The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts from June 2012


Weekend links: Powerless

Photo by Pete Hunt on Flickr.
Storm leaves homes in the dark: The Washington region's battle with the elements continued last night as a storm left hundreds of thousands of homes without power. More than half of Pepco's system went down. (Post)

Walmart will bring too much traffic: DDOT says the Fort Totten Square development, which will include a Walmart, will generate too much traffic for area roads and has too many parking spaces. The ANC wanted lots of parking. (Heartbeat)

Nader urges little strike for statehood: In the wake of Rand Paul undermining DC's budget autonomy, Ralph Nader suggests residents arrive late for work one day each month as a "limited general strike." Will this actually have any impact? (Post)

CaBi strengthens local bike shops: DC and Arlington bike shop owners initially worried that Capital Bikeshare would cut down on their business, but instead it's strengthened it as people start biking with CaBi, then switch to their own bikes. (TN)

Young men leave cars?: Young men, a demographic often associated with American car culture, may be turning away from cars. Since the start of the recession, young men have driven fewer miles and fewer hold driver's licenses. (Streetsblog)

DC extends pool time: To help ease the sweltering heat, DC's Department of Parks and Recreation is keeping DC's pools open later until Wednesday. Many pools will be open from noon to 8 pm. (DCist)

CUA will reduce parking, then build more: Catholic University will reduce the amount of parking on campus, including making the center of campus into a green quad, but then they want to build a new parking lot in what's now filled with trees. (Heartbeat)

Banned intercity buses crowd out Chinatown minibuses: The closure of 26 intercity bus companies this year has had an interesting effect in New York City: these buses now compete with minibuses in the local route between New York's two Chinatowns. (NYT)

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Vibrant blues and greens in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Open during construction. Photo by Rich Renomeron.

Severe thunderstorms. Photo by ianseanlivingston.

National Building Museum. Photo by dracisk.

Quiet residential zone. Photo by Rich Renomeron.

Wiffle ball in Lafayette Square. Photo by ekelly80.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Great photos of things like people enjoying walkable places, lack of people in unwalkable places, transit, pedestrians, bicycles, cars, parking lots, parks, historic buildings, modern buildings, stores, urban decay, new development, and other similar elements in DC, Maryland, and Virginia will get you featured in this weekly highlight. Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!


An attempted murder kindled DC's first race riot in 1835

The 1830s are not a well-known period in Washington's history. Too late for L'Enfant and too early for Lincoln, they are a mystery to most residents. But hiding beneath the quiet surface were rising racial tensions, as vividly described in Jefferson Morley's new book, Snow-Storm in August.

Morley brings the 1830s to life with an account of dramatic events that would ultimately contribute to the Civil War.

The book's title derives from the so-called "Snow Riot" of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was operated by Beverly Snow, a free black.

Compared to the large race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 was almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city's history.

It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton's bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur's mother, was also asleep in the room. She awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door.

Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran for help from neighbors, who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave.

"I'll have my freedom," Arther shouted. "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do."

These were dangerous words for a slave in Washington in the 1830s.

Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just 4 years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner's mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities.

Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist cities farther north. William Lloyd Garrison's influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.

It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton. Mrs Thornton wasn't just anyone. She was the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol.

It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that "incendiary publications" from the north were responsible for the "most ferocious threats" and "tissue of jargon" that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he was soon arrested. Crowds of angry laborers then gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young white ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow's restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture. They later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.

Morley's book evokes not just the tragedy of the Snow Riots themselves, but the complex stories of its key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection.

It also brings to life Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835, and was responsible for arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen.

It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.

Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur, who opened one of Washington's first true restaurants in the early 1830s.

Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills, including social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.

Snow, of course, had no idea he'd be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto, with another restaurant that was as popular as his Washington eatery.

Snow's story seems at once tragic and hopeful. It's a shame that he was treated so badly in Washington, but inspiring in that he didn't let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Key, and Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail) all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


Create one single lottery for charter and non-charter schools

The current application process for DC's charter and non-charter public schools is a chaotic mess that confuses parents and hurts education for students. DC could fix many problems by creating a centralized lottery process for all public schools, charter and non-charter.

Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.

Steve Glazerman called for a centralized application for charter schools in 2010. Since then, DC Public Schools (DCPS) instituted a common application for the District's specialized high schools.

This is a great step, but it could go a lot further to include charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools at all grades. It wouldn't be hard; the company that operates whose software enables the centralized application for DCPS application-only high schools is currently implementing a centralized application for charters and non-charters in Denver.

District officials generally agree. Scheherazade Salimi, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Education, says that "a common application is something the Deputy Mayor would like to explore in partnership with DCPS and [the Public Charter School Board]."

In a centralized application, parents would select several schools, rank-ordered by preference. They would select charters and non-charters, and could conceivably select up to 12, 15 or 20 schools.

A single lottery would select applicants one by one, and assign each to the first school on his or her list with an open slot. This is similar to how many colleges assign dorm rooms, for instance.

This type of centralized application would have many benefits over the current system.

Parents are more likely to get into their top choice schools.

When parents apply to schools now, they apply for DCPS schools using a centralized application, and apply to each charter school separately. Pre-K programs have lotteries for all children, while students in 1st grade and older enter lotteries only for out-of-boundary DCPS schools.

As a result, one applicant in Capitol Hill could be waitlisted at a nearby charter that was their top choice and accepted into a Columbia Heights charter that was their 2nd choice, while a Columbia Heights family that preferred the nearby charter could be waitlisted there but accepted to the Capitol Hill charter school.

The result is that neither child can go to his or her top choice charter, and both families are making unnecessary drives to get the kids to school.

Spots at competitive schools won't be locked up by parents who don't plan to send kids there.

Schools hold their lotteries in the spring for spots in the fall. In the current system, if a child gets accepted to multiple charter schools and/or an out-of-boundary DCPS school, parents might tell each school that the child will attend in the fall.

When they decide which school to attend, they inform the schools at some point in the summer or they just don't show up for the schools they didn't select. There's no deposit or penalty, so they don't pay a cost for this, but other families lose out who might have taken the slot but had to make a decision earlier to go elsehwere.

Some parents do this to give themselves more time to research the schools; some want to wait until school starts to assess the facilities of charter schools that were still preparing their facilities in the spring.

When a student attending an out-of-boundary DCPS school gets into a different out-of-boundary DCPS school, the principal of the first school "releases" the student before they can secure their spot into the new school. Charter schools have no such process.

Squatting on multiple school slots is unfair to everybody. When children accepted through the lottery don't show up in the fall, principals have to scramble to contact any remaining applicants on their wait list. Squatting also leads to the next problem.

Principals could provide better estimates of enrollment for funding purposes.

One of the most common grievances from charter advocates is that DCPS principals overestimate their enrollment to receive extra funding.

DCPS schools project fall enrollment in the spring and these projections determine funding for the following year. If the actual enrollment is lower, DCPS' budget doesn't shrink. But charter schools receive funding quarterly based on their actual enrollment. If a charter school's enrollment declines, it loses money.

Some principals might be doing this on purpose, but it's also difficult for DCPS principals to accurately estimate enrollment for the following fall when applicants hold a spot at their school while they spend the summer deciding whether to attend charter schools.

A centralized application would eliminate much of this problem. Each school, DCPS and charter, would know that every child on its list isn't going to suddenly go elsewhere in the DC system. They could go to private school or move to another jurisdiction, but that applies to a smaller number of children.

Charter principals wouldn't be able to "skim the cream."

Charter school critics often complain that charter school principals find ways to weed out students during enrollment who may be harder to educate. The lottery initially fills all charter school slots randomly, but as parents of children who got in on the lottery tell the school that they won't be taking the slot, the charter itself contacts applicants off of their wait list.

There are opportunities for principals to intentially or unintentionally abuse this system. For example, principals can give an applicant more or less time to respond and claim the slot before they move on to the next child. They might give more "desirable" children more time than others.

A charter school in New York was put on probation last year for weeding out applicants in the enrollment process. While there hasn't been a specific accusation like this against any DC charter school, a centralized application system could remove this because students would be assigned to a single school.

We would have data on capacity needs at all grades, especially pre-K.

District officials say that DC has achieved universal pre-K, but the city's auditor of pre-K capacity disagrees. Who is right? We won't know until we have data on the actual demand for pre-K.

A centralized application for pre-K, including all of the pre-K programs, would generate this data. It would then be easy to compare the number of total children applying against the number of public pre-K slots.

The data wouldn't be perfect, as some parents apply to DCPS pre-K programs as a backup to their private pre-K applications, while other parents miss the pre-K lottery (in February) but still want to send their children to pre-K. But it would be far better than the current audit, which effectively measures nothing.

All students would start school on time together.

One of the unintended consequences of the plethora of charter school choices is that schools don't really know who will show up for school in September. This is largely due to parents holding spots through the summer for multiple schools but only sending their kids to one school.

The result is that classroom compositions are in flux throughout September and October as principals contact students off the wait list to fill suddenly vacated spots. This is challenging for teachers and ultimately hurts students' education.

District education officials and the State Board of Education can start pushing toward a single lottery right away. An education committee in the Council, as many have suggested, could also help move this forward.


Lack of connections, visibility hurt ICC Trail

Less than a year old, the Intercounty Connector Trail offers a new way to get across Montgomery County by bike. However, a circuitous route, a lack of connections to surrounding areas, and sections with poor visibility all hurt its potential.

ICC trail. Photo by the author.

The ICC was originally planned to have a bike trail running parallel to it, but in 2004, the State Highway Administration got rid of it, claiming it would reduce the toll road's construction costs and environmental impacts. Instead, they gave the ICC Trail a more circuitous and indirect route, running parts of it along the highway and the rest along local roads like Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road.

Not surprisingly, area bicyclists were unhappy with the decision. "Why do designers think cyclists should have to go the long way, but cars need a direct route?" asked WashCycle.

Part of the trail runs parallel to Columbia Pike between Fairland Road and Briggs Chaney Road in East County. Like the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge that crosses the Beltway, it runs under a highway. As a result, the trail is also lightly used and has already been vandalized.

This is unfortunate, because the trail could tie neighborhoods on both sides of the ICC together and is a crucial part of a "commuter bikeway" along Columbia Pike first envisioned in master plans 15 years ago. But this part of the ICC Trail won't get any busier or safer without better foot and bike connections to get people to it.

Let's take a look at the trail:

More Bike Trail

Here we are on the trail, just north of Fairland Road. That's the exit sign for the InterCounty Connector up ahead.

Little Seating Area

First we pass this small seating area. People do use it, judging from the abandoned pair of shoes. I enjoy the dry stacked stones and wooden bench, which give the trail a woodsy, rustic feel despite its surroundings. Behind the seating area is the recently-built Fairland View subdivision.

The development is separated by a grass berm and has no connection to the trail, despite being yards away. (The view, of course, is of the InterCounty Connector.) I assume these nearby chalk drawings came from kids living there.

Into the Tunnel

Now we're heading under the interchange between Columbia Pike and the ICC. This part of the trail is almost invisible from either road and the surrounding houses, and I passed a group of young men smoking right before I took this picture.

Sharpie Graffiti

There is Sharpie graffiti in the tunnel, though it's not much worse than anything I saw or did myself in high school. The tunnel appears to have been repainted a few times since it opened; in fact, since I took this photo, the scribbles have already been painted over. It's good to see that the state is maintaining the trail, though I wonder how regularly they patrol it.

Trail Just North of the ICC

After the tunnel, we go under a couple of overpasses. The roar of traffic is pretty intense, and I noticed some broken glass on the path where lights have been knocked out.

Heading Towards Briggs Chaney Road

We're now between Columbia Pike on the left, and the Montgomery Auto Park on the right. Turn around and you get a great view of the interchange. There are maybe waist-high concrete walls on either side of the trail and a chain-link fence separating it from the Auto Park. The wall might keep bicyclists safe from car traffic, but I wonder if it's also there to protect the car dealerships from bicyclists.

Around the Auto Park

And then we hit a wall. This is the interchange of Columbia Pike and Briggs Chaney Road, which was completed about four years ago; the trail takes a hard right to get around it and then joins Briggs Chaney Road.

Trail Ends at Briggs Chaney Road

Across the street is the Briggs Chaney Plaza shopping center; there's a stoplight and intersection in front of us, but no pedestrian signal or even a crosswalk. From here, we can continue down Briggs Chaney, which has a nice, wide shared path for about a mile and a half before connecting to a portion of the trail that's actually on the ICC.

Residents of Tanglewood, a subdivision on the south side of the ICC, complained that a trail would invite "criminals" from the apartment complexes along Briggs Chaney Road. While I still think that accusation was unfair, residents' predictions that there would be vandalism on the trail turned out to be true.

But as WashCycle points out, the best way to make a safe trail is to make it busy. In the handful of times I've used this one-mile portion of the ICC Trail, I've seen maybe a dozen people there. The trail is new enough that some people haven't heard of it, but it's also obscured by a highway interchange and sound berms.

It would've been ideal if the State Highway Administration had laid out the trail first and then worked around it, rather than the other way around. The trail would be more direct, and possibly more visible, while having little or no effect on the ability of drivers to pass through.

Since that opportunity no longer exists, the best thing we can do is to improve foot and bike connections to nearby destinations like Briggs Chaney Plaza and neighborhoods like Castle Boulevard, which recently got new sidewalks and medians. The easier it is to walk or bike in the area, the more likely people are to use the ICC Trail, and the less destructive behavior will occur.


Breakfast links: What a compromise

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
Verdict: Transpo bill pretty terrible: The transportation bill "compromise" has many awful provisions, including letting states spend their tiny bit of bike-ped money on things like left-turn lanes if they only sit on it long enough, keeps transit funding low, and commuter benefits unequal, and deletes a bipartisan Complete Streets provision. (Streetsblog)

Bill adds oversight for Metro: The new transportation bill also adds federal oversight of transit agencies, including Metro. The bill will allow the FTA to set standards for rail cars and safety training, though states retain the main authority. (Examiner)

What's going on in Loudoun?: Loudoun's conflict over the Silver Line is really about much deeper divisions and debates about how much this rural county should become something else. (City Paper) ... But to really preserve rural character, they'd need something like Montgomery's Agricultural Reserve. (RPUS) ... Dithering supervisors are certainly not acting like businesspeople as they claim. (realloudoun)

Mendo for less density: New DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson has opposed several development projects that increased density, including the Wisconsin Ave. Giant. Will he do the same as Council Chair? (City Paper)

What a house costs: A survey of DC housing finds the most expensive homes in Anacostia cost about the same or less than the least expensive home in Georgetown. An interactive graph shows the range in prices for each DC zip code. (UrbanTurf, Trulia)

Relief for water: With triple digit temperatures in on the way, Metro will allow bottled water in the system for the second time this year, but don't expect a permanent change, as Metro prides itself as being one of the cleanest systems in the country. (DCist)

And...: It's the last day at City Paper for Lydia DePillis. ... The Maine Ave. Fish Market will soon be allowed to expand its offerings to non-fish items. (DCist) ... DC CFO Natwar Gandhi sails through his confirmation hearing. (City Paper)

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"Trolleys" are good for Ward 5, if we can get them

A vocal minority in Ward 5 is pushing back against a streetcar maintenance facility at Spingarn High School, and has recently broadened its opposition to the streetcar system as a whole. But while loud, these opponents don't reflect the views of most Ward 5 residents. It's time for Ward 5 residents to speak up in favor of new investments in our ward.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

I live in Ward 5 and I support streetcars. Anyone reading the Ward 5 listserv this week would see that it has become quite a contentious topic, and might even think that my opinion is in the minority. But I don't believe that is true.

The debate first arose from the proposed streetcar maintenance facility on part of the Spingarn High School lawn and the outrage that some in the community feel about this proposal. Some residents have taken the opportunity to bash the streetcar system as a whole.

As the discussion evolves away from the location of the car barn to the entire streetcar system and even further into the "bike lanes, dog parks and gentrification" realm, I am left frustrated. I have read countless pros and cons on streetcars and light rails. I have experienced streetcars in many other cities around the world. I want them and everything that comes with them.

I want the increased ridership, permanent tracks and stops, overhead wires and the big, shiny red streetcars traveling down them at regular intervals. Instead of opposing any projects at all costs, we should be lobbying for more of the coming investments to happen in Ward 5, and ensuring that we reap a fair portion of the economic and infrastructure benefits that will come with the new transportation system.

I want the District to take a real interest and invest in Ward 5, helping to fill our empty storefronts and letting our residents travel comfortably around the city.

"Car barn" could improve, not harm, Spingarn and the area.

The proposal for the Springarn maintenace facility, or "car barn," does not bother me. The location is off a major road that will have a streetcar line running down it. The current streetscape in the area could easily accommodate a new building.

If DDOT sites the facility close to Benning Road, which is one of the 2 options, it will leave a large space, partly green and partly tracks, between the car barn and the school, and it will actually replace a grimy, shuttered DC Library mini-branch building.

Potential locations for car barn at Spingarn. Image from DDOT via Frozen Tropics.

Concept sketch for car barn. Image from DDOT.

The car barn will be brand new. We can ensure that it blends in and adds to the area. It could even be designed to match the architecture of the school. Many of DC's historic car barns are beautiful buildings; a new one could be, too.

Historic car barn on Capitol Hill. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Instead of opposing to the car barn, Ward 5 residents should be working with DDOT to ensure it is the best car barn that we can get. We can set an example for the many more similar facilities the District will build as it adds and extends the streetcar lines.

We should make sure that it is a true training facility that ties in and expands the current curriculum at Phelps Vocational Technical Academy and provides strong job training for students and adults alike.

Debate really isn't about the car barn, but the streetcar generally

Sadly, some vocal Ward 5 activists have seized on the Springarn controversy to spread opposition to the entire streetcar system. They've sent press releases, posted messages and issued calls to action. For example:

Premier Community Development Corporation, PCDC, is opposed to the District Government's proposal to spend over 1.5 billion dollars on a trolley car. PCDC also opposes the DC Department of Transportation's ill made decision to build the streetcar barn on the front lawn of Spingarn High School.

PCDC opposes these short cited[sic] decisions in support of the trolley car for the following reason. First, the trolley plan is not well thought out and does not serve the needs of the majority of the residents that elect to use public transportation. The trolley does not connect to any transportation hubs and thus is not a part of a comprehensive city-wide transportation system. Currently, the trolley starts at the foot of the Hopscotch Bridge and ends around 26th and Benning Road. Clearly, the trolley is only intended to ferry bar and restaurant customers from one end of H Street to the other.

The opening lines demonstrate that the Springarn issue has already become secondary. As Rhode Island Ave Insider has written, some members of PCDC are older residents who feel threatened by the engagement and activism of newer, younger residents who want to see a different kind of investment and change. It's not surprising that they've latched onto the term "trolleys" as a derogatory. This fear is so deep-seated that they ignore the fact that their outright opposition just further delays DDOT from connecting the streetcar to transportation hubs, as planned.

Then there are community members who are more concerned with making sure DDOT listens to them than with getting the best investments for Ward 5. Activist Kathy Henderson wrote:

I am glad many of Ward 5's leaders attended the meeting regarding the car barn fiasco. It is really a bad idea to tear up Spingarn's front lawn for an industrial eyesore. I find the entire matter to be very disrespectful to residents, underscoring that DDOT representatives were not chastened by the last meeting on the issue in April; they came back and uttered the same nonsense again. [Emphasis added]
Still others see streetcars as an investment that's not for them, such as LeRoy Hall:
By the way, who are the streetcars for anyway? This reminds me of those red Circulator Buses for people in Georgetown to visit people on Capitol Hill.
It's sad that some people have lost sight of the streetcars as an investment in our communities and in our mobility. That makes it that much more important that the larger community speak out in support.

Streetcars will benefit all residents, include the lower-income residents of Ward 5. About 35% of residents do not own cars, and DC plans to make the streetcar fare the same as the Circulator, which is less today than the bus fare.

Streetcars, much like the Metro, will become a permanent fixture in the community. Ward 5 has the Red Line of the Metro running through it north to south, and is briefly touched by the Yellow and Green Lines at one station, Fort Totten. Many of us define our location by the nearest Metro stop. The planned streetcar lines for Ward 5 would run mostly east to west across the ward, creating new transportation connections and new stops to identify with the community.

The permanent nature of the streetcars with their tracks installed in the ground will develop a confidence in the investment in an area. Adding streetcars and streetscape improvements would enhance the travel, experience and atmosphere of our ward.

Anyone that has walked down Rhode Island Avenue NE can will agree that we still need a lot of infrastructure improvements to ensure it becomes a more vibrant destination, attracting new businesses to empty storefronts and bolstering existing ones. The success of streetcars in spurring economic development is well demonstrated in other cities such as Portland.

Planning in Ward 5 and the rest of the District, especially near streetcar lines, needs to ensure that affordable housing is a priority. The streetcar will make the neighborhoods near it more valuable. That's great for existing homeowners; Ward 5 should discuss how it can do more to ensure that residents on fixed and low incomes are able to stay in their homes if they wish.

Ward 5 should fight to get streetcars early

Ward 5's southern edge will benefit from the first streetcar line, the so-called "One City" line along Benning Road to downtown. In Phase 2 of the streetcar system, Rhode Island Avenue will get a line from Eastern Avenue, past the Metro station, to Florida Avenue where it will connect with the Florida Avenue line. A line in Phase 3 would connect Brookland to Woodley Park and Adams Morgan.

The District released a Request For Information this week that would privatize and prioritize 22 miles of the streetcar system to be built over 5-7 years. However, except for the Benning Road segment at the ward's edge, none of the Ward 5 sections were included in this proposal. It is imperative that we push to have the Ward 5 lines included to spur the economic development in our ward, not fight against the streetcars.

22-mile priority streetcar system. Image from DDOT.

I am a Ward 5 resident and I want streetcars. As a vocal minority in my ward spreads fear, uncertainty, and doubt, not to mention false information, opposing the streetcars, it becomes more and more important for those of who do support them to speak up. Who's with me?

Take action

This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!


Round-shots and bridge toll repeal sparked Anacostia

Today's Anacostia, originally known as Uniontown, started developing in 1854, much earlier than surrounding neighborhoods. A number of obscure events triggered this, including an enterprising Naval lieutenant's arrival and repealing tolls on the Navy Yard Bridge.

1870s map of the greater Anacostia area. Image by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

Most accounts suggest that a sale of lots by the Union (Town) Land Association in present-day Anacostia happened in 1854 because of the town's proximity to the Navy Yard, a short walk across the bridge. Case closed, enough said. But there's much more behind historic Anacostia's development.

"A combination of economic and social factors gave impetus to the suburban-development movement in Anacostia," according to The Anacostia Story, by Louise Daniel Hutchinson and published in July 1977 by the Smithsonian Press, but which lacks citations and a bibliography.

Hutchinson writes that a "desire for country living, fresh water, and relief from the heat" was the leading attraction of life across the riverbed. "Economic conditions beyond the control of the developers plagued the enterprise. In the early 1850s the Navy curtailed ship building at the Washington Navy Yard, and many skilled workers were unemployed." As a result, Hutchinson explains, the lots of old Uniontown gained houses at a rate of only 4 per year.

A Navy lieutenant brings the round-shot and prosperity

But in January 1847, Navy Lieutenant John Dahlgren arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, to lead the manufacturing of rockets recently developed by British inventor William Hale, according to Round-shot to Rockets; A history of the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Naval Gun Factory. By April Dalhgren was leading the Bureau or Ordnance and had received the Navy's approval for a "new and larger workshop."

Image inside back cover of Round-shot to Rockets.

Round-Shot says:

Because there was not sufficient level ground available for ranging the guns, [Dahlgren] proposed to use the river. No such experiment for accurate results had been previously tried over the water, and it became necessary to develop a method by which the splash made by the fall of the shot might be precisely located. [Dahlgren] quickly devised by a system of triangulation. The Dahlgren test battery at the Navy Yard came thereby into existence.
In May 1854 the Navy Yard erected a new ordnance building 250 feet long and on October 25, 1854 "the furnace in the new foundry was lighted off for the first time." Soon thereafter cannon balls began landing in the Eastern Branch. With a splash in the old man river, Uniontown got its start.

According to news stories and official reports of the Secretary of the Navy, by 1855 the Washington Navy Yard's workforce was upwards of 1,100. The most preeminent positions were filled by 300 ship-carpenters, 200 machinists, 150 blacksmiths, 50 joiners, 60 plumbers and camboose makers, more than 100 iron and brass foundry workers, 85 civil engineers, and 85 laborers.

In April 1860, before Abraham Lincoln's election, the Baltimore Sun took notice of the city's first suburban development that sprung up to house the new workers that Dahlgren's innovations required.

Some time since The Sun noticed that within the last few years a new and flourishing neighborhood had sprung up on the margin of the Eastern Branch, immediately opposite the Navy Yard. For reasons that place is known and recognised [sic] as "Uniontown."
The story also describes the laying of a corner-stone for a new Methodist Episcopal Church on land described as being on "three of the most eligible lots" donated by developers John Fox and John Van Hook.

A little more than a year later, as troops flooded into the city on the verge of Civil War, the Seventy-first New York gave a matinee concert before a sizable and distinguished crowd, according to Margaret Leech's Pulitzer Prize-winning Reveille in Washington. "One of the great cast-iron Dahlgren guns was fired at targets in the river, and the Seventy-first New York marched in dress parade."

Removing tolls brings east of the river closer

The other dynamic that made Uniontown's development possible was removing tolls from the Navy Yard Bridge.

According to journalist-researcher Steve Ackerman, writing for the Surratt House Museum, "Over time, Maryland's legislature stridently prodded Congress to remove the tolls on the Eastern Branch bridges, to benefit 'persons who frequent the markets of Washington and Georgetown, for the sale of their productions' by removing the 'heavy tax in the form of bridge tolls on their produce'" as an 1844 resolution in the Maryland legislature stated. In 1852 Congress bought the bridge and removed the tolls, freeing up back and forth movement for both merchants and residents.

Navy Yard Bridge, c. 1862. Photo by Matthew Brady from the Library of Congress.

As the area awaits residential and commercial revitalization, smart money reportedly has their eyes on Anacostia, invoking the area's history as a key selling point.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming Frederick Douglass' Washington: The Lion of Anacostia, to be published by The History Press on October 9th.

Besides the books and other resources listed above, planning guides and preservation studies also help tell the area's history, such as those published by the University of Maryland that analyze the area's housing stock, Old Anacostia Washington, DC: A Study of Community Preservation Resources and Design Guide for the Exterior Rehabilitation of Buildings in Old Anacostia.

Two additional publications by the city from the 1970s-era of Home Rule are Revitalization of old Anacostia: a neighborhood analysis and Washington's far Southeast 70. Since then dissertations and theses have focused on Anacostia but haven't been widely read or seen.


Better signs could speed trains through Fort Totten

Fort Totten is a convenient transfer point between Metro lines outside the core, but the station layout results in unnecessary crowding. Better signage could improve passenger flow and speed up trains, by helping users know where to stand on the platform.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Though crowding at Fort Totten is not as severe as at Gallery Place, the crowding at Fort Totten does cause delays to southbound Green and Yellow trains, and can also cause passengers to miss the train.

The basic problem is that the only access to the Green/Yellow platform is at the extreme northern end. Since Metro trains now pull all the way to the front of stations, there is a gap at the end of the platform for 6-car trains.

At most stations this isn't a problem, because escalators drop passengers closer to the middle of the platform. But at Fort Totten, riders on the Green/Yellow platform arrive well behind the end point of southbound 6-car trains. When a southbound train arrives, there is often a mad rush to get to the last door.

The result is that dozens of people try to push through a single door, which forces trains to stay on the platform longer, delaying the trip and gumming up the schedule. Even then, a clump of passengers is sometimes left on the platform to wait for the next train.

Metro could help alleviate this problem with clever signs. One potential solution is already in place elsewhere in the system. National Airport and Union Station both have entrances that are at extreme ends of the platform, similar to Fort Totten. They are also stations that have a lot of non-regular riders.

Because the escalators at these stations eject riders onto the platform well behind where 6-car trains stop, WMATA placed signs encouraging riders to walk further down the platform.

National Airport. Photo by the author.

Signage like that could help at Fort Totten. However, simple overhead signs often blend into the background and are overlooked. A more visible and therefore more useful solution might be floor signage:

Floor sign in the Montreal Metro. Photo by the author.

Montreal makes good use of signs like the one pictured above in its Metro. At Fort Totten, a large, colorful floor sign could clearly indicate to riders that they should move down the platform. Such a floor sign might look something like this:

Another option is to put signs on the wall across the tracks from the southbound platform, more precisely indicating where the sixth car stops.

To make boarding even easier, WMATA might consider encouraging riders to walk at least down to where the fifth car stops, rather than merely to the end of the sixth.

This is because with southbound trains, the sixth car is often the most crowded before it even gets to Fort Totten. Savvy Green Line riders intending to transfer to the Red Line cluster in the sixth car, to put themselves as close as possible to the escalators leading up to the Red platform, and thus reduce the likelihood that they will miss a Red Line train that's about to leave. Also, the escalators and stairs at Prince George's Plaza and West Hyattsville deposit riders at the sixth car's position, so a lot of people just end up in that car anyway.

During rush hour, as many as half the riders in the sixth car can be trying to get out at Fort Totten. In many instances, it takes the entire time the train has its doors open for all the exiting passengers in the sixth car to alight. There is frequently no time for people waiting outside the sixth car to start boarding. On the other hand, those who've walked further down the platform are already on board.

When 6-car southbound trains arrive at Fort Totten, the cluster of patrons who've been standing at the position of (non-existent) cars 7 and 8 dash up and cluster around the last door of the train, making it harder for the stream of riders leaving the train to reach the escalators to the mezzanine and the Red Line.

A touch under half of southbound rush hour trains at Fort Totten's lower level are 8-cars long. This signage would discourage riders at Fort Totten from boarding those cars, but that's not a problem. Riders from other stations would still use those cars, and people just arriving from the Red Line would still be able to board from the end of the platform.

At any rate, the advantage of moving passengers further down the platform outweighs any possible disadvantage of having fewer Fort Totten riders board the last 2 or 3 cars.


Breakfast links: Paying for transportation

Photo by Rob Blatt on Flickr.
Agreement on transpo bill: Congress has reached a deal for transportation funding through September 2014. About half of local bike/ped funding survived, but states can still "opt out" of their share. The House also voted down incentives to deal with distracted driving. (Streetsblog)

No BRT soon: Several Montgomery councilmembers say the county can't afford the proposed BRT system anytime soon thanks to a state requirement for more education funding, and a special tax isn't likely. (Examiner)

DC would not be alone: Contracting or "privatizing" the streetcar wouldn't be unusual: Denver is doing the same. (BeyondDC) ... But what would be the incentive for a company to finance a streetcar if it can't make extra money? (RPUS)

How to fix parking?: Brookings' Christopher Leinberger, David Alpert, and many others, talked about parking policy at a DC Council roundtable. Ideas included smaller RPP zones and higher rates for RPP stickers. (WJLA)

Cities grow: DC and other large cities are growing even faster than before, outpacing suburban growth for the first time in decades. Alexandria has also seen explosive growth in the last few months. (Post)

What about health care?: By encouraging a more sedentary lifestyle, unwalkable communities cost Americans $190 billion a year in health care costs through health risks like diabetes and obesity. (Atlantic Cities)

And...: US cities are driving most of the nation's economic competitiveness. (McKinsey, charlie) ... LEED might limit plastics and vinyl, but the industry is fighting. (Post) ... BRT is working very well in LA. (LAT, charlie) ... Lieberman stands up for DC rights. (WT)

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