Greater Greater Washington

No overhead wires on the Mall?

One argument against overhead wires is that they will ruin the views of Washington and mar wire-free places like the Mall and grand avenues.

But an eagle-eyed reader sent along this surprising picture:


Image from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.

A wire blocks the view of the Washington Monument!

The tipster adds that this wire has been here for a long time, but we simply didn't notice it, just as the occasional streetcar wire will not constantly and painfully impinge upon our consciousness.

To be clear, I don't support building a streetcar with overhead wires on the Mall. I don't support wires on Pennsylvania Avenue either, with its dramatic views of the Capitol, or 16th Street, with its long views of the Washington Monument.

I simply believe that the vast majority of DC streetscapes will not be harmed by wires, and we should use batteries or supercapacitors on the few that are until technology has advanced far enough that streetcars can realiably run without wires and recharge at stations even with air conditioning or heat.

That wire is ugly, but it should be removed, not replicated. Edited to add: The even uglier thing, that blocks the view to a much greater extent, is the tour bus, not to mention the two roadways slicing the green space and making it difficult to walk between the Monument and the Tidal Basin.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Ehm, Dave? That's a tree branch blocking the view of the Washington Monument, not a wire.

by Jasper on Jun 3, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

Don't forget this gorgeous H St vista ruined by overhead wires.

View Larger Map

by andrew on Jun 3, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

I think that unsightly blue truck should be removed too.

by aaa on Jun 3, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

It's the wire from Franklin's kite. It's historic.

by BeyondDC on Jun 3, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Memorial Bridge is beautiful. Its stonework and artistic use of night lighting are an asset to Washington's architectural history and aesthetic.

That said, I would think most GGW posters were against the expansion of Wilson Bridge, despite the impressive aesthetic improvements over its predecessor. Existing infrastructure and tolerable or even attractive uses as those cited in Europe don't excuse poor urban planning decisions. Just like increasing transit options/availability is the foward-thinking, progressive view to counter lane-widening, so is the underground wire paradigm in modern urban planning.

David - you say "That wire is ugly, but it should be removed, not replicated" but you also say "I simply believe that the vast majority of DC streetscapes will not be harmed by wires."

Would that "even uglier thing," the tour bus, be any less ugly on H Street? Of course not.

by SDJ on Jun 3, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

Is this location somehow exempt from the wire ban on account of the whole Tidal Basin not being a part of L'Enfant's original plan?

I generally agree with the clear point that this photograph makes: if wires are so bad, why hasn't there been an outcry about this wire? The lack of an outcry over this wire is strong evidence that wires really aren't the visual intrusion they're made out to be. But to the extent that wires are a visual intrusion, I think a far more compelling case can be made for wires that cross, say, Pennsylvania Avenue, than wires that run along them.

by thm on Jun 3, 2010 4:33 pm • linkreport

Comparing this one single lonely wire to the humongous assemblage of wires, stanchions, other structures required for overhead power sources is like looking at a Toy Poodle being led around and saying 'see Pit Bulls aren't that dangerous!'

by Lance on Jun 3, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

the street lights and the monument block my view of the sky above Washington

by kk on Jun 3, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

I find it interesting that this law was written in 1891, because that was the time when Alexander Graham Bell was setting up his telephone system in Boston. He was a regional golden boy, so Boston let him be very sloppy in how he wired the city. By the time anyone spoke up about it, Boston was wired. And sloppy. So sloppy that it's like that here even today. Go anywhere outside Downtown Boston, in Massachusetts, and you will see leaning power poles holding power, phone, and cable wires, and even a lot of power conditioning equipment.

Even places like Provincetown are like that. Those of us who live here don't even notice it. But I have to admit it's ugly, and I understand why people in DC in 1890 looked at Boston and decided "not here, please."

But y'all aren't talking about turning DC into Boston. You're talking about turning DC into Vienna, or any number of cities with lots of beauty served by trolleys but not marred by them. And it's time to update the law to reflect that.

by Omri on Jun 3, 2010 5:30 pm • linkreport

I find it interesting that this law was written in 1891, because that was the time when Alexander Graham Bell was setting up his telephone system in Boston. He was a regional golden boy, so Boston let him be very sloppy in how he wired the city. By the time anyone spoke up about it, Boston was wired. And sloppy. So sloppy that it's like that here even today. Go anywhere outside Downtown Boston, in Massachusetts, and you will see leaning power poles holding power, phone, and cable wires, and even a lot of power conditioning equipment.

That's an interesting point.

I wonder if it was even worse once. In La Paz (Bolivia) I remember noticing a lot of really horrible tangles of overhead cables. I'm not talking two or three or even half dozen large cables. I'm talking real spaghetti messes of dozens and dozens of (telephone, presumably) cables going this way and that from pole to pole. As if there were an individual wire strung for each and every subscriber. (And not always strung neatly.)

That may be a modern reflection of something or other in Bolivia rather than a true reflection of whatever Boston looked like back in the day. But if planners in DC were looking at anything similar in 1890, I certainly don't blame them for freaking out a bit.

by jack lecou on Jun 3, 2010 6:07 pm • linkreport

I say we all dress like people in 1891 too.

by ed on Jun 3, 2010 6:32 pm • linkreport

That wire is ugly

Actually it is not. It's an afterthought in the image. What's ugly is the cars, the fast traffic and the poorly maintained grass. What's also ugly is the absence of a side walk, and bike lanes. Seriously, we have way more important issues to worry about that a few silly wires.

by Jasper on Jun 3, 2010 8:36 pm • linkreport

Jack, I don't know if it was worse in 1891 in Boston, but I do know that the utility lines are what's a mess, not the trolley lines.

First we use cheap wooden utility poles. So we have to run tension lines so they can support each other and not sag, or lean, or bend. Which they do anyway. Then we pile power lines, phone lines, and now TV cable lines on top. Then there are electric wires that are only there for lightning protection, on the very top. As if that's not enough, we put power transformers and line conditioners on top of the poles (so they won't be stolen). And then we go from each pole and send 3 lines into each and every house, giving each pole this hedgehog like look. It's pretty awful.
(Wow, I sure can sing praise to my home town!)

Compare that to the trolley wires for the Green Line or the trackless trolleys, though. These only connect the power to the trolley. They don't reach anywhere else. And they're set up to be tidy (or else the trolleys would lose contact and stop). It's not ugly at all. So I have to think the 1891 law as much more about the other things than about the trolley lines.

by Omri on Jun 3, 2010 8:42 pm • linkreport

@Jasper-There is no sidewalk because that is essentially a traffic island between two merging streets. To the left is Independence Ave. To the right is the extension of Maine Avenue. On the far left, on the Mall side, there is a wide sidewalk. There is a crosswalk both where the two roads meet and and 14th street.

The wire feeds streetlights.

by ah on Jun 3, 2010 9:10 pm • linkreport

@ ah: I've looked further that the image in the post. Only on the north side of Independence, there is a side walk.

I happened to have a visitor over last weekend, and she wanted to walk a look around the tidal basin. Just try and do that this weekend, and then get back to me on the status of side walks. It's a disgusting mess of missing side walks, memorial construction (at the Jefferson Memorial as well as the future MLK Memorial) and urban road jungle on the NE part between the tidal basin, the Mall and 14th St.

For instance, try to get to the "Annual Library" that the NPS has hidden there somewhere. Of course, without any signs of what flowers they have there.

by Jasper on Jun 4, 2010 7:19 am • linkreport

Get the trolleys built tut suit, and get all the sustainable and economic benefits running asap! Down the road when battery technology or whatever, we'll restore the monumental core to it's perfect beauty! We can start by re-building half of the boxy monstrocities that pass for museums.

by Thayer-D on Jun 4, 2010 7:33 am • linkreport

I'm sure that wire is crucial for National Security.

by Chris on Jun 4, 2010 8:43 am • linkreport

ugh...people "trying" to use phrases in languages they don't understand, then murdering the spelling...

by nookie on Jun 4, 2010 8:43 am • linkreport

So I have to think the 1891 law as much more about the other things than about the trolley lines.

Yes, absolutely. In case it wasn't clear, I was just trying to amplify that point.

Street car power lines are by no means ugly or tangled. I think they're actually kind of pleasant.

by jack lecou on Jun 4, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

@nooking, ugh...people "trying" to use phrases in languages they don't understand, then murdering the spelling...

Something tells me Thayer studied Spanish in high school and not French ... He might want to take a French introductory course at L'Alliance Francaise ... 'tout de suite' ...

by Lance on Jun 4, 2010 9:08 am • linkreport

merci beaucoup pour la correcxion Lance, et pardon e moi Mr.nookie, mais j'avai etudie les francais en ecole. Unfortunatley, my spelling sucks in any language. I still can't believe we're going to let a few wires hold up what most see as an esential component towards abandoning our addiction to fossil fuel. If this catastrophe in the Gulf hasn't highlighted the importance of this, I don't know what will. I thought the first gulf war was the perfect pretext towards pivoting our economy away from oil. Twenty years and thousands of lives later what is Mr. Obama waiting for. I know the interests aligned are none too sweet, but the costs are becoming unbearable. So much for the self correcting free market. Je suis desole!

by Thayer-D on Jun 4, 2010 9:36 am • linkreport

I suppose a single trolley wire wouldn't be so bad, but as one of the comments says, in parts of the city (we live on MacArthur near Q, NW) the poles (and they just added duplicates to take the electric lines so they'd be less affected by bad weather) hold a myriad of ugly, ugly, ugly wires, not to mention the transformers and other gizmos. it's better in the summer when the trees hide the mess, but when it's all visible, it's really a visual crime.

by Alex Liebowitz on Jun 4, 2010 9:41 am • linkreport

Hey now! Easy on the tour bus hate! Unless you want me to bring hordes of eighth graders on the Metro...

I know no one likes tour buses. As a tour guide that frustrates me. As a DC resident I get it. But do you know what the end result of steadily reducing tour bus parking, stricter idling laws, more and more off limits areas are?

The answer: when I get my group off the bus, the bus will circle around the Mall and downtown. There's often no where else he can go. So instead of an idling bus, or even better a parked bus, you have a bus in traffic going no where, blocking everyone else.

by TimK on Jun 4, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

"Something tells me Thayer studied Spanish in high school and not French ... He might want to take a French introductory course at L'Alliance Francaise ... 'tout de suite' ..."

Constant invocations of Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, Buenos Aires, La Paz: aren't we just so Metro-International-Well Traveled-Eurowonderful on this blog?!

Seriously, let's recognize and value what we have, a unique capital city with close-in livable neighborhoods, shaped by a number of outside (yes, even foreign) influences, but as a design concept, it's pretty darn good and very American in it's own way. We should always improve it, but let's not change it wholesale to be more like [add very exciting world city]. Returning to National Airport (ah, heck, let's call it RONALD REAGAN AIRPORT just to annoy the Europhiles out there), I always try to grab a window seat (on the low scale, open DC side, not the ugly, high-rise Rosslyn side!). It's like landing in a park, and for me, never ceases to thrill. After many years, I always feel glad to return to a special place and that I'm lucky to live here.

by JimT on Jun 4, 2010 11:19 am • linkreport

@kk, omri, et al.
You may trivialize the 1890s law as being an artifact of an older time, and therefore worth dismissing. On the flip side, though, you'd probably be one of the first to say that DC wasn't built to accommodate so many cars and we should promote a car-free urban core. I'm not saying that's a bad idea, but I'm saying it's once again a blatant double standard.

Are the traditions of yesteryear antiquated and worthy of ridicule, or are they guiding mantras for urban development? Why can't their merits be assessed solely on that, rather than their age or original context?

And to those who say "well, power lines are bad, but trolley lines are okay" - fine. Then why not compromise and provide just an exclusion for rail lines? Instead, the Council is intending to repeal the entire ban - opening up the possibility for all kinds of shit to go up. I'm not saying it'll go up overnight, but we have to be realistic about our budget-strapped city that's always cutting corners and utility companies that are trying to improve bottom lines. Yes, there is a premium for undergrounding ALL wires - what do you think will happen when no one is forced to do that anymore? You can bet some defenseless parts of DC will have new places to post their "WE BUY HOUSES" signs.

@nookie
I think Thayer-D was referring to a specific kind of ancient Egyptian garb...

by SDJ on Jun 4, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

For instance, try to get to the "Annual Library" that the NPS has hidden there somewhere. Of course, without any signs of what flowers they have there.

From the sidewalk on independence, cross at the light at the merge of Independence and Maine. Take the walking path towards the tidal basin. Cross Maine/Independence going eastbound and you're there.

It's really not hard. I go through there every day, and while there aren't sidewalks bordering every road everywhere, there's little need to do so and including them would likely reduce traffic and pedestrian safety by encouraging jaywalking.

http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=4326+Klingle+St+NW,+Washington,+District+of+Columbia,+20016&ll=38.887054,-77.035851&spn=0.001768,0.002626&t=h&z=19

by ah on Jun 4, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

"humongous assemblage of wires, stanchions, other structures required for overhead power sources"

Talk about hyperbole. And that's what it is, no matter what the language or how poor the spelling! We are talking about a single overhead wire that can be held up by existing streetlamps or decorative stanchions.

Acceptez que vous allez perdre, que Washington va avoir un tramway et que le plupart de riverains seront heureux de le voir arriver. Chaban-Delmas a perdu le debat a Bordeaux et le "Committee of 100" va perdre ici. (Chaban-Delmas etait un vrai hero de la resistance mais son politique d'hostilite contre les transports en commun etait un desastre.....)

by rg on Jun 4, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport

@andrew, thank you for the reminder of the beeaaauuutiful H St vistas that we are so desperate to protect from power lines. I will knock those wires down on my way home and all will be well again.

by Brian White on Jun 4, 2010 12:52 pm • linkreport

@rg, que Washington va avoir un tramway et que le plupart de riverains seront heureux de le voir arriver. Chaban-Delmas a perdu le debat a Bordeaux et le "Committee of 100" va perdre ici.

Please quit misrepresenting the Commitee of 100's position. We are fully in support of the streetcars. Do not misconstrue our demands for good planning in regards to the system to mean we are against it. We are against bad planning, not the system. And yes, using old technology with wires is part of the bad planning ... especially if it opens up the threat of all kinds of wires being allowed everywhere, as was the case until earlier in the week ... and could still be.

by Lance on Jun 4, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport

How are wires for streetcars bad planning? Of the 300+ streetcars systems in the world, all but short segments of two use an overhead wire. Is Vienna guilty of bad planning? Munich? Paris? Brussels? Zurich? Melbourne? Portland? Barcelona? Amsterdam? Heck, even Bordeaux is using an overhead wire for all of its extensions and its new line.

As for the Committee's position, I read its reactionary petition. I also read the screed (streetcars are smelly! And they will bring unwanted development to H Street!)written by your CHRS partner Dick Wolff back in 2007. Also, what exactly is the Committee's position? I can't really keep track of it.....

Finally, have a sense of humor -- I was being just a wee bit silly in that last comment. Remember the earlier comments about poor French grammar and spelling? It is Friday afternoon after all. I'm pretty certain that most readers have no idea what I wrote. Even those who can read French probably have no idea what the hell I was writing about anyway. Only a raging nerd like me knows about any of that stuff. Outside of southwest France, anyway.....

by rg on Jun 4, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

@rg, Not a problem ... Sorry for my strong reaction.

by Lance on Jun 4, 2010 2:56 pm • linkreport

I don't support wires on Pennsylvania Avenue either, with its dramatic views of the Capitol... David A.

That's my cue! David, you probably also object to silly plans to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th Street, right?

Lance probably also will want to take the opportunity to denouce the goofy Town Square plan being promoted by CHRS and Committee of 100.

by Trulee Pist on Jun 4, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

"We are against bad planning, not the system. And yes, using old technology with wires is part of the bad planning ... especially if it opens up the threat of all kinds of wires being allowed everywhere, as was the case until earlier in the week ... and could still be."

Even if there was no way to integrate trolley wires into the city without creating eye sores (the cities of Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam really show that claim to be untrue), it is still a huge degree different from regular wiring, which DC already puts in conduits underground. If DC tried that, everyone here would side with the committee of 100 in opposing it.

by Omri on Jun 4, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

Historic preservation shouldn't be the only criterion for these sorts of decisions. Economic and social issues should have at least as much weight.

Does anyone know who this mystical Committee of 100 is? Are they Freemasons? Are they elected by the public?

by ed on Jun 4, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

Mission Statement

The Committee of 100 advocates responsible planning and land use in Washington, D.C. Our work is guided by the values inherited from the L'Enfant Plan and McMillan Commission, which give Washington its historic distinction and natural beauty, while responding to the special challenges of 21st century development. We pursue these goals through public education, research and civic action, and we celebrate the city's unique role as both the home of the District's citizens and the capital of our nation.

And no, not Masons.

History:

www.committeeof100.net/history.html

by Lance on Jun 4, 2010 6:55 pm • linkreport

Fenty works for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Rhee works for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Gray works for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

You work for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

I work for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Kinda like the Mafia, without the charitable paternalism.

by Trulee Pist on Jun 4, 2010 9:40 pm • linkreport

Trulee Pist is Trulee Nuts.

by Lance on Jun 4, 2010 9:45 pm • linkreport

Basically, the Committee of 100 is a self-appointed group of rich NIMBYs whose power comes from their control of neighborhood groups and their ability to direct campaign contributions to favored candidates. Anyone with the simplest understanding of politics understands that their goal is to spread as much FUD as possible about streetcars while operating behind a veneer of "supporting good planning."

by Phil on Jun 5, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

OK. Thanks for your answers.

As a naive outsider, it seems to me that they draw their legitimacy only from these plans, and not from anything popular or democratic. Also, I only hear about this committee when they are against a development. In my opinion, historic preservation is all well and good as long as it is not the only game in town- i.e., there is room for transportation and economic development.

As far as I can tell, there is a lot of need for economic development for a large portion of district residents (not so much for the folks from the fifty states with Ivy League degrees...), and I wonder to what extent overuse of the historic development card by an unelected body is justifiable.

by ed on Jun 5, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

In last sentence I meant to write
"historic preservation card"
("not historic development card")

by ed on Jun 5, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport

@ed, Did you read the history link? Historic Preservation is just one little piece of the Committee of 100's work. Land use planning, including development and transporation issues are major major parts of its efforts. To put it bluntly, the Committee of 100 is what GGW aspires to be.

Its members give their time pro-bono to it and come from all walks in life (we have architects, lawyers, ANC commissioners, businessmen, teachers, federal agency executives, and even a former Councilmember!) The only thing we really have in common is that we demonstrated our commitment to the city well before being invited to join.

And no, there's nothing mysterious about how to get invited to join. Just show the concern, and the good judgment, which many of you show on your postings ... and, of course, back it up with more than just words. Words are easy. Putting effort into one's commitment is the hard part.

by Lance on Jun 5, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

Fair enough points, Lance.

I see your point about other aspects of planning. Was only saying that I only saw the anti-development stuff in the news. I'm glad to hear that that isn't the only thing.

I also understand your comment about committment. I used to be an environmental planner in Massachusetts, but lost heart and gave up on that, largely because I saw what little planning goes on up there seemed to be driven by towns keeping families out, places fighting anything that resembles efficient land use (e.g., TOD), and little cooperation between transportation, housing,economic development, and environmental people. I also gave up on the little bit of pedestrian and public transportation advocacy I did on the side (letter writing, meeting attendance, etc) because I saw that to be extraordinarily futile.

by ed on Jun 5, 2010 5:28 pm • linkreport

@Ed, I'm sorry to hear you about your experiences in Massachusetts. It sounds like what is occuring up there is the kind of stuff that gave rise to the formation of the Committee of 100 here in Washington back in 1923.

Yeah, over-arching city-wide plans are great in theory, but they don't work out if you're going to count on the specific city agencies to coordinate their efforts all on their own. Additionally, the politics a mayor faces ('families' in your case, 'developers' in our case here) makes it very difficult for a mayor to bring it all together either. Unfortunately, you need an unelected (and therefore 'unbeholden to special interests') group of non-paid volunteers to act as the 'watch dog' for adherance to these plans which in the end benefit us all.

by Lance on Jun 6, 2010 9:28 am • linkreport

"Unfortunately, you need an unelected (and therefore 'unbeholden to special interests') group of non-paid volunteers to act as the 'watch dog' for adherance to these plans which in the end benefit us all."

Haha, I love the contempt for democracy embodied by this sentence. The unwashed masses should be grateful that this group of rich NIMBYs from "all walks of" high-income professional occupations have taken up the burden of stifling transit and development for the majority.

by Phil on Jun 6, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

hmm .. Phil ... the Committee of 100 was one of those who helped bring Metro to this city ... How is this stifing transit? And it was the Committee of 100 that fostered and brought to life the idea of mixed used development in the District ... thus bringing back 24 hr neighborhoods to places where only offices previously stood. I don't think you know your history.

I think what's happened is that you've fallen for the same canard that David has fallen for ... That because we're saying 'do it right', that we're against streetcars and trying to kill the idea. What will kill a streetcar system for the rest of us more surely than anything else, is a badly planned (and unfinanced) 'first' segment of this system on H Street. Maybe you just don't care. Maybe you're just looking out for your own interests.

by Lance on Jun 6, 2010 2:43 pm • linkreport

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