Fort Totten development plans pedestrian street
Earlier this month, DC officials announced another economic development deal to sell an unused parcel of public land for development. This parcel is very close to the Fort Totten Metro station, an area that has seen very little transit-oriented development despite its location on three Metro lines. Based on the publicly-released drawings, the project is working hard to create a walkable place where none exists today.
The plan aims to turn a block of Riggs Road NE into a walkable business street. Besides a large grocery store, the drawings show small, individual shops along the street. Brightly striped crosswalks, wide sidewalks, and closely-spaced trees create a welcoming atmosphere. There's even on-street parallel parking on the redesigned Riggs Road.
Right now, the intersection of Riggs and South Dakota Avenue is a high-speed traffic zone, with ramps moving cars between the various roads in wide curves. This plan consolidates the intersection into one four-way intersection. Pedestrians will be able to cross at crosswalks instead of dodging traffic in freeway-like ramps.
Left: the area today (from Google Maps). Right: the proposed development. Click an image to enlarge.
Still, the new intersection, while a huge improvement, retains design elements that prioritize moving large numbers of vehicles over pedestrians. Most of the roads widen as they approach the intersection, to create a full complement of turn lanes. And one of the four crosswalks, along the south edge of South Dakota, is conspicuously absent.
Success or failure at transforming this area could presage how successful we can be at bringing urbanism to existing suburban areas like Tysons Corner, with its large arterials and cloverleaf intersections that planners couldn't remove or reconfigure.
Other elements of the plan may also hinder this area from fully transcending its present pedestrian-unfriendly character. Right in the middle of this walkable retail street is a break in the retail storefronts. Cars can traverse the sidewalk here to access the parking garage in the back of the project, underneath the four residential floors above. There are two other curb cuts for this parking, one on 3rd Street along the south side of the project, and the other on Chillum Place on the north side. Why couldn't all the cars enter and exit from these rear entrances? That would let Riggs, the main walkable street, maintain continuous storefronts and minimize conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians.
Finally, I wonder if we couldn't have broken up this parcel with new neighborhood streets. All of the blocks remain large, and small blocks are one of the most important factors contributing to walkability. The residential developments in the southeast don't appear to front on any streets at all, creating a bit of a "towers in the park" dynamic. And the back of the development is clearly a "back," with just the wall of the parking garage and no street engagement. At the moment, that's not a big deal, since there are only low, warehouse-style buildings across the street. But one day, others might redevelop those parcels, only they'll forever face the back of this development.
Despite these potential flaws, it'll bring major improvements to the area. While Brookland, Takoma, and others have seen development (and development controversies) in their underutilized land around their Metro stations, economic development has thus far passed Fort Totten by. As the only DC transfer station outside downtown, this area lead the city in transit-oriented development, not lag far behind.
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