's Fred and Ginger-inspired building on Fenton Street.

Dan Morales, who lives in nearby East Silver Spring, broke downtown's superblocks with a new street grid. Laurence Caudle from Hickok Cole drew buildings on Fenton Street that resembled Fred and Ginger, a building designed by Frank Gehry in Prague. And Darrel Rippeteau of Rippeteau Architects imagined Georgia Avenue as an elegant urban promenade, "as good as Boulevard Saint-Michel" in Paris, he said.

These seemingly fanciful ideas were welcome after the often-contentious discussions that took place throughout the charrette. It's easy to get lathered up over your favorite issue, but harder to take a step back and remember that, at the end of the day, we're all trying to make a better community.

I'm hoping to take all of the notes and drawings we generated at last Saturday's charrette and, with some help, organize an exhibit to be displayed in the Silver Spring Civic Building when it finally opens in July. It's a chance to capture a moment in history when we had so much to remember, but much more to look forward to as well.

Here is a slideshow of the Fenton Street Market charrette.


UMD fights phantom fences from Purple Line

The University of Maryland and the Maryland Transit Administration remain at odds over the Purple Line. One argument that UMD loves to trot out is that the light rail line will turn campus into a maze of tall fences.

Campus Drive already has fences.

While MTA fiercely denies that they are planning to install fences, the University of Maryland claims evidence to the contrary. Administrators cite the University of Minnesota, where a light rail line connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul is under construction. Staffers at UMD claim that the light rail line there caused 42-inch-high fences to be erected to keep students off the tracks.

There are several problems with this logic, but the most important is that the fences pre-date the light rail line. In fact, they are being removed as part of the project.

The proposed LRT is shown in green, current fencing in red, the transit/ped mall in yellow.
View larger image.

The University of Minnesota is located along the banks of the Mississippi River, close to downtown Minneapolis. Running east-west across campus is Washington Avenue. It's a major arterial roadway. In fact, leaving downtown Minneapolis it is a full-fledged freeway. It is a depressed, controlled access highway across the "West Bank" part of campus and on part of the "East Bank" campus. East of Church Street, Washington Avenue becomes a surface street with sidewalks and cross traffic.

But on the freeway section of Washington Avenue, the east and westbound lanes are divided by a concrete median barrier topped by 42-inch high iron fences. Those fences have been there for some time. Light rail construction just started at the University of Minnesota this month, so the causation argument fails.

Photo by jby1982 on Flickr.

This photo looks east toward the intersection of Church and Washington. Note how the fence ends just beyond the pedestrian overpass. That's where the freeway becomes a street.

Looking west (from the other side of the street), you can see the Washington Avenue freeway enter the bridge over the Mississippi River. Also note the lack of sidewalks. This is not a pedestrian friendly campus center, it's a freeway shoulder.

Photo by Mulad on Flickr.

The Central Corridor Light Rail will improve access between the University of Minnesota and both Minneapolis and Saint Paul. As a part of the construction, Washington Avenue will be converted to a transit and pedestrian mall. This will result in wider sidewalks, better access to transit, and a less obtrusive barrier to pedestrians. The light rail project will be removing the fences that currently "divide" campus.

Since UMD brings this up so often, that's worth repeating. Right now a freeway median with fences divides the campus. With light rail, the freeway will be closed and the fences removed.

Another objection that UMD brings to the table quite often is the idea that traffic signals will be needed to control the flow of pedestrians. They again cite the University of Minnesota. UMD says that the Minnesota light rail is adding pedestrian signals where currently there are none. And they're right. Currently, there are traffic signals at each intersection with Washington Avenue from Church Street to Walnut Street. All of those signals will remain, because those streets will cross the transit/ped mall. In addition, the LRT line will add two mid-block pedestrian crosswalks with signals where they currently don't exist.

So, while the University of Maryland uses the fact that new signals are being installed at the University of Minnesota as a negative side of light rail, in reality, these signals are going to increase pedestrian connectivity on campus because they will allow pedestrians to cross where they currently cannot.

All of this information is readily available in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Central Corridor LRT project. However, just to be sure that I didn't misread the document, I contacted the agency building the Central Corridor.

I received a prompt response from Metro Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen confirming two things. The Central Corridor will indeed be removing the fences and will not be putting up new ones. And the project will also add two new signalized pedestrian crossings where they currently do not exist.

But even if these two things were not the case, it would not be appropriate for the University of Maryland to cite fences at the University of Minnesota to make their case. If the Maryland Transit Administration says they're not installing fences or traffic signals, then the point is moot. Light rail projects are designed differently in different areas. Just because one has fences in one place, it doesn't mean that every other light rail project will have fences in every place.

Light rail projects co-exist peacefully with pedestrians throughout the United States and around the globe. Fences are not necessary to protect the right-of-way, and neither of the Universities mentioned in this article are going to be home to projects with fences.

Besides, Campus Drive already has fences to keep students off of Campus Drive. Who installed those? Not MTA: The University of Maryland.

Cross-posted at Rethink College Park.


What should historic preservation really protect?

Yesterday, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board declined to approve the N Street Follies hotel, proposed for the six boarded-up townhouses on N Street between 17th and 18th Streets, NW. Numerous Dupont residents, including myself, testified against a specific element of the project: its impact on the adjacent Tabard Inn.

N Street Follies proposed massing. Image from the Tabard Inn.

The Historic Preservation Office recommended approval because the plan does a nice job of preserving the fronts and rears of the existing townhouses, placing most of the development along the alley in the rear with an interior courtyard between it and the townhouses. However, that arrangement also will drastically block out light from the Tabard.

Having one's light preserved isn't an absolute right. My own backyard is fairly shadowed by an adjacent apartment building. But in this case, the zoning rules for the SP-1 zone and the Dupont Circle Overlay specifically do protect light and air. Plus, there's an odd zoning anomaly at work: the property owner could build residential as of right, but would have a limitation on lot occupancy; to build a hotel, however, requires a special exception, yet that special exception automatically gives an exemption from lot occupancy.

But more importantly, in my opinion, the Tabard is a particularly valuable and historic resource that is worthy of greater consideration. HPRB often navigates difficult decisions about whether to pare down development to protect elements of a historic area. With so many historic areas and so many elements one could call "historic," how do people who genuinely support preservation but also support development find an appropriate line between allowing everything and allowing nothing?

I believe finding that line means identifying what is particularly historic and cherished by residents enough to place above the value of growing our city. Just because a wall is old or an alley has always had few structures doesn't make it involate, but an overall architectural style or specific places in a neighborhood can be. Of course, people can disagree about which elements are the valuable ones or which are prized enough to trump development.

In this case, however, almost everyone agrees about the historic value of the Tabard Inn, which ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein called a "neighborhood treasure," a phrase I echoed in my own testimony, below and slightly edited for clarity:

Mr. Chairman and members of the Board,

My name is David Alpert. I live in and own a historic townhouse a few blocks north of this property, in the Dupont Circle Historic District. I greatly cherish the historic value of many elements of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, along with our other historic neighborhoods, and participate as a member of the Dupont Circle Conservancy.

I also edit the Web site Greater Greater Washington, which discusses issues of urbanism, transportation, development, urban planning, and historic preservation in the Washington, DC area. If you read Greater Greater Washington, you will know that I often counsel restraint in using the tools of historic preservation to restrict development, especially in alleys.

I believe that our city should and must grow and accommodate new residents, stores, offices and hotels. I'm not averse to tall buildings, even in Dupont Circle, and in fact live just behind a 10-story apartment building.

When thinking about when and how to wield the tool of limiting a project's size, we should think about the purpose behind HP. Everyone may have a different definition, but I believe HP's role is to identify and preserve those elements of a neighborhood or structure that are special and cherished by neighbors and the city as a while. And I believe that the Tabard is one of the most precious of those historic elements.

Walking into the Tabard's lobby, one is virtually transported back in time to an era when DC had many charming, old inns. Now, the Tabard is one of the few that remain, and its presence is indeed a neighborhood treasure.

Since it serves the public, it provides this historic experience not just for residents or a select few but anyone who wishes to utilize its services. My family chose to rent out space in the Tabard for the rehearsal diner for my wedding because we wanted to give guests that historic experience and expose them to a part of Washington's history much more special to me than the monuments and museums. (I did not yet know Jeremiah Cohen, the Tabard's owner, at the time.)

If historic preservation is to protect this district, it must protect most of all those most significant treasures. I welcome a hotel on this site and urge you to allow some development of this property. However, I also urge you to require that the building step back from the Tabard's garden to a sufficient extent to protect the sunlight that currently illuminates the parachute.

The rear addition could simply comprise one story at its eastern end, ramping up to its proposed height at its western end. That would necessitate moving the bridge fro the old to the new, or including two elevators instead of one, but such a restriction would leave ample building envelope for an addition that still preserves the rears of the historic townhouses.

This Board has worked hard in recent years to strike a balance between allowing growth and preserving what is valuable and historic. In this case, striking that balance must include protecting the Tabard's garden and the light that reaches it. Thank you.


Breakfast links: Going up

Photo by Darren Hester on Flickr.
Fare hike and more: DCist summarizes the fare hike, the Examiner digs at the Board's three-hour "lunch" and the Post gets rider reactions plus a sidebar on what else you can buy with $5.45, the maximum fare including peak-of-the-peak charges. Also, the Board approved purchasing new railcars.

The magic of sharing data: Boston has embraced open data, now sharing bus locations in real time as well as schedules. At a recent meeting with software developers, one person built an app just during the lunch break, which soon became a phone app. And a real-time display in a Jamaica Plain ice cream shop is drawing more customers. (Marketplace, Sand Box John)

Metro PD bravery: 5 Metro police officers ran into a burning condo building near the Naylor Road station on April 9th and rescued several residents, including an elderly woman and a woman in a wheelchair. (via PoP)

Nobody uses them because they're not open: An ABC7 report on the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes says they're not getting a lot of cyclists. But they're not open yet! Tom Sherwood is more informed, and better informs. (WashCycle) ... Maybe the WUSA9 reporter was friends with this guy, who joked about fancy Georgetown stores closing because of financial reform, yet chose some that aren't open yet. (via GM)

DC drivers really are ignorant: GMAC surveyed drivers on their knowledge of rules of the road. It turns out many of us wouldn't be able to pass the drivers test today. DC is the second third-worst (behind NJ and just above NY); MD is 42nd 20th and VA is 40th 28th. (For the Portlandophiles: Oregon is 8th 2nd.) (via Streetsblog, Stephen Miller). Update: I originally had the 2008 rankings. Thanks to Steven Yates for the correction.

Rubber sidewalks?: DDOT is using rubber slabs instead of brick or concrete on some sidewalks, including on Rhode Island Avenue around North Capital. Rubber appears to be more durable and growing tree roots don't create tripping hazards as they do on concrete or brick. (WUSA9, Matthias)

Lord Jesus Christ hit in crosswalk: One Northampton, MA driver doesn't even stop for the Lord... or at least a pedestrian whose legal name is "Lord Jesus Christ." (WBZ)

Going without: Montgomery approves a budget with $203 million in cuts ... the Fairfax Planning Commission approved the Alcorn plan for Tysons ... 8 Post reporters tried to go without Internet access, but did anyone wonder if they'd miss stories? Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart weren't part of the experiment, though. (Post)

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WMATA Board approves fare hikes, no service cuts

The WMATA Board just unanimously approved a budget including a large fare hike but no service cuts.

WMATA HQ. Image from Wikipedia.

The decision came very swiftly after a 3-hour "lunch break." Oddly, when members returned to the room their bellies didn't seem to have grown as much as one would expect for people who've been eating for three hours.

Could they have been debating budget issues over lunch, not even in an executive session? Reporters asked Mr. Benjamin about it right after the session, who confirmed they had been negotiating and defended the process.

The agreement includes some additional fare hikes above what was being discussed last week, but eliminates all service cuts. I'm not sure if those cuts include Maryland's "extra cuts" proposed for bus service, especially in Prince George's County, to balance their portion of the budget in lieu of extra contributions. I'm also not sure if the "good" service changes, like the Red Line restructuring to better match the actual schedule, was considered a cut or not.

Fare increases include the 20¢ peak-of-the-peak rail surcharge, applied to all trips for 1½ hours in morning and evening, plus an additional 5¢ across-the-board increase in the base rush hour fare (from $1.35 to $1.60, instead of $1.55 previously proposed), but the maximum fare will be the same $5 (up from $4.50) in the last few budget proposals.

They increase the differential between SmarTrip and cash fares on bus to 20¢. I don't know if that means the SmarTrip fare went down or the cash fare went up. (Probably the latter.) The cash fare increased more. Bus fares went from $1.35 to $1.50 with SmarTrip, $1.45 to $1.70 cash.

MetroAccess will have a fare cap of $7. Reserved parking will increase from $50/month to $65/month but regular parking does not change. Bike locker rentals will increase from $75/year to $200/year.

At first blush, this seems to be a bad set of changes for short-range riders, but we'll post more as it develops.

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