Greater Greater Washington

Posts from June 2011

To move forward, it's time to move past Fenty vs. Gray

Last year's mayoral race was a contentious one, and created many bad feelings on both sides. Even now, each time an issue comes up that even tangentially relates to Mayor Gray that's negative, a cadre of Fenty supporters gleefully post comments basically saying, "told you so."


He's not mayor. Deal. Photo by Jay Tamboli on Flickr.

In particular, many of the comments pertain to my personal endorsement for Gray. There are clearly some people who want me to repudiate that decision, and declare that I was wrong, that Fenty was perfect, Gray 100% rotten to the core, that Gray has had his mind made up all along to oppose bike infastructure, or transit, or school reform, or better taxi service.

Nothing is that simple. I've definitely been disappointed by some of what's happened, especially the hiring scandals. But Gray's record on our issues has been generally good, though not perfect. Neither was Fenty's.

Don't forget that Fenty was supportive of progressive transportation until a campaign donor asked him to kill a planned sidewalk, and then suddenly he wasn't. Or all the development projects that went to poorly qualified developers, or his outright refusal to implement inclusionary zoning. Or Peter Nickles.

The Gray administration made a significant funding commitment to streetcars, and Gray has announced his desire to make DC a platinum-level bicycle-friendly city. On the other hand, he didn't keep Gabe Klein (but elevated his deputy) and his support for cycle tracks is tenuous.

A few comments aside, though, we still don't know if the decision to put L and M street cycle tracks on hold came from Gray, or Bellamy, or someone else. There are even people in the bicycle program at DDOT who aren't very enthusiastic about cycle tracks and are reluctant to move them ahead absent strong support from above.

Or, perhaps they'll move it with strong support from the public. Tommy Wells' chief of staff Charles Allen said they've gotten 1,054 emails supporting the cycle tracks. He's already supportive, but DDOT and the Mayor's office are getting the same emails.

When we got funding restored for streetcars, it wasn't because a bunch of people reacted to the news by saying that they wished we'd elected Kathy Patterson instead; they flooded Gray's office and got the policy reversed.

Before the election, I wrote,

I'm sure I will disagree with some of his decisions. But I disagree with a lot of what Fenty does. If, and when, Gray does something I think is wrong, I'll say so. I'll push him to be the best possible Mayor, to hire A+ people just like some of Fenty's appointments, but without some of the C- people Fenty also has in the mix.
Gray has unfortunately not brought in as many A+ people as I'd hoped, or as many as Fenty did, though he also has fewer C- people. He perhaps has more in the B range than would be ideal.

Ironically, perhaps I think I've become more reluctant to "say so" when Gray has done something wrong because of the childish commenters. Hmm, perhaps they are really Gray supporters trying to dissuade any criticism of the mayor's actions.

Mary Cheh has also been taking a lot of heat for her support for Gray. That seems to have pushed her to become a sort of cross between Tom Smith and Jack Evans, standing up against residents having to endure the foulness of people between the ages of 18 and 22 living in their community and defending the rights of those people who make over $200,000 to avoid sharing anything with people who are losing access to housing and even basic food.

Meanwhile, we've made progress in policy. In the endorsement post, I also wrote,

[Gray] does want to roll back meter hours, though, but I believe after he learns more about parking he'd agree we should only roll them back in some areas and not others.
In the last budget, we didn't hear a peep about this from the administration. Bellamy doesn't want to do it. Jack Evans and Muriel Bowser (Fenty supporters, by the way) were the main ones carrying water for that particular bad idea.

Many transportation subjects aren't among the few issues the mayor cares most about and has the strongest opinions about. He's open to suggestions and influence from his staff and from various groups of residents. We need to remind him that many people strongly support the cycle tracks, or whatever other policy we're discussing, and that it's also the right policy. We can do that more effectively if it's not overshadowed by whining about Adrian Fenty's loss.

No mayor is perfect. Maybe in the future we can elect someone that's better than both Fenty and Gray. We also could definitely have mayors who are far worse than either. We can keep dwelling on the past, or we can fight for a better DC. I'm going to keep my eye on the ball and hope you will too.

Addendum: If you believe that Gray is irrevocably opposed to what we believe and was just lying about it to get elected, then it's understandable that you might not think there's any point in lobbying him. Instead, all we can do is gripe about how it's too bad he was elected. But I don't believe that. Instead, he's open to a lot of things, but not always surrounded by people who push them. That means he needs to hear it from residents, and hear it often.

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DC turns blind eye to developer's potential sign infractions

Since Douglas Development acquired the Uline Arena, the company has added three large signs to the side of the building, strategically placed to catch the eyeballs of those on passing Metro, MARC, and Amtrak trains.


Uline Arena. Photo by the author.

A look at DC's signage rules suggests these advertisements may not be legal. But they also may be profitable, and Douglas Development owes the city quite a bit in property taxes.

Is the city ignoring the offense for its own gain?

In 2009, years of effort to remove three billboards at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and P Street NW came to an end when the billboards were cut down with a welding torch. The event marked the conclusion of a long campaign by the residents of Shaw to remove what they saw as blight from a neighborhood street corner.

One of the lasting results of that fight was that it made DC residents aware of the list of "special signs" permitted by the District. The "Special Signs Inventory," maintained by DCRA, lists 32 authorized large-scale advertisements that aren't technically billboards, according to DC regulations, located on the sides of buildings.

The Uline Arena signs are not on that list. There has been a Douglas Development sign on the side of the building for as long as I can remember, surely to entice interested parties to inquire about available space in the building. Last year, when Carmine's opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, a large advertisement for the Italian restaurant appeared on the side of the arena, as well. A sign advertising FroZenYo turned up within the last couple weeks.

That's 3 large "special signs" located on the building. Is this legal? I contacted Douglas Development to ask them about the regulatory process required to place these signs, but did not receive a call back. If they reply, I'll be sure to post an update.

The signs aren't on the city's official list, so they certainly appear to flout the rules. However, as Michael Neibauer noted two weeks ago, Douglas Development carries a sizable property tax debt to the city. Perhaps DC doesn't mind looking the other way if this helps bring Douglas Development income that can be used to settle the tab.


Photo by the author.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

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GAO says clarify WMATA board role, don't restructure

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its long-awaited report on WMATA governance this morning. The report concludes that the board lacks clarity about where its role begins and ends, but rejects some of the drastic structural changes that have been proposed, instead arguing the board can and should fix problems itself.


Photo by Auntie P on Flickr.

An ambiguous definition of the board's role was a common theme in both the Riders' Advisory Council and Board of Trade reports. The board has been accused of micromanaging operations rather than focusing on policy and high-level issues.

The GAO report agreed, and recommends the board clarify its responsibilities as well as conduct regular self-assessments. Fortunately, the board is already doing much of that.

A governance committee, ably led by Mary Hynes of Arlington, has formulated bylaws and procedures for the board which better define its role. This year, after most members turned over and the reports came out criticizing past board actions, the board has indeed started focusing effectively on the high-level decisions that it needs to make to keep Metro running smoothly.

The GAO report says, "These draft bylaws represent a good first step toward addressing some of the concerns discussed in this report but will need to be adopted and then effectively implemented to achieve their desired effect." The report also criticizes past boards for doing a poor job of strategic planning, suggesting the board develop a better plan and then commit to implementing it.

The executives and DOTs of DC, Maryland, and Virginia were waiting to see the GAO report before moving ahead further on structural changes. The Board of Trade report last year suggested removing alternates, giving the governors one extra appointment of their own, creating an added "super-board" above the current board to supervise the board, and changing the jurisdictional veto.

The Riders' Advisory Council, on the other hand, argued that these changes were unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Its report argued that the problems could be fixed by doing a better job appointing members and by the members developing better policies around these issues. (Disclosure: I was the principal author of the RAC report.)

The GAO took a similar stance to the RAC's report. They wrote:

Our analysis, however, indicates that most of the recommended changes have trade-offsthere are both benefits and drawbacks to them. We compared the various recommendations to leading governance practices, approaches taken by other transit agencies, and the views of board members and stakeholders. Board members and stakeholders indicated that proposed changes to the board's structure and processessuch as eliminating alternate board members, changing the size of the board, or eliminating the jurisdictional vetohave trade-offs, and we did not find consistent support among leading governance practices or other transit agencies that these changes would improve governance.

The [Board of Trade/COG] Governance Task Force recommended that the signatories and the appointing authorities form a WMATA Governance Commission to make improvements to the authority's governance structure and hold the board accountable for its performance. ... Such a commission was viewed by some stakeholders we spoke with as redundant because it would be comprised of most of the same membership that is responsible for appointing the board of directors.

The GAO paid special attention to the federal government's involvement, which includes the General Services Administration appointing a set of federal members. The GAO says that GSA lacks clear procedures for selecting and appointing these members. The GSA replied that while it's true it doesn't have formal procedures, it doesn't think that's interfered with selecting qualified candidates.

Moving forward, this report confirms what's become increasingly clear: WMATA can be fixed without rearranging the organizational structure. Doing that could fix some problems but create others, and would ultimately be a distraction from the work of actually governing better.

Already, we've seen tremendous progress. The NTSB feels safety is improving. Communication has taken huge steps forward with WMATA now tweeting and generally using two-way communication. The board passed a budget that avoided service cuts and without any major acrimony. Local jurisdictions stepped up with needed funding.

Now, we should let the current board and management keep making the strides they have. The executives and DOTs should let this issue rest.

Governor McDonnell did succeed in using the frustration over Metro to let him take away some power from Northern Virginia, giving him a direct appointment to the board who will likely replace Mary Hynes entirely or move her to an alternate position and bump Jeff McKay. Either way, that will be a big loss for Virginian interests, since both have effectively represented their constituents. The legislature should reverse this hasty decision before the appointments are made or renewed at the end of the year.

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Morning links: Dealing with delays


Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.
Streetcars delayed a year, but streetscape done: The H Street streetcars, which were supposed to start running next year, won't run until late 2013. DDOT's original construction timeline might have been unrealistic. (WTOP)

The delay doesn't mean disruptions all along H Street will continue, though; that construction has now ended, and there's a celebratory event at 10 am at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

DC supports red light cameras: IIHS polled drivers in 15 cities with red light cameras, and found strong majorities in all but Long Beach, CA. DC had the strongest support, with 78% approving of the cameras. (WTOP)

Mayor wants more police: Mayor Gray wants to use unexpected tax revenue to hire more police. Meanwhile, the council is questioning reimbursement rates for a medical contract that happens to go to one of DC's biggest political donors. (Post, City Paper)

All bets may be off: The DC Council is questioning the online gambling program it passed with little scrutiny as part of the budget. Both Michael Brown and Jack Evans have potential conflicts of interest on the issue. Defending his actions because others do the same, Brown says "that's the world we live in." (Post, WAMU)

BZA might reread library plans: DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment, with its new member, may block the expansion of the Mt. Pleasant Library. DCPL is expected to take the board to court if that happens. (City Paper)

How about affordable housing?: Fairfax County has cuts its affordable housing spending and is behind on its goals for 2020. (Post) ... Some Montgomery officials are concerned that zoning changes don't give high enough priority to that county's affordable housing program. (Gazette, Stephen Miller)

PG mulls liquor regulations: The county's liquor board heard a litany of worries about home deliveries of alcohol to college students, the aesthetics of liquor store signs, and the image of the county. (Post)

A park for a school: Rather than busing their children 3 hours to a temporary school during construction, parents at Farquhar Middle School in Olney want the new school built on a neighboring park. When the new school is finished, the old school would become the new park. (TBD)

And...: The dead can vote (sorta) in Virginia starting Friday. (AP) ... A Solar Decathlon house will go to Habitat for Humanity. (TBD) ... Leslie Johnson will likely plead guilty today to corruption-related charges. (Post)

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DDOT gets closer to an Anacostia streetcar alignment

DDOT has narrowed the 10 options for the Anacostia streetcar to 4 possible alignments, three of which partially run along MLK Avenue, Anacostia's main street, and connect to the 11th Street bridge. The fourth option involves running the streetcar along the CSX railroad tracks, but negotiations with CSX are not final.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

DDOT presented the latest round of possible streetcar routes at its third public hearing in the Environmental Assessment process last night. The agency eliminated 6 options after gathering community input, working with DDOT planners and technical staff, and consulting with other stakeholders.

The first alignment cut ran from the 11th Street bridge to the Anacostia Metro station, entirely along MLK Avenue. DDOT ultimately eliminated this route because of community concerns about congestion on the north end of MLK.

Options 3 and 6, where one direction runs several blocks farther east or west than the other direction, were cut because they're too confusing for riders. In option, 3 which used 14th Street for the northbound direction, Some residents were also concerned about negative affects to historic buildings along 14th, particularly viewsheds of the Frederick Douglass House.

Alignments 7, 8, and 10, which would have served the Poplar Point site, were deemed too far removed from the existing community to be effective. While some residents wanted the streetcar away from downtown Anacostia entirely, others didn't want the project to ignore the heart of the community.

Any development in Poplar Point a future streetcar might serve is years away, hasn't even been designed yet, and requires federal reviews. DDOT would have to avoid adverse affects to Anacostia Park, and can't connect to the land using their current right-of-way.

View alternative: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10  
View larger version (PDF)

Three of the four remaining alignments serve the main business district along MLK, while also moving one set of tracks off of MLK at its narrowest section. One alignment serves 13th Street and the residential neighborhood to the east of the main district.

The other two options serve Shannon Place and Railroad Avenue, respectively, the two streets between MLK and the CSX railroad tracks. Both streets have significant potential development along their lengths.

The alignment serving 13th Street could provide better transit service to the residents there and also bring more activity to the churches along that street. However, the potential for new development is low because the street is primarily low-density homes. It's unlikely that higher density apartments or condos would replace those.

DDOT's goal for the streetcar is also to connect activity centers, not serve interior neighborhood streets, like buses do. Running the streetcar along 13th Street could better connect those residents to MLK, but the purpose of the streetcar is not simply to improve local circulation.

Instead, the Anacostia streetcar is part of the larger 37-mile network. The streetcar will serve the business district of the neighborhood while also better connecting Anacostia residents with the rest of the city.

The options along Shannon Place and Railroad Avenue are fairly similar because both alignments have a higher development potential and both serve the business district. There are few residences along these streets, which are primarly industrial.

Running along Shannon Place could be more effective, because those tracks are closer to MLK. Railroad Avenue is one block farther west, which expands the core service area and could make the streetcar less useful.

One of the consultants from HDR, the firm working with DDOT on the study, noted that longer distances between the tracks could be confusing. Riders would also have to walk farther to connect to either direction. Railroad Avenue doesn't connect directly to the 11th Street bridge either, so DDOT would have to construct a right of way there.

In both of these cases, one track separates from MLK to help mitigate traffic congestion and potential loss of parking spaces. Many residents have expressed concern that losing on-street parking could hurt local businesses.

The final alignment, along the CSX railroad tracks, has the least community impact and up front is almost $30 million cheaper. However, it does not serve the existing business district or any residential streets. DDOT would have to purchase the right of way from CSX, which would add to the cost. The state of those negotiations are also unclear and DDOT staff weren't able to say when they might conclude.

Historic preservation could also play a role in the CSX alignment. The streetcar would have to make a sharp right turn at the intersection of the 11st Street bridge and Good Hope Road, where a historic building, formerly the Green Derby, stands. The minimum turning radius for a modern streetcar is about 62 feet and this turn could clip part of the property. DDOT might have to acquire the property in this case, but would not for any of the other routes.

The study team has also posted their presentation from the meeting.

Last night's meeting was more productive than the March meeting because residents were able to talk with DDOT staff and examine the options more closely. In March, residents discussed the options in small groups, then presented to the whole room. It was a good opportunity for dialogue, but also gave some opponents an opportunity to grandstand against the project.

The next stage in the planning process is to develop a locally preferred alternative, which DDOT hopes to do by late fall. There is a "no-build" alternative which maintains existing transportation options. DDOT would then reallocate funds for the project to other areas.

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Many Tysons developers aren't learning

Transforming Tysons Corner into a pedestrian-friendly urban environment is one of the region's most important goals, but some of the latest proposed development projects completely fail in urban design.


Photo by VaDOT on Flickr.

A multitude of development projects have already been proposed around the upcoming stations on the Silver Line to Tysons Corner, scheduled to open in 2013. Some developers' proposals conform to Fairfax County's new urban design guidelines for Tysons Corner, but others continue to think in more suburban terms.

The most prominent anti-urban proposal is an older one, by Lerner Enterprises, which is developing the area around the Tysons II shopping center. Lerner's plan absolutely fails to create an urban neighborhood and instead amplifies the existing over-reliance on automobiles.

Lerner's master plan, viewable in this attached image from Kohn Pedersen Fox, is completely inadequate if Tysons is to be made into an urban community. Unfortunately, the county's review process has not stopped projects such as this one, or forced them to adopt good design practices this development was approved years ago, before the current review processes were in place.

There are several key issues with the Lerner plan. The most prominent is the anti-urban street pattern, which relies on cul-de-sacs for street access to the buildings. Lerner's neglect for Tysons' proposed new street grid is a serious and major flaw. Their development proposal is a replication of the towers in the park movement that became obsolete many years ago.

The failure to include any new through streets is a major problem, as it hinders the improved accessibility that the Metro expansion is supposed to promote. Calming the crossing of Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) is not likely to be practical, and that elevated walkways will have to suffice there, but it's not acceptable for Lerner to completely neglect any aspects of walkability in the interior of their multi-block development.

Lerner's plan includes only minimal street front retail. For that matter, it includes very minimal street front anything, since the buildings don't interact with any sort of grid. Meanwhile, the site plan shows at least two new additional massive parking lots.

With poor pedestrian access to large new buildings and continued reliance on the car, Lerner's proposal threatens to overwhelm the area's infrastructure and defeat the purpose of bringing Metro to Tysons.

Lerner's plan should be modified to feature actual city blocks rather than cul-de-sacs and superblocks, and to bring every building up to the street front. Rather than leaving vast areas of land open on the fringes, Lerner should create a single consolidated urban park for their proposal.

Furthermore, Lerner should integrate the new Metro station more effectively with their proposal. In its current form, the station appears to lack an entrance from the sidewalk, feeding directly into a private office building. This would discourage pedestrian traffic to the rest of the neighborhood.

Also, it does not appear any thought was given to placing the tallest buildings closest to the Metro. The plan should be modified so there is easy public access to the Metro station, and so buildings closest to the station are scaled significantly larger than those further away.

Another problem is parking. Lerner's plan includes several above ground garages, which destroy the pedestrian experience and encourage driving. Underground parking should be a primary feature of any new Tysons Corner developments, especially for projects so close to a Metro station.

To encourage these changes, particularly underground parking, Fairfax County might consider density or height bonuses in the most appropriate areas. The county's tentative 400' height limit in Tysons is arbitrary and does little to foster high quality redevelopment. There are no views to preserve in Tysons Corner, so there is no reason developers should be prevented from building tall towers. Indeed, tall, iconic buildings could help Tysons to be perceived as a true urban center.

Tysons Corner does not have to be a horrible place. If it is to improve, developers will have to get serious about changing the type of buildings they put there, and Fairfax County will have to be equally serious about following its impressive Transforming Tysons plan.

If Tysons is to change for the better, the Lerner proposal cannot be built in its current form. It is sorely deficient in embracing urbanity, and is the same type of development that has made traffic in Tysons so bad. With Fairfax County's help, Lerner should learn from past mistakes and reorganize their site plan to be first and foremost urban and pedestrian friendly.

Update: Brian Worthy from Fairfax County pointed out that this plan was approved under Tysons' previous land use plan, which permitted this type of design. It would be prescient of the county to try to convince Lerner to move toward a more urban solution, which could increase their profits as well as creating a development that better fits into the future of Tysons.

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Small projects can have a large impact

Upper Montgomery County does not have enough regional transit. Improving access to the Brunswick Line MARC train station in Boyds is one way for the county government to fix this.


Photo by Mark Fischer on Flickr.

The upper county is growing. Between 2000 and 2010, Clarksburg added 11,932 residents, and Germantown added 30,976.

And this is just the beginning. The Montgomery County government is planning for more growth. Clarksburg is to have 43,000 residents and millions of square feet of new retail and office space. Germantown is to become "the center of business and community life in upper Montgomery County."

Yet the demand for regional transit in the area already exceeds the supply.

The parking lots are full at the Germantown Transit Center, where there is a RideOn shuttle bus to the Shady Grove Metro Station. There is also an express bus to Bethesda with a higher fare, at the nearby Milestone Shopping Center park-and-ride in Germantown.

At the Germantown MARC train station, the parking lots are also full, and expansion will probably require construction of a parking garage. The planned Corridor Cities Transitway is as yet purely notional and would not go all the way into Clarksburg, ostensibly a transit-oriented community.

So much for the bad news. The good news, at least potentially, is that the MARC train station in Boyds could help meet the growing regional demand.

Boyds is a county-designated historic district, a few miles west of Germantown and south of Clarksburg, in the Agricultural Reserve. Trains have been stopping there since 1873.

In 2006, the Maryland Transit Administration tried to close the Boyds station, along with another station on the Brunswick Line and two stations on the Camden Line. But community protest and emergency legislation introduced by State Senator Rob Garagiola kept all of the stations open. Three eastbound and four westbound trains now stop at Boyds daily.

At the moment, the parking lot has room for only 19-20 cars and is often full. The nearest bus stop is over a mile away. And pedestrians and bicyclists face high-speed commuter traffic on dark, winding roads with no shoulders.

But the county government could fix these problems with a few relatively simple improvements to bicycle, transit, and car access.

Improvements for bicycle access could include:

  • Installing a bike rack. (MARC only allows folding bicycles on the train.)
  • Adding bike facilities to MD-117 between the Boyds train station and the Germantown Community Center, consistent with the County bicycle master plan.
  • Extending the planned bike paths along MD-121 in Clarksburg south from West Old Baltimore Road to MD-117.
Improvements for transit access could include:
  • Extending RideOn bus #71 or #78 from western Germantown to the train station. (Indeed, there are already Boyds MARC riders who live in the neighborhoods served by these buses.)
  • Extending RideOn bus #75 from Clarksburg to the train station, when the planned commercial and office space at Cabin Branch is built. This would connect Clarksburg residents to the Boyds train station, as well as people who live further west along the Brunswick Line to jobs in Clarksburg.
Improvements for car access could include:
  • Leasing spaces in a church parking lot 500 feet south of the station. However, people would have to walk along a narrow, dark road on which a sidewalk is not allowed.
  • Buying or leasing a vacant quarter-acre lot next to the station (once occupied by a house a freight train derailed on in 1986) and/or a vacant half-acre lot across the tracks (where the station was until the 1950s).
  • Leasing land for parking on the future site of the Boyds Local Park, 500 feet east of the station. The lot would be integrated into the park, if the park were developed. In addition, putting in a bicycle/pedestrian crossing at the intersection of MD-117 and MD-121, as well as a sidewalk from the intersection to the station. This crossing would also improve the Hoyles Mill trail connection from South Germantown Recreation Park to Black Hill Regional Park, next to the future Clarksburg development at Cabin Branch.
Parking lot expansion would include a bus turnaround, as well as pervious surfaces because Boyds is in the Agricultural Reserve. Also, as a historic district, Boyds probably could not accommodate more than 75 parking spaces. This emphasizes the need to improve non-car as well as car access.

Yes, there would probably be objections that Boyds would no longer be a "home in the country," that people should just drive 5 miles west to the Barnesville station or 3 miles east to the Germantown station, that stopping at Boyds makes the trip from Brunswick or Frederick longer, and that small stations are inefficient and take away from service to the big stations.

However, the current and planned future growth in Clarksburg and Germantown will inevitably make Boyds less rural, regardless of train station access. If people can get to the train more conveniently, more people will choose the train. Stopping at Boyds adds only a minute or two, which is not a meaningful difference for a 90-minute trip. And future expansion on the Brunswick Line will allow MARC to improve service to both big and small stations, by running more expresses and locals.

Of course, these small improvements by themselves cannot solve the big problem of insufficient regional transit in the upper county. But, together with lots of other small improvements, they would be a good start.

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Lincoln's lost inaugural ballroom

Abraham Lincoln began his first term as the 16th President of the United States in a ceremony held on the Capitol's east portico. About 25,000 people watched as Lincoln was sworn in Monday March 4, 1861.


Lincoln Inaugural Ball dance card. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lincoln left the Capitol and went to the White House, traveling in a carriage down Pennsylvania Avenue under tight security. Later that evening, the new president and his wife left the executive mansion for the traditional inaugural ball.

Many of the sites associated with Lincoln's inauguration were permanent buildings: The Capitol, Willard's Hotel (where the Lincolns stayed before the ceremonies), Pennsylvania Avenue, and the White House.

One piece of pop-up architecture that did not survive beyond the spring of 1861 was the ballroom where the Lincolns and their guests danced into the night of March 4, 1861.


Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Every four years Washington prepares for inaugural festivities by sprucing up Pennsylvania Avenue and by constructing temporary buildings and structures to accommodate the throngs of people who descend on the city.

Each of these pieces of pop-up architecture is meant to have a limited lifespan of a few hours before being dismantled and forgotten. Because of a convergence of events tied to the outbreak of the Civil War and the Union's first loss at Bull Run in July 1861, there is an interesting brief record that has survived about what became of Lincoln's first inaugural ballroom. That record lies buried in legal proceedings stemming from the confiscation of private properties by the federal government during the war.


Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 23, 1861.
Cover shows women at the ball.
Image from the Library of Congress.

The local and national press published lavishly illustrated accounts of the inaugural festivities. Historians and Civil War enthusiasts have written extensively on Lincoln's inauguration and his life and presidency have been dissected from many perspectives.

This brief post drills down into one small part of Lincoln's first day in office: The temporary inaugural ballroom that was constructed behind Washington's city hall. Dubbed the "white muslin Palace of Aladin," Margaret Leech wrote in her 1941 book, Reveille in Washington,

The palace was actually a temporary plank structure, divided into rooms for dancing and for supper, and dependent for dressing rooms on City Hall, ladies in the Common Council chamber, and gentlemen in the courtroom.
The Union Ball began at 10:00 PM and the Lincolns arrived about an hour later. According to the New York Times, the ballroom was gas-lit and decorated with shields and flags. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published an engraving showing the ballroom's interior the night of the big event.


Lincoln's first inaugural ballroom. Frank Leslie's Illustrated, March 23, 1861.
Image from the Library of Congress.

In the 1860s, Washington's city hall was located in Judiciary Square east of the White House where Indiana and Louisiana avenues met north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Builder Job W. Angus constructed the yellow pine building for the inaugural ballroom. A New York native, Angus (1822-1909) owned the building up until the ball. He served in the inauguration proceedings as an assistant marshal. "It was mine when it was the ball-room and after the ball was over it was taken by the Government for the Soldiers," Angus said in a deposition taken in 1872.


Washington City Hall, c. 1857. Adapted from the Map of the City of Washington by A. Boschke, from the Library of Congress.


Washington City Hall, c. 1866. Lithograph by E. Sachse & Co. from the Library of Congress.

Moves to authorize the ballroom's demolition in early April, 1861, were halted. Within weeks of the war's start, troops were being housed in tents around the city hall and in the inauguration ballroom. By the start of the summer of 1861, federal authorities had decided to concentrate troops on Capitol Hill near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot.

As activity shifted towards Capitol Hill, on July 16, 1861, the Washington National Republican reported that the ballroom was being dismantled:

The inauguration ballroom, adjoining City Hall, which has lately been used as quarters for the troops and a drillroom by Captain Griffin's company of light artillery, is now being torn down.
An ephemeral community of official buildings and shanties thrown up by entrepreneurs quickly grew along North Capitol Street and other streets near the B&O station. Business was booming as soldiers bought food, liquor, and the company of women.


Soldiers' Rest. Lithograph by Charles Magnus, c. 1864. Image from the Library of Congress.

After Bull Run, the government confiscated private properties in and around North Capitol Street to build the way station that came to be known as the Soldier's Rest. They closed off streets, built fences, and constructed barracks and other buildings. At the heart of the Soldiers' Rest was a Gothic Revival cottage built in 1842 by architect, engineer, and artist John Skirving. After Skirving sold it to gasman James Crutchett in 1845, the property was dubbed Bethel Cottage and it became Crutchett's home and laboratory for the development of urban gas lighting systems.


John Skirving's 1842 Capitol Hill Cottage, c. 1900. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In the 1850s Crutchett expanded his Capitol Hill holdings and built the Mount Vernon Factory, a plant where he had planned to turn out great quantities of canes, picture frames, medallions, and other items manufactured from wood he had harvested from Mount Vernon. More on that, however, in a later post.

Now let's get back to the ballroom. With the war underway, the government contracted with Angus to deconstruct the Judiciary Square structure and to relocate it to Capitol Hill. "So I tore this building down and the Government paid me for constructing this building near the depot," he explained in 1872.

According to Angus,

The inauguration ball-room stood right in the rear of the City Hall. The ball was in March. I rented it for a month or six weeks and then tore it down and built the Soldiers' Rest. They had it six weeks or two months. I rented it at $250 a month.
Angus lamented what had become of the ballroom he had built. In its reuse as quarters for soldiers, according to Angus, the materials were seriously damaged. "It was the best yellow pine flooring," he said. "It was almost entirely destroyed. They took it right up. I made it to dance on."

On Capitol Hill, Angus rebuilt the ballroom as a building measuring 250 feet by 50 feet and he was paid about $12,000 for his efforts. U.S. Army maps show the building Angus built among the others built specifically for the Soldiers' Rest and the ones occupied and rented from Capitol Hill landowners like Crutchett. The rebuilt ballroom is easily identified in the maps by its dimensions, which Angus clearly described in his 1872 deposition.


Soldiers' Rest. Blue arrow points to the relocated inauguration ballroom building. Adapted from a National Archives and Records Administration image.

The Soldiers' Rest remained in operation throughout the remainder of the war. The facility was vacated by 1866 and the properties returned to residential and commercial uses. The next post in this series takes up where we left off with James Crutchett in the 1850s as he was setting up his ill-fated Mount Vernon Factory venture. Look for that post around July 21, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the First Bull Run battle.

Cross-posted at Historian for Hire.

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What's the status of our major transit projects?

With yesterday's news that the Baltimore Red Line is being advanced to Preliminary Engineering, it seems a good time to check up on the various rail and BRT projects in the region and report on their status.


Proposed Baltimore Red Line subway station. Image from MTA.

Here are the 15 major rail and BRT projects in our region.

Norfolk "The Tide" light rail

  • Status: Construction
  • Construction is largely complete. Trains and tracks are in testing now.
  • Anticipated completion: August 19, 2011

H Street streetcar

  • Status: Construction
  • Streetcar running from Union Station to the Anacostia River via H Street. Under construction now.
  • Anticipated completion: 2012

Silver Line Phase I

  • Status: Construction
  • Metrorail extension from East Falls Church to Reston via Tysons Corner. Under construction now.
  • Anticipated completion: 2013

Crystal City/Potomac Yard busway

  • Status: Design
  • Exclusive busway from Crystal City Metro to Braddock Road Metro. Final design underway now. Some segments have already been constructed by private developers.
  • Anticipated completion: 2013

Baltimore Red Line

  • Status: Design
  • Light rail line running east-west through Baltimore. Recently advanced to Preliminary Engineering from Concept.
  • Anticipated completion: 2016

Silver Line Phase II

  • Status: Design
  • Metrorail extension from Reston to Loudoun County via Dulles Airport. Preliminary Engineering currently underway.
  • Anticipated completion: 2017

K Street Transitway

  • Status: Design
  • Exclusive transit lanes running east-west on K Street from Washington Circle to Mount Vernon Square. Environmental work completed in 2009, now awaiting funding before moving forward.
  • Anticipated completion: Not published

Anacostia streetcar

  • Status: Construction/Concept
  • Streetcar from South Capitol Street to 11th Street bridge via Ancostia Metro. Construction of a short segment near South Capitol Street is mostly complete. The majority of the line is undergoing an alternatives analysis/environmental review that will be completed late in 2011.
  • Anticipated completion: Not published

Benning Road streetcar

  • Status: Concept
  • Extension of the H Street Streetcar east across Anacostia River to Benning Road Metro. Alternatives analysis & environmental review to begin summer 2011.
  • Anticipated completion: 2015

Columbia Pike streetcar

  • Status: Concept
  • Streetcar from Pentagon City to Bailey's Crossroads via Columbia Pike. Environmental planning underway now.
  • Anticipated completion: 2016

Potomac Yard Metro station

  • Status: Concept
  • Infill Metro station in Alexandria. Environmental planning underway now.
  • Anticipated completion: 2016

K Street streetcar

  • Status: Concept
  • Extension of the H Street Streetcar west to Washington Circle through downtown Washington, potentially via the K Street Transitway. Alternatives analysis & environmental review to begin summer 2011.
  • Anticipated completion: 2018

Crystal City/Potomac Yard streetcar

  • Status: Concept
  • Potential conversion of CCPY busway to streetcar. Environmental planning underway.
  • Anticipated completion: Not published

Maryland Purple Line

  • Status: Concept
  • Light rail line running east-west through Maryland suburbs of DC. Concept stage largely complete. Expected to move to Preliminary Engineering in summer or autumn 2011.
  • Anticipated completion: 2020

Corridor Cities Transitway

  • Status: Concept
  • Light rail or BRT line running north from Shady Grove Metro. Concept stage nearing completion. Mode will be determined this year. Expected to move to Preliminary Engineering in late 2011 or 2012.
  • Anticipated completion: 2020

DC streetcar other segments

  • Status: Pre-concept
  • The rest of DC's proposed 37 mile streetcar system. Planning has not yet begun.
  • Anticipated completion: Not published

The concept phase is early planning, including alternatives analysis and environmental clearance. Design is the engineering phase, including Preliminary Engineering (PE). For projects in this phase, conceptual details have been finalized and detailed construction plans are being prepared.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Breakfast links: Unsatisfying


Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.
DDOT responds on bike lanes, sort of: DDOT posts an official reply to news they may cancel L and M cycletracks: they're studying things, they have to consider all users, etc. (d.dish) ... TBD On Foot finds the answer unsatisfying.

IZ units arrive 5 years late: DC's first 2 Inclusionary Zoning units are about to be awarded. The Fenty administration stonewalled IZ from 2007 to 2009, thereby forestalling many potential units, and then the downturn meant little new housing was built.

Nathan criticizes DCTC: DC Attorney General Irv Nathan says the Taxicab Commission's rules against recording meetings are "not consistent with the philosophy of the administration or ... good government or good common sense." (Post)

Tysons may recalculate: Fairfax County wants to count new Tysons projects against the area's overall limit on office space later in the development process, to better monitor traffic impacts, but developers say it creates uncertainty. (Post)

One step closer, many to go for Baltimore Red Line: The line received federal approval to start preliminary engineering, one of many steps before it can get onto a long line of transit projects waiting for limited federal funds. (Baltimore Sun)

Alexandria seeks waterfront compromise: The city council appointed a 7-person committee to reach a compromise for the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan. Opponents will form their own competing committee. (Post)

Bar opposes VA on principle: The owner of Madam's Organ wants out of his voluntary agreement, but not because of any specific onerous provisions; he just thinks they're unfair in general. (City Paper)

And...: Arlington's zoning administrator is leaving to go to seminary as the county reconsiders its sign law. (Post, Examiner) ... Hours after the Tune Inn's kitchen was destroyed by fire, they got a $200 ticket for improper recycling placement. (WTOP) ... A Uighur restaurant may open in Anacostia. (And Now, Anacostia)

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