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Posts from July 2008


Parking countdown #1: More parking means more traffic

If you're reading this, please head down right now to the Zoning Commission, 441 4th St NW (One Judiciary Square). If you arrive before 6:30, I'll be at Firehook (until 6) and then out front; everyone testifying in support of the rules gets a free Firehook cookie on me. Opponents: feel free to spend lots of time writing detailed comments on this post. :)

Traffic is our fate. Parking reform is a step toward salvation. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

This is the last of ten daily posts about why the Zoning Commission should approve the Office of Planning recommendations on off-street parking, leading up to the hearing on Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 pm.


Today's argument is very simple: Parking requirements cause traffic.

More parking means more cars.

More cars mean more driving.

More driving means more traffic.

DC's streets have no more room for more traffic. We're not about to widen them, nor should we. Major routes are already plenty busy. DC is growing, and some of those people will get around by driving, while others won't. To avoid paralyzing gridlock, we need policies that promote as much of the latter and as little of the former as possible. This change will do that.

Our choice is simple. More suburban development, more traffic, more pollution, more high gas bills... or higher transit ridership, bicycling, and roads with enough room so people who really do need to drive can do so.

The Current reporter asked me why this is so important. As I told him, it's important because parking affects so much else. And because we may be stuck with this zoning code for another 50 years. We can't afford 50 years of the 1958 vision of the city.

Come on down to 441 4th Street right now and speak up.


Gateway Market: "Chicago-projects quality"

In the triangle bounded by New York Avenue, Florida Avenue, and Gallaudet University, near the Metro station named for all three, is the city's largest wholesale food market, a key link in the economic system for restaurants and small grocery markets. Along Florida Avenue, in front of the market, is a vacant lot with a sign: "Pretty soon, you won't recognize the place. Promise."

South elevation of the proposed Gateway Market development at 4th and Florida, NE.

At a Zoning Commission hearing last week, the developers presented a generally thoughtful plan for the site, which according to Richard Layman is vastly improved over previous designs. The plan has ground floor retail along Florida (I think), and a direct second-floor entrance off Morse Street in the Florida Market to a food court type area which will allow wholesale vendors in the market to also sell retail in what the developer called a "more consumer-friendly edge" to the market.

The whole thing still has a mall-like feel to it, a combination of the Friendship Heights mall that has stores on Wisconsin Avenue but still directs most of its traffic inward, and the second-floor National Place food court near Metro Center which, while not terrible, still draws people off the street. One of the community amenities, a public use space for the ANC and others, is currently located on the ground floor corner, which destroys an opportunity to better engage the street.

Zoning Commission members still had questions about the retail, concerned it would not succeed. Patrons have to to climb stairs from the 4th Street entrance and (I wasn't clear on this) possibly also Florida; some of the retail spaces, and the loading dock configuration, are awkward due to constraints of the site.

Commissioner Jeffries also objected to the building's appearance. Along Florida and 4th, it's glass, but facing west (toward the rest of the city) is mostly a large concrete wall, which Jeffries said "has a Chicago-projects quality to it." Chairman Hood agreed, likening the building to a storage facility.

West elevation of the proposed project.

That side looks the way it does because the Burger King (the small building to the left in the above picture) is likely a future site for redevelopment. That blank wall runs right up to the lot line, meaning a future building would block any windows (including the few that exist now). Though, as ANC 6C Commissioner Anne Phelps (who represents the neighborhood directly across Florida from the site) pointed out, there's a chance that 3th Street NE would be restored across that area, and depending where it goes, that wall might become corner frontage.

The Zoning Commission recommended simple fixes, such as some "scoring" on the concrete to give it more texture. The Commissioners also reiterated their concerns about retail success and loading, but mainly support moving this project forward.

Layman also makes the excellent point that a warehouse style of architecture would fit the area's context much better than a glass-and-concrete-box style.

Below are some very fuzzy screen captures of the floor plans, taken from the webcast of the hearing:

First floor plan.

Second floor plan.

Public Spaces

Lunch links: Bad land use decision edition

Like lawn gnomes in the nation's front yard: The Examiner looks at "mall sprawl", the constant pressure from interest groups (and caving by Congress) to put more and more memorials on the Mall despite a 2003 law that said they wouldn't do it. Newer ones aren't just a simple statue or wall, either: they come with visitors' centers, that explain the memorial, sell books, and clutter the landscape. Memorial organizers even want this one to contain a huge wall recognizing not great civil rights leaders, but big donors who gave money to build the memorial.

Proposed donor wall inside the MLK Memorial Visitors Center. Image from the MLK Memorial foundation.

Congressional whack-a-mole: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton spends a huge amount of her time fighting bills to add new memorials which pop up with alarming frequency. Harriet Tregoning, no surprise, has the better answer: "A high-performing transportation system" to get people from the Mall to other memorial sites throughout the city.

New York isn't always more progressive: NYC DOT is now one of the nation's best, but their land-use decisions aren't as good (the inverse of DC's situation, where OP is the most progressive and DDOT is mixed). In Manhattan's Hudson Yards area, atop rail yards on the West Side and the last major undeveloped parcel around Midtown, Extell wants to build a big-box Costco with 2,300 parking spaces, Streetsblog reports.

The rest of Midtown, all the way to both rivers, is entirely walkable and has some of the lowest rates of car ownership and car commuting in the country; the last thing we should be building is an auto-oriented retail complex. The Bloomberg administration proposed—successfully—other suburban-style megaprojects like the Bronx Terminal Market in its early years, making Bloomberg a pretty bad mayor on smart-growth policy until his congestion pricing epiphany.

Seriously, we subsidize cars a lot: Slate has an article examining the many ways we subsidize auto ownership. Ryan Avent would add how gas taxes don't cover the costs of even building the roads themselves, let alone the other, subtler subsidies the Slate article lists.


Good news and bad for Dupont at-risk buildings

Last month, I talked about buildings in the Dupont area in danger of "demolition by neglect," which is when an owner, intentionally or unintentionally, lets a building rot away until it has to be torn down. That's always a major loss to our historic building stock. DC has laws to prevent it, but they're often not enforced very well.

There's good news on the vacant Democratic Republic of the Congo chancery, at New Hampshire and S: Congolese officials have "informed [the Department of State] that they have selected a contractor from the several that made proposals for the renovation." This is a beautiful building that's in terrible disrepair, and it'd be great to have it back.

Left: Chancery of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photo from the DC Preservation League. Right: 1841 16th Street.
Photo by lightboxdc on Flickr.

The news is less positive for 1841 16th Street, the building rented out to students and young people where an internal wall collapsed in early June. Via the Dupont Circle Conservancy, I'm told that the owners want to tear the building down, but HPO is opposing the request. It's important that HPO win, both for this building and to set precedent for others in the future. The owners should restore the building as is, or sell it to someone who will.

Update from DCCA: The owner of 1841 16th claimed in a letter to residents that the building will be partly demolished, and new work begun, on Monday. Given HPO's opposition, it seems unlikely they have all the permits; they may be trying to knock it down before anyone can stop them. Updates to come as I hear them.

Update 2 (Friday 11 am): Via HPO, the owners have been denied a raze permit. In the past some people have razed buildings illegally, but that'd be a drastic action that hopefully is above this landlord.


Parking countdown #2: This is what a neighborhood without minimums looks like

The hearing is tomorrow! Please sign up to testify by calling (202) 727-6311. A brief statement about what you like about your non-overwhelmed-by-parking neighborhood is enough, or feel free to say more.

A world without minimums. Photo by StevenM_61 on Flickr.

This is the ninth of ten daily posts about why the Zoning Commission should approve the Office of Planning recommendations on off-street parking, leading up to the hearing on Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 pm.


Today's topic: Neighborhoods without minimums that are closer at hand than you might think.

What will our city look like without parking requirements? Will the world come to an end? Are we embarking on an experiment unheard-of among American cities? If only we had an example of a successful urban neighborhood designed without minimums.

Oh wait—we do. We need not look west to Seattle or Pasadena for examples. Nor need we look north, or south. We have examples right here in our historic neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, U Street, and Capitol Hill.

These neighborhoods have not only thrived, but have become DC's most desirable. Somehow, "spillover" seems not to deter people from living there. In fact, so many people want to live in neighborhoods without minimums that housing is becoming unaffordable. Shouldn't we let other neighborhoods develop some of the same qualities that attract people to the neighborhoods without excessive parking?

Sadly, while these neighborhoods were originally built before minimum parking requirements, our 1958 zoning is gradually nibbling away at their historic fabric by forcing infill with surface parking or driveway curb cuts that are incompatible with the existing historic character.

Commenter VC, one of the five wise souls to put a red dot on copious underground parking at the Hine redevelopment meeting, wrote this:

Someone asked me, "Don't you think Dupont or Adams Morgan wish they would've put in parking 50 years ago?" ... It doesn't make much sense to point to the two most vibrant parts of town and say, "There but for the grace of God go I."
It's easy to think your neighborhood would be great if it were just the same except with some more parking. The problem is, that's never the case. More parking feeds a cycle that saps patrons from local retail, increases traffic and pedestrian danger, and gradually transforms a neighborhood into a suburb. Parking doesn't exist in a vacuum, but as part of a greater fabric.

That greater fabric is illegal under current zoning. If a hurricane flattened Capitol Hill tomorrow, we'd need special Zoning Commission approval just to put the same thing back. That just seems intuitively wrong. Let's legalize our historic neighborhoods and enable new areas to become as great. Come testify in favor of the changes. If we get it passed, I won't have to keep posting about this every day! :)

If you can't attend (or even if you can), you can submit written comments here.

Public Spaces

Capitol Hill may get a town square

Coming out of the escalator at Eastern Market, a visitor immediately arrives in the middle of a wide, open space filled with pretty much nothing. To get to most of the neighborhood, it's necessary to cross busy Pennsyvania Avenue to another wide, open mostly-empty plaza before reaching the wonderful neighborhood blocks beyond.

Eastern Market Metro Plaza, from Live Maps.

It wasn't supposed to be this way—L'Enfant intended a series of squares, some of which (like Stanton and Lincoln) became squares, while others (like Seward and this one) didn't. Now, the Capitol Hill Town Square project is considering alternatives. On the conservative end, we could simply landscape the existing triangles better:

Earlier(?) concept for the plaza from Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc.

Or, better yet, we could unify the green space, creating a central square that's actually square (well, rectangular) and routing traffic around, like at Stanton or Mount Vernon Squares. Of course, some people oppose the idea; after all, what works well in the northern half of the neighborhood would obviously be a disaster in the southern half.

There will be a community meeting, tentatively planned for September 24th, which I'll post on the calendar (in the right sidebar) when the time and place is announced. I'll be out of the country, missing not only this but Park(ing) Day and Car-Free Day, but I hope many residents of the Capitol Hill area will go speak up for a true town square.


Breakfast links: conventional wisdom can be wrong edition

Learning traffic from Proust: Wilson Quarterly discusses the legacy of Hans Monderman, the revolutionary traffic engineer who convinced the Dutch town of Drachten to remove all traffic signals and signs. Contrary to decades of standard practice, it made traffic flow better and more safely. (Also, I didn't know that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a traffic engineer.)

Monderman at a sign-less intersection in Drachten. Photo by sociate on Flickr.

A new VRE line? VRE is evaluating a potential new branch from Manassas to Haymarket. My transit future map includes the route, which is currently single-tracked. Funding, of course, is the elephant in the room. Via WP Get There.

Why should the rate be different? An Emeryville architecture firm has started paying employees 58.5 cents per mile if they bike to official meetings—the same as the official IRS rate for driving, reports the SF Chronicle. It's a great inducement. From a public policy standpoint, why should we reward people more for taking a more expensive and more polluting form of transportation? Tip: Ben T.

Hill loves parking, could do without youth: Residents of Capitol Hill discussed principles for redeveloping the Hine Junior High site last week, and voted for principles they found most and least important by putting colored dots on a board. "Maintain historic character and moderate density" and "housing accessible to a broad range of income and age groups" were among the most voted-for principles (27 each), but "Add underground parking accessed from 7th St" ran away with 45 green dots.

As for principles residents marked with red dots (a priority they opposed), parking was fifth (with 5), restoring C Street third (10), and the number one red dot vote-getter: "Maintain focus on youth with educational services, library or other youth oriented facility." In fairness, "maintain focus on" does suggest a youth use to the exclusion of others, which I can understand not being the right priority. Full voting numbers here.


Parking countdown #3: The sky won't fall

This is the eighth of ten daily posts about why the Zoning Commission should approve the Office of Planning recommendations on off-street parking, leading up to the hearing on Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 pm.

Parking reform won't cause this. Photo by on Flickr.

If you plan to attend, please call the Zoning Commission offices during business hours at (202) 727-6311 to sign up. The earlier you call, the earlier your turn to speak will come during the hearing.

If you haven't yet sent in a letter of support, you can do so at the Coalition for Smarter Growth's action alert.


Today's topic: Why reports of imminent disaster are greatly exaggerated.

If the new zoning code removes parking requirements, the existing parking in the District of Columbia will not suddenly go up in smoke. Developers will continue to build parking in new projects. Even today, many build more parking than regulations require. In many cases, market conditions justify parking, and developers will provide it.

I spoke to a Current reporter yesterday, who asked me, "What about those who say developers want to build parking?" I responded, that's a great argument for the changes. If developers are going to build parking, then we really don't need minimums.

More often, developers overestimate demand for parking, or the zoning code forces construction of too much. I've already talked a lot about the Highland Park Apartments in Columbia Heights, where the developer put in one space per unit and only sold one per ten. In dense transit-oriented districts like that, we need maximums to stop this, because just removing minimums won't change a lot.

Removing minimums will likely just reduce the number of variances needed, since most of the time when a developer wants less parking, he or she asks for it. Big projects are almost always PUDs anyway. The real win is in small infill development, where the owners don't need parking but don't have the time and resources for a lengthy BZA appeal.

Any cases where developers do build less parking are years away—at least two, and in many cases more. And since most buildings will keep having parking (or even too much), the ratio of spaces to residents will, at best, only gradually creep downward. For those who claim it'll be too late to add parking if we need it, this very slow, gradual change gives plenty of time to turn things the other way if the world starts to end. But it won't.

Remember how, leading up to the stadium opening, journalists and commentators couldn't stop warning about the major chaos that would ensue? It didn't. All that happened was Metro set an all-time ridership record on July 11th and seven other top-ten records in the preceding 30 days.

The most likely problem that would come from lowered minimums is greater transit ridership. That's why we need to add bike lanes and express bus service and to start building streetcars now.

Every voice will matter on Thursday. Please call (202) 727-6311 to sign up to testify. The hearing is at 6:30 pm at 441 4th St (One Judiciary Square), suite 220 South.


Evans-Silverman: two worlds, two boxes of tools

Interviewing Jack Evans and Cary Silverman, the candidates for the Ward 2 DC Council seat, one could think the two are running for completely different offices. Evans seems to be running for reelection as the Council version of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, devoting his energy to financing deals that will stimulate development throughout DC. Meanwhile, Silverman sounds like a candidate for a more powerful, larger Super-ANC, focusing on local neighborhood needs and problems.

They're both right. Every ward Councilmember is some blend of the two, a shaper of citywide policy and simultaneously steward of a ward. In Evans-Silverman, we have candidates who represent each end of that spectrum. But the Council job isn't just one or the other, and we need a Councilmember who will do both jobs.

Evans and Silverman don't just focus on different problems, they apply their own boxes of tools to the same ones. For example, I asked both whether the O Street Market (which both enthusiastically support) would finally revitalize Ninth Street. Both said it's a start, as well as the convention center hotel, but we need more. What else? Silverman wants a convention center exit near the neighborhood retail and wayfinding signs directing convention-goers to nearby businesses; Evans discussed the other projects underway in the area that will add more retail space and more residents. We need both types of tools in our toolbox, and our Councilmember should pursue all avenues for revitalizing that avenue.

Evans and Silverman even speak different languages. Coming out of the Shaw Logan Circle ANC and, more recently, the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, Silverman speaks the language of the neighborhood activist, which explains why he is so popular among ANC and citizens' association members. That community's vocabulary centers around keeping the governmental ship sailing smoothly, enforcement of existing laws, quality of life issues, and often a cautious approach to change. Evans' vocabulary, meanwhile, is one of growth and fulfilling the potential of DC as a major city.

This dichotomy mirrors the debate we have on Greater Greater Washington. DC has many residents who moved here when DC was a small town and like it that way. They are (at the moment) more likely to belong to the local citizens/civic association or sit on the ANC. They are more likely to own cars and drive. On the other hand, we have a growing number of newer residents who are putting down roots here. They (or should I say we) see DC not as it was but as it could be, maintaining the beautiful houses, strong sense of community, and range of ages, races and creeds while also accommodating more people and enjoying more vitality.

Ironically, unlike in the mayoral race where energetic Adrian Fenty out-campaigned the more seasoned Linda Cropp, it's the younger (though long-time resident) Silverman who represents small-town DC, and Council veteran Evans who champions the cosmopolitan vision. Their policy prescriptions reflect that: Evans would like to make K Street more mixed-use, voted for the hiker-biker Klingle trail and supports boulevardizing the Whitehurst; Silverman would have voted for the road (though he is willing to let throughly-beaten sleeping dogs lie) and would keep the freeway. Yet Silverman bicycles to work, while Evans drives and enjoys the free parking in front of the Wilson Building. Evans cites the many events he has to get to each day, and the 45-minute public transit ride from Georgetown, as obstacles to transit (though not to bicycling).

At the moment, I plan to vote for Evans, if nothing else because of his reliable vote for transit infrastructure but against roadway expansion. His experience with economic development is also an asset to DC, and his power benefits the ward. But it's good that Silverman is running. We need his energy and dedication to improving the neighborhood. Many problems, like dealing with vacant properties, require the Councilmember to personally push city agencies for a resolution, which Evans doesn't do but Silverman promises to.

It's too bad Evans can't replace Carol Schwartz as Councilmember at-large, letting Cary represent the ward. Barring that, my ideal outcome would be for Evans to narrowly win reelection, preserving his good policy vote and his experience on economic development while also pushing him to devote more time to the ward over the next four years. And if he doesn't, he ought to lose in 2012, whether to someone new, or to a future version of Cary Silverman with a little more political experience and a policy sophistication to match his constituent-service energy.

Want to hear more from the candidates? There's a debate on Thursday, August 7th, 7:00-8:30 at the Phillips Collection at 21st and R.

Public Spaces

What's wrong with 17th Street? The northern end

Dupont's 17th Street continues to puzzle observers and generate lively debate. On the one hand, businesses keep leaving; the Washington Business Journal just wrote about a gay-focused art gallery moving eastward, following other businesses that have followed gay residents to greater 14th Street. (Unfortunately, the rest of the article is behind a pay wall.) The article is now publicly available.

When you cover up the CVS, the southern end of 17th is beautiful. Photo by katmere on Flickr.

Others argue there's nothing wrong. After all, 17th still has a grocery store, hardware store, and CVS; the MBA-hatched froyo-serving Mr. Yogato draws significant crowds each evening. June's InTowner editorial, entitled "What's Wrong with 17th Street? Nothing" quotes an unnamed neighborhood blog's criticism of 17th, citing the arrival of Tranquil Space Yoga, the expansion of Coldwell Banker, and restaurants supposedly in the works.

I've now lived on both ends of 17th, and I think I've figured it out. The problem with 17th? The northern end. When approaching it from the north, as I did before, one's first view is of the 7/11 and a liquor store. Then, at 17th and R, we have the architecturally ugly Steam Cafe building, the run-down Swift Cleaners, and the horrific Indian-themed Cobalt building. The intersection is way too wide and has too few trees. If you're a resident of the northern part of Dupont, walking down 17th to the shops there is not an especially pleasant experience.

From the south, it's entirely different. Other than the visually terrible yet extremely convenient and delicious CVS/Sushi Taro building, 17th is a pleasant strip of mostly attractive row houses and apartment buildings. The trees and street widths make for an enjoyable walk.

Perhaps I'm more attuned to architecture than your average resident, but everyone responds in subtle ways to the environmental cues. From Riggs to Corcoran, the cues are off-putting; from Church to Corcoran, they're inviting. Maybe the 17th Street Streetscape will fix these problems; if only we knew what was going on.

Update: Rob Halligan pointed me to this video from WBJ, discussing the same topics as their inaccessible article. The article also says the streetscape project has been delayed until at least 2010. Perhaps by 2010 DDOT will see fit to reconstruct the recently-redone 17th and R intersection into something more pleasant.

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