Posts from July 2012
Let's say you own a house in Montgomery County and you're having trouble paying the mortgage. Or you have more space than you need and would like some extra income.
If the zoning code is rewritten the way county planning staff proposed last week, you will be able to split your house into two apartments and rent one of them out ... if you are five feet seven inches tall, have red hair, and were born in West Virginia.
Actually, the limits proposed on so-called accessory apartments aren't quite that restrictive. But almost. Under the draft code, the following conditions must be met before a house can be divided into two units:
- The owner must live in the larger of the two apartments. If work takes you out of town for a year and you want to rent out your house, you have to evict your tenants first.
- The area of the smaller apartment must be less than 800 square feet.
- You can't rent to a family of more than three.
- There can't be another two-family house within 300 feet.
- Each apartment must have its own outside entrance. The door to the smaller of the two apartments has to be on the side or back of the house.
- You need at least three off-street parking spaces, covering at least 480 square feet of land. These parking spaces must be built without paving more than half of the front yard, even if the front yard is less than 960 square feet.
- And when you somehow manage to meet all these requirements, if 1000 other people split up their houses before you, you're out of luck.
This is simply absurd. Montgomery has an acute shortage of affordable housing. The greatest need is for large rental apartments. Two-family houses save money for owners and renters alike. It's time to make them legal.
Concerned about through traffic, many neighborhoods in Montgomery County have closed off their once-connected streets. But the costs of a quiet street might outweigh the benefits.
Montgomery County neighborhoods, like many in North America, generally fall into two categories: those with cul-de-sacs, and those without. Before World War II, and for a little while afterwards, neighborhoods in Montgomery were built with streets in a grid, or at least in a connected network. As cars became more popular, these streets often became noisy and congested, so planners came up with an alternative.
With support from the Federal Housing Administration and prevailing design trends that turned their back on traditional urban street patterns, builders nationwide switched to cul-de-sacs. As a result, most Montgomery neighborhoods built since then have them. Just look at a map of the county and you can pick out older, gridded communities like Bethesda from newer ones with loopy, disconnected streets, like Germantown.
Disconnected cul-de-sacs in Germantown force everyone to use collector roads. Photo by Evan Glass.
Gridded streets in King Farm disperse traffic throughout the neighborhood. Photo by Evan Glass.
Of course, cul-de-sacs weren't the traffic panacea 20th-century planners thought they were, and there's since been a growing backlash against them. In some newer neighborhoods like Poplar Run in Glenmont, they're few and far between; in others, like Kentlands in Gaithersburg or King Farm in Rockville, they've been all but banished.
We've returned to appreciating a connected street network, which can diffuse congestion and make walking, biking and even driving safer and easier. They're also cheaper to maintain and easier for emergency vehicles to navigate, which are two of the reasons why Virginia banned cul-de-sacs in 2009.
Yet in many of Montgomery's oldest neighborhoods, which were built with grids to begin with, the cul-de-sac mindset remains. Prodded by residents sick of speeding drivers on their neighborhood streets, the county's Department of Transportation has found ways to keep through traffic at bay using a kind of "fake" cul-de-sac.
Sometimes, they'll restrict turns from arterial streets or ban cars from entering certain streets at rush hour. Occasionally, they'll take more drastic measures and cut off a through-street entirely, like Ellsworth Drive near downtown Silver Spring.
If you live on a street like Ellsworth, you're probably not complaining. You get all of the benefits of living next to one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and entertainment districts, while enjoying quiet, peaceful streets undisturbed by people from outside the neighborhood.
Less amused, however, are your neighbors on adjacent streets, like Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue or Georgia Avenue, that have to pick up the slack. Breaking up the street grid means more local trips end up on what through streets remain, making them more congested.
Studies show that residents living on busy streets are not only exposed to higher pollution levels, but they have fewer friends and a weakened sense of community.
Cutting off through-streets in Silver Spring forces all traffic onto streets like Georgia Avenue, making them a barrier between neighborhoods. Photo by the author.
Sometimes access restrictions displace car traffic to another neighborhood entirely. In 2010, the Sligo Park Hills community in Silver Spring asked the county to restrict rush-hour commuters from using several streets there.
Neighbors in adjacent Takoma Park worried it would just send cars their way. "We will be impacted by moving your traffic over to us, and your neighborhood is no more important, your kids are no important and your convenience is no more important [than our own]," said Takoma Park resident Ellen Zavian.
However, one Sligo Park Hills resident was so tired of drivers using his street that he threatened violence against them. "If you guys drive through my neighborhood in the early morning hours and I perceive you to be a threat, I'm going to start walking around with a rock in my hand," Sean Gibbons told the Gazette.
As a result, the City of Takoma Park implemented their own traffic restrictions later that year. Mayor Bruce Williams said that if they didn't, they would "be essentially saying 'okay take all that traffic and send it through Mississippi Avenue and Ritchie Avenue."
We can't fault people for wanting to live on a safe, quiet street, but the streets in neighborhoods like Sligo Park Hills are owned by Montgomery County, meaning that all Montgomery County residents pay taxes to maintain them, and have a right to use them. Besides, telling drivers they can't use your street does nothing to solve the larger traffic problem.
If we're trying to discourage folks from driving through certain neighborhoods, we might as well finish the job and make it easier for them and the people living in these neighborhoods to get around without a car.
While Montgomery's older communities were built with interconnected streets, they didn't have sidewalks. Many residents want to keep it that way. However, the best way to reduce car traffic, at least for shorter trips, is to make it easier and safer to bike or walk. Many of the neighborhoods that currently have traffic restrictions are already within a short walk or bike ride of major shopping areas, job centers and public transit. If more people are out biking and walking on local streets, it'll be a cue that drivers should slow down.
Sidewalks are a start, though Montgomery County planners have also explored striping a "pedestrian lane" on streets where sidewalks are either impractical or too costly. While we're at it, we could stripe some more bike lanes as well.
Or we could turn streets like Ellsworth Drive into "neighborhood greenways," also known as "bike boulevards," designed to give people on foot or bike priority over drivers. That's sort of what currently exists on Second Avenue between 16th and Spring streets in Silver Spring, which allows bikes and buses during rush hour, but not cars. And if we're going to turn a street into a dead-end, we should at least make it passable for pedestrians and bicyclists, like on Middleton Lane near downtown Bethesda.
A well-connected street network has many potential benefits: better access to local amenities, diffused traffic congestion, and even stronger social ties. The best way to reduce congestion on little streets and big streets alike is to give people choices, whether it's multiple routes for driving, the option of taking transit, or the ability to safely get around by foot or bike.
While residents shouldn't have to worry about speeding drivers or heavy traffic on small neighborhood streets, closing off public streets isn't a real solution.
Historic preservation does a lot of good for DC, but property owners need more clarity about what will and won't get approved. The preservation office's latest work plan sadly continues to omit this component, which should instead be one of its top priorities.
DC's historic preservation office has published its annual work plan. It includes many worthwhile endeavors, such as putting more data about historic sites online, helping affordable housing developers qualify for existing federal tax credits, and doing more to preserve and repair the boundary stones.
However, the plan doesn't do anything to address preservation's biggest problem. Right now, there are very few written standards for what is and is not "historically compatible." As a result, the Historic Preservation Review Board makes decisions arbitrarily, mostly built upon individual members' personal aesthetic decisions rather than any rules or precedent.
Most other boards that make decisions follow a much more legalistic format. They have a set of regulations which they are bound to uphold. When considering each case, they look to the relevant regulations, and try to figure out how to fill in gaps when the regulations don't directly address a situation. If a regulation isn't working well, the agency (or legislature) changes it.
In preservation, the law basically only charges HPRB with deciding whether something is "compatible." The only definition of "compatible" comes from historic district standards which describe the nature of a historic district but don't give much detail about many types of potential changes. As a consequence, preservation decisions are fueled by more emotion and less law than other areas.
Preservation staff don't analyze the rules and precedents as thoroughly as they could, or as much as many other boards do. When claiming there is a rule limiting the heights of buildings on 16th Street, the staff report made no mention of the recent Hay-Adams case which set a different standard. When recommending against solar panels on a Cleveland Park home, staff falsely claimed that the current guideline prohibits all solar panels visible from any street.
This isn't impossible to change. The preservation office simply needs to spend more of its time setting up clearer guidelines. They are already doing this in a few areas, such as a new set of rules for utility meters in public space. More of this will help property owners know with more confidence ahead of time what they can and can't do.
When HPRB rejects a project or insists upon changes, it could also publish a written decision explaining what elements of a proposal were not "compatible," which can help clarify for similar cases in the future. Staff reports can be clearer about which guidelines they refer to and point to those guidelines, when such exist, or note that there is no written guideline when there is none.
Instead of doing this, too much of the work plan seems to focus on simply expanding preservation's jurisdiction and bringing more and more of the city under its control. One of the categories, "defining historic significance," mostly focuses on ways to find more historic significance among buildings and educate people more about historic significance. This can be valuable, but is "evangelizing," not "defining."
It may indeed be worthwhile to bring at least some level of preservation protection to significant buildings and neighborhoods which lack it today. But as long as the process remains mysterious and revolves mostly around the aesthetic whims of a few people which shift like the wind, the public won't, and shouldn't, support increasing its reach. The office needs to make it a top priority to get its own house in order, and soon.
One of the predominant myths about the District is that the federal government fully compensates any costs or lost revenue it incurs as the Federal District. In reality, DC residents bear a heavy fiscal burden—
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, clearly understands this, stating last week that he is open to a measure that would shrink this deficit.
What about House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer? It was disappointing enough that the powerful Maryland Democrat came out immediately against Issa's proposal. Did he have to do it by evoking the myth that won't die?
The District's structural deficit begins with the fact that the largest employer and landowner in the city— Continue reading Ken's op-ed in the Washington Post. And please congratulate Ken for his first op-ed for the Post! We hope to see more of Ken's articles on the editorial pages in the future, as well as those from other frequent contributors.
Continue reading Ken's op-ed in the Washington Post. And please congratulate Ken for his first op-ed for the Post! We hope to see more of Ken's articles on the editorial pages in the future, as well as those from other frequent contributors.
Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.
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!
Readers would comment more if our comments were less combative, had easier CAPTCHAs, and made it easier to reply to individual comments, said those who responded to our recent survey. How would you make the comments less combative, or how else could we improve them?
Most of the survey respondents don't comment very often, or at all:
Do you comment on Greater Greater Washington? How often?
Here's how survey respondents came down on what might make them comment more:
If you don't comment a lot, would anything lead you to want to comment more?
Most of the "other" responses are people saying they wouldn't comment at all regardless, or people who said the only way to get them to comment more is to add another hour to each day, make their job less demanding, and so on. Others said they think anything they want to say has already been said by another.
At first, the survey had 2 versions of the question, one with an added option about adding threaded comments, and one without. I fixed this early on, and so we don't have good data about the threaded comment option. Even once it was gone, a few people suggested it in the Other box.
I'd been hesitant to do threading because it makes it harder to come back later and see what comments people have added, but perhaps other advantages outweigh that. One reader said, when suggesting this in the Other box, that this approach "still allows everyone to comment but readers may visually skip over tangent conversations of no interest to them."
Even without indenting, we could still make it easier to reply by having a reply button on each comment and a UI for selecting some text to reply to, which would automatically put it into the comment in italics or whatever formatting is appropriate.
I will also work on looking into better CAPTCHA solutions. Does anyone know of one? We do get a lot of spam attempts, some of which make it through the filter even with the CAPTCHAs.
Finally, many more people suggested toning the comments down as opposed to letting them be more freewheeling. We have a very strong belief in allowing comments that disagree with the ideas any post or comment presents, but also push hard to delete comments which attack others personally or take a tone which criticizes another for daring to speak up.
It's important to make the comments a space where people can toss out ideas, even ones they haven't spent years thinking about and reading or writing academic papers on; others might say they disagree, but we don't want others saying that it was inappropriate to even voice the opinion.
What parts of the comments still are problematic? One that comes to mind is the occasional tendency for some threads to veer into arguments not about the issue but about what one person previously said and what it means. A lot of these arguments turn into sniping back and forth about the meaning of some comment hours or days previous. That's really not interesting to everyone else.
One idea that came to mind is to ask commenters to avoid using the word "you" or otherwise talking directly to or about others. We wouldn't ban that entirely, since sometimes the word is very appropriate. However, I've often found that if a comment is about the issues, it's fairly easy to phrase it without using second person pronouns; instead of saying, "You wrote [x], but why do you think that, and you are wrong," one can just say, "The argument that [x] is not correct because of these reasons." On the other hand, a combative comment is very hard to phrase this way.
One possibility might be to set things up so that such second person comments can get posted, but go through moderation first. If you can write a comment without using you, your comment goes up faster.
Or, are there other elements of commenting that inhibit a more valuable conversation?
Here are some of the additional responses readers gave for the Other category:
- I don't know if restricting comments will help. It just seems that the same people always comment and continually duke it out over and over. Makes newcomers not want to comment.
- Threaded comments and/or the ability to mute commenters
- Email me when someone responds to my post; showing thumbs up or thumbs down (maybe you already do this?)
- Implement a ranking system (ala reddit)
- Comments should be on point and on topic. This blog should not turn into for example the Washington Post comments section which is half garbage and half racist comments (im not saying that this blogs comments are like that however). What I propose is that the comment policy be stricter, so while perhaps some jokes would be allowed purely sarcastic comments are not helpful. Also it would be great if the comments could bring together and form some sort of consensus, i.e. allow the users to sort of hash out possible solutions to a problem or generate new ideas which could allow the GGW community to rally behind or serve as a proposal made to eleced or governmental officials.
- Moderators to keep people on topic
- Comment likes and popularity (not quite as formal as Slashdot)
- Add numbers to each individual comment.
- If anything, i don't enjoy the bickering and straw-man arguments from a few commentors.
- The comments are too combative, but restricting comments shouldn't be the way to go. The same 6ish people have the same debates on all the comments. It gets old.
- Weed out the trolls.
- Consider a tiered comment system where you can directly reply to a comment and the response indents. That still allows everyone to comment but readers may visually skip over tangent conversations of no interest to them.
- The tone is what's wrong with the comments.
- I'm often reading a day or two later, no one's reading comments anymore—
some way to keep the conversation "live"?
- Encourage people to follow the "Golden Rule" when it comes to the tone of their comments.
- Probably not - they are very combative but I don't think restriction is necessarily the answer.
- No problems, seems better than most comment systems
- Maybe Facebook comments?
- I don't really know how to stop all the anti-urbanist diatribes but they are rampant and definitely diminish my experience, as much as I hate to admit that they are winning by reducing the usability of this public forum
allow an NYT like system where you can read the most recommended comments as well as editors picks.
What do you think would make the comments more enjoyable and encourage more people to participate?
Shaw residents will soon not be able to enjoy resident parking privileges in Logan Circle, while far more distant residents of neighborhoods like Georgetown and Kalorama will get special entitlements. That's the consequence of the recent redistricting and Evans' successful fight 2 weeks ago against a bill that would have kept parking zones from changing.
Shaw moved from Ward 2 to Ward 6 in the recent redistricting. A line in the redistricting committee report proposed keeping parking zones fixed as ward boundaries change, and the Gray administration sent the Council legislation to do just that. But Evans successfully blocked the bill on July 10, which means that Shaw residents will soon lose Ward 2 parking stickers and gain Ward 6 stickers.
Meanwhile, Logan Circle will soon get a pilot program reserving one side of every street for Ward 2 residents only. This will make it far easier for Ward 2 residents to park in Logan, even if they live at the other end of the ward in Georgetown or Kalorama, but harder for residents of other wards to park there, including the people of newly-6 Shaw.
DC parking zones are fundamentally unfair
Unlike almost all other cities, DC sets zones for its resident permit parking (RPP) program based on political ward boundaries, rather than a some objective and geographic standard. Our zones are also very large, larger than many other cities; instead of only helping residents park in their own neighborhoods, people get special rights to park in other people's neighborhoods so long as they are in the same ward.
Some people really like that. When redistricting moved the Palisades from Ward 2, which spans downtown, to upper Northwest's Ward 3 in 2002, residents objected. They were not upset because they didn't want the Ward 3 councilmember to represent them, but because they liked having a special privilege to drive to places like Foggy Bottom or Logan Circle and park with special resident privileges.
However, this is unfair to residents of the more desirable parking areas. At a recent parking hearing, Anne-Marie Bairstow of Woodley Park argued for smaller zones. She said that many people drive from other neighborhoods to Woodley Park, use their resident privileges to park, and take Metro. This deprives actual Woodley residents of the benefits of the RPP system.
It's also unfair to people who happen to live over a line. Palisades residents suddenly lost a privilege. Adams Morgan residents, who are in Ward 1, or Bloomingdale residents in Ward 5 never had that privilege in the first place.
This isn't the purpose of RPP. DC has a program to favor residents of an area in the competition for on-street parking spaces. It could limit that to only the immediate neighborhood, which would be fair, or perhaps it could instead give the privilege to anyone in the District, but giving it to an arbitrary set of alternative neighborhoods is not.
There's reason to be extra sensitive to this issue because redistricting moved Shaw out of Ward 2 and into Ward 6. Shaw happened to be the lowest-income and most-minority section of the ward, which has now gotten even richer and whiter. That gives this policy action an added economic and racial effect, whether or not that was the intent.
When Kingman Park moved from Ward 6 to 7, it stayed in Zone 6, so there is precedent already for keeping neighborhoods in zones other than their ward.
Upcoming Logan restriction will further discriminate against Shaw
Evans' office also recently proposed setting aside one side of every street in Logan Circle for Zone 2 parking only. Normally, most residential streets allow people with the right zone sticker to park all day, and people without it can still park during the day for 2 hours and nights and weekends without limit. But a few years ago, parts of Wards 1 and 6 started having one side of each street restricted so that people without the right zone sticker couldn't
ever park there at all park there at all during RPP enforcement hours.
Evans decided to suggest this for Logan as well. However, his staff and the Logan ANC turned down a suggestion to limit the special privilege to people actually in Logan. If they had done that, this would have put equal limits on the people of Shaw and people of Georgetown (and Dupont, where I live). If this bill had passed, then Shaw would have still gotten the privilege, though people of Bloomingdale, the Palisades, or Columbia Heights would not.
Instead, we have an even less fair outcome than either of those.
Shaw doesn't only lose out; they do gain the ability to park with resident privileges in Ward 6, including H Street, Barracks Row, and around the ballpark. That includes a lot of streets that only allow Ward 6 parkers on one side. However, while there hasn't been any kind of ward-wide poll, at least some Shaw leaders had specifically asked to stay in Zone 2, suggesting that residents preferred 2. Most of 2 is closer to Shaw than most of 6.
The best solution is to let DDOT, or some sort of independent commission, set parking zone boundaries based on neighborhoods and geographically-similar regions instead of political wards, as most other cities do. Or the zones could correspond to ANCs, with a provision that people right near an edge can still park in an adjacent zone.
But taking privileges from Shaw without taking them from other neighborhoods to the west isn't the right answer and isn't fair.
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