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Posts from August 2008

Public Spaces

Library victory in Shaw, Brooklanders still fighting for trees

In 2004, DC closed the the Watha T. Daniel library in Shaw and several other libraries, to replace the aging buildings with new, modern facilities. Though the interior drew some criticism, neighbors widely praised the open, airy glass design as a huge improvement over the prison-like, concrete, Brutalist original library.

Then, neighbors found out that the cost of the glass forced the library to cut back, replacing the glass facade with a concrete one that even replicated the vertical slit architecture of the original:

Left: The old library. Photo by Rob Goodspeed on Flickr. Center: Plan as of January 2008
with glass facade. Right: Plan as of June 2008 with concrete facade.

There's good news, though: Councilmember Jack Evans got involved and has convinced DCPL to return to a transparent design. (I'm sure the upcoming primary and strong challenge by Cary Silverman had something to do with it, especially given Silverman's strong advocacy on the library.) ANC 2C Commissioner Alex Padro met with Evans, DCPL director Ginnie Cooper, and the architect, Peter Cook. Cooper and Cook have reworked the plan to use a less expensive frosted glass in place of the originally-planned channel glass, enabling them to return to an all-glass design.

Meanwhile, activists in Brookland continue to push for underground power lines on 12th Street. The Washington Post had a good article on the issue, and neighbors have a Web site of their own.

According to the Post article, DDOT continues to argue that it's not their job to bury power lines, and Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. argues that it is. Thomas better be working hard to break this logjam, possibly enlisting Jim Graham with his DDOT oversight power, or else it'll soon be too late to do anything, if it isn't already.


Positive resident activism: Shell no!

Shell wants to build a new gas station at the corner of 12th 14th St and Maryland Avenue, NE, one block from the H Street corridor and the future streetcar. Residents are organizing to promote using that site for a business that better contributes to the walkable retail district they want for the area—a restaurant, daycare, flower shop, or almost anything else.

Shell station on Connecticut Avenue. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The "Great Streets" program is specifically trying to transform H Street into a lively, walkable retail and entertainment area. A gas station pushes the neighborhood the opposite way, creating a more suburban strip-mall feel. Besides, there are already three gas stations in the area.

Unfortunately, gas stations are a permitted use in that zone (hence the three already there), but this project requires a public space permit as well. In many if not most blocks in DC, the private property line is not at the sidewalk, but farther back. For example, my property line runs directly through the middle of my front stairs, making half my front yard private and half public. In many blocks, the bay window protrusions of the houses actually extend into the public space. (Here's more about public space from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society).

Shell plans to build the station on their property, but would use the substantial public space between their property and the street as paved area for cars to park and access the station. The public space is nearly as large as the property itself. By using it, they give DDOT the opportunity to oppose this auto-oriented use, just as they are with the Van Ness Walgreens.

The ANC asked the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to support an alternate use here, but they declined, citing "the interest of encouraging new investments across the District from various business types." ANC Commissioner Bill Schultheiss replied:

What I don't understand is how your office sees a gas station at this corner lot fitting into the "Great Streets" initiative. I am troubled by the idea that any development is better than no development implied by Mr. Albert's response. That is a false choice. There are other interested buyers of this property which would be more than happy to build a project that meets the goals of the Great Streets program.
Opponents of the gas station have a very snazzy site, "Shell No!" The project will come before DDOT for public space review on September 24th and before the BZA on October 14th.

Open thread

Open thread

I'm really busy today and may not be able to post. Should we try an open thread? Comment about whatever is on your mind (ideally with some relation to the forces that shape our region).


Silly car company antics of the day

Prince of Petworth noticed this "green" truck:

Using ethanol to power a big Chevy pickup is far from green in many ways: a big car uses a lot of energy, and ethanol isn't any better for the environment anyway.

Meanwhile, Streetsblog discoverd a "Bizarre News" article on a Flint, Michigan news station's Web site. What's bizarre? Bike sharing in DC. In Michigan, that really is bizarre. The more ironic part? The story carries a Chrysler ad.


Parking minimums irrelevant to Georgetown waterfront

At the Zoning Commission hearing on parking minimums a month ago, opponents of parking reform argued that removing minimums would cause widespread chaos. Barbara Zartman, of the Committee of 100, used her neighborhood of Georgetown as an example of a neighborhood built without minimums. She was trying to argue that Georgetown's traffic and parking difficulties were a consequence of low minimums, but as I've written, we can also thank the lack of minimums for Georgetown's human-scale streets and walkable, vibrant commercial corridors.

The Incinerator Building, now the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Photo by Monika & Tim on Flickr.

Parking doesn't exist in a vacuum. If you require parking when it's not necessary, you don't simply get the same great neighborhood with better curb space availability, you get a more car-oriented neighborhood with streets looking like this.

Zartman defended her points with this comment:

The same could be said of the construction of large residential or mixed-use buildings constructed in Georgetown in the last several decades between the C & O Canal and the river: The Paper Mill, The Flour Mill, the PEPCO building at 3303 Water, the Incinerator Building, and granddaddy of them all, Washington Harbour. All provided parking for their respective uses. Had they not done so, these residents would be competing with the employees and patrons of the restaurants and bars and shops of the Georgetown commercial zones. ... Building new large-scale projects with inadequate (or, heaven help us, no) parking will do just this.
Zartman may be right that building all of these developments with no parking at all might have made parking difficult. But there was no danger of that. In fact, the parking minimum requirements had no effect on these projects. A least for the ones where I could find hard numbers, all exceeded the minimum requirements, sometimes by huge amounts.

Last night, I finally was able to get numbers for three of these buildings (the other two, the Flour Mill and Paper Mill, are older, dating from the 1980s, and information is less readily available):

3303 Water Street: 72 residential units. Current zoning calls for 24 spaces (1 per 3 apartments); the building has 140 spaces, or almost six times the requirement.

Incinerator Building: Now the Ritz-Carlton, the Residences on South Street, and the movie theater. Current zoning requires 1 space per 3 residential units, 1 per 2 hotel rooms, one for each 150 square feet of the largest function room, and 1 per 10 theater seats. There are 28 condos, 86 hotel rooms, and 2,900 theater seats. I don't have the precise figures for the Ritz's largest function room, but their Web site claims 952 square feet of meeting space. If we assume that's all in a single room, then the building would need 349 spaces under the current rules. It has 575.

Washington Harbour: This has 35 condos and 117,409 square feet of commercial space. Zoning requires 1 space per 3 units and one for each 1,800 commercial square feet beyond the first 2,000, for a total of 76 required spaces. They built 100.

In short, our parking minimums had no impact on these projects. Clearly, they built parking based on their own estimates of demand, not based on the rules. If we had taken away the minimum years ago, they still would have built the same amount of parking. Meanwhile, there are projects where these minimums do force parking—and in those cases, like DC USA, it usually turns out to be excessive.

Georgetown's waterfront projects were probably right to build parking. But we didn't need zoning laws to make them do so. Maybe one day we will have a Metro station in Georgetown, and suddenly fewer people will drive to Washington Harbour or the movie theater. If one of those projects is subsequently renovated, or a new project built nearby, and the existing garages are no longer being fully utilized, shouldn't they be able to build the amount of parking the market calls for instead of an arbitrarily imposed minimum?

Opponents of parking reform are confusing removing parking minimums with removing parking altogether. If we passed a law stating that no more off-street parking shall ever be built in DC, I would agree that would cause pain. But that's not what DC proposes. Some opponents claimed we are scheming to rid the city of parking.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I own a parking space. Parking isn't inherently evil (unless it causes a curb cut). But laws that force developers to build parking when it's not appropriate are dangerous and wrong, and they—not freedom-creating reforms—are the true "social engineering."


A field guide to NIMBYism

I sometimes refer to those opposing any change as NIMBYs, though that's not precisely accurate. The term NIMBY originally referred to those who wanted projects like highways, airports, or waste disposal facilities (LULUs) but wanted them to just be built elsewhere. That still describes many opponents of local projects, like the "save the environment somewhere else" contingent, but as this article in Planetizen explains, the vocabulary has grown to add such terms as BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) or CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Anything Everything).

Beall's Grant, a bland affordable garden apartment complex in Rockville. Photo from the property management.

Labels aside, as the article argues, citizen participation plays an important role in development. Developers and government planners often propose bad ideas, and it's good that citizens have a voice and the power to change them. Jane Jacobs became an activist to oppose a local highway project. This National Academy of Sciences report finds that public participation improves plans more than it damages them. The solution is not to diminish citizen involvement, but to better organize the many residents who share a vision for a better city, not just a static one, and to help the good projects while hindering the bad ones.

Empowering people is always a double-edged sword. Just look at the way anti-bike activist Rob Anderson used environmental law to block new bicycle facilities in San Francisco. But just as democracy is the worst form of government except all the others, the political process is the worst way to resolve an issue except for any other method.

Still, NIMBYism is frustrating. The Examiner reports on a campaign by some Rockville residents to block affordable housing in their neighborhood. All the same arguments show up: it's "out of character" (four-story buildings next to one-story ones), it'll create traffic, and the ultimate proxy of subtle racism: it'll cause crime.

Affordable housing doesn't mean drug dealers, despite the reputation of old-style Section 8 government projects. Most people living in affordable housing are working to make a decent living; we can't all be so fortunate to work as attorneys at top law firms. Much affordable housing today is so-called "workforce housing" for police officers, teachers, and others doing important jobs that ought to be better rewarded. It's in every community's best interest to have the backbones of their society live in town.

NIMBYism puts governments like Montgomery County in a bind: either they build affordable housing near affluent areas and fight the well-organized political opposition, or they locate it all in the eastern part of the county and open up criticism that the area is "a dumping ground for affordable housing."

Choosing between bland garden apartments in the richer parts of the county or bland garden apartments in the poorer parts isn't much of a choice. Imagine, DC wonders if we can't do better. Auto-dependent garden apartments isolate their residents from the rest of the community, wherever they are. How about some walkable affordable housing near existing town centers and transit, like Wheaton near the mall, by Montgomery College, or (in anticipation of the Silver Line) Tysons?

Of course, organized residents would surely shout all the louder about the loss of character, traffic, crime, school impacts, and all the rest of the standard arguments. At least if we can build near transit, there's hope that development won't mean paralyzing traffic.


MPD not interested in investigating cyclist intimidation

WashCycle relays an incident where a locksmith van driver ran two cyclists off the road in Georgetown. It seems the driver was unhappy that the two, Nat Wilson and another unrelated cyclist, were taking the lane (which is completely legal).

Photo by Jari Schroderus on Flickr.

Wilson got photos of the van, driver and license plate, and reported the incident to the police. They took a report, but didn't give an incident number, and all they would do is radio around. If an officer spotted the van, they'd pull it over and "check ID."

What does checking ID accomplish? If the driver has outstanding parking tickets, then they can stop him, but otherwise there's nothing they can do?

When we let drivers intimidate cyclists (or anyone else) with impunity, the bad drivers keep doing it and cyclists get the message that their safety isn't a priority. If it's important for MPD to spend resources ticketing wrong-way cyclists on New Hampshire or jaywalkers in Columbia Heights, why not put some effort behind catching this guy—as WashCycle points out, the phone number is on the van!

We need a video like this one to get the word out that cyclist intimidation is a serious matter (the relevant part starts at 3:09).


Technological change, part 4: Smart Para-Transit

Mark Gorton, founder of NYC's Open Planning Project which publishes Streetsblog, has posted a plan to make our road network vastly more efficient. Instead of commuting with individual single-passenger vehicles, one per person or family, the Smart Para-Transit system would use a fleet of electronically dispatched vehicles that drive groups of people going from similar origins to similar destinations.

It works like this: a customer enters his or her origin and destination into a mobile phone app. A dispatching system sends a vehicle to pick up that passenger and others going the same way. For longer-distance trips to destinations that can't be easily clustered, people could still use Zipcars as they do today.

As with the networks of electric charging stations or the iHitch to find someone to give you a ride, this system exhibits strong network effects, meaning the more people use it, the more valuable it becomes. At the low end, it would be about as annoying as SuperShuttle, with long and unpredictable waits for a ride. If everyone used it, it'd be great. But how to get there?

Gorton has a few ideas. If Smart Para-Transit vehicles could use special HOV lanes through major chokepoints (such as, in NYC, bridges and tunnels into Manhattan), it could help Smart Para-Transit surpass the single-passenger trip in commute time even without network effects.

To succeed, such a system should promise reliable pick-up times and limit the amount a vehicle travels far out of the way to pick up extra passengers, even if that means frequently dispatching a vehicle to transport a single person when there isn't enough demand in a small area at a specific time. The network would need ample start-up capital to provide that service at low cost while it builds ridership.

Smart Para-Transit could employ a "Crossing the Chasm" strategy (in the case of New Jersey to Manhattan commuting, literally) to reach critical mass quicker by focusing on everyday commuters (who can sign up and use the network almost every day) in key markets with poor transit alternatives. By saturating the Manhattan-to-City X market along a route that offers HOV lanes, they might be able to build a real business and meaningfully reduce congestion and pollution.

Still, many of the benefits end up as externalities which benefit non-users; those who don't use the system will benefit from lower traffic and more available parking, making it more appealing to drive as adoption rises. That's why congestion pricing or even HOT lanes are so important, to help those who reduce VMT benefit the most instead of rewarding the freeloaders.


Breakfast links: Safety and civic betterment edition

Safety up as gas prices up: Traffic deaths were already down 4.2% year over year around the beginning of the year, and dropped about 20% more for March and April, reports the Post, though the drop hasn't yet reached Maryland's stats.

The almost always barren Freedom Plaza. Photo by FredoAlvarez on Flickr.

Improving barren public squares: Downtown BID, one of DC's most progressive on transportation, organized a workshop on improving downtown's public spaces, like Freedom Plaza and 10th and F. Tommy Wells' staffer Leila Mogharab Nia summarized the discussion on Wells' blog. Via Richard Layman.

Sidewalk cycling isn't always so bad: WashCycle responds to recent discussion (like this) criticizing riding on the sidewalk. Obviously you have to be more careful and ride slower, but there are times and places where it's safer and better for everyone to ride on the sidewalk.

Go Connolly: The Post profiles the VA-11 Congressional race between Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly, the Democrat, and Home Inspect founder Keith Fimian, the Republican. Connolly is favored due to his name recognition and NoVa's growing Democratic lean, but the race may be close.

The article reiterates some of Connolly's Smart Growth credentials that led me to recommend him in the primary:

"He has emphasized school quality and such progressive initiatives as expanded public transit, storm water protection and "green" building standards. He also has earned broad support among business leaders, in part by advocating for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport and pushing for a dramatic redevelopment of Tysons Corner."
Connolly also co-chaired the COG Climate Change report steering committee.


COG climate change report briefing tomorrow

Climate experts from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) are briefing the DC Council tomorrow about COG's Climate Change Report. Produced by a steering committee co-chaired by Councilmember Mary Cheh, MoCoCo's Nancy Floreen and Fairfax's Gerry Connolly (likely the next Congressman from NoVa), the report gives 78 recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the Washington region.

Photo by Simone Ramella on Flickr.

After listing the clear and overwhelming evidence for global warming caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, it divides recommendations into those for energy consumption (heating, lighting, commercial operations, residential appliances, etc.) and transportation and land use. Since 30% of emissions come from transportation (the report claims), 30% of the recommendations cover reducing vehicle emissions and VMT.

Transportation-related recommendations include incentives for buying hybrids, shifting short trips from driving to other modes, promoting car sharing, mixed-use and transit-oriented development, transit expansion, bicycle and pedestrian paths, focusing new development around walkable areas, and more good ideas.

Of course, the real issue is implementation. At the same time MoCoCo's Floreen and Roger Berliner, Prince George's Councilmember Camille Exum, and Maryland Department of the Environment officials were devising these recommendations, Maryland was hard at work blowing most of the state's transportation budget on the ICC, which violates nearly every recommendation in the report. Prince George's is putting their development far from transit. Virginia is doing a bit better in the policy department by pushing for Dulles Metrorail and many smaller transit improvements, but is also pouring huge money into widening the Beltway, which will surely not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These projects have been on the board for many years. If regional officials are serious about curbing climate change, they need to step up and start pushing different priorities. Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells plan some environmental legislation this fall, and I look forward to that. We should expect Floreen, Berliner, Exum, Connolly, Fairfax's John Foust, Loudoun's Andrea McGimsey, Alexandria's Del Pepper, Falls Church's David Snyder, and all the other members of the Climate Change Steering Committee to put their votes where their mouths are and change the course of transportation spending and land use decisions in DC and, especially, the suburbs.

You can hear more about the report tomorrow (Tuesday), from 10 am to noon at the Wilson Building (1350 Penn. NW), Room 412.

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