Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Steve Seelig

Steve Seelig is a long-time resident of Ward 3 interested in preserving its charms while expanding its reach along the transit-rich corridors to help make driving to more far-flung commercial districts a rarer occurrence.  

Bicycling


ANC commissioner tries to stall New Mexico Ave. bike lanes

Despite having endorsed bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue in July, ANC 3D will consider a draft resolution asking the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to delay installing the lanes at its meeting tonight.


Rendering of proposed bike lane on New Mexico Avenue from WABA.

New Mexico Avenue forms one of the few street connections between American University and the neighborhoods of Glover Park and Wesley Heights. The resolution, drafted by ANC 3D Commissioner Michael Gold, argues that DDOT shouldn't build bike lanes "until the completion of a formal analysis and impact study" of the surrounding transportation network which the ANC and neighborhood groups can review.

On Monday, DDOT announced that it plans to complete installing the lanes this week and posted photos outlining where they will go. DDOT has worked with the community to change the proposed design so that it would not take away any parking places.

ANC 3D voted 5-4 in favor of the bike lanes, but commissioner Tom Smith, who opposes them, happened to not be in town for the July meeting. He's marshaled those constituents who previously expressed opposition to the lane's installation to once again re-litigate the decision via email messages to the ANC supporting the resolution, which was introduced without proper notice to the community in an effort to reduce supporter outcry. Cycling advocates only found out about it yesterday.


Markings showing where the bike lanes will go. Photo from DDOT.

This bike lane is an important connection in Ward 3, and if you support it, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Let Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh know that you support the New Mexico Avenue bike lane. Cheh is head of the council's Transportation Committee and has previously indicated her strong support for Ward 3 bike infrastructure. Ask her to have your back on getting this lane installed and to reach out to DDOT to make sure it keeps with its installation schedule. You can call her office at (202) 724-8062 or send an email to mcheh@dccouncil.us.
  2. You can also remind the five ANC members who voted in favor of the prior resolution, Stu Ross, W. Philip Thomas, Rory Slatko, Penny Pagano, and Joe Wisniewski, that you and the community still supports the bike lanes. You can find their email addresses at the ANC 3D website.

Zoning


Ward 3 Democrats forget mission, fixate on parking

A Republican, Patrick Mara, just got the most votes in DC's Ward 3 in a special election. Leaders of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee, an organization formed "to support and elect Democratic candidates for local and national office," meanwhile, were more concerned with ramming through a resolution against the DC zoning rewrite's parking proposals.


Photo by Mr Thinktank on Flickr.

This resolution claims that the DC Office of Planning has no data to back up its recommendations to eliminate minimum parking requirements near transit or for new single-family homes and small residential buildings, and reduce them for schools. It implies without any basis that the zoning rewrite will actually take away parking.

The Ward 3 Dem leaders behind this resolution are now going around claiming that this reflects the views of Democrats in Ward 3. In reality, it represents only the views of 23 out of 94 delegates in the group. Its supporters used procedural maneuvers to ensure it would pass without delegates even getting to debate the merits of the issue.

The task force

Last fall, resident John Chelen, an avowed opponent of the zoning rewrite, approached Ward 3 Democrats chairperson Shelly Tomkin. He had already formed a "task force" made up of about 7 people who opposed the zoning rewrite and some who had publicly testified against it. Chelen suggested to Tomkin that the task force put together a white paper on the subject, supposedly to inform the delegates of the pros and cons of the proposals.

Chelen testified against the rewrite process on October 5, 2012, asking the DC Council to step in and essentially require the Office of Planning to restart the 5-year project. This came before his task force had issued any paper on the merits of the zoning rewrite and before the organization's broader membership had debated the issues or adopted any resolution.

Tomkin approved this task force without including any members with differing points of view. When word got out about the task force from Chelen's testimony, Ward 3 Democratic Committee delegate Ellen Bass and another resident insisted that Chelen include them to give some balance (although even after a 3rd resident joined later, they were a minority of the members). Chelen, after substantial initial delay, permitted them to join.

The group's "white paper" purported to be a fact-based analysis of the Office of Planning's policy recommendations on parking. But not surprisingly, the report contained only "facts" that supported the anti-rewrite position and unsupported assertions about the horribles that will result if DC adopts the proposals. Yet Tomkin distributed it to the Committee delegates as an objective statement of the "pros and cons" of the proposals without any caveat about dissenters on the task force.

For example, there is no mention of the environmental concerns about car use and vehicle congestion. The report cites no data to back up assertions like these:

  • In most instances, current parking requirements are substantially less than likely parking need that would be generated by use, so current requirements only partially mitigate the impact of spillover parking.
  • Elimination of minimum parking requirements on transit zones will result in spillover parking in residential neighborhoods near Metro stations
  • Elimination of minimum parking requirements ... will result in people who live near transit zones or downtown to walk blocks from their car to their home ...
  • The rewrite will reduce parking requirements for schools, hotels, and churches. [In fact, all the rewrite proposes to do is base the requirement on square footage rather than factors that change over time like number of seats, rooms and employees.]
The paper also reflected a clear anti-zoning rewrite bias. It contained arguments attacking the OP proposals which it called "Stated Justifications." According to Bass, she had prepared a more balanced draft, but then 2 avowed opponents of the parking proposals reworked it. She and two other members who did not agree with the paper prepared their own "Alternative Analysis," which Bass said she had to distribute to Committee delegates herself.

The resolution

Chelen then presented a resolution condemning OP's parking proposals at the Ward 3 Dems' April 11 meeting. It states, among other things, that the "parking proposals adversely will affect residents, businesses and the vibrancy of the city," that they "do not reflect community preferences," and that they are "not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan."

These are at best opinion statements not supported by data in the "white paper." For one thing, the zoning task force did not assess the community preference beyond its own membership of 10 or so people, and 3 of those people did not agree that the parking proposals would be detrimental. As for the Comprehensive Plan, this too would prove without basis, as soon became clear.

The first order of business on April 11 was a lengthy debate on whether attending members could vote in place of absent delegates, as the Committee Bylaws clearly permit. After much discussion, Tomkin thought better of denying these members their vote, but because of the time it took to resolve this issue, and Tomkin's decision to let an unrelated speaker give his presentation first, delegates grew impatient and some left before the late vote.

Furthermore, procedural shenanigans by the resolution's supporters ensured there would be no floor debate on its substance. Yes, on a very contentious issue that has divided many in Ward 3, and on a resolution that says policies "are not supported by data," there was no actual discussion about those facts. While the resolution purported to reflect "community preferences," community members never had a chance to talk about their preferences.

Tom Smith, an ANC commissioner and Committee delegate, did insist on asking Chelen how many parking places in Ward 3 would be eliminated if the rewrite went through. Chelen responded that he did not know and did not have any examples he could cite, but he was sure it would happen.

Afterwards, Chairperson Tomkin issued a statement in "themail," claiming that the resolution "was approved in a vote by a broad majority taken April 11." This careful wording obscures the reality that just 23 people voted in favor, a small proportion of the 94 Committee delegates and hardly a majority of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee. In fact, fewer than half the delegates (only about 44 people) even bothered to attend the April 11 meeting. By the time the resolution came up for a vote after 9:30 pm, there was barely a quorum present, and only about 30 delegates even voted.

The resolution does not speak for Democrats in Ward 3

The vote total is important because Chelen is pushing other organizations, such as the Cleveland Park Citizen's Association to adopt a similar resolution. He intends to bring this resolution to the DC Council as reflecting the views of Ward 3.

But his hyperbole is overblown and inaccurate. On the Chevy Chase listserv, he stated, "The resolution passed by a supermajority vote [of the Ward 3 Dems], a telling sign of community resistance to the ill-considered and over-reaching proposals made by the Office of Planning."

Ironically, despite the claim that the minimum parking proposals are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the very next day after the Ward 3 Dems vote, the Zoning Commission approved the Babes Billiards PUD, a mixed-use building in what would be a transit zone near a Metro station that would not have on-site parking. The PUD order cited 23 policies within the Comprehensive Plan that support a development with no on-site parking, beginning on page 11.

Being a neophyte at these political meetings, but not in life itself, I expected that a few motivated individuals could move the needle on getting things done through sheer guile and force of will. I was surprised, however, how an organization named the Ward 3 Democratic Committee could permit such a clearly non-democratic process, push through a white paper without even hearing dissenting viewpoints.

Today, the "white paper" is still not available on the Ward 3 Democrats' website, although it is available online, along with the "Alternative Analysis" from the 3 task force members who did not agree with the paper Chelen and Tomkin distributed. Instead of alienating Democrats by letting the group be a tool of those who want to advance a specific agenda on a non-partisan issue, the Ward 3 Democratic Committee ought to focus on its actual electoral mission.

Development


Cafritz presents Chevy Chase building to skeptical neighbors

"This neighborhood doesn't need any revitalizing," said one resident who lives near 5333 Connecticut Avenue, NW, throwing back into developer Jane Cafritz's face a newspaper quote where she said the proposed glassy, 9-story, 263-unit residential building would revitalize the neighborhood.


Photos by the author.

Hearing this, the crowd of Chevy Chase DC residents, most over 50, erupted into applause. Over 200 residents packed the Chevy Chase Community Center Wednesday evening to hear about the project firsthand from Jane and Calvin Cafritz and their team.

One side of the parcel abuts Military Road, the major east-west corridor across the top of the District. The other borders Kanawha Street, a very narrow residential street featuring mostly mid-sized bungalows.

At the outset, Mrs. Cafritz promised the skeptical audience that the glassy design that had been circulating widely was, in fact, not the building they planned to construct. She promised a forthcoming website to collect input on design and other concerns, which would give architect Eric Colbert, one of DC's most prolific residential apartment designers, an opportunity to revisit the design.


Not what Cafritz plans to build.

Zoning permits the building as of right

A group of residents has been actively organizing against the project, but their influence is limited because the Cafritz proposal will be completely "as of right," or fitting into the existing zoning without needing any special approvals.

Attorney Whayne Quinn explained the area's zoning and noted the building conforms to all requirements. It will cover only 45% of the lot. Quinn said that the project would be only half the size of the Kenmore building, 2 blocks to the north, with half the floor-area ratio and half the units, although one neighbor commented that the Kenmore itself ought not to be something the Cafritzes would be proud to emulate.

The building will be 90 feet, the height allowed under zoning, Quinn explained. However, one neighbor questioned whether they should measure the height from Connecticut Avenue or Kanawha Street. A representative from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the Cafritzes could measure the building from either, and it looks like the they will choose the method that will provide the greatest height.


Jane Cafritz.
The height issue was one that resonated with the neighbors, many of whom complained about the sun shadow the building will create during the winter. None of the Cafritz team rebutted or discussed this complaint.

In one of the livelier and more bizarre exchanges, the owner of several abutting residential apartment buildings admonished the Cafritzes for building a 9-story building on a block of 8-story buildings, saying to do so is taking advantage of the neighbors.

Another neighbor raised the common complaint about school overcrowding, and argued that those moving into the development would cause additional strain on the system. In a prior meeting, Councilmember Mary Cheh had taken another neighbor to task for a similar statement, letting him know that it was the right of any resident to have the city school their children. Certainly, school overcrowding is a real concern, but Cheh was correct to point out that this is not reason to prevent anyone from living where they want in our city.

Design tries to reduce mass along Connecticut, Kanawha

Colbert said he designed the building to have more mass along Military Road. A break and driveway on Connecticut Avenue will make it appear less massive from the front.

The Cafritzes' landscape architect said they plan to provide mature trees and as much of a green buffer as possible between the building and homes on Kanawha Street, and to the rear of the building. He argued that the smaller lot occupancy would permit more trees. Despite this, some complained that mature trees would need to be cut down, as these trees lie in the proposed building's footprint.


Grainy photo of proposed footprint.

The development team's presentation emphasized that the building would embrace green elements, in construction, use of materials, energy consumption, and rainwater management. However, when pressed on the environmental benefits, the architect admitted the building was not seeking any LEED certification, because the process of doing so was "too expensive."

Almost the entire crowd applauded a neighbor who asked why the building could not be brick instead of glass. She said the glass made it look like a building at 9th and K Streets.

Mrs. Cafritz seemed open to changing the glass, although in continued questioning it did not appear Colbert, the architect, had yet started to think about this change. Also, the Washington Post reported today that Mrs. Cafritz told subsequently Councilmember Mary Cheh they plan to stick with glass

Colbert spent considerable time explaining how a glass building would be energy-efficient and that interior light would not shine on neighboring homes, although he admitted there would be considerable sun reflections from the glass.

Traffic analysis doesn't please opponents

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented a traffic assessment which found the building would not have a significant effect on traffic. Zimbabwe explained to the crowd that they should expect traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue to get worse over the next decade, with or without the building.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented information about the current traffic levels in the area. Traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue has actually declined slightly between 2006 and 2011 according to DDOT's traffic counts, Zimbabwe reported, which drew derisive laughs from the audience.

The traffic analysis predicts that the new construction would add 97 cars to morning rush hour and 127 cars to evening rush hour, but DDOT does not view this as likely to have a significant effect on traffic.


"any intersection where one has to wait more than one light cycle is a failed intersection"
This drew murmurs from a skeptical audience. One neighbor, describing the traffic backups each rush hour on Military Road as it crosses each intersection from Western Avenue to Rock Creek Park, pointed out the classic traffic engineering rule of thumb that if drivers need to wait more than one light-cycle, the intersections are all "failing."

Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.

Later in the evening, one of those laughing at this statement shouted out, in complete sincerity, "why isn't the building installing geothermal heating?" Perhaps I was the only one who found that ironic.

Can the building avoid straining the alley?

One of the main issues neighbors raised, and one that might be easy to solve, is the project's intent to use the existing residential alley for both a 197-space parking garage and delivery access. Currently, only the 20 or so homes that are on the alley tend to use it, so there would be a marked increase in traffic.

However, DDOT policy does not permit additional curb cuts into to the property. Zimbabwe explained that DDOT wants to minimize the number of separate entrances off a street, each of which create the opportunity for conflicts between turning cars and other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, just as in an intersection.

A solution came up that could satisfy both DDOT and residents: widen the curb cut for the alley, so that the building vehicle entrance is not directly off the alley but immediately next to the alley entrance.

DDOT can't forbid residents from getting parking stickers

If traffic flow issues drew a skeptical response, the increased impact the project would have to on-street parking brought even more consternation. One neighbor handed DDOT his own parking assessment of Kanawha Street, where he said it is already difficult to find parking after 10 pm at night, He estimated he'd need to walk 4 blocks to find a parking spot after the building is completed. This fired up several in the audience, one of whom shouted, "bad parking rules."

Zimbabwe explained that while the block was not zoned for Residential Permit Parking today, DDOT would permit residents to obtain RPP stickers if they petitioned DDOT to do so, as is its policy for other blocks.

The DC Council considered a bill last year that would have let building owners work out a deal with DDOT where their building would never be eligible for RPP, or not for a set period of time. However, a group of councilmembers, led by Chairman Mendelson, voted the bill down.

Conclusions


Calvin Cafritz.
It appeared to me there that the neighbors expressed a few very valid concerns. It should be possible to address each, at least to a certain extent.
  • It would be nice for the Cafritzes to work on ways to minimize the building blocking sunlight for nearby residents. However, I would imagine them reluctant to relent even a bit, because the neighbors might seek a far greater reduction in height than they may be comfortable with.
  • The glass façade seems to be one where the Cafritzes are ready to listen to alternatives. Red brick was the consensus of the audience.
  • A parallel driveway immediately adjacent to the alley entrance would seem to address the concern about alley access.
  • The parking/traffic conundrum seems difficult to solve. Neighbors who want more underground spots would then see more traffic in the neighborhood, and might then complain about more cut-through traffic on other streets.
  • LEED certification ought to be in the cards. Or, at least, the Cafritzes should consider doing what Douglas Jemal did at the Babe's site, which was to design the building to LEED standard but not actually undergo through the expensive certification process.
  • How the property sits on the land will continue to be a bone of contention. The site plan did appear to have as much of a buffer as possible to the rear and along Kanawha Street, although much of the open space it devoted to a rear garden area for building residents.

    It would not appear the Cafritzes are willing to have a smaller footprint and more massive building sited closer to Connecticut Avenue, as such building would not permit him to have the same number of smaller units that he contemplates.

Mrs. Cafritz said a website would open soon for the community to offer comments. Beyond that, it is hard to know how willing they are to have more meetings with interested neighbors, given that the project is as-of-right.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Sam Zimbabwe had said that traffic would increase in the future, when in fact he said that it had decreased (slightly) in the past. It also said that DDOT had conducted a traffic study for the building; DDOT instead reported some information about traffic in the area, but does not do its own traffic studies for matter-of-right buildings.

Development


Parking-free, mixed-use building is right for Tenleytown

Douglas Development wants to rebuild Tenleytown's long-vacant Babe's Billiards into a mixed-use development with 60 residential units and ground floor retail space. Perhaps most significantly, Douglas wants to build no parking at all on the site.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The once-popular neighborhood nightspot has been shuttered for several years, despite its location just a few hundred feet from the Tenleytown Metro station.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E will hear about the proposal tomorrow night (Jan. 12) at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets NW. It would help for smart growth supporters in the area to attend and encourage the ANC to support this worthy project.

The former Babe's sits on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street, near the top of a hill with downward slopes to the south and west, and Douglas's proposal promises to utilize this topography creatively.

Douglas Development's proposal would allow for a potential sit-down restaurant to have an outdoor seating area along Brandywine Street and for the sought-after retail tenants (no dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants, or banks) to have tall, airy ceilings as high as 16-18 feet.


Renderings by Douglas Development Corp.

Although the retail mix in Tenleytown is improving, this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has long been associated with mattress stores, cheap fast food, dry cleaners and lots of banks (okay, maybe not the banks) that belies the affluence of upper Northwest and the proximity to the student population at American University.

A ground-floor restaurant would be an ideal tenant for the space and provide significant value to the community, but if the ANC or Zoning Commission requires parking, that won't be possible due to the topography.

Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

The site is also just a few hundred feet from the Metro station, is well-served by several bus routes, and is within walking distance of two grocery stores and other amenities.

Despite the fact that people who are willing to pay a premium to live directly next to a Metro station have fundamentally different travel patterns, with much lower car ownership and transit usage rates than the surrounding neighbors, Douglas Development is planning ahead for the few people who may own a car. The company proposes to aggressively pursue shared parking agreements with neighboring businesses with spaces that go unused every day.

Douglas could also help reduce driving demand further by providing amenities like car sharing spaces and dedicated bicycle parking. Supportive neighbors have recommended making both a part of the community benefits package.

While the predictable opponents of any change have opposed the Babe's development, city officials in Santa Monica, California, recently approved a very similar 56-unit mixed-use development without any off-street parking. This despite the fact that it will be at least a half decade until the light-rail Expo Line is extended to Santa Monica. The Babe's site already has Metro nearly at its doorstep.

If a mixed-use development can be built in car-centric Southern California without any off-street parking, years before a light rail connection will be provided to the neighborhood, DC's elected leaders and planning officials should have the courage to support a similar development in a walkable community, already well-served by transit.

I urge smart growth advocates to attend the ANC 3E meeting. The Babe's issue might not come up until later in the meeting (perhaps around 9:30pm), but if you come earlier, you can hear from the folks at Safeway who are planning to rebuild the store at 42nd and Ellicott Streets NW, along Wisconsin Avenue.

There are sure to be the usual opponents of any Wisconsin Avenue development in attendance, so the more proponents of a mixed-use development of the Babe's site in attendance, the better.

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