Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Payton Chung

Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of Southwest Washington. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago's inclusionary housing law, blogs at west north, and contributes to Streetsblog

Think you know Metro's neighborhoods? This quiz might surprise you

Yesterday, PlanItMetro posted maps showing what's within walking distance of each Metro station. Check them out (and maybe read up on what walk sheds are and how they differ across the region), then take our quiz to test what you know.


A map of the area around the Columbia Heights Metro station that's easily walkable. Images from WMATA.

1. Which of these stations has the most jobs within walking distance?

McLean
U Street
Pentagon City
Rockville

2. Which of these stations has the fewest jobs within walking distance?

Bethesda
Medical Center
Ballston
Federal Triangle

3. Which of these stations has the most jobs that are nearby, but not within walking distance?

Van Ness
Glenmont
West Falls Church
Franconia-Springfield

4. Which of these stations has the most households within walking distance?

Dupont Circle
Silver Spring
Columbia Heights
Court House

5. Which of these stations has the fewest households within walking distance?

Friendship Heights
Pentagon City
Crystal City
Georgia Avenue-Petworth

6. How many households live within walking distance of Metro?

95,322
190,631
321,240
458,273

7. Which of these stations has the lowest Walk Score?

Morgan Boulevard
Fort Totten
Arlington Cemetery
Van Dorn Street

8. Which of these areas has the smallest area within walking distance?

West Hyattsville
Southern Avenue
National Airport
Landover

Answers

1. U Street might not have many high-rise office buildings, but the medium-density neighborhood does have 9,034 jobs within walking distance. Logan Circle's density isn't just for residents: its lack of parking lots and high street connectivity mean that it also has plenty of economic opportunities nearby.

2. Federal Triangle, the very heart of the federal bureaucracy that built Metro to bring commuters into the city, has fewer jobs nearby than the three big edge cities it's grouped with. (That's partially because PlanItMetro's assessment is for non-overlapping walk sheds. This is why Federal Triangle has so few jobs: they're assigned to neighboring sheds.) Medical Center may not look like much from Wisconsin Avenue, but its 32,473 nearby jobs put it in a league with several Downtown DC stations.

3. At Franconia-Springfield, 92% of the nearby jobs aren't within walking distance. Springfield Town Center is beyond a half-mile walk, and the new FBI headquarters site even the site Virginia is promoting for the FBI is cut off from the station by a ravine. (At Branch Avenue, 96% of nearby jobs are outside the walk shed.)


Franconia-Springfield walk shed.

4. Columbia Heights just edges out Dupont Circle for this title, 10,842 to 10,636. Relatively low-rise Court House has the highest household concentration outside the District, with 8,100 within walking distance.

5. It's Friendship Heights, although all of these have between 4,071 and 4,623 households within walking distance. High rises don't always mean high residential density, especially if there are lots of offices and shops mixed in. Crystal City probably has a higher density, but its walk shed is also constrained by the George Washington Parkway.

6. 190,631. Contrary to what those ubiquitous "Steps to Metro!" real-estate listings might tell you, just 9% of the 2,091,301 households in the metro area live within a ten-minute walk of Metro.

7. Morgan Boulevard has a paltry Walk Score of 6. Even Arlington Cemetery's is somehow 15. Twenty five Metro stations are in locations with a Walk Score that's "car-dependent," and just 30 are in places deemed a "Walker's Paradise."

8. Landover. Hemmed in by a railroad and US 50 on one side and by its own parking lot and an industrial park on the other, its walk shed covers a mere 80 acres. That's not fair to the almost 1,000 households, mostly on the other side of 50, who are less than half a mile away but can't easily reach the station.


Landover walk shed.

How did you do?

0-3 correct: You're a Metro Newbie! While you're playing #WhichWMATA, step outside those stations and explore!
4-6 correct: You're a Metro Explorer! You've walked around many of Metro's stations, and always want to see more!
7-8 correct: You're a Metro Voyager! Are you sure you didn't download that 113-megabyte Atlas and take this quiz open-book?

Get your March Madness on with two games that test your city smarts

In the mood for yet another bracket? Or maybe after filling one out, you're looking for a guessing game where you've at least got some idea of what you're doing? These two games are fun ways to test what you know about cities.

Census bracketology

The first is the Census Bureau's Population Bracketology. You can play using either state or metropolitan area populations, choosing which of the paired "contestants" has the greater population.

Many of the choices are intuitive, but it's often surprising to see how large many younger, Sunbelt cities have grown. The difference would have been much more obvious if the Census pitted city populations head-to-head—municipalities in the east are usually much smaller than those in the west.

Jonathan Neeley, our staff editor, said "when cities I don't have a great gauge of came up, it got me thinking about density versus sprawl. I obviously know New York beats Jacksonville. But does Baltimore beat Riverside? Does Portland beat Orlando?"

You may know populations, but how about transit lines?

If you've got a sharper memory for geography than for facts and figures, you might prefer Chicago-based CNT's "Guess the City," featuring transit stops color-coded by service frequency (drawn from GTFS data):

CNT guess the city

Not all of the choices are so obvious, though, especially in suburbs with sparse transit networks:

CNT guess the city

One hint: keep in mind that many eastern cities have radial street networks, whereas western cities almost always have gridded streets. Also, bigger cities almost always have denser transit networks. CNT's site also lets users generate a color-coded "Transit Access Score" that measures how accessible any given location is via transit.

2015 is going to be a great year for city planning

Experts say smart planning will keep gaining ground in 2015. Hear more in two new videos from Mobility Lab.

In "Energizing People to Reimagine Our Cities," the interviewees talk about broad changes in city operations. Harriet Tregoning, who used to be DC's planning director, says residents need to support projects even when their cities "fail fast and fail often."

"People don't always talk about the fact that [Capital Bikeshare] is our second system," she says. "SmartBike was an abysmal failure, [but] we were able to replace that dinky little bikeshare system with something that was much much better and immediately successful."

Erin Barnes from the crowdsourcing site Ioby urges cities to rethink public spaces: "People get really upset if you talk about taking away parking spaces. But if you close a street to car traffic and open it up for anything else, you give people an opportunity to reimagine how you would use all that public space."

In "Energizing People About the Future of Public Transportation," Gabe Klein, previously DC's transportation director, predicts a shift in how we talk about planning. He says we'll move from a narrow focus on transit versus cars versus biking and walking toward a broader look at how transportation as a whole helps a city work.

Tim Papandreou from San Francisco's transportation department cites a specific example: "We have smart phones, but really dumb wallets." Mobile apps could make it easy to combine different ways of getting across town both from home and while traveling.

Emily Badger, a transportation reporter at the Post, says new types of data that tell us more about how people connect to jobs are transforming our approach to transit.

"2015," Papandreou predicts, "is going to mean more, not less."

The interviews for both videos were filmed in January at Transportation Camp, an annual "unconference" that Mobility Lab sponsors to bring together and advance new ideas in transportation.

These maps show when and where riders use the Silver Line

Ridership is strong at the Silver Line's Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner stations, and over time there should be more riders at the other three stops. You can see this and other facts about Silver Line ridership
from a new data visualization on PlanItMetro.


Silver Line ridership visualization by WMATA.

PlanItMetro's interactive maps and graphs show when and where Silver Line riders are going to and coming from, and allow users to look at riders' entry and destination stations along with the day of the week and the time, in quarter-hour increments.

Last year, Metro posted graphs showing one week of September ridership, but this dataset represent ridership from all of October 2014, including weekdays, weekends, and holidays.

Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner see far more riders than the other three, but the others could catch up as land around the stations develops.

Wiehle-Reston East gets the most passengers overall

Wiehle-Reston East currently handles the lion's share of passengers at new Silver Line stations, partly because it's a hub for transit riders whose bus routes take them there or who use the station's large park-and-ride garage. Wiehle-Reston East's ridership base is a lot like other stations at the end of Metro lines: the overwhelming majority of its riders are inbound commuters who enter on weekday mornings and exit on weekday evenings.

Interestingly, Wiehle is also the largest single commuting destination on the Silver Line. On the average weekday during the morning peak, about 1,000 passengers exit at Wiehle, compared to about 5,000 entries. Even though Tysons Corner is a jobs hub, only about 900 people exit at that station during the same period. At the four stations in the Tysons area, there are about 2,100 combined exits during this period.

The Wiehle number is impressive because more people exit at Wiehle Avenue during the morning peak than exit from any other terminal station. Wiehle's 1,046 average exits trumps the next-best terminal, Shady Grove (with 977 average exits).

Also interestingly, Wiehle's ratio of entries to exits is the smallest of all the terminal stations (meaning it's the most tilted toward exits). At Wiehle Avenue, for every exit, there are 4.9 entries. That compares to 6.1 entries for every exit at New Carrollton, 7.3 at Greenbelt, and 7.5 at Largo.

Some of this ridership is likely due to people connecting to buses bound for Reston, Herndon, and Dulles Airport. But there are some office buildings around the station as well.

Ridership at Wiehle will likely change once Phase Two is complete: many passengers who currently arrive on buses, or take them to destinations like Reston Town Center or Dulles, will instead start boarding the Silver Line farther down the line.

Tysons corners the market on work, evening trips

Tysons Corner's ridership pattern exhibits some unusual features.

Weekday rush-hour exits at Tysons Corner outnumber boardings at the station by three to one, which shows that like stations in downtown DC, Tysons Corner is near where a lot of people work. But unlike downtown DC, PlanItMetro has pointed out that a lot of people travel to Tysons Corner during off-peak and on holidays, probably to use surrounding shopping centers. In the evenings (after 7:00 pm), Tysons Corner is the busiest Silver Line station.

In terms of the ratio of entries to exits, Tysons Corner is a lot like a station on the edge of downtown. At Tysons Corner, there are 1.8 exits for every entry. Next door at Greensboro, the ratio is 1.7 exits for every entry. That compares to Dupont Circle, with a ratio of 1.9 and Rosslyn with a ratio of 1.5.

Tysons Corner and Greensboro are the only stations outside of the Beltway where exits outnumber entries during the morning peak period.

McLean, Greensboro, and Spring Hill, the Silver Line's three other three Tysons stations, see fewer riders than Wiehle or Tysons Corner. That could be because these three have not yet been enveloped by transit-oriented development. McLean, for example, draws a lot of local residents, many of whom ride a bicycle or walk to the station.

Even though Silver Line passengers go all across the region, most of them aren't transferring to other lines, or going to destinations in the eastern half of the metro area. Over 60% of passengers boarding at Silver Line stations on weekdays travel to stations served by the Silver Line between Wiehle and L'Enfant Plaza.

What else do you find interesting from the data visualization?

The five best Brutalist buildings in DC

Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.

CFPB wide
The CFPB building. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

In English, "brutal" architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where "brut" means wild, rough, or unfinished: "brut" Champagnes haven't been sweetened with added sugar.

Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel's flexibility with concrete's rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures "brut," thus inspiring "Brutalism."

"It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them," writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. "But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues.... The earnestness of the best Brutalism—the belief in the power of architecture that it represents—continues to be inspiring."

Brutalism's brash idealism—its emphasis on big and bold shapes, honest use of mass-produced materials, and rejection of elitist finery—combined with its (yes) low costs to make an irresistible choice for its era's expanding government bureaucracies. Brutalism was "authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before US attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms," write Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.

The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.

But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism's sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.

1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.


Photo by camera_obscura [busy] on Flickr.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.

The "Great Society Subway," as Zach Schrag's landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital's majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.

The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro's design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.

2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).

This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.

The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they "would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building."

3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.

AIA

The AIA's headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington's grandest private houses. Although it's hardly visible from the street, the building's dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.

4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.

Sunderland Building

Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor's wide porches keep the façades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.

5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner

Board formed concrete

This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade's irregular, flowing texture and drilled "nail holes" read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it's entirely concrete.

"Board-formed concrete" takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—the wooden "formwork" that encased the concrete when it was being poured left its mark, and here, in a hallmark of Brutalism's attention to process, the architects have celebrated this artifact.

Honorable mentions

In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one's located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.

1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.


Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles' soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.

2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.


Photo by krossbow on Flickr.

Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct's requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building's prow.

88% of new DC households are car-free

For the vast majority of DC's new residents, Car Free Day (September 22) isn't a once-a-year event, but a year-round occasion. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of car-free households in in the District of Columbia grew by 12,612—fully 88% of new households citywide.


Graph by the author with data from the US Census.

During that time, the number of car-free households in DC has grown by 14.3%, increasing their share of all households from 35% to 37.9%. By contrast, the District only added 1,662 car-owning households since 2010, an increase of just 1.0%.

The percentage of households with one, two, and three or more cars all declined. This is even though typical DC households have considerably more money with which they could buy cars: median incomes grew by 9.3% over the same time period.

More specifically, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (using one-year estimates, and accessible via factfinder2.census.gov) showed that the number of car-free households in DC increased from 88,390 to 101,002, and the total of all households went from 252,388 to 266,662.

The ACS has also picked up on other consequences of DC's growing car-freedom, like a sharp decline since 2007 in the number of DC residents who drive to work.

This doesn't mean that new apartment buildings' garages are all seven-eighths empty, of course. There is considerable churn among households, especially in urban areas: fully 36.5% of DC households moved at some point between 2010 and 2012, with most of those moves taking place within DC. Some who already lived in DC and own cars moved into new buildings, and others moved from the city and took cars with them.

Some existing households bought cars, and others sold theirs. New households are created when couples or roommates split, when kids strike out on their own, or when someone new moves to town. (One set of new arrivals not contributing to the trend: students living in dorms are not considered households, as the Census defines the term.)

But the net effect of all these changes is the same: The people moving into DC, or striking out on their own here, are almost entirely car-free. They are very different from current residents in that regard: only 12% of new households own cars, compared to 62.1% of current DC households. These new households are demanding many fewer parking places, much less rush hour road space, and much less gasoline.

Parking minimums prepare for car ownership that just doesn't exist

These statistics show why DC does not need to continue requiring costly and environmentally destructive new parking garages within new developments that accommodate the city's growing population.

However, some longtime neighborhood activists have been fighting lower parking minimums. At this week's hearings on zoning code changes, multiple opponents of lower parking minimums also cited Census data to argue that parking was necessary: they said that the numbers of cars per household in DC was "holding steady" at 0.9.

In fact, the number of cars per household in DC declined from 0.90 to 0.86. Maybe if you round off to one decimal place, both numbers become 0.9—proof that nothing has changed!

These trends aren't unique to DC; instead, they're consistent with what other growing, dense cities are seeing. Michael Rhodes from Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation consulting firm, recently calculated that in San Francisco, a similar 88 percent of new households are car-free. DC's car-freedom is also consistent with national and global trends pointing towards lower urban car ownership recently and into the future. The decline in car ownership should come as little surprise given DC's booming population of auto-averse millennials.

A 12-block "shared space" street will soon line the Southwest Waterfront

"Shared space" is the idea that some streets can work better when, instead of using curbs and traffic signals to separate users, pedestrians get priority using subtle but effective visual cues. Washington will soon have a prime example in Wharf Street SW, part of the Wharf development on the Southwest Waterfront.


Rendering of Wharf Street SW. All images from Perkins Eastman unless otherwise noted.

Streetsblog recently interviewed a key shared space messenger, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, showed off built examples in Pittsburgh and Batavia, Illinois, and discussed the potential of shared space to transform the narrow streets of New York City's Financial District.

Many of the historic examples of shared space that remain, like Market Square in Pittsburgh, Haymarket in Boston, or South Street Seaport in New York, are within what were wholesale markets or ports, where people, goods, and vehicles always intermingled. Old wharves and quays have become distinctive destinations in many cities, from Provincetown to Seattle's Pike Place Market—and an inspiration to others who want to create human-scaled environments today.

Washington, DC, had just such a working waterfront for centuries, but bulldozed almost all of it in the 1950s amidst federal fervor for slum clearance and urban renewal. Just a few weeks ago, developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront broke ground on the Wharf, which will transform 27 acres of land into 12 city blocks housing 3.2 million square feet of retail, residences, hotels, offices, and facilities ranging from a concert hall to a yacht club. Many architects and landscape architects worked together within a master plan designed by Perkins Eastman.

I talked with Matthew Steenhoek of Hoffman Madison Waterfront about how the Wharf's public spaces have been designed to accommodate pedestrians first and vehicles (from semi trucks to the occasional police helicopter) when necessary. Below is an edited transcript.

What are the various kinds of streets and alleys that visitors will find at the Wharf?

Maine Avenue [on the land side of the site] has a pretty traditional street section with four lanes: vehicular traffic, turn lanes, parallel parking, and street trees. There will be a grade-separated, bidirectional cycle track on Maine's south side, outside of the existing street trees but separated from the sidewalk by a second row of trees. We're using permeable asphalt for the cycle track because it goes over the critical root zone for those big old street trees.

On Maine, you have a channelized design: traffic moves faster, there's a lot of through bicycle traffic connecting to the [Potomac and Anacostia riverfront] trails, so the through traffic happens there. We'll leave the median lanes utility-free and streetcar-ready, so if the District decides to build a line through there they can do so at a much lower cost.

As you move into the site, it transitions into the shared space approach. Besides the two major [entry] intersections at 9th and 7th, it's all curbless. The public street ends at the Maine Avenue cycle track, and from there in they'll be private streets. This gives us much more latitude in terms of our design approach, so we can vary from traditional street standards and requirements.


A circulation plan for phases one and two shows both shared spaces and pedestrian spaces.

Differences in paving material, texture, color, and pattern will help differentiate the spaces within the major public spaces. There's also bollards to separate the edge and center of the street in busier locations.

There are a lot of clues built into the paving, which will use a kit of different pavers. There will be a smooth and continuous path dedicated for pedestrians, while the places where vehicles are allowed as guests will have a split-block finish with a little rougher texture. In order to slow the speeds down, the paving patterns will change as you transition from one zone to another—like where you might be introducing pedestrians or bikes into the space. The smooth surface in no way limits where the pedestrians can go, though, and the curbless environment invites pedestrians to really use the entire space.


Most of Wharf Street's right-of-way is dedicated for pedestrians.

There aren't a lot of obstructions within the spaces. They're straightforward and kind of utilitarian, designed to be able to be closed, or partially closed, [to cars] when it's busy. Restaurant seating can spill out there, and the shared space can become a true public space.

Wharf Street runs directly along the water's edge. It has a typical section of 60 feet across, with three modules: The closest 20 feet [to the buildings] is a café seating zone, where the paving is smooth and flat so that they can move furniture around. Right outside there is a dedicated pedestrian path, then the shared movement, or travel, zone—one way for vehicles moving or parking or loading, but cyclists and pedestrians can go any which way. The movement space is the center 20 feet, using smaller, more textured pavers.

The outside 20 feet has a dual allée of trees, and it's where the fixtures and street furniture are—no bollards, but there are trees. That zone, again, has a smooth texture. Along the bulkhead [seawall], there's a huge wooden timber down the side for people to sit on. We also have flexible seating all throughout. Having the flexible seating is part of the traffic calming: things are going to change and feel different every day.

Throughout the parcels, there are alleyways that come through. Those are much tighter, more intimate spaces, from 25 to 40 feet wide. The alleys are not back alleys, they're public spaces—not a place for stinky exposed dumpsters leaking things. DC got rid of most of its alley buildings [via the early 20th century's Alley Housing Clearance Commission], but the few alleys that are left are pretty great.


Alleys will welcome pedestrians, not just service vehicles.

The only place where 55 foot long trucks are allowed is at the concert hall [at the west edge of the development]. Everywhere else will only have deliveries on 30 foot trucks. Since we have retail on all sides of the buildings, it's tricky to find the "back of house" space [service entrances]. The idea has been to work with [retail] operators on loading hours, so that during prime pedestrian hours there's not loading happening, and to screen and integrate the loading areas so that they can function as good public spaces when they're not being used.

The way that the shared space is set up will encourage everyone to slow down. It's not a highly predictable zone, which gives people a false sense of security—they don't look around themselves. The character of the space will allow it to do what it needs to do, while remaining safe and accommodating for all the different users.

Like around 7th Street Park, cars are allowed, but it's not going to be the fastest route to anywhere. There's a splash fountain and benches in the middle of the street that you have to make a one-way loop around, and another one down at the District Pier where cars will have to go around to get to Blair Alley.

There's another totally pedestrian zone at District Pier. That's the most intense area of pedestrian activity, since there's lots of things happening here [with the pier and concert hall]. We'll have another [pedestrian zone] over at M Street Landing across from Arena Stage, and a third at the Waterfront Park, which we designed through a community charrette process. At Waterfront Park, vehicular access is only to dinner cruise boats, and to the police and fire pier. Ninety-nine percent of the time that will be a nice broad path, but the open space is so a police helicopter can land right in the middle.

Can you describe the process of deciding upon a shared space approach?

That was one of the really upfront visions that [design architect] Stan Eckstut had for the site. He saw it as a true, mercantile, flexible space. Having hard curbs really does limit what you can do with the space—what it wants to be in 2017, and in 50 years, may be really different. Very early on, in 2008 probably, we had that 20-20-20 allocation set up for Wharf Street. It's tight enough to create a comfortable space and encourage that vitality along the water.

A lot of thought went into how to execute it, but we always knew it was going to be shared. From the start, everyone bought in on that vision of flexibility. It will be a nice change from most of the new streets and places that are being constructed around the city, some of which are very rigid and kind of sterile.


A piazza adjacent to Wharf Street will allow cars access to a hotel entrance, without providing through access.

We have a healthy storefront allowance [for retailers to design their own spaces]. Also, these blocks are relatively small by city standards, around 250 feet square. Since the citywide average is 300-500 feet, our fabric is much more porous than that. [Our historic preservation consultants] came up with a list of old alley names from the neighborhood, some of which we'll resurrect here as a link to that past. Hopefully, these approaches will mitigate the fact that everything's new. Ultimately, it needs to get lived in to feel real.

What primary benefits did the shared space approach offer?

Our reason was placemaking. For us, it was starting with a question of "what's the space going to feel like?" We wanted to bring something interesting and unique—a space that'll work tomorrow, and in 50 or 99 years, when our ground lease is done. Vehicular capacity wasn't important, since these are not continuous routes through to anywhere. Most cars will just want to go to and from the garage.

Shared space just made sense for any number of reasons. We wanted to slow the traffic down, but not with obtrusive traffic bumps. These are second-generation traffic calming ideas: adding uncertainty, variety, texture. It's saying, "Hey, you're welcome to come in as a motorist, but behave." Everyone else is going to behave. [Since they're internal streets] we could have some fun with the signage, something like "walk your car."

The exponential drop in injuries when cars only move 15 or 18 mph is very telling. At that speed, people can still communicate nonverbally, with eye contact or a nod. Get above that, and that all breaks down, and instead you have to rely on lights and signs and bumps and those crazy things. We're going a little more low key than that. If everyone's moving at or below 15 mph, you can negotiate those intersections without the need for stop lights and all that equipment.


The Maine Avenue Fish Market, a fixture of DC's waterfront that has long mixed crowds with cars, will remain at the west edge of the Wharf's site. Photo by D.B. King on Flickr.

Were there other examples that sold you on the concept?

We think that we have the right solution for this place, of course, but we did travel to see other waterfronts. Along Nyhavn, the famous slip in Copenhagen, there's two strips of smooth pavement that are the width of the pushcarts they used to unload the boats. That street section, how it feels and meets the water, was definitely an inspiration, just because it's a wonderful place. It's pedestrian only, because there's just so many people, but we have the ability to do the same.

Stavanger, Norway, did a really nice thing with the paving to differentiate parking, driving, and walking spaces. We adapted that solution here: It's all the same tone and all looks about the same, but the textures break things up without putting thermoplastic stripes and giant yellow signs. That makes for a more visually pleasing public environment, creating a public space instead of a traffic sewer.

And of course, right now on the site, the shared space that we already have today is the Fish Market. It's more of a mixing bowl, and it's functioned that way for years. It works just fine because it doesn't "work" in a conventional sense, and that's how it really works.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog USA.

A hidden height limit holds back affordable mid-rise construction in DC

In "The Three Little Pigs," one pig builds a house from straw, a second from sticks, and a third from bricks, with very different consequences. Notably absent is any mention of each little pig's construction budget. For humans today, it's not protection from wolves, but out-of-control budgets that determine our choices of building materials.


New residential construction in Takoma. Photo by the author.

The 1899 Height Act set a construction limit of 90 feet in much of DC, effectively 7 or 8 stories. This height poses a particularly vexing cost conundrum for developers seeking to build workforce housing in DC's neighborhoods. It's just beyond one of the key cost thresholds in development, between buildings supported with light frames versus heavy frames.

Fire safety codes require that buildings over 6 stories have heavy frames, but rents in most of the city don't quite justify the considerable added cost. Instead, valuable land near downtown sits empty, outlying areas that could support taller buildings instead get low­-rise buildings, and the city gets fewer new housing units. New construction techniques could offer a way out.

The difference between heavy and light frames

Heavy frames rely on fewer but stronger steel or reinforced concrete columns to hold up the building, and are better known as Type I fireproof structures. Light frames rely on many small columns (usually known as studs), and are usually referred to as Type II (if masonry or metal) or if wood, Type III (with fire resistive treatments), Type IV (if made from heavy beams), or Type V (if little fire-proofing has been applied) construction.


Left: Type I: 1100 1st St. NE in NoMa. Right: Type III: Apartments in Fort Totten. Photos by Mr.T in DC on Flickr.

These structural types are rated using the degree of fire protection that these structures offer, with lower numbers denoting more fire-resistant structures. In DC, they're defined in the city's building code, which is based on an international standard—the International Code Council (ICC) and its "I-Codes."

The ICC's Table 503 sets limits on how high different types of buildings can be. Thanks to technological improvements to wood and fire safety improvements to buildings, mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building.

How much cheaper?

Light frame construction cuts costs in two principal ways. Light frames use fewer materials in the first place and thus have smaller ecological footprints, particularly since cement manufacturing is one of the most carbon-intensive industries.

They are also built from standardized parts that are usually finished off-site, rather than on-site, so materials are cheaper, on-site storage and staging (e.g., cement mixers) require less space, and construction is faster. That further reduces overall construction costs, since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans.

These cost savings really add up throughout the entire building. The ICC's Building Value Data provides a comparison of national average per-square-foot construction costs for different kinds of multi-family building construction.

$104.74Type VLow-rise wood frame
$119.77Type IIIMid-rise wood frame, fire-resistant walls
$139.01Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel
$150.25Type IHigh-rise fireproof

Similarly, the RS Means construction cost-estimator database provides 2012 estimates (adjusted for local prices in DC) that show an even steeper premium for high-rise construction:

$136.70Type VLow-rise wood frame, 3 stories
$162.87Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel & block, 6 stories
$246.32Type IHigh-rise fireproof, 15 stories

As the ICC figures show, switching from Type III to Type I construction increases the cost of every square foot by 25.4%. Thus going from, say, a six-story building to seven stories only increases the available square footage by 16.7%, but increases construction costs by 46.3%. This results in a difficult choice: go higher for more square feet but at a higher price point, or take the opportunity cost, go lower, and get a cheaper, faster building?

In most other cities, the obvious solution is to go ever higher. Once a building crosses into high-rise construction, the sky's ostensibly the limit. In theory, density can be increased until the additional space brings in enough revenue to more than offset the higher costs. As Linsey Isaacs writes in Multifamily Executive: "Let's say you have a property on an urban infill site that costs $100 per square foot of land. Wood may cost 10 percent less than its counterpart materials, but by doing a high-rise on the site, you get double the density and the land cost is cut in half."

Yet here in DC, the 90-foot height limit on residential areas, and commercial streets outside the core, tightly caps the additional building area that could pay for the substantial cost premium of building a high-rise.

Within the twilight zone

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises' high per-foot construction prices.

These areas are not super-trendy like 1st Street NE in NoMa or 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, which are seeing an explosion of Type I construction (and prices to match, with new apartment buildings selling for $900 per square foot). Nor are they outlying areas, where developers think the opportunity cost of forgoing a future high-rise is acceptable and thus proceed with Type III construction.

The recent apartment boom has given local residents a good, long look at Type III construction: in outlying city neighborhoods like Brookland, Fort Totten, Eckington, Petworth, off Bladensburg Road, and in town centers like Merrifield and White Flint.

In areas that are in-between, a lot of landowners are biding their time, waiting until the moment when land prices will justify a 90-foot high-rise—a situation which explains many of the vacant lots in what might seem like prime locations.

My own neighborhood of Southwest Waterfront is just one example. Within one block of the Metro station are nine vacant lots, all entitled for high-rise buildings, but their developers are waiting until the land prices jump high enough to make high-rises worthwhile amidst a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable prices.

While the developers wait, the heart of the neighborhood suffers from a lack of customers within walking distance; the resulting middling retail selection, vacant storefronts, and subpar bus service reinforces the perception that Southwest Waterfront is not worthy of investment. Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of eight-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze.

In NoMa (east of the tracks) and the western end of H Street NE, projects like 360 H and AVA H Street were redesigned after 2008's market crash so that they didn't require Type I construction. The redesigns reduced costs, reduced the developers' need for scarce financing, and made the projects possible—but also reduced the number of units built. AVA was entitled for almost 170 units, but was built as 138 units: building 20% fewer units cut structural costs by over 40%, according to developer AvalonBay.

Elsewhere, some other development projects have similarly been redesigned with faster Type III construction, even as future phases assume Type I construction. Capitol Quarter, the redevelopment of Capper/Carrollsburg near Navy Yard, might win an award for the shortest time between announcement and groundbreaking for the mixed-income Lofts at Capitol Quarter.

Several blocks west, the first phase to deliver at the Wharf will be the last phase that was designed; in fact, the idea of redeveloping St. Augustine's Church as a new church with a Type III residential building above came years after design began on the high-rises to its west.

New technologies can break the logjam

If it weren't for the Height Act, developers wouldn't just sit and wait on sites like these. They'd probably just build Type III buildings, and if there's still demand, they could build Type I downtown towers with 20+ floors. But due to the Height Act, DC is one of the only cities in America where there's a substantial market for 7-8 story buildings.

To break this logjam without changing the Height Act, DC's building community can embrace new light-frame construction techniques that can cost-effectively build mid-rise buildings without the need for steel beams and reinforced concrete. Local architects, developers, and public officials could convene a working group to bring some of these innovations to market, and thus safely deliver more housing at less cost.

Cross laminated timber (CLT), a "mega-plywood" made of lumber boards laminated together, has sufficient strength and fire resistance for high-rise structures; it's been used to build a 95-foot residential building in London and a 105.5-foot building in Melbourne. The ICC has approved CLT for inclusion in its 2015 code update, but the city has leeway to approve such structures today under a provision that allows "alternate materials and methods."

Cities like Seattle have started to evaluate whether to specifically permit taller CLT buildings. The Bullitt Center, a zero-impact building in Seattle, uses CLT for most of its upper-story structure.


The Bullitt Center. Photo by the author.

Type II buildings, often built with light frames of cold formed (aka light gauge) steel, can achieve high-rise heights but the ICC limits them to the same heights as Type III. (For example, 360 H Street was re-engineered from Type I to Type II, and lost two stories in the process.) Prefabrication, hybrid systems that incorporate other materials, and new fasteners have made mid-rise Type II buildings stronger and most cost-effective.

However, as the RS Means chart above shows, Type II might be cheaper than Type I but remains more expensive than Type I. Similar prefabrication has been applied to Type I mid-rises on the West Coast to reduce their costs.

By embracing these advancements in structural engineering, as well as providing relief from onerous parking requirements, DC could more easily and affordably build the mid-rise buildings that will house much of the city in the future.

Thanks to Brian O'Looney, partner at Torti Gallas and Partners, for sharing his expertise. A version of this post appeared on West North.

As it turns out, suburban sprawl actually peaked 20 years ago

The rate of suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s and has declined by two-thirds since then, even through the giant housing boom. Could this quiet change in land use have caused many of the changes that we're seeing today, from recentralizing job growth to the decline in driving?

Sprawl is slowing
Graph from the USDA.

According to the USDA's 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as "smart growth" emerged onto the national scene. That's before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital.

It's been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). Interestingly, non-metro population growth (including distant exurbs beyond metro area boundaries) in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.

It's interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction, predated "peak car" by 10-15 years. The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti's Wall: the theory that people don't want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes.

Edge Cities, which relocated commercial uses into the inner suburbs, could only extend the outward trend so far; with a few notable examples, attempts at building Edge Cities in outer-ring suburbs has largely failed, since there's no meaningful centrality amidst the undifferentiated masses of one-acre lots. Second-generation Edge Cities rarely thrived, because without new beltways there just wasn't the population base to feed them.

To this day, 80% of the office market in metropolitan DC is within three miles of the Beltway, using Cassidy Turley's submarket definitions. Joel Garreau wrote that in the late 1980s, Til Hazel "had major projects at half the exits on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to...Manassas," but ultimately, that future didn't pan out.

Reston and Herndon, located 10 miles from the Beltway and 20 miles from the White House, are the notable exceptions that proves the rule. Fair Oaks and Gaithersburg, located 17 and 19 miles from downtown DC respectively, are doing just fine. But almost 35 years after their shopping malls opened, they're still ultimately peripheral locations relative to the metro area.

Even in metro Boston, which uniquely among Northeast metros actually built an outer beltway, 73% of the office market is within the urban core or inner ring, and the urban core commands per-foot prices more than twice as high.

If you consider that the area of a circle grows with the square of its radius, a slowdown in the areas developed for sprawl would imply a much steeper decrease in the radius of metro expansion. This could imply another overlooked factor in the slowdown in VMT growth, or vehicle miles traveled: since metro areas are no longer getting geometrically wider, thus distances between metro-area destinations are no longer growing as fast.

A majority of the VMT benefits from more-central locations come from the fact that destinations are closer and car trips are shorter; only a minority of the benefits come from a switch to other modes. As growth recentralizes, perhaps VMT can be expected to decline further.

A version of this post appeared on West North.

No, DC is not going to be like Paris

Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.


Demolition near l'Opéra in Paris, 1877. Photo by Charles Marville

The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."

"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."

A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.

The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.

Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.

That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.

By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.

Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.

DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.

Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.

The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.

Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.

As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.

The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.

A version of this post appeared on West North.

Support Us