Posts from August 2011
Rail~Volution, the leading national conference for anyone passionate about transit, is coming to DC October 16-19. In addition to more than 75 workshops, networking events, charrettes and more, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting a short film festival on Monday, October 17.
We want you to show off your best film work! Submit a film, and you could be featured at this festival. Over 300 people are expected to attend, including the nation's top smart growth, new urbanist, and transportation experts.
If you want some great examples of what we're looking for, check out Streetfilms.org. Streetfilms makes great short films that visually show the benefits of smart transportation, land use, and development policy. One key component of their work is turning complicated concepts into easily-understood stories.
Want to apply? Here are the submission guidelines:
The Rail~volution film fest selection committee seeks entries that pertain to the broad topics of transit options and livability. They may focus locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. They may be independently or professionally produced. Past submissions have often focused on a specific place or technology, but this is not a requirement.
Other potential sub-topics include: social equity, community engagement, public policies, planning for transit, creating infill transit options, urban design, transportation systems design, placemaking and community building. All films must be recorded in English or have English subtitles.
Submissions must not exceed 5 minutes in length. The deadline for entries is Wednesday, September 21 at 7:00 pm EST.
Two complimentary tickets to the film festival will be offered for each selected film entry or production team. (Production teams may submit more than one film entry.) Furthermore, the film and any associated credits will likely have an audience of over 300 preeminent urban advocates.
Shaw's Tavern closed last week because the restaurant has not yet been granted a liquor license. Several commentators blamed DC's liquor license regulatory system. But Shaw's could be serving alcohol already if the management had done a little legwork.
The tavern got into trouble with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) for allegedly serving alcohol without a license during a charity event, and even altering documents to mislead alcohol suppliers into believing Shaw's had the necessary permission.
Facing this, ABRA refused to provide a license until the ABC Board, which sets policies and rules on contested cases, can weigh in. It held a hearing on August 10th, and has up to 90 days to rule. Not making enough money from food alone, Shaw's closed its doors and laid off its staff.
Megan McArdle and Matthew Yglesias blame the government. Yglesias says that there's plenty of demand for bars and lots of vacant storefronts, but ABRA policies are "a sign to would-be entrepreneurs everywhere that their potential investments are much riskier than a superficial read of market conditions would suggest." McArdle says,
Punishing a restaurant owner for a liquor license violation with an open-ended maybe-we'll-give-you-a-license-maybe-we-won't delay is equivalent to giving someone the death penalty for a parking violation. Moreover, it punishes the neighbors and the employees right along with the owner.Their arguments, though, ignore management's responsibility for the pickle they're in, and instead push the idea that the city should turn a blind eye to the situation rather than acknowledge any infractions. McArdle, Yglesias, a number of City Paper commenters, and others seem to believe we should simply let bygones be bygones and give Shaw's its license.
We'd like to see Shaw's obtain a liquor license. The building it occupies was vacant for years, and was an eyesore on Florida Avenue. Today, it's a handsome façade on the edge of the Shaw and LeDroit Park neighborhoods. And there's no doubt the restaurant struggled to stay open without a license. But the fact remains that the ownership is solely at fault for the delayed licensing.
To gain insight to the liquor licensing process, we spoke with Matt Ashburn, who owns Capital City Diner in the Trinidad neighborhood. Ashburn has had extensive experience dealing with city agencies to get his restaurant up and running. He's not afraid to speak his mind regarding problems that come from dealing with the city, but has nothing bad to say about ABRA.
Ashburn says they are the most professional, straightforward city agency he has dealt with, and challenged us to find one more customer-friendly. He described the agency as one that's "run like a business," and that the process to obtain a "stipulated" liquor license, which is the temporary license that an establishment can get if there is no community protest, is quite fast and simple.
ABRA employees are available to walk you through the process if you need help, and the 20-page application form (PDF) is only that long because of the helpful, step-by-step instructions embedded in it to make the process as simple as possible. Capital City Diner received its stipulated license by going before the local ANC (5B), requesting a letter of support, and then filing the application. The restaurant was able to legally serve beer after a 3-day turnaround.
Is Ashburn's experience typical or is ABRA's process an impediment? When it comes to fights with neighbors, Phil Lepanto has said ABRA is too reactive instead of proactive, and Natalie Avery argued ABRA needs to work to be more collaborative. But in this case, neighborhood opposition was not an issue.
Shaw's Tavern is located within ANC 2C. The minutes of their April meeting report a unanimous vote to provide a similar letter of support for the tavern.
It's not clear what happened between the April meeting, when the ANC gave their blessing for a stipulated license, and the July 16th "soft launch" that got Shaw's in hot water.
More than 3 months passed with no license, while Capital City Diner got one in just 3 days. What did the management do regarding the license in that 3 months? Why didn't they have a stipulated license as quickly as Capital City Diner did?
Since then, the ABC Board had a hearing on August 10th, with the understanding that a ruling would come down regarding the license within 90 days. In the end, we don't know how the ABC board will rule regarding the restaurant's liquor license.
If we had to hazard a guess, we'd wager that they'll be given a slap on the wrist and a license. All of the hand-wringing we're reading and writing about now could be a small bump on the road when looking back in a few months. But make no mistake, as chef John Cochran told Eater, "All I can tell you is that the alcohol board was making their decision and they had every right to take their time. Shaw's was in the wrong."
After my article yesterday on the DC Department of Parks and Recreation's maintenance problems with parks, both grounds manager Derek Schultz and director Jesús Aguirre reached out to talk further. This stands in stark contrast to the National Park Service, which hasn't engaged with parks advocates despite frequent efforts.
Schultz wrote in an email yesterday,
I believe you make some valid points. I would love additional funding for grounds maintenance, but at the same time I feel that recent systematic improvements in our grounds management program deserve attention. Some recent improvements include: installation of computerized central irrigation system for various field sites (makes automatic adjustments to ensure we irrigate at the proper levels) routine planting bed maintenance at 99 high profile DPR locations, implementation of permit limitations at our premier natural turf fields (ensures the long term-sustainability of these fields).Government agencies seem to take one of two responses to criticism: sullen silence or active engagement.
Before this year, WMATA generally ignored its critics, didn't participate much on social media, and couldn't decide whether their media relations department should or shouldn't answer questions from bloggers. Then, with new management, they flipped entirely and started engaging.
It doesn't mean every problem is getting fixed, but it's a huge start toward a dialogue. Sometimes an agency has reasons for a decision which aren't apparent to others. If we at least know the reason, we might not all agree, but we can gain a better understanding of the constraints that hamper our officials.
DPR, to its credit, seems to be firmly in the engagement camp. DDOT has been generally good on this front as well. Not every DC agency is the same; MPD has largely refused to discuss issues with enforcement of bicycle and pedestrian laws or errors in investigating crashes that involve vulnerable road users.
I invited Peter May, NPS's Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning, to come on for a live chat and explain the Park Service's reasons for decisions that seem nonsensical and contrary to their mission. He was interested at first but ended up declining the offer entirely.
Bill Line, the NPS spokesperson, has never responded to a single email despite my sending one asking for his comment or insight before almost every story about NPS in the last month or more. He hasn't just said he has no comment; he has not sent a single email of any kind in reply.
It's not just me. Numerous parks advocates say that NPS makes no effort to have a dialogue with neighbors about parks. The few meetings that do take place are usually required by Environmental Impact Statement processes, and are then very structured in a way that minimizes discussion or input.
As one of many examples, NPS recently made a "determination" that its parkways are not compatible with bicyclist usage. Most people would agree that the parkways are not friendly to cyclists, but that's a consequence of NPS decisions to design these roads, originally designed for scenic pleasure drives through a park, more and more as high-speed commuter freeways.
WABA's Shane Farthing objects that this determination was made "without the input of the public or the burdened community," and also argues that it's a wrong decision. NPS should be striving for an ongoing dialogue with cyclists about these spaces, regardless of what policies ultimately result.
John Hendel also makes some excellent points about how NPS "doesn't get the new language of transit." Perhaps if they felt a need to converse with affected citizens about their parks instead of ignoring them, they would at least understand concerns and be able to speak to them when making proclamations about parks.
The grass might have caught on fire in Upshur Park, but it's clear DPR at least is in tune with its constituents, even if for whatever reasons, financial or otherwise, they aren't adequately watering the trees and grass.
Here's Schultz's full statement:
My name is Derek Schultz and I coordinate grounds management for DC Parks and Recreation. I am a normal reader of GGW and was pleased to see you taking an interest in the grounds maintenance of DC run parks. In case your readers are interested, I would like to provide a little more background on DC Parks. We maintain roughly 900 acres (including natural growth areas) comprised of 333 individual properties. Included in our inventory are 115 athletic fields (98 natural turf, 15 artificial turf), 70 recreation centers, and 22 outdoor pools.
I believe you make some valid points. I would love additional funding for grounds maintenance, but at the same time I feel that recent systematic improvements in our grounds management program deserve attention. Some recent improvements include: installation of computerized central irrigation system for various field sites (makes automatic adjustments to ensure we irrigate at the proper levels) routine planting bed maintenance at 99 high profile DPR locations, implementation of permit limitations at our premier natural turf fields (ensures the long term-sustainability of these fields). A full list of recent improvements is listed below.
Related to Walter Pierce, yes the site was just completed and the true test will be how it looks in a few years, but we have other examples of premier fields that have stood the test of time. These sites include: Banneker Maury Wills Field (installed in 2009) HQ field (installed 2010), Fort Stanton field (installed 2009). Our new premier field permit regulations assist us in ensuring that our premier fields stay in premier shape.
Yes, we have a way to go, but we are on the right path and have a real focus on improving our park grounds. Our hope is that through DGS we can continue this upward momentum.
I would love to give you a tour of some of our sites and would be happy to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges we face. Please feel free to call or email me at any time. [Editor's note: If I arrange a tour, I will try to arrange it so other GGW readers can attend as well.]
Grounds Management System-wide Improvements
DPR Natural Turf Field Renovations
- Installation of new centrally controlled irrigation system at 13 athletic fields sites
- This new system allows us to make automatic adjustments to our irrigation schedule based on weather conditions (wind, humidity, solar radiation, rainfall).
- Improves monitoring of contractors who maintain system ensuring that they are testing the sites properly (they have unique log-in at controller site).
- Facilitates the fine tuning of watering schedules to allow for the optimum irrigation program for each site (reduces overwatering).
- Routine planting bed maintenance schedule (pruning, weeding, mulching). First time ever where 99 high profile DPR sites are being serviced on a routine basis. (photo of Palisades bed maintenance)
- DPR led development of citywide computer based mowing tracking system (DPR has 333 individual properties).
- Routine EWF installation at all 78 DPR playgrounds.
- Creation and implementation of comprehensive routine maintenance schedule for natural turf and synthetic fields (113 DPR fields).
- Installation of new in-field ball diamond mix at 50 playing fields (the most sites completed at one time) 2011 spring baseball season.
- Implementation of new permit limits for DPR premier natural turf fields with the goal of creating sustainable fields that require less tax payer expenditures for yearly refurbishments.
- High intensity sports limit of 30hrs/week (found to be on the high end of what natural turf fields can handle).
- Natural turf premier field maintenance improvements
- DPR natural turf premier fields have received the highest level of maintenance this summer than in any previous year
- Computer Controlled Musco Sports Lighting Systems (12 sites)
- Allows DPR to remotely adjust the lighting schedule at each site which leads to fine tuned schedules based on permits. This fine tuning leads to lower electricity use.
- Requires fewer staff to go around turning on and off lighting systems manually. This saves the district money.
DPR Field Refurbishments (with partners)
- Walter Pierce Field
- Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
- Replacement of irrigation system (now on central control)
- Headquarters Park
- Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
- Replacement of irrigation system (now on central control)
- Barry Farm
- Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
- Numerous Baseball Infields brought back online and added to routine dragging schedule after being offline for multiple years
- Douglass Rec Center
- Marvin Gaye Rec Center
- Congress Heights
- New York Avenue Playground
- Fort Stevens Field
- Sprigging to restore worn areas
- Routine fertilization and aeration throughout the summer.
- Fort Reno Field
- Sprigging to restore worn areas
- Routine fertilization and aeration throughout the summer.
- Fall overseeding
- Aeration and fertilization
- Fall overseeding
- Aeration and fertilization
Longfellow Triangle is one of many lightly used, leftover spaces on the L'Enfant grid. With some creative thinking, the city could turn it into a more useful and enjoyable public space.
The triangle is bounded by Connecticut Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, 18th Street, and M Street. While it would make sense to have a circle there, one never developed, likely because Rhode Island Avenue ends at the intersections rather than continuing through. The triangle's mirror image on the grid, where Massachusetts Avenue meets Vermont Avenue, is Thomas Circle.
Currently, Longfellow Triangle is too small to be a useful park, and too isolated by traffic to be a good plaza. Putting a circle there now is impossible, but with a little bit of street reconfiguration it would be possible to make it a bigger and better triangle park.
This is a map of the existing conditions at Longfellow Triangle:
Look at how wide the streets are that surround the triangle. Connecticut Avenue is 6 lanes, not counting its generous median. 18th Street is 4 lanes. M Street is 5. All of them have on-street parking, although the parking lanes are used as through lanes at peak periods.
If the city repurposed the parking lanes on each surrounding block and used that width to add to the triangle, the park space could be dramatically enlarged with little reduction in street capacity. On Connecticut Avenue the median could be repurposed as well, or it could substitute for one of the parking lanes.
These images show how that might work. In the left image, parking lanes and the Connecticut Avenue median are identified in red and orange. In the right image, the orange spaces are shifted towards the triangle, and the travel lanes are correspondingly shifted outward.
The end result would be a considerably larger triangle, one with enough space to begin to take on some of the functions of a true city park. Instead of containing just a row of benches and some shrubs, the space would be large enough for tables, flower beds, and possibly a small lawn. Today's underused leftover could become tomorrow's Dupont Circle or Farragut Square.
The down side is that around 30 on-street parking spaces would be lost, and peak period street capacity would drop slightly. This seems a very reasonable price to pay for a greatly enhanced public space.
Other potential complications include the final placement of DDOT's proposed M Street cycle track and the National Park Service, which is notoriously hard to work with. Neither of these hurdles appears to be a deal breaker, however. The cycle track will only take up a few feet, and if NPS reconfigured Thomas Circle in 2005 they might be willing to reconfigure Longfellow Triangle now.
Obviously this idea would require a considerable amount of additional study before it could be deemed practical. But if it is practical, the upside for urban livability might be tremendous.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
this morning's Breakfast Links, we pointed out a sculpture of a Capital Bikeshare bike made out of cans. Builder Jorge Mayor wrote to us with more information about the project and how it helps the needy.
I was part of the team that built the Capital Bikeshare bike out of Amy's soup cans. We made a timelapse video and posted it on Youtube:
CANstruction benefits the Capital Area Food Bank (all food used is donated to the food bank). People can either go to the Building Museum and donate canned foods by voting for their favorite structure (one can = one vote), or they can go online and make a donation where $1 = one vote. It's a great event for a great cause, and we'd love for your readers to get involved.
This morning, the City of Alexandria announced an agreement with GenOn Energy that will shut down the Potomac River Generating Station on Alexandria's waterfront by October 2012.
The closure is an air quality and environmental justice win for the region. The plant had been a significant point source of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution for the region, according to Bill Skrabak, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services for the City of Alexandria. Much of this pollution blew across the Potomac River to Ward 8 and Prince George's County.
In the longer term, the waterfront site offers redevelopment opportunities. It had not been included in the city's Waterfront Small Area Plan. On a conference call this morning, city representatives said that they will continue to view the Waterfront Plan and potential redevelopment of the power plant as "discrete, separate issues."
The American Clean Skies Foundation, an advocate for closing the plant, released a plan for redeveloping the site several weeks ago as discussions heated up about a potential closure.
The closure could also help the Mount Vernon Trail. The Clean Skies plan, called Potomac River Green, includes moving the MVT out of the cage along the river and onto a greenway along Slater's Lane, a second trail on Dangerfield Island, connections along the extended street grid, and a bike station near a new water taxi pier.
The plant has become both less critical to the region's energy needs and more expensive to GenOn as a result of pollution reduction agreements with the City of Alexandria. In 2005, additional power lines were installed under the Potomac River to improve reliability for the region's electric grid. This reduced the need for the Alexandria plant. Over the past few years, the plant was used less often; there were even entire months over the past year where the generating station was not in use.
In 2008, the operators of the power station signed an agreement with the city that committed GenOn to over $32 million in pollution reduction investments. Funds for these improvements were placed in a city escrow account. The first phase included dust and particulate matter reduction, primarily focused on the coal pile. These improvements cost approximately $2 million and have already been implemented. The remainder of the funds were to be spent on emission recirculation systems that would reduce harmful content emitted from the station's smokestacks.
As GenOn worked with the city on the more expensive second phase, however, it became clear that closure was a realistic alternative. Before spending money on the improvements, GenOn and the city instead signed the closure agreement. The city will release funds in the escrow account to GenOn, which will in turn close the plant by October 2012. If unforeseen circumstances lead the closure to be delayed until or beyond January 2014, the city will receive a one-time payment of $750,000 from GenOn.
The city will provide tax relief to GenOn after the plant's closure by taxing only the value of the site's land and none of its improvements, since the plant will be inactive. This tax relief will last 5 years, starting when the plant closes, and could be renewed for another 5 year term.
There are currently approximately 120 people employed at the GenOn plant; about 40 percent of those jobs are held by Alexandria residents. Calling it an "unexpected announcement," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille pledged that the city will work with affected employees as they find new work after the plant's closure.
The National Park Service lets down DC residents in many ways when it comes to managing the many neighborhood parks in DC. However, unfortunately DC's Department of Parks and Recreation hasn't yet shown it can do a lot better when it comes to maintaining parks.
In some ways, they certainly do better. DC-run parks are often far better designed for the needs of residents, and have recreational facilities while federally-controlled parks in neighborhoods disappoint on that score . However, actual park maintenance falls short at DPR.
According to Autumn Saxton-Ross of Green Spaces for DC, the $35 million Deanwood Recreation Center, which opened in June 2010, has already lost most of its shrubs and trees. Saxton-Ross says none of the employees at Deanwood are responsible for watering the growing things, and so nobody did.
Mike DeBonis recently highlighted an even bigger failure: Upshur Park, where the grass actually caught on fire. DPR opened the park to great fanfare earlier this year, but then again didn't water the new trees and grass.
DPR followed up with DeBonis to tout Walter Pierce Park, which looks green and verdant. However, DeBonis noted, that might be because it isn't open yet.
DPR is also putting in irrigation at several of its playing fields. But this highlights what many parks advocates say is the issue: a focus on the recreational facilities, like pools, indoor rec centers, and athletic fields, over parks. Ironically, says a former DC government employee, under Mayor Williams the department was renamed to put parks first. Apparently the semantic change didn't translate to policy.
There's been a lot of upheaval at DPR in recent years. Mayor Fenty had 4 separate directors for the agency, one of whom Council refused to confirm amid controversies over contracts that were allegedly improperly routed through DPR. The Williams administration saw similar turnover rates in the job.
Perhaps the biggest cause of problems is funding. Over the last 5 budget cycles, DPR's budget was cut by 47%. It's hard to keep up maintenance of a growing set of parks and rec centers in that climate.
Now, park maintenance is slated to transfer to the new Department of General Services, which could mean it'll get the attention it needs, or it could mean it slips through the cracks entirely.
Perhaps parks slip through the cracks so much because DC has so little actual parkland that's not run by the National Park Service. Maria Barry, the volunteer president of Friends of 16th Street Heights Parks (including Upshur Park, the one that caught on fire), says that many calls to 911 about crime in the park end up routed to the Park Police, even though Upshur and nearby Hamilton Park are not federal and MPD has jurisdiction. Since almost all parkland is federal, dispatchers sometimes erroneously assume that all parkland is.
Tommy Wells now has oversight over DPR on the Council. Will he be able to make any changes? He could fight for more budget, though everyone else has pressing budgetary needs as well. Should he push for any structural reform? Some have suggested creating a separate park division, which could ensure some staff focus on parks, or it could simply rearrange the org chart to no real effect depending on how it's implemented.
When Kwame Brown announced he's open to an income tax increase, he stipulated the money go to maintaining schools, rec centers, and parks. That's a change from earlier promises to use extra money for affordable housing, but could alleviate DPR's woes.
Parks are a significant piece of building a good city for neighborhoods of all types and for all residents. We need to show that DC parks can be great. Failings at DPR aren't an excuse for NPS not to do better, but if DC could make its parks a model for urban parks, it would certainly help set an example for other, federal parks around the city.
The Barnes and Noble in Georgetown has given up its lease, giving way to an unnamed retailer paying an unusually high $65 per square foot.
Why the closing of a large chain store struck a particular chord with Georgetowners (and others) is that it was a perfect "Third Place." This term, coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, described those places in a community where people come together outside their home (first place) or work (second place).
They can be bookstores, cafes, pubs, libraries, whatever. To Oldenburg, and those that follow him, these places are most essential parts of that community.
What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn't have to pay anything to use it.
Commenter Ben wrote on Georgetown Metropolitan,
This is terrible news no matter how one looks at it. I can't fathom of any retailerMany of the classic Third Places continue to exist in Georgetown
— Bloomingdales, Saks, H&M, whatever — filling the hole that the B&N will be leaving behind. It was one of the precious few commercial spaces where one could literally "kill time" without racking up enormous bar tabs or restaurant bills. I spent many an hour in this store, browsing, sipping coffee and — yes — buying.
Oddly enough, if there's one store that can fill the "just want to browse out of the elements without buying something" void, it's the Apple Store. Every time I go in there, people wander in just to play with the toys for a while before wandering out (which 9 times out of 10 is exactly what I'm doing as well). It's not quite the same as browsing great literature (or a great magazine rack), but it's the least technology can do for us after killing our bookstore.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
- If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here's what it will look like
- Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices
- Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?
- In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one
- A greener Eastern Market plaza may be on the way
- The Silver Line's opening day, in 41 photos
- How big of a "moat" would the FBI need if it stayed downtown?
- Do Henderson's remarks at Stanton Elementary signal a more harmonious phase in DCPS-charter relations?
- DCPS and charters are sparring over joint planning, but the real question is how to preserve neighborhood schools
- DCPS and its teachers' union are at an impasse over extending the school day. Could this be a way out?