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Ward 5 needs a vision beyond "no bus/streetcar parking"

Will the Spingarn streetcar barn harm the Benning Road corridor? Would a bus garage on North Capitol damage surrounding neighborhoods? Will mixed use development destroy Brookland? Discussions in DC's Ward 5 often center around what residents oppose, but what's really needed is a plan for what they do want.

Photo by james4765 on Flickr.

Ward 5, mostly in Northeast DC, has the most industrial land, surface railroads and suburban big box stores of any part of the District. In short, it's the farthest away from the kind of walkable mixed-use patterns in highest demand today.

Its new councilmember, Kenyan McDuffie, is trying to figure out the future of Ward 5. He's got a tough uphill climb to bring fractious neighborhood activists together in a vision that could fundamentally reshape the ward, while dealing with old infrastructure and new infrastructure proposals that might or might not fit into a vision.

Ward 5 has a famously-bitter political culture, with ward-wide and neighborhood listservs that draw more nasty, personal backbiting than perhaps any others in the city. In that toxic environment is a very loud chorus of voices shouting down almost any ideAFRHa.

The critics point to a lot of transportation storage facilities being planned or proposed for Ward 5:

  • Ivy City is getting a parking lot for 65 charter buses displaced from Union Station. Ivy City already has very poor residents with many health problems, and don't need the added pollution. But Mayor Gray says it's also one of the most logical places to locate the buses, because it's along New York Avenue and there's ample city-owned vacant land there today.
  • After long insisting the streetcar facility could be under the H Street overpass, DDOT suddenly moved it to the Spingarn campus. They said they had no alternative to Spingarn, because it was too late to try to work something out for the RFK parking lots or some other spot, any of which would be more complex and time-consuming.
  • WMATA is now looking at relocating the Northern Bus Garage on 14th Street to a part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property on North Capitol Street. WMATA sorely needs a more up-to-date facility, residents of 14th Street want to get rid of the bus garage, and AFRH wants to sell some of its land.

    However, WMATA initially wanted to build its garage at Walter Reed, where there was plenty of room to keep it away from surrounding houses. Councilmember Muriel Bowser staunchly opposed the plan, as did Mayor Gray. Was Ward 4 able to wield a lot of clout because it's a wealthier part of the city?

    According to sources familiar with the discussions, WMATA officials now think AFRH might work even better, as it's closer to the center of the city and North Capitol and Irving are now configured as high-speed near-freeways. It's not right next to any residential neighborhood, let alone inside one. Still, it will bring more deadheading bus traffic to some streets which don't have the buses now.

McDuffie has taken a firm stance against all of these facilities. He's responding to his constituents, and the fact that all 3 are going to Ward 5 does seem unfair.

But if all or some of them will go there anyway, are there opportunities to design them to be assets to the area?

The buses in Ivy City are pretty hard to make into a plus, but a streetcar barn is really not such a bad thing. If designed well, it could even contribute to the neighborhood.

AFRH might be the best spot for a bus garage that nobody really wants to live near (except people in Friendship Heights, like some who want to landmark the Western Bus Garage on the belief that a mid-rise building would be far worse).

It's hard to be very surprised that the District ends up suggesting locating transportation facilities in a ward that already has many transportation facilities, relatively low densities of residents, and many places without immediate opportunities for other types of development. In places far from Metro or high-frequency bus lines, large-scale residential or office development would be hard to attract and would bring lots of its own new traffic, likely stirring up vociferous opposition on the listservs as well.

That's why it's great that McDuffie is also moving beyond simply saying "hell, no" and trying to jump-start some planning for his ward. He is proposing an industrial land use task force to look at how to plan for the ward's many acres of industrial spaces.

At Wednesday's hearing on the bill, McDuffie suggested a MARC station at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. As Dan Malouff discussed, it's not a bad idea. McDuffie also wants to look into the potential for residential development, urban agriculture, and hubs for small businesses and nonprofits in Ward 5, he said.

If McDuffie can shepherd a vision for the future of Ward 5, and more importantly get something his loud neighborhood activists can say yes to, it will do a lot more to improve the quality of life than just blocking a few locally-undesirable transportation facilities. It will also create more reasons to spread those facilities out to other parts of the city as well.

Still, as long as Ward 5 is the most industrial of the wards, it'll attract things that tend to go in industrial places. A vision would also give residents something to ask for in exchange for these proposals.

Maybe, rather than stopping a bus garage on North Capitol, they can insist on money for other priorities for spots that are closer to more residents. Likewise, If a training facility at Spingarn doesn't mitigate the cost of having the car barn, what would residents like instead?

Ward 5 can ask for the city to really invest in what they want, when it also invests in what the rest of the city needs.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Alternatively this article could have said Wards are not neighborhoods and the fact that there are 3 things "unfairly" being placed in Ward 5 is apropos of absolutely nothing.
Random demarcations FTW! Build thing B on the other side of the street!

by Thaps on Nov 16, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

The bus garage should go at Walter Reed, it's stupid that they managed to get that off the table immediately. The AFRH site is fine, it's not near any housing other than the home so I dunno why ward 5 residents are complaining other than feeling "disrespected."

These things should be decided by what's the best/most logical place to put these uses, not whoever complains the loudest about being a dumping ground.

by MLD on Nov 16, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

The broader issue is that cities need to have sites for at least somewhat mildly undesirable activities that are necessary for them to function. We have to have garages for garbage trucks and buses, sites to park UPS trucks, places to store salt for snow removal, gas stations, etc. Often city planning agencies don't give enough attention to these needs and the desirable goal of siting them strategicly around town. Neighborhood groups underestimate the ability to hide and mitigate the impact of these facilities in new construction. Well functioning cities cannot be composed of 100% walkable neighborhoods and not every inch of waterfront can be devoted to parkland and biking trails.

by Mr. Transit on Nov 16, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

the noxious effects of these facilities seem a little overblown here. Is there an objection on residents' part to having a big parking lot for retail that's used all day? Garages do bring potential brownfield issues but there's probably a lot more known about how to prevent them now than in the past.

It's funny that things necessary for infrastructure, as well as other industrial-type uses only get attention in the most negative way, yet they need to be close to population centers and are likely to be casualties of efforts to redevelop places like downtown Silver Spring or the White Flint area. It shouldn't be necessary to go out to Woodbridge, Gaithersburg/outer Rockville, or Beltsville to get a car fixed or to get a stone counter made, but the erosion of classic industrial zones may make that the case and also may reduce competition and increase cost to places distant from tradespeople and places like the District. it also might be helpful if children of the well-off (going into these redeveloped places) grew-up seeing people do actual jobs rather than to dimly know that people work in offices. having known lots of DCers over a long period of time, I'm pretty impressed at how people grow up here insulated from knowledge that even well-off people in other places have.

by Rich on Nov 16, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

I grew up in a neighborhood that had a couple of small factories (light industry) The buildings were completely enclosed, and I did NOT see the people doing their jobs their. Its not like driving through farm country. So I think it probably makes sense to put those uses where they make economic sense, not keep them in central city locations for pedantic purposes. Anyway, its hard to see what the pedantic value of a bus parking lot is - are there kids in DC who have never seen a bus being parked?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 16, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

The title of this post and the examples don't illustrate very well what I believe is the legitimate story, Councilmember McDuffie's legislation. That legislation should be applauded and does not need the surrounding discussion about how "[d]iscussions in DC's Ward 5 often center around what people oppose." I say this for a few reasons.

First, I believe many neighborhoods in Ward 5 have Small Area Plans. It probably would have been helpful to at least identify the various small area plans as a starting point for the vision people have for their communities so that there's at least an acknowledgement that people in fact are not simply stating opposition. For example, Brookland has a small area plan. So contrary to the assertion presented in the opening paragraph, residents in that community have articulated a vision of what they want. Whether development taking place actually reflects the small area plan is another story, but it's inaccurate to suggest that people are only stating what they do not want. If it is the case that the areas mentioned in the article do not have small area plans, then it would be helpful to state that. Where there are no plans is certainly where communities find themselves in a more reactive position.

Second, I don't think there really is a credible argument against the notion that we should share the sacrifice of housing burdensome facilities that serve large portions of the city. For example, the Fort Totten trash transfer station abuts Fort Totten Park in NE. An argument could be made that the park camouflages the station so it's great that the station was placed where it is. On the other hand, that also means no one uses much of the park. That's not to say the park doesn't still serve a purpose in being green. Interestingly enough, the residential area that sits across the street is marked as an affordable housing zone.

Third, the bus garage is just a poor example to illustrate the point I think the author would like to convey. Residents of the 14th St. neighborhood do not want the bus garage there and they want it moved so that the current site can be developed into a mixed use development. I'm not sure why it would be expected that residents in other communities would feel any differently about housing the bus garage. Unlike the streetcar barn, the bus garage already exists. That there seems to be no discussion about rehabilitating the site where it currently stands is confounding at this point.

I'll end this long comment by saying the title and the examples seem to convey this notion that people are only whining, which is too bad because I don't think that was the real point of the post. It's also unfortunate that there's an element of "thems the breaks" underlying a few of the comments because it essentially renders the people who would have to live near these facilities as virtually invisible because it supposedly makes economic sense to do so. They just become part of the industrial landscape that supposedly pervades the ward.

by Uchenna on Nov 16, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

I agree with a lot of what Uchenna says. I'd add that you can't just look at what people in Ward 5 are opposing, but what are they asking for that the city isn't providing. I'm sure Ward 5 could live with undesirable thing x, y, and z, if it meant that residents get tons of cool stuff like city parks, better schools, better transport options, etc. So if the city wants Ward 5 to swallow these things, just sweeten the deal a bit to make these things more palatable. If there is this give and take going on that I'm not aware of, that should be raised in the article.

For example, Mcmillan is in Ward 5 and the mayor recently said he wanted that space to be part of a world-class medical facility. Ummm neighbors have lots of wants and desires for the McMillan space but I don't think that's one of them. Even the controversial vision McMillan plan incorporates a big chunk of park space and the ability for that space to be programmed according to neighborhood desires.

by 11luke on Nov 16, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

Uchenna's right. 11luke as well.

I don't like the tone of this piece -- I think it's unwarranted and unnecessary. The vilification of Ward 5 residents works against the author's apparent intent, which I assume must have been to build consensus for his vision of Ward 5.

by cineminded on Nov 17, 2012 3:23 am • linkreport

Uchenna -- people don't use Fort Totten Park because it's not set up to be used, and is located in a place that's inconvenient to get to. I don't think the fact that there is a transfer station next door is why people don't use it. (cf. other discussions about NPS parks in DC and how they are provisioned and managed).

WRT small area plans, they aren't really complete plans, they are build out analysis and management plans. But you are right that all the plans should at least be referenced together (+ great streets + transit planning + parks planning + schools planning).

The area elements which cover W5 would be, theoretically, sector plans, or at least a compilation of principles, sort of. But they aren't real plans (compared to places like Montgomery or Arlington Counties).

DC doesn't do sector plans, which is what area elements of the comp plan are.

I agree that the bus garage should go to walter reed, to replace the one or two bus garages serving that area.

wrt the W5 Industrial lands study, I think it's very dangerous. It's obviously an attempt to politicize the use of the land even more than it is already. DC has very little industrial land, which the study from 2006 ( made the point.

That study is an extension of ideas in planning, including SF, that PDR uses (production, distribution, repair) have to be accommodated somehow, that they can't be displaced, and transit is one of those uses.

W5 has a preponderance of this zoning category because most of this use abuts train tracks.

And it is problematic for a variety of reasons. I think DC made a mistake in allowing nonindustrial uses as a matter of right in many cases, particularly churches and schools, which can outbid industrial uses on noneconomic grounds, especially because they don't have to pay property tax (usually). I submitted an amendment to the comp plan to disallow this in CM zones and it was rejected.

The problem of course is that these lands abut residential areas. I don't know what to say other than people chose to live near the railroad tracks and shouldn't expect to change the land uses there.

Although likely some of the energy about this is the allowance of "strip clubs" in industrially zoned areas.

But the general point that W5 is an artificial construct is true. Better that the focus be on fixing places that don't work, a key example being Rhode Island generally, and specifically the part from 4th St. NE to 13th St. NE, Bladensburg, and New York Avenue.

But yes the W5 parochialism is big (one of the big reasons I avoided looking at houses there) and comes out in projects and plans such as with the Florida Market, where people argued that the rest of the city had no business weighing in on the issues, that they deserved something like Gallery Place in W5 (sort of like the idea that every ward deserves a Level 1 trauma center) with a bowling alley, etc., even though the location is about one mile from Gallery Place, etc. and that justified urban renewal of the market.

by Richard Layman on Nov 17, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

As long as the vast impermeable acreage of the RFK Stadium parking lots languishes unused 99 percent of the time, why would the tour bus corral be put anywhere else?

by Incredulous on Nov 18, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

I don't think this piece attacked Ward 5 residents in general, as some are claiming above. If anyone is "attacked," it is the few who scream "no" at everything, and lead to the negative tone of most political discussion in the ward. Believe me, they exist and are particularly nasty, for whatever reason.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 18, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport


DDOT pushes RFK as a tour bus parking lot all the time. The operators do not make much use of it because it doesn't work for them - it takes too long for them to get from there to their pick-up/drop-off locations (such as Union Station).

RFK sits unused for tour buses because it's not very useful to them. So, that's why they're putting it someplace else.

by Alex B. on Nov 18, 2012 9:16 pm • linkreport

There is a plan for Ivy City and several non profit housing organizations: DC Habitat for Humanity, MiCasa and Manna are building there now. The neighborhood has told the city what it wants but is the city listening?

by Carol Casperson on Nov 19, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

There is a Vision for Ward 5 beyond "no bus/street car parking" and that vision is to have better grocery options for healthier foods, to improve our public education facilities, to receive better retail options. All of which would better serve Ward 5 and the commercial zoning than pollution and buses! Ward 5 is a beautiful area in DC and if it weren't for the city wanting to continue dumping in it, it could be a new area for shops, dining, housing, and our schools would have better facilities. I bet if the plan was to park the buses and car barns in Wards 3 or 4, it would be insulting to many families and detrimental to their health. But because it is Ward 5 it is somehow acceptable and unacceptable to say "NO!".
I am a resident of Ivy City and our community has long been ignored and dumped on and despite the new affordable homes built by Manna, Mi Casa and Habitat for over 50 new families, the Mayor insists that our community is the best location for 65 diesel fueled buses. Along with Love Nightclub and Medical Marijuana. I believe we are the only residential neighborhood with a nightclub! The new homes are being built and families will turn away at the offer because of all the negative and polluting facilities around it. Not to mention we have a youth detention facility that sits at the top of Ivy City yet we do not have a facility, recreation center or library to show our youth positive influences, culture and the importance of Education. The exact opposite, schools are closed, people are unemployed and buses are being proposed to park at the Heart of our community that for over 40 years we have been advocating to be restored for community use.

What happened to greening and sustainability in Ivy City! In Ward 5!

The Mayor and his developer buddies are not only hypocrites for doing one thing and saying another, but they are basically trying to slap Ivy City and all of Ward 5 in the face as if our hard working families do not deserve the same opportunities for education and "walkable, livable communities" as we can see in Ward 3, 4, and 6 for example.

And like many in DC, we don't want the area to be GENTRIFIED as we see in all other parts of DC.

We want the Improvements without Displacement!

by Andria Swanson on Nov 27, 2012 12:56 pm • linkreport

Your definition of a "firm stance" differs from mine. The neighborhoods and McDuffie are 0-3 on these unwanted projects. McDuffie caved on all three and even caved on a proposed and needed school in Ward 5. Ward 5 does not have a single middle school. When construction began a handful of whites complained about noise and McDuffie caved. The school's construction was delayed a year.

by therealist on Dec 21, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

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