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Posts from June 2009


Lost Washington: Wisteria House

Once located on the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 11th Street, NW, the Wisteria House was built during the Civil War (ca. 1863) for hardware merchant William Thomas. Thomas added a two story portico in 1869. The Wisteria was brought to Washington from China and was a gift to Thomas by a naval officer.

Wisteria House ca. 1920Wisteria House detail
Click on an image to enlarge.

In 1878, Thomas moved to Saint Louis. The new owner was Gustavus Ricker, a businessman with investments in marble, iron, and railroads. Ricker removed the original gable roof and added a third story with a flat roof in 1882.

Upon Ricker's death, his widow continued to live in the home until her death in 1922. The house was razed in 1924 to make way for the Wisteria Mansions Apartments.


Are people using the Seven Corners pedestrian bridge?

On May 20th, Fairfax County finally opened the pedestrian overpass at Seven Corners.

According to officials at the ribbon cutting, the original discussions for the overpass began 25 years ago. "All in," including engineering, design, and other costs, the bridge cost $8 million. (In the original post, I reported a price tag of $2.6 million.

The bridge still needs some pedestrian improvements, such as the paths from the bridge to the stores. At left is the sidewalk leading away from the stairs; at right is the sidewalk from the ramp. Both just end abruptly with the Starbucks and B&N beckoning across the lot.

Despite the fact that this area is quite unfriendly to pedestrians, it actually gets a lot of pedestrian use. Here are the statistics I gathered on two different dates, Thursday, May 21 from 10:05 to 11:05 AM and Tuesday, June 16 from 1:30 to 2:30 PM. Both days were excellent weather with temperatures in the 70s.

See the end of the post for some caveats about these statistics.

In both cases there were more users at the Patrick Henry crossing than on the bridge itself, underscoring the continuing need to make that intersection safe and pleasant for pedestrians. I was surprised that no cyclists used the bridge. Perhaps they simply aren't yet aware of the new option.

According to the Pedestrian Program Manager, county also plans to add signals and crosswalks at Seven Corners itself, which would be a definite improvement to the worn footpaths and crossing-fingers-that-the-light-is-red situation that exists there now.

The people who made the "Mad Dash" across Route 50 did so in three locations: 6 of them crossed between the bridge and Seven Corners; 2 crossed between the bridge and Patrick Henry and 2 crossed 50 yards or so east of Patrick Henry.

The bridge will, of course, require maintenance, and hopefully the county has budgeted for that. Already the bridge has become a magnet for graffiti. There was already at least one overflowing trash receptacle. Over time, if the county lets the facility become run down, many people will choose not to use it any more. After only a month, this one seems to already be neglected.

Caveats on table data: Data was gathered while sitting on the bridge. Accuracy as follows:

  • Bridge users: 100% accurate
  • PH Drive: Likely undercounted by 10-20% due to distance and sight line. Better data on second date due to learning curve.
  • Seven Corners: Likely undercounted by a lot due to sightline and inability to see parts of the crossing area
  • Mad Dash: 100% accurate; no way anyone could cross without being seen.


Pimp my Safeway: Redevelopment potential for the Capitol Hill Safeway

This past spring, Georgetown's "Social Safeway" closed so that it can be torn down and rebuilt. The new Safeway will be a two-story building with street-facing stores along the sidewalk, the grocery store on the second floor, and parking behind. Farther up Wisconsin, a Giant supermarket is also pursuing a new urban design that will "replace bland, single-story buildings and large surface parking lots along Wisconsin Ave and Idaho Ave with an appropriately scaled mixed-use project that will engage the street with many individual stores and residences." These are good plans and we need to urbanize more suburban-style grocery stores in the District. The next such site should be the "UnSafeway" at 415 14th St, SE.

The National Capital Brewery Building in 1917.

This Capitol Hill Safeway's site has a colorful history. In the late 19th century it was the site of a brewery that in 1891 became Albert Carry's National Capital Brewery.

The main brewing building was 135 ft. tall, not including the flag towers, 94 feet wide and 137 ft. deep. A substantial stables and a huge icehouse operation flanked the building. On opening the brewery had nine large wagons pulled by 30 "Percheron" horses. The ice house was powered by two, 80 horsepower, steam engines and could produce 50 tons of ice running at maximum. The brewery's output capacity was a staggering 100,000 barrels annually. Since a barrel contained about 30 gallons, the brewery produced and sold more than 24 million pints of beer in its heyday."
It operated for more than 20 years (serving as the site of a notorious murder mystery in 1912). After Prohibition, like many other breweries, it was converted to an ice cream factorythe Carry Ice Cream Company. It was a complete success. Meadow Gold bought the company in 1918, becoming one of the first companies to sell the Dixie Cup.

At some point (various sources disagree) it became a Sanitary Grocery, and later became a Safeway. The Brewery was knocked down, and a one level grocery store opened its place. The grocery's entrance is set far back behind a parking lot, and a long blank wall faces D Street.

Image from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.

But the Safeway Company has an opportunity to capitalize on this underdeveloped site. They could move the grocery store entrance to the sidewalk along 14th Street, and turn the store 90 degrees so the narrower edge faces 14th. The store would back onto Guellet Court, across the street from a parking lot.

This would free up space along D and 13th 14th for retail, including the retail already inside the store. Currently, in addition to a grocery store, the Safeway houses a pharmacy, a Starbucks, a liquor store and a bank. All of these could moved outside the store and onto D Street, wrapping around the corner onto 13th 14th along with other neighborhood appropriate retail. Starbucks, or other such retail, could spill out onto the wide sidewalks.

Left: Potomac Avenue Metro neighborhood. Safeway in the upper left.
Right: Possible Safeway plan. Images from Google Maps. Click on an image to enlarge.

Below the grocery store could be a parking garage, accessible from Guellet Court, and large enough to meet the needs of residents and shoppers, with Zipcar and bike parking of course. The site is close to the Potomac Avenue Metro and major bus lines, and located in a walkable and bikeable neighborhood. Therefore, many shoppers won't need to drive to the store.

Two to four floors of housing could sit atop the store. The historic row houses along E Street in the southeast corner of the block, could form the end of a new, longer row stretching to just east of Guellet Court, leaving space for a loading dock.

Safeway would stand to make a fortune. In addition to monetizing the largest commercial parking lot on the Hill, Safeway would add to its customer base. Perhaps the new development would even include a Capital City Brewery Company and a small ice cream shop—for old time's sake.


A cheaper route to Metro core capacity, part 2: Virginia service patterns

One of the possibilities from Metro's core capacity study involves a short 9th Street tunnel from L'Enfant Plaza to Mount Vernon Square. That could be a cheaper way to add Metro capacity across the Potomac, the system's current bottleneck. It wouldn't add service to much-needed areas like the McMillan/AFRH area of DC, (though allowing that possibility in the future), but would address the impending overload of trains from Virginia once the Silver Line opens.

If we could run more trains over the 14th Street bridge, where would they go in Virginia? I can see two possibilities: convert the Arlington Cemetery segment to a shuttle train, or add connections to route the Silver Line over that segment as well as the Blue Line.

The shuttle train option

Click to enlarge.

The Blue Line could simply run over the 14th Street Bridge with the Yellow Line to the new section. Silver and Orange share some tracks, Blue and Yellow others, with no other merges. To replace Blue at Arlington Cemetery, create a shuttle train

To avoid having the shuttle merge and unmerge with Orange/Silver at Rosslyn and Blue/Yellow at Pentagon, Metro would need to add a new platform at each station. Probably this could work with just a single platform inside the station, with a switch as close as possible. Trains would come in, unload and reload, then reverse out to make room for another train. Such an arragement would limit the capacity on the line, of course. Ideally, the platform(s) would go right across the platform from one of the two existing tracks in each station, minimizing the walk necessary to tranfer.

Pros: This requires fewer merges than in the current arrangement. Also, all merges happen outside of the highest ridership core areas, minimizing delays.

Cons: Commuting from Alexandria to "Orangeton," or southern Fairfax to Tysons, becomes more difficult, requiring either two transfers or a trip through DC.

The new connections option

Click to enlarge.

Squalish got this one. In Metro's earlier core capacity study, they suggested adding some track connections for service flexibility. Those included a connection from Court House to the Arlington Cemetery tracks, and another one from the other end of those tracks to the 14th Street Bridge. If we built both of those, then the Silver Line could use the track in the opposite direction from the Blue Line, to get from Court House to L'Enfant Plaza.

Pros: There are lots of services going to lots of places. Riders along Rosslyn-Ballston or King St-Pentagon can choose either bridge. And except going to and from Yellow Line stations south of King Street, riders can go between any two Virginia stations entirely within Virginia with at most a single transfer.

Cons: Lines are merging and unmerging a lot, which creates operational challenges. Silver and Blue each have to share tracks with three other lines for part of their routes. If all lines are running at capacity, then at Pentagon (for example), a Silver Line train needs to reach the wye just as a Blue Line train reaches it from the other direction, or else one of the trains will have to wait, delaying all later trains.

Next: A hybrid option?


Breakfast links: Stand up and be counting

PostSecret via BeyondDC.
Entitled Driver Syndrome alive and well: BeyondDC finds this PostSecret postcard which reads, "When I see cyclists in the middle of the road on my way to CHURCH, I'm tempted to knock them down!" Meanwhile, some drivers in Boulder, Colorado plan to drive really slowly on the wrong side of the road to interfere with an organized bicycle ride. (BeyondDC, WashCycle)

Count bikes and peds Thursday and Saturday: Arlington is doing another round of counting bicycles and pedestrians, this time on July 2 and July 4, "one of the busiest times of the year for active transportation." GGW readers helped Arlington out with previous rounds, and they could use our help again. They need volunteers for 2-hour shifts at 7-9 am or 4-6 pm on Thursday, July 2nd, or from noon-2 pm on Saturday, July 4th. They perform the counts at roughly 20 locations across the county. If you're interested, email

Safeway Avenue, NW: Last weekend, Safeway held a "Barbecue Battle" in downtown DC. This involved closing Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic between 9th and 14th Streets, along with several side streets. Pedestrians couldn't cross the site unless they paid the entry fee. Reader Dan was trying to walk from the Folklife Festival to Metro Center, and had to wait 15 minutes for a Metro train at Federal Triangle instead. Should we be walling off large parts of downtown for private events?

Maryland may actually start being smart: The chair of the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee wants to put some real teeth into the state's Smart Growth law. Currently, there's a policy of promoting development near the state's urban areas and transit infrastructure, but it isn't really being followed. This year, a new law started tracking development, but the legislature dropped the part of the law that would have required 80 percent of development to go in "priority areas." (Gazette)

Development updates: The Montgomery Planning Board approved 2.2 million square feet of development right at Twinbrook Metro. This second phase, mostly comprising office buildings, will add to their existing residential projects in the area. (DCmud) However, zoning laws are also forcing them to build more parking than the market will demand, supplanting additional housing. On the other side of the Beltway, Prince George's has approved the 6 million square foot Westphalia development, another mixed-use but auto-dependent "enclave" next to Andrews AFB. (WBJ)

Metro morsels: A Post editorial calls on Congress to provide the $150 million a year in dedicated funding that they promised (Gavin Baker) ... A person jumped in front of a Metro train yesterday at Forest Glen, again shutting down the beleaguered eastern Red Line. The line is open again this morning. (Gazette, Post)

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Then and Now: Trew Motor/Studio Theatre

Trew Motor CompanyStudio Theatre

Then (left): The Trew Motor Co ca. 1920, located on the northeast corner of 14th and P Streets, NW.

Now (right): The Studio Theatre.


Mutual benefit: DC needs to reform unemployment insurance now

The District's unemployment rate topped 10 percent in May, the highest it has been in 25 years. Sadly, only about a third of jobless workers in DC end up receiving unemployment benefits.

"No Jobs" sign. Photo by louisiana.

There's good news, though: The federal government is offering DC $18 million to help these folks get help. So should we try to get the money for them now or wait until later?

Almost all of us, especially given these difficult economic times, would want the help immediately.

Except, apparently, the District of Columbia. The District has yet to make the needed reforms to its unemployment insurance program to get the extra federal funds.

The money is tied to the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act, part of the economic recovery bill signed into law by President Obama last February. It gives DC and the states a financial incentive to expand unemployment benefits to three key groups of people who are currently excluded: those who leave their job due to domestic violence or other family reasons, those who lose a part-time job and are looking for part-time work, and those who are permanently laid-off and in need of extended training. The recovery act also encourages states to expand benefits for unemployed workers with dependents.

To sum up, the feds want to give money to hard-working Americans who lost a job and need a little extra help to get through this recession.

Sound good?

Twenty-five states think so. They have expanded their unemployment assistance to include at least two of the four categories of workers above, which qualified them to receive two-thirds of their incentive money. The District hasn't yet done so. The deadline to qualify is August 2011.

Why is the District waiting?

DC did get one-third of the approximately $27 million available because it already had in place a provision allowing workers to count their most recent earnings in their unemployment application, known in technical jargon as the "alternative base period."

But there's no reason for DC to be sluggish about getting the other $18 million. (The money can only be used for the unemployment system and can't be used to cover DC's budget shortfall.) Mayor Adrian Fenty and the D.C. Council, particularly Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, who oversees the Department of Employment Services, need to push DOES to make decisions and bring forth the necessary legislation to put these reforms into place.

It's a win-win: More District workers receive more money, which they will spend and help stimulate the economy.

Who wouldn't want that?


A cheaper route to Metro core capacity?

Metrorail will reach its capacity by 2030. The Orange Line is already just about maxed out in Arlington. We can build light rail, BRT, streetcars and other modes to relieve the pressure, but Metrorail will remain the fastest and most desirable mode. The separate Blue Line would relieve some of the pressure, allowing for more trains through Rosslyn. However, a new Potomac tunnel and subway across DC would cost billions. If we can't fund that, is there a cheaper way?

How about separating the Yellow Line instead? The Yellow Line plan Dave Murphy suggested last week, and some of your comments, suggest a possibility. If we separate the Yellow and Green lines in DC, then Metro could put many more trains over the 14th Street bridge. According to Metro planners, this option would involve building a shorter subway tunnel from the 14th Street bridge to the Convention Center along 9th Street.

While the tunnel at Rosslyn is already at its capacity, the 14th Street bridge isn't, because all its trains must merge with Green Line trains from Branch Avenue. Metro can squeeze a few more Yellow Trains in if they reduce Blue trains, but not that many. If the trains didn't have to compete with the Green Line, the 14th Street bridge could carry many more trains from Virginia.

The new Yellow Line could connect to Green, Blue, and Orange at L'Enfant Plaza, stopping on a new platform just west of the existing station. Metro already wants to link Metro Center and Gallery Place with a walkway; the new line could stop along there as well to connect to all other lines.

For the other two stations, walkways probably aren't necessary. We could give them different names (Convention Center West?) However, the stations are extremely close to the existing ones, unless we put them in different spots. One advantage of lining them up and even giving them matching names is night service. When the Yellow and Green Lines are running at low frequencies, it would make more sense for Yellow trains to merge with Green, as they do today, to give each station more service (and save money by closing some entrances).

While this plan mostly benefits Virginia, it does do some good for DC and Maryland as well. The Green Line south of L'Enfant won't be able to carry more trains, even as development picks up in the Capital Riverfront area and, hopefully, in River East and Prince George's County one day. A separate Green Line would let all stations benefit from more frequent service. Finally, ending the Yellow Line at Convention Center always leaves open the possibility of extending it through DC and into Maryland along some route one day.

One big question mark remains. Yellow Line trains also have to compete with Blue Line trains for space between Pentagon and King Street. If we add trains over 14th Street, they have to go somewhere on the other end. How would we handle service on the Virginia side? I've come up with two possibilities, which I'll show tomorrow. What can you come up with?


Gaithersbungle: Planning Board staff latest to ignore better way for Gaithersburg

Planning officials are continuing their blind rush toward building cookie-cutter, sprawling, traffic-generating development patterns in and around Gaithersburg. We've already discussed how SHA only really considers more lanes as a solution to congestion on I-270, and the Planning Board only considered suburban office-park density for the JHU Belward Farm development. Now, the Planning Board staff has issued their recommendations for the area, which disregard everything the region has learned about development since World War II.

This shouldn't be Montgomery's future. Photo by Sam Beebe.

The Planning Board staff recommends widening I-270 by up to four more lanes, two in each direction. Between Clarksburg and Rockville, they suggest adding four express toll lanes, which would make I-270 a full 12 lanes wide, possibly even with extra space to grow to 14. North of Clarksburg, they recommend two reversible toll lanes, for a total of six lanes.

As for the Corridor Cities Transitway, which makes this a "multi-modal" corridor study, they recommend using Bus Rapid Transit on a circuitous route, winding through many far-flung office parks between Gaithersburg and Rockville. They also dropped two planned CCT stations, in Gaithersburg and Germantown.

The I-270 widening would require demolishing many new townhouses, which represent some of the densest housing that's been built in this area, to fuel more sprawling, detached housing development in Clarksburg and north to Frederick County. Meanwhile, estimates predict this version of the Corridor Cities Transitway to carry fewer than half the riders of the Purple Line. Despite JHU's claims that many of its workers would take transit, this plan is just a recipe for a slow, poorly used transit line and huge numbers of new auto trips.

This isn't what Montgomery County needs. The county should look instead to the greater foresight its own leaders had in past decades, when it focused much of its growth in creating new, walkable, truly transit-oriented places like Bethesda and Silver Spring. If Montgomery County really wants to develop the Rockville-Gaithersburg-Germantown corridor, it should instead plan to enhance the existing MD-355 corridor with mixed-use, walkable development and high-quality transit, and use congestion pricing to manage demand on I-270. That would push housing and job growth onto the corridor, where residents can use transit, instead of forcing them to drive from Clarksburg and beyond.

Tomorrow, we'll look in more detail at the I-270 plan, followed by a closer look at the Corridor Cities Transitway.

Public Spaces

Breakfast links: Vox populi

Petworth doesn't want to look like this for a Sunday. Photo by Ekey84.
Make no little plans for Summer Streets: The Petworth ANC and Northwest Current didn't like DDOT's idea of closing Kansas Avenue for a Summer Streets program later this year, despite very low traffic there on weekends and ample alternate routes. Richard Layman says we need more population density for Summer Streets. How about finding a suitable route through Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont and Foggy Bottom, and then across the Mall to Near Southeast and Capitol Hill? Some people will complain no matter what, but that would hit many of the most bicycle-heavy neighborhoods. (RPUS)

Buses are confusing, what else is new?: We can learn a lot about what's confusing in our bus systems by the experiences of newer residents. Noah Kazis wanted to ride from Union Station to the ballpark but got tripped up by old maps which showed the N22 instead of the Circulator. Noah also suggests a more schematic bus map. (Here's one for Circulator.) (TheCityFix DC)

Is NextBus data proprietary?: One company calling itself "NextBus Information Systems" claims that SF Muni's arrival information is their own intellectual property. But that company isn't the same as the actual NextBus company, and Muni insists that the data is public. Nonetheless, at the first company's request, Apple took down a bus prediction app from the iPhone app store. (SFAppeal)

In search of an official modernist champion, you mean: Roger Lewis wants to see some American leaders really embrace architecture, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But he really wants one who loves modernism, criticizing Britain's Prince Charles for pushing for one design over another. (Post)

Rails and trails: Washcycle summarizes a Finish The Trail series rebutting anti-Purple Line forces' arguments about the Capital Crescent Trail. ... A growing number of Virginia organizations are petitioning the Commonwealth to include pedestrian and bike facilities along with future rail projects. (VBF, Gavin Baker) ... That might include high-speed rail to Richmond, the subject of another petition for high-speed rail on the DC-Richmond corridor, a project Virginia plans to submit for a competitive stimulus grant. (Joey)

And...: People are moving to the new development by the ballpark, but slowly (DCmud) ... On this date in 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which pushed the federal funding match to 90-10 and ushered in the modern interstate era (FHWA, Stephen Miller) ... FIFA's top issue to get ready for the World Cup in South Africa? Transportation; a park-and-ride system hasn't worked well during the Confederations Cup.

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