Posts from September 2011
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The Secret Service recently closed 15th Street sidewalk alongside the Treasury Building. Damage to the decorative balustrade following August's earthquake raised safety concerns for passers by. Unfortunately, the result of the closure has been a mess of bikes, pedestrians, and cars that is less safe for everyone.
An aftershock from the late August earthquake damaged a granite railing along the top of the 15th Street facade of the two-century old Treasury Building.
The Treasury Department, in consultation with the Secret Service, decided to close the sidewalk on the west side of the street alongside the building. This would protect pedestrians in the event additional pieces of railing broke away from the building, rather than toward it as previous pieces had.
To the credit of the Secret Service and the Treasury Department, the northern end of the closure is located at a crosswalk where pedestrians can cross to the east side of 15th. On the south side, however, the closure starts a quarter of a block past the E Street/Penn Ave intersection.
On both ends of the closure, officials have installed clear signage instructing pedestrians to cross the street and not to walk in the bike lanes. Unsurprisingly, no one pays attention to them.
Why would they after all? Across the city and the country, pedestrians are killed while walking in car-traffic lanes where a sidewalk is closed or impassable. A bike lane appears far safer to a pedestrian than walking in traffic.
Despite all good intentions, the Secret Service's closure has created a situation which is probably far more dangerous on a day-to-day basis than the relatively unlikely event of a piece of granite balustrade falling toward the sidewalk.
Pedestrians walking in both directions fill a cycle track designed for bi-directional use, which often forces cyclists erratically in and out of traffic, many times riding head-on into traffic.
The best solution would create a temporary sidewalk in the existing bike lanes and place temporary barriers to create a new cycle track in the next lane over. In order to best accommodate car traffic, DDOT could temporarily move the center line of 15th Street one lane to the east and restrict stopping in the eastern most lane, leaving two northbound and two southbound lanes.
If this cannot be accomplished for lack of political willpower, then the responsible parties could at least change the signage and instruct pedestrians to use the southbound half of the cycletrack, northbound bicyclists to use their normal lane space, and southbound cyclists to take the full traffic lane next to the cycletrack as they had to do prior to its installation anyway.
Unfortunately, inconveniencing and endangering cyclists and pedestrians is not a new subject. We have written frequently about jurisdictions' predilection for closing sidewalks without providing legitimate alternatives to pedestrians. Even in DC this happens, despite DDOT's policy that construction permit holders must replicate as best as possible the pedestrian pathway which has been closed at a construction site.
Perhaps the worst irony in this case is that the Treasury official, who writes of the sidewalk closure with absolutely no mention of how the reality of the situation plays out, is none other than former DDOT director Dan Tangherlini.
This stretch of 15th Street is a particularly good place to underline the danger and inequity of the habit of closing sidewalks without alternatives. This may be one of the city's busiest pedestrian and bicycle blocks.
According to a summer count by DDOT, the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes between 14th and 15th Street see between 60 and 170 riders per hour during morning and evening rush hours, most of whom are coming off of or continuing onto the 15th Street cycle track.
In terms of pedestrians traffic, this section of 15th Street is the most direct path for tourists going from Lafayette Square and other points north to the main entrance for White House tours. It also is a direct connection for workers moving between the Departments of Commerce and Treasury as well as a popular route connecting the Mall to the White House.
Why should these 15th Street users bear the entire burden caused by the damage to this building? Why shouldn't motorists be asked to share in the inconvenience?
The Treasury has said it expects the current closure to last through December. Once the railing has been removed, it will be repaired off site and then placed back on the building. Treasury is estimating this will require another lengthy closure, this time during the height of the tourist season in 2012.
Unfortunately, DDOT has not had a particularly good record of enforcing its temporary pedestrian walkway policy under the Gray Administration. The north side of H Street along the CityCenterDC site and Massachusetts Ave in front of the Convention Center Marriott site are two high-profile examples. Since the federal government is enforcing this closure, it may be even less likely that DDOT will intervene to improve the accommodations for bicycles and pedestrians.
Whatever the final compromise might be, the ultimate point is that the current situation is not a tolerable solution. It should no longer be acceptable for pedestrians and cyclists to bear the full burden and inconvenience of construction projects which benefit everyone. Especially not in locations like this where there are as many of them as there are motorists.
The Solar Decathlon is largely about using cutting-edge technology and materials to create homes that draw no net energy from the power grid. For one team, though, it's also about providing housing to the community.
The "Empowerhouse" was designed by a team comprised of Parsons The New School for Design, Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School, and Stevens Institute of Technology. They worked together to build a home that will eventually end up in Ward 7's Deanwood community, housing a family. The team has developed a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Washington and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development.
The Decathlon is organized by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and combines traditional architecture along with cutting-edge building materials to create net zero-energy homes.
Richard King, the director of this year's event, said he wants to educate the students and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products. "This event demonstrates to the public that renewable energy is possible, and all that you might pay up front evens out on the back end," he said.
He also pointed out that the capital costs of these sustainable features are dropping. "What you normally pay on average now, more than likely isn't what you're going to pay in five, 10, 20 years," King said.
"One of our key successes with the project is our relationship with D.C. government. We are very happy and exited to have support across the board; not only from our partner, the Department of Housing and Community Development, but agencies like DDOT, DDOE, and DCRA. All across the board people have come together, because of our project, and sat at the same table when they normally would not have that conversation," said Heather Zanoni, student and media contact for the Parsons Team.
In July ground was broken for the project to be placed in Deanwood. Administrative personnel from Parsons, Milano, Stevens Habitat for Humanity of DC, and Deanwood ANC commissioner Sylvia Brown participated.
For team member Amanda Waal, "bringing Deanwood and Habitat for Humanity into the discussions surrounding the Solar Decathlon has been very important to us."
Zanoni hopes to see DC government use the home as a model in establishing new policies with building codes for future homes around the District. The team is excited about moving the energy efficient home across town because even transporting the home will be sustainable. Not much energy will be used to transport it.
Zanoni added the Empowerhouse a is passive house, a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building primarily heated by passive solar gain and internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. The more bodies in the building, the warmer the home gets. Energy losses are minimized and any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source.
The home has won first place in the DOE's affordability category with a final cost of $229,890.26, and is currently in 4th place overall. Event attendee and local conservationist Gregory Simms said that knowing the home won in that category should inspire more Washingtonians to strongly consider Empowerhouse as a real model for the future. "Passive homes hold the country's highest energy standards and cuts heating and energy usage of any building by leaps and bounds. The Parsons team has shown that an energy efficient home can be affordable," he said.
A passive house is a comprehensive system. "Passive" describes well this system's underlying receptivity and retention capacity. Working with natural resources, free solar energy is captured and applied efficiently, instead of relying predominantly on 'active' systems to bring a building to 'zero' energy. High performance triple-glazed windows, super-insulation, an airtight building shell, limitation of thermal bridging and balanced energy recovery ventilation make possible extraordinary reductions in energy use and carbon emission.
When the Deanwood home is completed, it will actually be a duplex. A second family is still needed for the other unit. "We haven't found the second family yet, so if anyone thinks they might be the qualifications please reach out to us," she said. "People should come out to Deanwood. There are great green areas there, and history, along with beautiful homes along Pennsylvania Avenue SE."
The Decathlon continues through Sunday. If you haven't had a chance to visit, you might want to stop by West Potomac Park this weekend.
In the coming weeks and months, a handful of businesses along 14th Street NW will close their doors. The retail corridor appears to be booming, but high commercial rents make it difficult for low margin businesses to compete.
This Saturday, Mid City Caffe on 14th Street will serve its last latte. Citing insufficient sales and a less-than-ideal second floor location above Miss Pixie's, the coffee shop opted not to pursue a lease extension; instead, they will simply close for good.
Perhaps more noteworthy than the closing of the shop itself is the fact that the Mid City brand will not live on. Ownership is not seeking new retail space.
Jeffrey Lamoureux, the shop's general manager, says that decision is driven by the challenging business climate along the 14th Street corridor: "If we were to relocate and hope to capitalize on the customer base and brand identity we've developed since 2009 we would have to find some place within a few blocks, where an affordable rent would be extremely hard to come by."
Earlier in the month word spread that Miss Pixies is in the market for new retail space. It's reported that the building's landlord wants to quadruple the rent for the storefront at 1626 14th Street NW. Jeffrey Lamoureux says that's a problem for businesses like his, where "high commercial rents make places like Mid City, low-volume neighborhood-centric spaces, untenable."
Mid City did have a loyal customer base. The shop was often busy, popular among coffee lovers, and on the surface, appeared to be successful. That's not to say there wasn't enough demand for Mid City Caffe, or that the shop wouldn't be filled with customers if it re-opened nearby, but it does suggest there isn't enough demand to justify the cost of running such a business on 14th Street.
High rents directly impact businesses by raising the average total cost. Barista wages and coffee prices likely don't waver much from city to city, but the amount a coffee shop pays to its landlord every month can and does vary greatly.
The result is that coffee shops in high-rent neighborhoods, for example, face a challenge that coffee shops in low-rent cities and neighborhoods don't: They have to pay handsomely for the privilege of simply being able to open their doors.
In order to make it work, businesses either need to sell high-margin goods and services, or do brisk volume on low-margin items. Coffee is the kind of business where strong volume is key.
That's the strategy at Peregrine Espresso. The successful Capitol Hill coffee brand opened its second location earlier this summer, exactly one block north of Mid City Caffe. Even so, there are notable differences between the Peregrine and Mid City.
Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen says that his shop caters to a different type of customer. "When we found our space up there, we realized that we really didn't have the space to accommodate a sea of telecommuters," he says, "so we thought it best to keep the chairs turning over so that the space doesn't get too stagnant."
With less than 600 square feet of space and enough seats for only about a dozen customers, Peregrine is banking on strong take-out business. They don't have wi-fi and aren't trying to lure customers looking for a place to hunker down for hours.
Jensen acknowledges that high rents make doing business on 14th Street a challenge. "If you only want to serve coffee (not lunch, dinner, or alcohol) and aren't necessarily interested in being a music venue, it becomes very difficult to sell enough cups of coffee to cover high rent," he says, "particularly in a neighborhood that doesn't have the same type of daily pedestrian traffic that you might find closer to downtown or in Penn Quarter.
Peregrine chose its micro-sized storefront in part because, even though the rent is high on a per-square foot basis, the monthly payments aren't astronomical. They also benefited by securing a long-term lease in July 2010, before some of the new developments nearby had broken ground. While small annual rent increases are expected, Peregrine is at less risk of the price shock that Mid City and Miss Pixies are currently experiencing.
High rents impact more than just individual businesses. Topher Matthews recently questioned the future of DC's "third places". In neighborhoods with high rents, the primary concern of any business is covering its costs. No matter what role it plays in the community, if it can't pay its bills, it won't be around for long.
A Baltimore company called Parking Panda has built an iPhone app that might change the way some Washingtonians find parking by directly connecting owners of unused parking spaces with those seeking to park.
The concept is simple. The owner of a parking space goes to ParkingPanda.com, where they create an account and describe the details of their space. They select when the space is available, where it's located, and how much they charge for its use. The owner can also upload photos. After that, the phone app lists the space as available.
Drivers looking for parking can then use their iPhone to locate the nearest parking spaces available. Users select a space, pay, and then receive a map and real-time directions to their space, all via the app. They say the secure transaction takes less than a minute to complete.
Parking Panda was co-founded by Baltimore residents Adam Zilberbaum and Nick Miller. They won a local business development competition to develop the app, and have been building its technology and user base ever since.
The impetus behind the app was a simple idea. Co-founder Nick Miller says in a phone interview, "at some point and time we all have needed a parking spot and couldn't find one."
Parking Panda hopes to solve that problem by making private parking spaces available to public users, in exchange for a fee set by the owner of each space. Parking Panda takes up to a 20% cut on the cost of the space for providing the service.
If a homeowner will be out of town for a few days, they can rent out their alley parking space rather than have it go to waste. Owners can even rent out spaces on an hourly basis during the day, while they are at work. Once a user reserves a space, the owner gets an email notification.
Many condo and apartment building garages don't allow owners to rent out their parking spaces because access to the garage is limited by keycards or an access code. In cases like this, Parking Panda would require the owner to find a way to grant the renter access.
Miller says Parking Panda needs at least 30 spaces registered before they come to the District. "We have to have spaces before we have customers," he added. They will start their service in DC as soon as they get to 30 spaces.
Parking Panda unveiled its service in Baltimore during the Grand Prix race, and managed to offer parking for over 150 cars. Since then the numbers have increased, and eventually they hope to make a dent in Baltimore's and ultimately the District's parking challenges.
Parking Panda is currently only available for iPhone. They do plan to roll the service out to Android users, but have no time frame for that yet.
If Parking Panda or another market succeeds and has a meaningful impact on the parking market, how might it change cities? The region already devotes a large portion of its land to parking cars. Every car used for commuting requires at least 2 spaces: 1 at home and 1 at work or a transit station.
Most of the time, 1 of those spaces is empty at all times. Office spaces are empty at night, and suburban residential spaces during the day. Parking Panda makes it easier to share these spaces. If someone works near some residential rowhouses, he or she can park in those spaces while the homeowners' cars are parked at offices.
This strengthens the argument for reducing parking minimums, in particular. Traditional minimum parking requirements assume that each building's parking will only serve that building, during the hours it's in use, and be empty otherwise. DC's zoning rewrite will allow some shared parking, but only with formal agreements between 2 establishments that can demonstrate that they use parking at different times.
Tools like Parking Panda could show how a city's parking can function effectively even without these assumptions, and reduce the need to build more parking in the future.
Two century-old DC fountains sit decaying and neglected in the woods of a national park in Maryland. The fountains had been missing from the 1940s until they were rediscovered in the woods of Fort Washington National Park in the 1970s.
The top portion of the McMillan fountain, pictured below, was returned to Crispus Attucks park in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in 1983. In 1992 it was moved back to the fenced-off grounds of the McMillan Reservoir just a few blocks away.
The fountain was installed in 1913 at the McMillan Reservoir as a memorial to Senator James McMillan (R - Michigan), who is more remembered locally for his his ambitious McMillan Plan to beautify Washington. The fountain was dismantled in 1941, when the reservoir was fenced off from the public.
Though the top of the McMillan Fountain had been restored to the reservoir grounds, a Bloomingdale ANC commissioner told me the base of the fountain was in the woods in Fort Washington along with the remains of the fountain that stood at the center of the now-razed Truxton Circle.
I went to Fort Washington in search of these discarded works of art. I asked a park ranger where the fountain was and she drew me a map, saying that it stood in the park's "dump" and partly behind a fence.
I went to the picnic area nearest the site and walked into the woods a short distance where I found a fence. Behind it stood piles of bricks and other discarded building materials.
Beside the site is a dugout that serves as the back court to Battery Emory, a concrete gun battery built in 1898 to protect the capital city from enemy ships.
As I passed through the unfenced dugout, I immediately spotted few granite blocks that served as the cornerstones of the base bowl. Though they are strewn about the ground, a 1912 photograph can help us identify what pieces went where.
The elements of the fountain were stacked like totem pole. The bottom element features carved classical allegorical heads from whose mouths water gushed into the carved bowls below.
Fence material and tree debris cover the carved granite (left) that stood as the fountain base (right).
The next element of the stack is the fluted base to the top bowl.
Several other large granite stones are stacked and marked with numbers, presumably to help in reassembly.
The site also contains the rusting remains of the fountain that stood at Truxton Circle, which formed the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Q Street. The circle was built around 1901 and the fountain installed there originally stood at the triangle park at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street in Georgetown.
Truxton Circle stood at Florida Avenue, North Capitol Street, Q Street, and Lincoln Road from 1901 to 1940, when it was demolished to aid commuter traffic.
A newspaper at the time described it as one of the largest fountains in the city. The circle was removed in 1940 to ease the flow of commuter traffic. At that time, the fountain, which may date to as early as the 1880s, made its way to Fort Washington to rust in the woods.
The metal pedestal (left) held up the fountain bowl whose rim rusts in pieces on the ground (right). Notice the classical egg-and-dart pattern.
The fountain was also noted for the metal grates that stood near its base. Now these grates sit rusting in the woods.
If you want to see the fountain remains for yourself at Fort Washington National Park, go to picnic area C. Beyond the end of the parking lot is a restroom building and behind that is the fountain "graveyard." A fence encloses part of the site, but you can enter through the large gap down the hillside.
Rather than tossing aside our city's artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places.
These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come.
Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.
If you're seeking a serene natural retreat, a skate park is probably the last place you would look. But a few years ago Arlington built a skate park that welcomes all visitors, not just those with skateboards.
A few weeks ago, I visited Powhatan Springs Park, also known as the "skate park rain garden." Designed by local architecture firms the Kerns Group and Oculus, it combines a skate park with a rain garden and a soccer field, creating a space that welcomes all visitors.
It's no surprise that the project was given an award for "innovative excellence" by the Maryland and Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2005.
Powhatan Springs is located on busy Wilson Boulevard in Dominion Hills, a neighborhood at the far western tip of Arlington. It's a diverse area with a mix of single-family homes and apartments; Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping mall, is a mile away. The park is well-served by bus and trails, ensuring a steady stream of visitors.
As a result, the park has to accommodate a variety of uses. Along Wilson Boulevard there's a concrete skate park with a bowl that mimics a swimming pool. Next to it is a soccer field with spectator seating. Behind them is a small parking lot and an interactive rain garden, which collects and absorbs stormwater rather than dumping it into a drainage system.
All the concrete in the skate park can be hard on the eyes and amplifies sound. Meanwhile, the rain garden is filled with lush native grasses.
This culvert carries water down into Four Mile Run, while an adjacent path connects the park to the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.
The rain garden has a pump where kids can play with water. It was meant to be a "sort of unprogrammed, unstructured [space] where you created your own fun," in the words of project manager Robert Capper. The pump wasn't working on the hot, dry day that I visited, but presumably it's quite popular the rest of the time.
However, a set of pools and a cistern that collect rainwater were fully functional.
The garden motif continues out into the parking lot, where the concrete drains are stamped with leaves and twigs.
Between the rain garden and the skate park is a little plaza with a bench, giving kids a comfortable, dignified place to sit and wait for a ride.
The architects were very concerned about giving park visitors places to sit. I was impressed by how many seating areas there are, and for different activities:
There's a "pier," set in the trees and overlooking the rain garden. This is the most secluded space in the park. Depending on how concerned you are about crime, it's either a quiet refuge from the outside world, or a hideout for illicit activities. Hopefully the park is busy enough to keep this area safe.
There are two rows of spectator seating, one each facing the skate park and the soccer field (at left).
There's also a "cafe," which has a bar and stools for eating. This space gives people a dedicated place to eat. There are trash cans, so the soccer field and skate park aren't littered with food wrappers. The views from here are pretty exciting.
There are three concrete structures framing the skate park. They hold the cafe, a storage/maintenance shed and a manager's office. They're simple but attractive, helping to define discreet areas within the park as a whole without standing out.
The manager's office isn't always staffed, but a list of posted rules is visible for all users. It's a good sign that the parks authority feels comfortable leaving the space unattended, because it suggests that visitors are taking care of the place.
And they are. The park is clean and the skaters were friendly to each other and to me when I asked to take pictures of them. There were a couple of groups there ranging from high school age to a little kid with his parents, and everyone got along fine.
The only vandalism I found at Powhatan Springs was a little bit of marker scribble in the cafe area. That's impressive, especially considering that a recently-opened skate park in Howard County was soon covered in graffiti, though officials there decided to keep it as a form of "urban art." I think it's great if a community decides to embrace graffiti at their skate park, as the two are often misunderstood forms of artistic expression. But it's also great if the users of a skate park can respect a prohibition against graffiti and still take care of the space they're given.
As skateboarding becomes more popular, the need increases for more skate parks. However, many communities are hesitant to give skaters a chunk of the public realm, fearful of noise, crowds and crime. Powhatan Springs Park shows that you can give skaters a home without scaring off other users. It's an example that more places should follow.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is withholding $20 million in funds promised to Northern Virginia transit agencies until the governor's chosen representative is appointed to the Metro board.
Since the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) officially appoints Metro board members from Virginia, obtaining their agreement is necessary for governor Bob McDonnell to appoint his choice, attorney James Dyke Jr., to the board.
Withholding the funds does not only affect Metro. Since NVTC also funds local bus agencies and VRE, those public transit providers are also faced with the prospect of state assistance being withheld. The other agencies are working on plans to deal with a funding shortfall until the impasse is resolved. VRE has enough funds in reserves to last until the end of October.
According to the Examiner, a state proposal would require local transportation boards to allow Virginia to appoint one member if the board receives state money. Many local boards have agreed to the proposal, though Alexandria, Fairfax, Arlington and the NVTC have so far refused. It isn't clear whether Virginia has actually exercised the appointing privilege for other boards.
It's also unclear exactly where the money at stake is coming from. It could be from the special Northern Virginia gas tax, or it could be from Virginia's annual match to the federal government's $150 million contribution to WMATA, or it could be from another source.
In any case, this is more evidence of the strained relationship between the Commonwealth government and the local governments that provide the majority of Metro's funding and riders.
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