Greater Greater Washington

Posts from July 2011

Greater Greater Week in Review: July 24-30, 2011

If you can't read Greater Greater Washington every day, you'll still be able to catch all our posts at a glance with Greater Greater Week in Review.


Photo by BrianMKA on Flickr.

Featured posts:

Capital Bikeshare announces new and expanded stations: DDOT has announced a list of 32 new Capital Bikeshare stations and 18 stations that will expand.

Crash shows need for safer crossings; is NPS listening?: A three-car crash last Thursday morning at a trail crossing on the George Washington Parkway once again highlights the need for the National Park Service to take action on critical safety improvements.

ATU Local 689 answers your questions: A few weeks ago, we invited readers to pose questions to ATU Local 689, the union representing most Metro employees. Their political and legislative director, Lateefah Williams, was unfortunately very sick for a few weeks (but better now). Here are her answers to your questions.

Most popular:

"Lane closed to ease congestion" actually not a crazy fail: Michael sent along this amusing "FAIL" photo... but is it really a fail at all?

Nelson's judge shows sympathy; Anne Arundel police don't: Raquel Nelson has finally encountered some compassion in her Georgia jaywalking conviction case, getting a minimal sentence and even a chance at a new trial from the judge. But a comment on another fatality closer to home, in Anne Arundel County, shows that windshield perspective in the justice system goes beyond Cobb County, Georgia.

Arlington credit union mocks bus riding: Every so often, someone marketing cars or car-related products decides to do so by mocking public transit. The latest example comes from an unexpected quarter: the Arlington Community Federal Credit Union.

Stop distorting the cost of living with public service subsidies: From rural air service to military base sitings to post office closings, many federal policies pick winners and losers among places for people to live. Exurban communities require much more expensive infrastructure, yet policymakers cling to a system that rewards building or living on cheap land but has the government subsidizing all the other associated costs.

Southwest Ecodistrict looks to fix '60s planning failure: The area along 10th Street in Southwest is now little more than a desolate heat island of bland federal buildings where few dare to tread after 5 pm. The Southwest Ecodistrict project seeks to change this by radically remaking this neighborhood into a vibrant place and a national showcase for sustainable development.

Other posts:

Weekend video: How bike shops encourage bicycling

Many factors affect whether people bicycle, from access to bikes, to topography, to bike lanes, to parking and showers at work. One other important yet less often discussed factor is access to bike shops.

In this video, Milwaukee's Keith Holt discusses how bike shops, especially in low-income communities and communities of color, can help children and adults start bicycling and then make it a regular activity.

Weekend links: Rent is too damn high


Photo by aboutmattlaw on Flickr.
Simple steps to help affordable housing: A new Brookings report looks at how DC is doing against its 5-year-old affordable housing plan. Besides stopping underfunding programs, the report suggests better coordination between agencies and better data collection by DMPED. (DCFPI)

Vancouver tackles homelessnes: Vancouver will offer $44M in land and grants to developers to create 38,000 units of affordable housing. The plan is to end homelessness, but will benefit many others, too. (Vancouver Sun)

Too much preservation?: Jane Jacobs advocated preserving old buildings to encourage diverse neighborhood life. Economist Ed Glaeser disagrees, warning that too much preservation makes cities unaffordable. (Governing)

Pharma company moves from sprawl to downtown: Usually pharmaceutical corporate moves involve going to exurban office parks, but Vanda Pharmaceuticals is doing the opposite, leaving Gaithersburg to locate in Foggy Bottom. (WBJ)

DC employees worried about transparency: Suzanne Peck, who is conducting a pro bono review of the DC government at the behest of the mayor, has required 100 employees to sign non-disclosure agreements. (Post)

EPA Smart Growth faces uncertain future: The House may eliminate EPA's Smart Growth office, which Harriet Tregoning once ran. The office assists localities minimizing the environmental impact of infrastructure investment. (Streetsblog)

Parking lot to become green space: Students and volunteers are turning a high school parking lot in Baltimore into a rain garden. The school hopes the garden will prevent pollution from washing into the Chesapeake Bay. (Baltimore Sun)

Grocery stores, "but for whom?": One LA columnist fears that gentrifiers will dull cities, citing an H Street grocery as an example of "what the newcomers want." He fails to note that all people, regardless of race or class, want and need grocery stores. (LA Times)

And...: Delaware passed a 3-foot passing law. (Streetsblog) ... If US metro areas were countries, where would their economies rank? (Atlantic) ... Graffiti is growing nationwide. (Post) ... Launching bike sharing, Boston's mayor says "the car is no longer king." (WBUR)

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Keeping cool by 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 hydrant. Photo by yostinator.


Columbia Heights. Photo by pablo.raw.


Georgetown. Photo by OmegaMoth.


Red Line. Photo by pablo.raw.


Columbus Circle. Photo by Enigmatic Traveler.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Lost Washington: Mary Foote Henderson's Boundary Castle

The Gilded Age, from the 1870s until the 1910s, was a unique period in Washington's history. The city attracted many nouveaux riches who were drawn by the fact that upper-class Washington society in those days was wide open to anyone with lots of money, a circumstance not found in other major Eastern cities.


Henderson. Image from Washington Times, Dec. 23, 1904.

Of all the wealthy people who moved to Washington to exert power and influence in the Gilded Age, one of the most powerful and influential was Mary Foote Henderson (1846-1931), who turned her City Beautiful dreams into reality along upper 16th Street.

Born to a prominent New York family, Mary learned social graces at several exclusive finishing schools, became fluent in French, and developed an abiding taste for the arts at a very young age. Her father, Elisha Foote (1809-1883), was a prominent judge who later became Commissioner of the US Patent Office.

Mary came to Washington at the invitation of her uncle, a Connecticut senator, who introduced her to Washington's important single men, including the distinguished Senator John Brooks Henderson (1826-1913) of Missouri, who was 20 years her senior.

Henderson was famous for having co-sponsored the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery. In the spring of 1868, he and six other Republican senators defied their party as well as public sentiment by voting against conviction of Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial.

Mary Foote was in the gallery looking on as he cast his momentous vote, which effectively doomed him to a single term in the Senate. Once the drama of the impeachment was over, in June 1868 John and Mary were married. It was said that the whole Senate attended the wedding.


John Brooks Henderson. Image from the Library of Congress.

When Henderson's Senate term expired the following year, the couple moved back to Missouri, where  Henderson made much of his fortune from local Missouri bonds, which he bought cheaply and then redeemed at full value, benefiting from a favorable court ruling.

Meanwhile, Mary built up her social credentials, founding the St. Louis School of Design and becoming known as an excellent hostess. She was the author of "Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving" in 1877 and "Diet for the Sick, A Treatise on the Values of Foods" in 1885.


Boundary Castle. Image from DC Public Library Commons on Flickr.

The Hendersons decided to move back to Washington in 1887. They purchased several lots along 16th Street NW on a steep hill just north of Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue). Just beyond the original limits of Washington City, the area was still semi-rural in those days.

The Hendersons constructed a massive mansion of Seneca sandstone on top of their hill. The house, designed by Massachusetts architect Eugene C. Gardner (1836-1915), was in the fashionable Romanesque Revival style and was supposedly modeled after a castle Mrs. Henderson had seen in the Rhine country. Boundary Castle, as they called it, was a sprawling brownstone pile very much in the wistful, Romantic aesthetics of the late Victorian age.

Completed in 1888, the castle's sprawl was extended to the west with a huge service wing, designed by Washington architect T. Franklin Schneider, in 1892. The new wing featured crenelated battlements that made it look very castle-like. The main house didn't originally have such battlements, but in 1902 they were added, completing the structure's medieval-fantasy appearance.

The Hendersons' first formal dinner, held in February 1890, drew a rave review from The Washington Post, which marveled at Mrs. Henderson's elegant attireher Felix gown of old rose velvet trimmed in goldas well as the lavish furnishings of her castle: the "mellow" Moorish entrance hall, plush-lined picture gallery used as a ballroom, and grand oak-paneled dining room hung with oak-leaf embroidered tapestries. An invitation to dine with the Hendersons immediately became a highly sought-after status symbol.


The dining room. Image from The Washington Times, March 13, 1904.

Ensconced in her intimidating palace, Mary Henderson proceeded to exert her influence on the character of her immediate neighborhood as well as on Washington society at large. There had been talk by 1898 of the need to expand the White House to meet the needs of the contemporary presidency.

Late that year, Mary began promoting on Capitol Hill an alternate plan for a grand new Executive Mansion to be built on the crest of Meridian Hill (directly across the street from her house). Collaborating with architect Paul J. Pelz (1841-1918), one of the designers of the Library of Congress, Henderson envisioned a massive temple-like complex with sprawling terraces and columned arcades that The New York Times called a "pretentious structure."

The proposal was politely tabled. Two years later, Henderson made another attempt, this time based on a proposal by Franklin W. Smith (1826-1911). Smith's Executive Mansion was similar to Pelz's but instead straddled 16th Street, which passed through it under an enormous arch. It too was set aside.


Postcard view of Boundary Castle, circa 1908.


The same view today. Photo by the author.

Undaunted by these defeats, Henderson began re-making the rough-and-ready Meridian Hill neighborhood into a grand European-style enclave of exotic chateaux. The Hendersons bought up properties all along 16th Street and began erecting lavish palaces to be rented or sold to high government officials and diplomats.

The first were along the west side of 16th in the blocks north of Boundary Castle, including the Venetian-style "Pink Palace" (1906) at the corner of 16th and Euclid, which was rented to Oscar Strauss, Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of Commerce and Labor. There was a new Embassy of France (1907), just south of the intersection with Kalorama Road, done in a supremely Parisian-looking Beaux-Arts style.

Several additional large residences were constructed over the next few years in the same block as the Pink Palace. These imposing palaces would be occupied by the Danish, Swedish and Polish embassies. In Henderson's eclectic vein, each of these would be designed in a different architectural style and lined up neatly in a row, like postage stamps in an album.

These houses, as well as more to come in the future along 15th Street, were all designed by Mary Henderson's favorite architect, George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866-1939), who had handled the renovations to Boundary Castle in 1902. Totten was a prolific Washington architect who also designed a number of lavish diplomatic residences in other parts of the city. In 1915, he built his own Arts-and-Crafts-style house on the east side of 16th Street in the block above Euclid Street.

Neighborhood real estate development was not Mrs. Henderson's only interest. She also became an impassioned evangelist of healthy living. Writing in her 1904 book, "The Aristocracy of Health," she rhapsodized almost maniacally about her vision of the human body reaching an ideal state "when blood-corpuscles are no longer disintegrated, spiculated, and pale, but round, red, and rich laden; ... when the body-machine is no longer oppressed with the clinkers of surplus material; when reserve forces are no longer wasted or dissipated by avoidable devitalizing expenditures..."

This bizarre vision stood in contrast to what she saw as the deplorable contemporary state of humankind: "The violation of hygienic laws has been so general and long-prevailing that human degeneracy has come to be accepted as the appointed lot of humanity. Human life is but an apology, a makeshift, a compromise..."

By the time her screed on healthy living was published, Mrs. Henderson was famous for her elegant dinners featuring strictly vegetarian cuisine and no alcohol. A 1905 fete included a fruit soup, mock salmon in hollandaise sauce, broiled slices of pine-nut Protose (Protose was a meat substitute made of peanut butter, wheat gluten, and corn starch, among other things), unfermented Catawba wine, iced fruit, and Kellogg Gelatine for dessert.

As reported in the Post, the printed menu cards for this dinner included "figures corresponding to each item on the bill of fare, showing the number, kind, and proportion of the food units, or 'calories,' contained in each dish." Like all meals prepared by Mrs. Henderson's accomplished English chef, it was said that the uninitiated couldn't tell that they weren't eating meat or fish.


Boundary Castle seen from the north, circa 1921. Image from the Library of Congress.

In May 1906, Mary famously decided to dispose of the plentiful and expensive stocks of fine wine that Mr. Henderson had accumulated over the years in the cellar of Boundary Castle. Her butler was a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a Christian temperance society, and he had asked for the use of the castle grounds for an assembly of his group.

With Mrs. Henderson's acquiescence, members of the butler's "tent" brought armfuls of wine bottles up from the castle's cellars and smashed them on a large rock in the front lawn. There was so much wine that it ran down into the gutters of 16th Street. The newspapers loved the story. With racial insensitivity typical of the day, The New York Times reported:

Along the gutter down the hill Negroes gathered, and with tomato cans and other utensils scooped up what they could of the liquor and drank it. As they enjoyed themselves they sang old-time plantation melodies, while the Rechabites within the courtyard sang stirring temperance hymns.
Soon, however, there would be many fewer African-Americans in the neighborhood to benefit from Mary Henderson's accidental largesse. After many years of persistent lobbying, Mary succeeded in 1910 in getting Congress to authorize the purchase of land for construction of Meridian Hill Park across 16th Street from Boundary Castle where she had previously hoped a new Executive Mansion would be built. She argued that the stunning views from this site as well as the opportunity for elegant terracing and cascades made the spot ideal for a formal park.

As Congress and city officials were won over, no one seemed to care that the site was already densely occupied by African-Americans living in mostly single-story frame houses. Since the Civil War, African Americans had settled in this area, which had been just outside the city limits. The future park site had been subdivided in 1867, and many of its residents owned their own homes. They were all forced to leave.

Later, Mary Henderson would boast to a reporter that "we bought out the owners of the shacks on our hill and pulled them down." Once the land was cleared, it took many years to construct the park, one of the most beautiful in the city. No trace remains of its previous inhabitants.

Mary Henderson fought many battles. She wanted the Lincoln Memorial built on Meridian Hill rather than the Mall. She had a house built on 15th Street that she offered to the government as a residence for the Vice President (predictably, it was thought too extravagant). She thought 16th Street should be lined with busts of the Presidents and renamed the Avenue of The Presidents (it was indeed renamed in 1913, but only for a year before it was changed back).

More successfully, she pushed for the city's first zoning regulations, adopted in 1920, to help control the erection in her neighborhood of large apartment houses, such as the ones that the brash Englishman, Harry Wardman (1872-1938), was building everywhere. There seemed to be no end to her energy and aspirations.

After she died in 1931, the neighborhood began to change again. Mary Henderson's vision of Meridian Hill as an exclusive residential enclave began to fade. Wealthy people headed further to the west, and the spaces in and around the elegant 16th Street houses began to fill with apartment buildings.

Boundary Castlenow known to most people as Henderson's Castlewas rented in 1937 by a Texan named Bert L. Williams, who reopened it as the Castle H Tennis and Swimming Club. The old ballroom was fitted out with a stand-up bar. Mary would have been horrified.

As early as 1935, there had been talk of tearing down the old castle, but it hung on until January 1949, when it was finally razed. Wealthy neighbors Eugene and Agnes Meyer had purchased the mansion in order to get rid of the rowdy club. Being a flight of Victorian fancy, the castle had grown distinctly out of favor by the 1940s.

At the time of its destruction, the Post ran an editorial dismissing the castle as a relic of the "brown decades" of the late 1800s, when everyone was gloomy because of the Civil War. (Huh?) "It is well that this brownstone ghost is at last laid low by the hammers of the wreckers," the paper intoned.

Not everyone agreed, however. A Post reader, Horace Monroe Baxter, fired back an angry letter calling the editorial a "nauseating shock." "I would suggest to you," he continued, "in furtherance of your love of modernistic architecture, that you make arrangements to have the lovely Washington Post Building ... torn down and replaced by one of those slab-sided architectural monstrosities of soulless modernity."

This, of course, is exactly what did eventually happen to the Post's beautiful Richardson-Romanesque building on E Street downtown, perhaps as punishment for condoning the destruction of Henderson's Castle.


The site of Boundary Castle, seen from Meridian Hill Park. Photo by the author).

Meanwhile, by the early 1970s, Mary Henderson's elegant Meridian Hill Park had become a staging ground for civil rights rallies and was widely known as Malcolm X Park. It was in for hard times. Across the street, a developer bought the empty Henderson tract and in 1976 built an enclave of pricey townhouses called Beekman Place. He left in place the sturdy brownstone retaining wall along 16th Street that was built for the castle, and it remains there to this day.

Kim Prothro Williams has done much valuable research on Mrs. Henderson and her influence on Meridian Hill, and she provided very helpful assistance for this article. In addition, other sources included: James Goode, "Capital Losses," 2nd Ed. (2003); Kathryn Allamong Jacob, "Capital Elites" (1995); Sue Kohler and Jeffrey R. Carson, "Sixteenth Street Architecture Vol. 1" (1978); Kim Prothro Williams, "Mrs. Henderson and the Making of 16th Street" (2010), and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

"Lane closed to ease congestion" actually not a crazy fail

Michael sent along this amusing "FAIL" photo... but is it really a fail at all?


Image from FAIL Blog.

At first blush, this looks ridiculous. How can closing a lane ease congestion? But actually, it can.

Let's say you have a road that's one lane in each direction. At one spot, it turns into 2 lanes each direction, then back to 1. What will happen?

People will speed up when the road widens, then merge back where it narrows. Merging creates "friction," forcing drivers to slow down a little more than usual and to wait for each other which can be inefficient. The end result is lower throughput overall than if the road simply stayed one lane.

This exact thing happens on the Clara Barton Parkway. There's an area just outside DC with exactly this geometry. The parkway might flow well until that point, yet during periods of moderate traffic there's always congestion right at the merge.

Sometimes an extra lane is worthwhile. Many mountain interstates widen to provide climbing lanes for large trucks, for instance. But the Clara Barton Parkway is not such a situation (and doesn't allow trucks, anyway).

For a short time I had to drive to Potomac in the evening rush periodically, and always wondered why this bizarre situation still existed. If the parkway simply remained one lane each way with the other closed, it would indeed ease congestion.

Maryland narrowed Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda around where it crosses the Beltway. The road, usually 2 lanes each way, widened to 4 and then narrowed again. Now, 2 whole lanes are marked off with stripes. That smooths traffic and also gives bicycles and pedestrians a better shoulder to use when connecting between neighborhoods on either side.


Bradley Boulevard. Image from Google Maps.

As for the FAIL Blog photo, that was on a highway in Cornwall, England in 2006. Huge numbers of drivers were descending on the region for a music festival, and officials recognized that a 2-mile passing lane would actually worsen traffic with the heavy load.

It may sound barmy but in fact it makes a lot of sense because, if it was left open, traffic from the two lanes would have to merge into one at the top. This causes a lot of aggro and a lot of stopping and starting which has been shown to delay traffic even more.
How about cutting down on the "aggro" on the Clara Barton as well?

Stop distorting the cost of living with anti-urban subsidies

From rural air service to military base sitings to post office closings, many federal policies pick winners and losers among places for people to live. Exurban communities require much more expensive infrastructure, yet policymakers cling to a system that rewards building or living on cheap land but has the government subsidizing all the other associated costs.


Photo by Global Jet on Flickr.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been shut down since Saturday. Planes are still flying but employees in DC are furloughed and capital improvement projects at airports are frozen.

The shutdown stems from an impasse between the House and Senate over reauthorizing the FAA. Sticking points include union organizing rights at airlines, long-distance flights at National Airport, and a rural air subsidy called the Essential Air Service (EAS), which Republicans want to substantially scale back.

The Wall Street Journal recounts one example of a crazy EAS subsidy: service from Hagerstown, Maryland to Baltimore. The $59 flight, which costs $191 in subsidy per passenger, lets people fly for 40 minutes instead of driving for 80 minutes.

The Journal quotes one visitor who liked the service because it let him avoid taking a bus, "and I'm not into buses," he said. That's not a great reason to subsidize a flight. And the airport director says he doubts losing the flight would really affect Hagerstown all that much.

Nevertheless, Senator Barbara Mikulski is fighting to keep the flight, saying it would hurt the economy and cost jobs. That may be true, but keeping it also creates a drain on the economy and costs jobs elsewhere. Republican Senators have fought for similar exemptions in the past, too.

But there's a larger problem. Democrats and Republicans alike generally operate on a belief that people should be able to live where they want yet face no consequences for their choices, with the exception of housing prices.

We subsidize rural air service, build expensive roads and power lines to accommodate more housing in far-flung areas, tax telecommunications to pay for rural broadband, and maintain a flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the nation. When people live in areas with high risk of natural disaster, states step in to provide insurance if private companies are unwilling.

Land is cheaper in areas more distant from jobs because the land is more distant from jobs. That makes housing cheaper (and some government subsidies make it cheaper still). But infrastructure costs much more to provide, creating huge long-term burdens for states which find they can barely afford to keep up all the roads and other kinds of infrastructure they have, let alone build more.

That means government is mostly letting the market dictate the cost of housing, but not letting it dictate the cost of providing various services to that housing. This distorts the incentives.

When government officials look for cuts, like many families, they often focus most on the immediate real estate costs instead of the infrastructure impacts. The Department of Defense did that with BRAC, moving jobs to cheaper locations in Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir while imposing enormous infrastructure burdens on Maryland and Virginia. Congress and the administration might push for something similar for civilian workers, choosing locations where there's cheaper land instead of maximizing public infrastructure.

The Post Office is looking to close 3,700 post offices around the nation. Some are small rural ones that see very little usage, and could be replaced by a single clerk working out of the town's library or a store. That makes a lot of sense. But some are charging that the list targets more urban offices than suburban ones. They're closing one in downtown Silver Spring and leaving one a bit farther away, for instance. Yet urban residents are more likely to be walking or taking transit to post offices, and at least in my experience, lines are already longer in urban locations than their suburban counterparts.

The Post Office hasn't released details of their calculations, other than saying that they're evaluating each location based on its revenue, the number of hours workers spend there, and its distance from other post offices. If it's picking urban post offices to close just because they're geographically close to others, that's just downright foolish since urban areas have more people. If they're picking urban ones because land costs are higher, that ignores the infrastructure impacts of their choice by forcing more driving, saving money for the Post Office but dumping added costs onto localities.

With pressure from Congressional Republicans to find budget cuts, Democrats could point to the many programs that bias settlement patterns in ways that cost more in the long run and hurt our metropolitan areas. Instead, many instead are just digging in to preserve those programs. That's because voters in those areas don't want the government money to stop flowing to exurbs and rural areas.

That will only stop when voters in the more populous cities and inner suburbs insist on an end to the silly public policy that the price of land should be set by the market, but the price of most other services somehow has to be equal for everyone, no matter where they live and what the cost.

Breakfast links: Kicked out


Photo by vladeb on Flickr.
NPS punts soccer team from the Ellipse: FC Barcelona is in town for this weekend's match against Manchester United. The team wanted to kick around on the Ellipse in front of the White House, but the Park Service would not allow it. (Post)

Bikes make it across the bridge: Tommy Wells organized a group of cyclists to try to cross the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge, which lacks any sidewalk or other separate facility. It's harrowing and several cars honk, but they make it. (WAMU)

Metro morsels: New cameras on buses have caught drivers using cell phones and other infractions; the union isn't pleased. (Examiner) ... Some lucky riders got to try new seat coverings for future railcars. (Post) ... Stats show escalators less reliable than in the past, but actually, it's just that they're being inspected more often. (TBD)

Arlington faces heat for protecting its residents: The highways-at-any-cost Northern VA Transportation Alliance blames Arlington for scuttling the HOT lanes on I-95 & I-395. Arlington feared the widening would wreck residents' quality of life. (TBD)

Black folks can gentrify, too?: Black professionals moving to houses in Anacostia are learning that the term "gentrifier" may be more about class than race. (Post)

Developers sad that sprawl may be harder: Prince George's will stop letting developers pay into a fund when building in Brandywine, in the rural south of the county. Developers say this will hurt growth there, but is that really a bad thing? (Gazette)

Consequences of Congress: The debt ceiling debate already threatens credit ratings of area jurisdictions by potentially reducing local jobs and leases. (Post) ... Will the House fail to renew the gas tax, which expires at the end of September? (Politico, Rob P)

Poplar Point won't get DHS project: A proposed high-security federal development at Poplar Point is not going to happen since there's no money available. That could mean a less forbidding project ultimately helps create a neighborhood here. (City Paper)

And...: Women in the House finally get their own restroom. (Post) ... Some MARC commuters are partying hard on the ride home. (TBD) ... You might recognize a few of Zipcar's low-car diet participants. ... Walk in Arlington? take this survey. ... The Onion deftly mocks our country's poor infrastructure spending.

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Two plans for Tysons Corner diverge on walkability

Several developers have submitted proposals to make parts of Tysons Corner more urban. Among the proposals for the Tysons East (or "Tysons-McLean" station, two stand out on either end of the walkable spectrum: an excellent project by LCOR and a terrible one by Mitre.


Metro construction at Tysons East. Photo by fairfaxcounty on Flickr.

While not the most ambitious in scale, the proposal by developer LCOR for "The Commons of McLean" is certainly the most urban in scope. LCOR envisions an entirely residential development, and residents (plus ground-level retail) are what Tysons needs most.

The scale of LCOR's project is also appropriate. The LCOR site is not immediately adjacent to the new Metro station, though it is still within a walkable distance. With buildings in the 10-20 story range and approximately 2,200 total apartments proposed, LCOR's plan would lead to the creation of a vibrant neighborhood without overwhelming local amenities.


Rendering of LCOR plan. Image from Fairfax County. Click to enlarge (PDF).

Besides the ambitiousness of LCOR's plan, the proposal is also very urban in nature and deserves an A+ for integrating the future street grid of Tysons. Each building interacts with the future grid of streets through ample street-front retail, which will encourage a vibrant streetscape with pedestrian activity.

Additionally, the streets are scaled appropriately for vehicle and pedestrian traffic (contrary to Route 123, among others). LCOR's plan also centralizes parks, instead of spreading out green space with no regards to what's actually usable.

LCOR certainly feels that the tower-in-the-park school of urbanity is dead. Their proposal neatly encompasses traditional city planning elements that have more recently become the hallmarks of smart growth. Street-front retail, centralized parks, and walkable block sizes are all excellent attributes of the plan for McLean's Commons, and serve as an example for how other projects should be planned for Tysons Corner.


Street diagram of LCOR plan. Image from Fairfax County. Click to enlarge (PDF).

A proposal by defense contractor Mitre to expand their campus is decidedly less urban in nature. Instead of utilizing their land for a plan that acts in accordance with the urban vision for Tysons, Mitre ignores every tenet of building a walkable, urban community. Mitre's proposal envisions an additional two office buildings with 1.4 million square feet of space, as well as the construction of another elevated parking garage.


Mitre plan. Image from Fairfax County. Click to enlarge (PDF).

Construction of more office space is clearly in the cards for Tysons, but Mitre's plan has several glaring problems. It ignores any potential future street grid in favor of keeping winding roads typical of suburban office campuses. Those winding roads are accompanied by an additional massive parking structure, and though Mitre's proposal is within walking distance of the new station, they ignore any accommodations that could be made to make their new campus pedestrian-friendly. This would make the use of the Tysons East station by any future employees laughable.

Unlike LCOR's plan, there is no mix of uses, nor do the proposed buildings even front the streets. And Mitre sticks to the failed model of spreading open space randomly throughout their plan, effectively creating dead areas.


Mitre rendering photo of the current campus. Image from Fairfax County. Click to enlarge (PDF).

Contrasting LCOR's plan with Mitre's shows that not all parties involved in the redevelopment of Tysons Corner believe that a more urbanist plan is the best option. If plans like Mitre's continue to be submitted and receive approval, Tysons will not be able to achieve its goal of becoming a walkable city that's not as reliant on auto trips in and out, nor avoid perpetual gridlock for adjacent McLean and Vienna.

New coalition aims to improve regional planning

A new coalition of elected officials, planning professionals, and engaged citizens is hoping to improve coordination of regional planning in the DC area, with the goal of fostering more complete and accessible communities.

Last month, the Region Forward Coalition (RFC) held its inaugural meeting. The coalition is sponsored by the Council of Governments (COG) and is charged with providing policy guidance on regional planning matters, and with advancing the goals set forth in COG's Region Forward plan. The plan was adopted in January, 2010, and is an aggressive vision of regional Smart Growth.

I serve as a coalition member representing Greater Greater Washington, and will report on the group's progress from time to time. GGW was invited as a member because of our ability to reach people who care deeply about regional development. The selection is a testament to the hard work and insight of our community.

The Region Forward report identifies goals in several categories with specific targets relating to accessibility, sustainability, prosperity, and livability. The goals range from minimizing economic disparities and achieving balanced growth throughout the region to maximizing connectivity and walkability.

The report's land use goal sums up the overarching theme very succinctly: "We seek transit-oriented and mixed-use communities emerging in Regional Activity Centers that will capture new employment and household growth."

The purpose of the RFC is to oversee the implementation steps recommended in the Region Forward report, and to advise the COG Board on future regional planning activities. The RFC consists of 80 members representing area jurisdictions, planning committees, and advocacy groups. Prince George's County Council Vice Chair Eric Olson serves as the RFC chair, and Arlington County Board Member Mary Hynes and District of Columbia Planning Director Harriet Tregoning serve as vice chairs.


The author discusses the regional activity center of Woodbridge with Mary Hynes and Robert Brosnan of Arlington County, Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, Greg Goodwin of COG, and other members of the RFC.

Our kickoff meeting offered excellent opportunities for RFC members to engage with each other on a variety of topics, including the question of what's included in the concept of "complete communities." What surprised me the most was the fact that there was a great deal of agreement among participants about the essential elements. These included a variety of transit options to integrate activity centers into the region, a mix of land uses to enhance walkability and livability within the community, and the presence of a variety of economic and social opportunities nearby.

I was also impressed by the initial focus on transit-oriented affordable housing. Too often, large scale planning exercises like this pay only lip services to things like public safety, education, and affordable housing. I look forward to a process that ensures these priorities are factored into planning in a meaningful way.


Alicia Lewis of COG moderates a panel on transit-oriented affordable housing programs

The next step will be to organize working subcommittees that will consider the definition and identification of "regional activity centers," taking baseline measurements of those centers, and developing future planning approaches to help them grow according to the goals identified by the Region Forward plan.

As with any diverse coalition, the goals and needs of members will not always align, but everyone involved is committed to the vision in the Region Forward report. I am excited to be serving with so many outstanding public servants and representatives from such diverse communities, but I am even more excited about strengthening the dialogue between these groups and the GGW community.

It was obvious from the kick off meeting that there is great potential for GGW to have an impact on regional planning through the course of the RFC's work. In the future, we envision live chats, guest posts and other forums to ensure that your voices are heard as we continue planning the future of the greater Washington region.

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