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Posts from June 2008


Schrag on Kojo

The Great Society Subway author Zachary Schrag appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU last Wednesday, comparing Metro's current expansion debate with the debates when Metro was being built.

Tom Coburn comes off looking a lot like Congressman William Huston Natcher, the closest thing to a villain in the book. Natcher held up Metro funding for years because DC refused to build freeways like the Three Sisters Bridge (which would have generally conencted the Whitehurst to the Spout Run Parkway).

Schrag's answer was less satisfying when an anti-Purple Line caller (starting at 18:58) claimed that the line would "exacerbate class differences" and "wipe out small communities." Schrag claimed that's unavoidable in a "capitalist system", but missed a chance to discuss (perhaps because this is outside his field) how public investment in roads has created much greater class differences by causing disinvestment in cities or forcing working-class people to live far from their jobs. Maybe Kojo can get Christopher Leinberger on the show next; in the meantime, I encourage everyone to read The Option of Urbanism.


DC USA's idea of drainage

I don't think "the sidewalk" is an acceptable answer for "where should we put the stormwater runoff".

The sidewalk outside DC USA.


OP proposing neighborhood-based zoning

The DC Office of Planning presented early draft recommendations to the Low & Moderate Density zoning working group last Thursday. Their approach revolves around a basic idea: the current zones (R-1A, R-1B, R-2, etc.) are too inflexible, imposing a one-size-fits-all approach on very diverse neighborhoods.

Photo from Prince of Petworth.

As OP discovered through a building typology study they conducted, each neighborhood has widely varying lot widths, setbacks, heights, lot coverages, and more. Only about half of the lots in DC conform to width requirements; in other words, whole neighborhoods are made up of houses whose lots are illegally narrow. If there is one vacant lot amidst a row of houses, it's currently illegal to build a house just like the rest. That's silly.

At the same time, the zoning in many areas allows more height than the prevailing buildings, leading to ridiculous eyesores like this and this. Each current zoning category weds building size with unit density: the lowest density zones allow only single-family, detached houses and the higher zones allow higher density row houses, but there are no zones to allow, say, multi-family detached houses, four-story row houses that are limited to two units per building, or many other combinations one could devise.

OP's solution is to enable each neighborhood to determine the parameters of their own zoning by setting a number of variables, such as:

  • Maximum height
  • Lot width
  • Building width (for detached and semi-detached buildings)
  • Minimum and maximum front setback from the street (or, when both are equal, a "build-to line" that ensures a row of houses all line up in front)
  • Maximum building depth (to ensure some open space in the rear)
  • Number of units per building
  • Whether corner stores can locate in residential areas, and with what restrictions on hours, noise, garbage, etc.
  • ... and more.
This system will allow for zoning much better tailored to each neighborhood's needs. The zoning map will become more complex, with many different zones instaed of large R-1, R-2, etc. areas; on the other hand, with the proliferation of overlays and text amendments over the last 50 years, it's difficult to know all the zoning rules for a given area since they are split into so many different chapters and addendums. Under this system, a property owner will only need to look up the table of maximums and minimums for his or her specific area.

The biggest question is how each neighborhood will determine its own rules. Will the ANCs decide, or will there be a vote? Will members of the public submit comments to OP or the Zoning Commission? How will we balance the interests of the majority of residents against a possible vocal, self-interested minority? What about investor-owned properties, whose owners have a vested interest in increasing rental income without as much consideration for the quality of life in the neighborhood? On the flip side, how can we ensure newer residents have a voice as well as long-time residents?

The decisions we make about process will significantly influence the outcome. As someone interested in the dynamics of the political process, this should be fascinating; as someone who writes about zoning, this should provide a nearly bottomless source of good material. It should be exciting!


Brunch links: times they are a-changin' edition

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of the empty Federal Triangle: The GSA is considering a public-private partnership for the underutilized Old Post Office building. Redevelopment might include restaurants, residences and/or a hotel in place of or in addition to the current government offices (while preserving the building, of course). Eleanor Holmes Norton is pushing a bill to let GSA explore these options. San Francisco Chronicle via Penn Quarter Living.

Atrium at the Old Post Office Pavilion. Photo by Monceau on Flickr.

San Andreas faulty urban planning: The LA Times looks at a future of $200-a-barrel oil. Rapidly rising oil prices "would be the urban-planning equivalent of an earthquake," says a member of the LA City Planning Commission. Via Matthew Yglesias.

Mincing no words in Hawaii: Honolulu's mayor publicly accuses transit opponents of being shills for oil and auto companies. Local Reason Foundation fellows vociferously deny the charge while collecting their paychecks from the foundation, which is backed by oil and auto companies. Honolulu Star-Bulletin via The Overhead Wire.


Breakfast links: governmental lameness edition

Bye, bye pedestrian pie: DDOT bows to ANC pressure and reconfigures the Morrison Street pedestrian signal into a classic traffic light.

Proposed design for the Watha T. Daniel/
Shaw library. Photo from DCPL.

FTA sucks part 937: The Federal Transit Administration continues its attempts to make itself obsolete by ensuring transit can't ever achieve economies of scale. This time, they're forbidding city transit systems (including DC's) from transporting kids to school, despite the fact that it's cheaper (due to the buses already being there and all).

Not the very model of a modern DC library: Ward 2 Council candidate Cary Silverman is disappointed with plans for the Shaw library. It's basically a classic library inside a modern-looking building, not a modern library that caters to the needs of a modern community.


Catalyzing strip-mall sprawl into a mixed-use boulevard

How do you transform a low-density corridor of strip malls into a walkable, mixed-use community? That's the question facing Rockville, whose Pike runs alongside the Red Line but is filled with one-story big-box retail and choked with traffic. It could be so much more, and Rockville agrees. Over the past few months, they've held community meetings (one of which I attended) and conducted a charrette on what to do along the segment around, and north of, Twinbrook Metro.

Their conclusions are not that dissimilar from DC's plan for Georgia Avenue: encourage a series of "catalyst sites", higher-density mixed-use developments with parking underground or on the inside of the block. Each site will provide the residential density that will make the more walkable businesses possible, while also still accommodating traditional suburban drivers to get there to eat and shop.


For the roadway itself, they propose turning it into a boulevard, with local lanes for people turning in and out of the various developments, through lanes, landscaped medians, and greater pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.

This looks great, but turning strip malls into Smart Growth requires more than just good planning. The political angle may prove a lot more complicated. At the community meeting I attended, many residents supported the boulevard idea, while others did not; as this process continues, we'll discover how the politically active citizens and elected officials of Rockville feel.


DC allows community uses, keeps parking minimums for closed schools

Stevens Elementary School, one of DC's
recently-closed schools. Photo from DCPS.
After I found about about DDOT's emergency rules on bus loading, I started monitoring the DC Register. This week's includes emergency zoning rules on what uses are allowed in the buildings that contained the recently-closed schools:
  • DC government agencies, except vehicle storage/maintenance or anything that extends outside the building
  • Medical and dental clinics
  • Community service nonprofits that benefit the local community
  • Nonprofit offices
The rules also state that the off-street parking requirement will be the same as in the most restrictive zone that allows that kind of use. It's too bad we can't get a start on the relaxed parking requirements, but this isn't worse than the requirements for these kinds of uses today. Hopefully this won't lead to many unnecessary new parking lots next to schools.


Blue Line in I-395 right-of-way?

The Triangle picks up on the conversation about cutting back I-395 to Mass Ave.

Image from DC Office of Planning.

The Office of Planning has a public realm plan for the area, which includes two-way streets on New Jersey and Fourth, some narrower intersections, better landscaping along the streets, reconnected L and 3rd streets across I-395, and a Neighborhood Center plaza at 5th and K.

The Triangle wonders if cutting the freeway back would simply generate traffic through the neighborhood to the Mass Ave ramps. It's possible, but we should also remember the principles of induced demand: adding road capacity induces more traffic by encouraging driving; removing road capacity does the opposite. Removing the appeal of a through route here, especially given alternatives, would most likely reduce more traffic than it reroutes.

And I can think of a great use for a long, narrow, below-grade trench running between M and K Streets: the separate Blue Line, which I guessed might run under New Jersey Avenue. But why not save a bunch of money and build that segment where the highway now sits? Coming along M from the Convention Center station, it could tunnel under New York Avenue, break into the existing I-395 trench, stop at a station around K Street, then turn off at H Street just north of where the freeway would now begin at Massachusetts Avenue.

Plus, maybe one day the tracks could replace the freeway all the way under the Mall and down to the Navy Yard area. With many lanes south of Massachusetts, we could even keep lane or two for cars.


Now those are bulb-outs

16th and U is one of DC's highest pedestrian crash intersections. As part of the U Street redesign, DDOT has significantly modified this intersection, and what an improvement!

Click to enlarge. Here's a Google satellite photo of the current intersection.

New Hampshire Avenue is a relatively low-traffic street, one way on both sides traveling away from U. But cars coming down the hill on 16th heading to New Hampshire southbound often make that slight right at very high speed, already going fast from the hill and trying to beat the light. Meanwhile, pedestrians trying to cross 16th are often in the crosswalk, never sure if they should go over to the next island or wait for the light.

To fix this problem, DDOT has designed enormous bulb-outs. The typical bulb-out is like the one on the northwest corner, extending the sidewalk out in front of the parked cars to shorten the crossing distance. These bulbous bulb-outs, on the other hand, force cars to go all the way past the main intersection before making a sharp right turn onto New Hampshire. There's no way to do that at high speed, and cars have to drive past the pedestrians before turning instead of turning through them.

The U Street design has more excellent features (and a few that could be improved). I'll post more details soon. The project is currently scheduled for construction in 2011.

This will be a tremendous improvement for one of DC's worst intersections. It shows that when the pedestrian safety folks really get their hands on a design, we can end up with something pretty amazing.


Breakfast links: Interesting ideas from the past edition

Mall plus plus: The July 2006 issue of Washingtonian presented a vision for the National Mall that would create landfill and new canals behind the Jefferson Memorial to create space for new memorials and a relocated Supreme Court; the VRE tracks would also be buried to restore Maryland Avenue as a mirror of Pennsylvania. Thanks Nick!

Streetcars across Alexandria: Here's a March 2005 proposal for streetcars across the City of Alexandria. Thanks Steven!

Left: Proposal for the Mall. Right: Alexandria streetcar proposal.

How to make restaurants work: Richard Layman has some concrete suggestions for making neighborhood restaurants work, with a special eye to Georgia Avenue and H Street.

Don't call me Shirlington: Arlington just opened a bus transfer station in Shirlington, making a fairly car-oriented part of Arlington a little more transit-oriented. "This is a great example of where you can do transit-oriented development even when you don't have a rail station," said WMATA Chairman and Arlingtonian Chris Zimmerman.

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