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Mike Feldstein revived Dupont Circle. We'll miss him dearly.

Mike Feldstein, a Dupont Circle ANC 2B commissioner who pushed to make sure we get the most out of our public spaces, passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.


Mike Feldstein. Photo from ANC 2B.

Mike had a full and rewarding career long before he became active in civic affairs in Dupont Circle. A New York native, Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked for the US Agency for International Development and as a policy planning staff member for the State Department. He represented the US around the world, and served as a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

He became involved in the ANC when another remarkable Commissioner, Curt Farrar, had to step down for health reasons. Mike's passion, from day one, was the Circle itself. He was determined to turn an urban park into a vibrant, exciting place once again.

In his quest, he became the Godfather of Dupont Circle.

When Mike was first elected, he told his fellow commissioners, "we should do more with the Circle. Seventy-five years ago, there used to be band concerts out there. There were events happening out there all the time. We should bring it back to life." Of course, we all agreed, but no one had any idea how to bring the Circle back to life.

Except Mike.

He assembled a group of volunteers who shared his vision. They came up with a name: Dupont Festival.

They spent many hours over many months convincing the National Park Service to let them sponsor and hold events in the Circle. This was no easy task, as the folks at NPS entrusted with the park were in no hurry to risk anything. If something went wrong, those bureaucrats would bear the blame. So getting permits for any event was a huge undertaking.

Mike used the World Cup to bring Dupont together

One of the earliest efforts was Soccer in the Circle. Two of his volunteers, Aaron DeNu and Michael Lipin, had the idea of hosting a giant viewing party for the opening of the World Cup in June, 2010. This would involve getting NPS permission to put up two giant screens in the park, and then—after securing permission—raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, and then assembling the manpower to put on the event and clean up immediately afterwards.

Honestly, I don't think anyone on the ANC except Mike Feldstein thought it would ever happen, but we all went along with the idea. After countless meetings, they got NPS to agree to allow use of the park, and then convinced the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association to donate something like fifteen-thousand dollars to help pay for equipment rentals and related expenses. They got FIFA and ESPN to give them the rights to stage an open air broadcast of the cable tv feed. The Screaming Eagles, DC United's booster club, would be volunteer marshals and would handle cleaning up.

On Saturday June 12, 2010, crowds began assembling at 6:30am to watch the first of three games. Because South Africa was the host country, the time difference meant a very, very early start. It was South Korea versus Greece, and the early crowd included large numbers of people from the Korean and Greek communities, including embassy staffs. With the 7 am kickoff, we were pleasantly surprised to see the park packed with people that early in the morning. We had no idea just how packed it would become.


Soccer in the Circle. Photo by David on Flickr.

By the time the third game began at 2pm, the park had been rocking for more than six hours. It was estimated as many as 15,000 people had attended at one time or another. CNN was doing live cut-ins, as was ESPN. All the local stations were there. We were seen literally all around the world on CNN International. The crowd was well-behaved. There was only one arrest, for public intoxication. Every restaurant within shouting distance of the circle ran out of beer and was scrambling for more in the intense heat of that June afternoon.

The US and Britain played to a 1-1 tie, and, immediately after the game ended, the Screaming Eagles began a clean-up blitz. Dozens of them filled plastic garbage bags with whatever trash was left over, even though the crowd had put most everything in trash cans. Within an hour, the park was cleaner than it had been the day before. Timing was crucial, because the match ended at 4:15 pm, and the annual Pride Parade kicked off at 6:30. So the soccer triple-header was only the start of a day-night doubleheader that brought a hundred thousand celebrants to our neighborhood: soccer in the morning and afternoon, and then the Capital Pride Parade. Wow! Just celebrating the day with more than 100,000 of our closest friends!

A finer day there never was.

Soccer was just the start

After the success of Soccer in the Circle, the NPS permits came easier. And, eventually, the Park Service even developed a separate policy for urban parks. Previously, NPS rules, regulations, and policy were pretty much one size fits all, whether we're talking about Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Dupont Circle. Whether the change was a direct result of what was happening at Dupont is not clear, but events like the soccer viewing certainly didn't hurt.

Mike and his Dupont Festival team—Will Stephens, Andy Klingenstein, and Aaron DeNu—made Groundhog Day great again, bringing it to Dupont Circle with the help of Potomac Phil. They found Phil in Miss Pixie's on 14th Street, brought him out of the closet and out of the shadows. We've had band concerts, Shakespeare, dance celebrations, Earth Day, science fairs, and more Soccer in the Circle viewings—both the US Mens and Womens teams—and so much more.

Mike believed strongly that parks and open urban spaces are to be celebrated, cherished, and used. He believed that free events, open to the public, are a way to build community. And he used his vast experience as a State Department official to navigate the bureaucracy and help achieve his goal of restoring Dupont Circle to its role as the center of our neighborhood life.

Mike strongly supported new housing, but wanted to make sure it was done right. "If we delay someone for a few months or a year, that's not always good," he said. "But if we tear something down, it's gone forever. And if we put up something bad, it may last for a hundred years."

Mike strongly supported walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and mass transit options. His New York background made him a dedicated urbanist.

We loved Mike dearly and grieve the loss of a true friend. He was a pleasure just to be with. Kibitzing with Mike was one of life's joys. He leaves behind countless friends, and a legacy of making our neighborhood a better place. He had a vision and made it reality. He was the Godfather of Dupont Circle and he really did bring the Circle back to life.

There will be a celebration of Mike's life later on May 1st, with the location to be determined.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

Parking


Can a housing development go up in Petworth if it doesn't build new parking?

The developers behind a proposal for a new residential building in Petworth say it doesn't need parking because there are plenty of non-car transportation options nearby. Some residents disagree, saying the area can't accommodate new housing if new parking doesn't come with it. But take a walk around and you'll see their concerns are overblown.


Image from Rooney Properties.

In April 2015, Rooney Properties purchased the property at 3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW. Rooney began making plans to redevelop the site, formerly home to Sweet Mango, into a mixed-use building with ground floor retail and 21 living units in accordance with the property's zoning.

The property is configured as a triangle, with Rock Creek Church Road to the south and New Hampshire Avenue to the north. It is located near seven bus lines, the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro rail station, and a Capital Bikeshare station. Due to these factors, the developer is seeking a zoning variance to exclude parking from the development. But with a number of other new developments to the north and south also receiving parking relief in the past few years, residents are concerned that exempting 3701 New Hampshire Avenue from parking requirements will make it harder for everyone to park.


Base image from Google Maps.

Last week, the plans to redevelop the site encountered opposition from ANC 4C and members of the community. Petworth News did a good job covering the blow by blow of the meeting, accurately describing it as dysfunctional. One of the key areas of opposition in that meeting had to do with how the 21-unit building would impact residential street parking.

Last month, ANC 1A also weighed in on the variances required for this project to move forward. Based on the Comprehensive Plan, the goals of the Georgia Avenue Overlay for the corridor, and need for more density and housing in the community, and how the developer is proposing to find solutions to accommodate potential car owners, ANC 1A passed a resolution in support of this development (read here). It is important to note that neither ANC 1A's support nor ANC 4C's opposition was unanimous.

Concerns over parking are a bit inflated

It is fair to say that parking is an important issue—and an important quality of life issue. It must also be recognized that no two developments are exactly the same. In the case of 3701 New Hampshire, due to the oddly shaped lot, it just isn't physically possible to build underground parking on the property, especially to the extent that zoning would require. The property also doesn't have abutting properties to the north or south within the Georgia Avenue Overlay that would be able to be added to the development making parking possible.


3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW today. Photo by Owen Chaput.

Keeping this in mind, along with the property's close proximity to a Metro station, several bus lines, and a Capital Bikeshare station, there is no reason why this building should not be built. Furthermore, ANC 1A's request to remove the loading zone and associated curb cut on Rock Creek Church Road as part of their approval should add two on-street parking spaces to the block.

To manage parking, Rooney Properties (the developer) is planning to provide new residents with SmarTrip cards, a bike share membership and car share membership for the first three years. Rooney is also including space for bicycle maintenance and storage within the new building, and the lobby of the building will offer a transit screen that shows the number of bikes available and a real-time Metro train schedule.

Finally, Rooney is also actively seeking off-street parking options and has noted that several of the recent buildings in the area that have off-street parking are not parked up. The developer would be willing to provide free parking in these garages to new residents for three years as well.

Here's what parking the area currently has

According to the Petworth News report from the ANC 4C meeting, the following gives an idea of how much off-street parking is available in the immediate area. The Swift apartments (above Safeway) have 70 spots leased of their available 158 spots. The Park Place development has 138 spots leased of their 181 spots, and the 3 Trees Flats has 115 spots leased of their 130 spots. There is a lot of untapped parking potential in these buildings.

But another part of the story that wasn't part of the ANC 4C discussion—one important to developing some understanding of the potential hardships the immediate neighbors may face—is how much off-street parking exists in the community.


Rock Creek Church Road NW, with the development site to the north (left in the photo). Photo by Owen Chaput.

Residents from the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road were among those expressing concern about the potential impact this development could have on that block, so I took the time to walk the alleys to the north and south of that block to see if any off-street parking existed for these properties currently. What I learned was that 63% of the residential properties on the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road currently have some form of off-street parking that they are currently using, or have the potential to use. If I include the west side of Warder street, this goes down to 61%.

The map below shows the location of the proposed development and all the residential properties that have off-street parking.


(Map key: Orange=two-car garage; Yellow=one-car garage; Red=four car garage; Dark Blue=two car parking pad; Light Blue=one car parking pad)

Here is how the parking on the residential properties represented on the map above breaks down:

  • There are 54 residential properties on Rock Creek Church Road and the west side of Warder Street. 33 of these properties (61%) have off-street parking.
  • 10 residences (18%) have garages. There is 1 four car garage, 6 two car garages, and 3 one car garages.
  • 23 residences (42.5%) have parking pads. 6 properties have two car parking pads. 17 properties have one car parking pads.
  • Note: in taking this survey of parking, I did not include a garage if its entrance was bricked in, but did include a garage if the doors were merely boarded up. In one case, I included a single-car garage that was too small for a modern car, but which had a driveway currently used for off street parking.

Garages and parking pads abound on the north side of the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road. Photo by the author.

Overall, in adding all this up, there are currently 48 spaces on this block for off-street parking. In looking at the south side of the 700 block of Quincy, each residential property there similarly has at least one off-street parking space.

With the amount of off-street parking currently in this area, one starts to question why parking is so tight currently … and based on my observations I believe some (but definitely not all) of this stress is caused by factors other than housing.

For instance, the 700 block of Quebec Place and nearby blocks are often stressed due to church parking from the Fisherman of Men Church. I have also witnessed on several occasions residents from further north in Ward 4 using Quebec, Rock Creek Church, and other nearby streets as commuter parking so that they can easily drive, park, and ride Metro. Whether there are solutions to these stresses or not, they certainly aren't related to development or housing in the immediate community.

Factoring all of this together, I believe that the benefits of the proposed development far outweigh the cons, and that the impact the building may have on parking and the surrounding community will not live up to people's worse case scenarios.

The case is scheduled to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment on November 17, 2015.

A version of this post recently ran on Park View, DC.

Public Safety


Is turnover at the police department contributing to DC's crime wave?

It's no secret that the District has had a hard time fighting crime this year. The job gets even tougher when the people in charge are constantly changing.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Police Department is divided into seven police districts, each of which are further broken down into Public Service Areas. Each district is led by a commander, and each PSA by a lieutenant. There are 56 PSAs in the District of Columbia, and each should provide framework for close engagement between police and neighborhoods.

But In PSA 405, where I'm an ANC commissioner, we have seen the reassignment of PSA lieutenants nearly half a dozen times in the last two to three years. Our area has also seen two different district commanders. Every time there's a leadership change, months of hard work between residents and MPD are completely erased.

While officers are swapped with well-intentioned replacements, they lack any transition guidance, reach back, or context of the previous officer's community engagement efforts. The community is left starting over from scratch and beginning the cycle anew. In my experience, this is a vicious cycle that inevitably ends the same way.

Here are two examples of this happening

Nearly two years ago, 5A residents asked their PSA lieutenant, night watch commander, and the district commander to personally attend our monthly meeting to hear the community's needs. After attending, 5A and the PSA 405 lieutenant agreed to merge the regularly scheduled PSA meetings with the ANC meeting so the wider community could attend and be engaged. The joint meeting happened once, but after that learned that the Lieutenant at the time had been reassigned.


An officer gives a public safety update during ANC 5A's June 2015 ANC 5A community meeting. Image from the author.

Last year, both residents and 5A commissioners began to feel like progress was being made with public safety engagement. A new lieutenant had just arrived and was eager to attend ANC and other meetings. When residents had issues, she would give out her email and cell phone number and encouraged residents to reach out to her.

Over the course of a few months, the new lieutenant became a familiar face around the community while engaging in public safety issues, updating the community and even engaging a local charter school to help improve traffic congestion during drop-off and pick-ups of students. 5A finally had a working relationship that could continue to be effective.

One weekend in late April of this year, I contacted our new lieutenant to get information about a shooting at Webster St NE and South Dakota Ave NE. Not long after I sent my email to her, I received a response I thought we were finally free of: "I apologize… I have been transferred to the First District...".

At the next meeting of ANC 5A the community met our new PSA Lieutenant, a man who was set to retire in two months!

Residents want better

As an ANC commissioner since 2012, I have sat through numerous meetings that have addressed public safety. Over the last three and a half years, I have listened and advocated for increased community-based policing, better access to public safety information, and better communication between commissioners and PSA lieutenants.

I have also listened to residents' requests that police officers become more visible in their assigned community by walking or biking in the neighborhoods they are obligated to protect and serve.

Constant turnover, reassignments, and lack of transition planning are dooming any effort at positive community policing. The constant reminder during public safety meetings of an impending major reduction in force does little to produce confidence in residents of the District of Columbia.

While the Mayor and the Council hold meetings, forums, and introduce new legislation, constituent concerns and requests should not be forgotten.

Architecture


Neighborhood commission catches "height-itis" on a Dupont Circle church and condo project

If a building is taller than 59 feet but you can't see it, does it make a sound? In Dupont Circle, it makes a big racket in one ongoing development controversy.


Images from CAS Riegler.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, whose main church at the corner of 18th Street and Church Street burned down due to arson in 1970, wants to build a new church. To fund that, they want to use part of their property to build a new condo building.

The proposed church is not particularly controversial, especially now that the parish revised their design to a better one than they had first proposed. But many neighbors are fiercely fighting the adjacent condo building, which will be closer to nearby row houses. (Disclosure: My house is almost directly across the street.)

The building has now gone before the Historic Preservation Review Board three times, and will return for a fourth on Thursday. I've been fine with the condo building proposal since fairly early in the process, and the Dupont Circle Conservancy supported the version proposed in March. The HPRB and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, have asked for more changes to further shrink the building.

The ANC reached what members thought was a compromise in March, where they agreed to support the condo building, but only as long as the perceived height for a pedestrian around the building was no more than 59 feet. And, in fact, on the recent versions of the proposal, if you are standing on the sidewalk across from the building, you won't be able to see any parts that are taller.

While I think it was unnecessary in this case, this can be a smart approach. Small setbacks on the upper floors of a building can do a lot to make a building feel shorter when walking past on the street, without actually taking away much of the opportunity to add housing. You can get a large building that feels small instead of blocking the building and the potential new residents it can hold.

Beware of "height-itis"

Unfortunately, many neighbors focus not on the human experience but the total number of feet at the building's highest point. Let's call this "height-itis." Some of this comes from the fact that developers often talk at early community meetings about the height that zoning allows, and present a "massing diagram" which depicts a large box filling the zoning envelope.

Even if the developers never considered building such a box, some neighbors get caught up in talking about the total number of feet. Later architectural plans also show elevations, where high floors are just as visible as low ones.

Other elements of a building, like materials, windows, landscaping, and street-level detail, ultimately will matter much more than height. Developers generally have some leeway to make design changes, but if forced to lop off whole floors from the building, it severely constrains how much they can "shape" the building lower down and still make the project work economically.

"Height-itis" often makes it harder, not easier, for residents to get changes that will actually affect their property, like setbacks on upper floors to minimize the shadows a building casts. It can also lead to buildings that look boxier and less appealing (just as DC's height limit does downtown).

The Dupont ANC gets stuck

This is where a tricky detail comes in. The ANC's resolution says the condo building (not the church building) should look to be no more than 59 feet from anywhere on Church Street, 18th Street, P Street, or the nearby alley. If you go far enough down a street, then set back parts of the building would become visible, but the whole building is also far away and much smaller visually.

That's why historic preservation standards generally look only at the appearance of a building from right nearby. For example, other neighbors are adding a fourth story to their row house, which I will be able to see from my upstairs windows, but it's set back so you can't see it from the sidewalk (and, honestly, I'd be fine with it even if they didn't have to set it so far back, since the design looks very well done).

But the ANC's resolution is stricter. And many HPRB members look not at detailed legalistic standards, but the overall tenor of community feedback. Just having the ANC say it doesn't support the project has held it up significantly.

Further, the HPRB is not immune to "height-itis." One member, Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox Architects, is in fact one of its most acute sufferers. He consistently suggests that buildings take off a floor and is rarely satisfied with setbacks that simply make it look shorter, as in a contentious case at 13th and U in 2013.

So HPRB has sent the project back for revisions multiple times. Last month, board members had only very minor changes, which the developer made. But Davidson opposed a motion to let the preservation staff handle any further issues, and instead suggested the project return on what's called the "consent calendar," where the board can approve it without a hearing and vote.

The ANC, however, passed yet another resolution opposing the project, saying that it doesn't meet the letter of their March resolution. Opponents are pushing for HPRB to take it off the consent calendar and force yet another hearing because of this.

The ANC says make it shorter, but acknowledges making it shorter is silly

Their resolution is strange. On the one hand, it says the ANC won't support the project. But on the other, it says,

Whereas the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation and Development committee acknowledges the current design with its limited visible elements above 59 feet subjectively creates a more textured and attractive building and removing the 7th floor altogether may lead to a subjectively less attractive building design.
In other words, they know lopping off the floor would make the building worse, but hung their hats on 59 feet before, and won't budge. The resolutions have also been unanimous, even though some members have told me privately that they don't actually object to the building at this point.

Unfortunately, the effect is for the ANC to force HPRB to eventually disregard their views, perhaps diminishing the ANC's credibility. It also has delayed this project and forced everyone to attend numerous hearings.

Asking to improve a project is fine, but neighbor requests and ANC resolutions are most effective when they're well-considered. Succumbing to "height-itis," and then being stubbornly unwilling to consider more creative ways to deal with concerns, is not a good way to represent neighborhood interests on complex development projects.

Update: HPRB voted Thursday morning to approve the project on the consent calendar. Davidson and fellow board member Nancy Metzger advocated for further delay and hearings, but other board members supported moving the project forward.

Roads


Residents push for stop signs, not a wider road, at one Petworth intersection

In April, two cars collided at Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW. Crashes at the intersection aren't uncommon, and residents and ANC commissioners are asking for a four-way stop.


Kansas and Quincy NE. There are stop signs for people driving east and west on Quincy, but there are none on Kansas. Base image from Google Maps.

The two-block section of Kansas that meets Quincy is a wide, tree-lined street. Aside from at Quincy, there's an all-way stop at each street Kansas meets between Georgia Avenue and 13th Street. Quincy, by contrast, is a narrow street that connects the 14th Street corridor to the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station.

There are stop signs for drivers traveling east and west along Quincy, but Kansas is only marked by two crosswalks and a couple of battered "Yield to Pedestrian" signs.

Poor visibility and speeds make crossing difficult

Kansas Avenue intersects Quincy at an angle, and people park cars along both streets, and traffic on Kansas moves quickly in both directions. Southbound drivers take advantage of the wide straightaway to drive downhill quickly and pass through a convoluted series of nine intersections. Northbound traffic cruises through the long green light on 13th Avenue and keep going fast as they make a wide right turn onto Quincy.

To cross, drivers must inch their way into the intersection so they can see enough to account for all these factors. It is no surprise local drivers avoid using this intersection.

People looking to walk along Quincy to get to the Metro, however, have no choice but to cross Kansas. Despite pedestrian crossing signs, drivers often don't yield to people waiting to cross, and even when the road looks empty, that can change quickly when drivers turn off 13th and fly up the hill.

The sister intersection, Quincy and 13th, couldn't feel more different. People driving cars obey the all-way stop signs and cross Quincy quickly and easily, and people on foot step out towards the Metro or 14th Street shops feeling safe.

Neighbors want a four-way stop sign

Following the most recent crash, the neighborhood renewed its push for a stop sign. Residents started requesting all-way stop signs more than ten years ago, according to ANC 4C06 Commissioner Vann-Di Galloway.

In an email exchange on April 1, 2015, a neighbor who observed the immediate aftermath of the collision wrote,

I just don't believe that this intersection is somehow the only one in 4C06 that manages to elude that designation, but that's what they keep telling us. For years now we've been pushing them to make it a 4-way stop, like EVERY other intersection is, but they keep trying other traffic tools, and frankly none of them do enough. That intersection won't be safe for drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians until it is a 4-way stop.

In a May 21st meeting with city officials, neighbors reiterated their longstanding concerns regarding pedestrian and vehicle right-of-way conflicts. Residents at that meeting also expressed serious doubts that DDOT's proposed solutions, which stop short of an all-way stop, would address the central safety concerns.

All-way stops have not ruined traffic patterns along Kansas Avenue or 13th Street. Why would this intersection be any different? Either the street is busy, so drivers and pedestrians attempting to cross need traffic controls, or the street is not that busy, so stop signs wouldn't cause a problem.

DDOT doesn't want to add a stop sign, but that could be for lack of information

In recent years, DDOT conducted studies where Quincy Street intersects both 13th Street and Kansas Ave NW. The agency helped create a four-way stop at Quincy and 13th, which is just 50 feet away from Quincy and Kansas and used to have similar troubles.

Gregg Steverson, from DDOT's Transportation Operations Administration, stated in a March, 2014 email to local residents that "based on standard volume and roadway classification" neither of the Quincy Street NW intersections met the warrants for all-way stop.

Additionally, Mr. Steverson expressed DDOT's concern that if an all-way stop went in, drivers may miss or ignore the stop sign in their rush toward visible green lights at the intersections at at Kansas, 13th, Spring, and Quebec.

DDOT never followed through on a commitment to examine the effect of the new 13th and Quincy stop signs. In meetings, residents expressed confusion as to why DDOT considers hypothetical non-compliance by some drivers as a criteria that weighs against traffic control devices.

Residents also noted that DDOT's studies of Kansas and Quincy have looked at the intersection between 10 am and 2 pm, a time window that might not accurately represent just how many people cross Kansas on foot. Finally, vehicle and pedestrian traffic volumes may be lower—particularly on Quincy—precisely because this intersection is so difficult to cross.

Residents don't want wider roads

One solution Mr. Steverson proposed was to remove parking spaces from along Kansas Avenue to improve lines of sight. Commissioner Galloway has responded to DDOT that this proposal would further tighten parking in a growing neighborhood and also widen the roads, which could increase the untenable speed of traffic.

Neighbors have pledged to continue their push for an all-way stop as long as necessary. They are hopeful that Brandon Todd's office will help make progress on this neighborhood priority before more people get hurt or property ends up damaged.

Bicycling


Making this street more bike-friendly should be easy. Why isn't it?

A barrier meant to calm traffic doesn't need to also block bicyclists on an upper Northwest street. But even though Councilmember Mary Cheh and the local ANC support a cut-through, there had to be yet another hours-long community meeting and site visit in the pouring rain so nearby residents could express their concerns that accommodating bicyclists would result in mayhem and carnage.


Traffic diverter at 44th and Harrison NW

The proposal is to add bike cut-throughs to an existing traffic diverter at the intersection of 44th Street and Harrison Street NW. The traffic diverter blocks cars from passing through the intersection, which is meant to preclude the use of these residential streets as an alternative route for nearby Wisconsin Avenue and Western Avenue.


Bicyclists currently use these ramps to get around the diverter

Backers of the project believe that adding the cut-throughs would give people on bikes a more direct route from the neighborhood into Friendship Heights without disrupting the neighborhood itself.

Opponents, on the other hand, think changing the diverter will invite drivers to attempt to drive over the diverter and through the neighborhood. Some also believe that more bike traffic through the residential streets would be a bad thing.

Additionally, opponents believe that cyclists already have an adequate alternative by leaving the roadway, riding up the curb ramps and onto the sidewalk, to circumnavigate the diverter. Opponents believe that this practice is safer for everyone than any compromise to the integrity of the traffic diverter.

Following the meeting, representatives from DDOT said they would bring these concerns back to their agency to study possible design adjustments, further delaying a project that would make life easier on bicyclists.

This situation is a snapshot of a bigger story

Ultimately, this isn't a very substantial project and will not affect many residents or bicyclists. But it speaks to a few larger concerns about the process of adding additional bicycle accommodation to parts of the District that currently don't have many.

Anyone who has ever attended a public meeting knows that it can be very difficult to change the status quo. The resistance to make changes, regardless of how small those changes seem, exhibits itself in fierce resistance and the desire for an endless series of meetings, further discussion and design tweaks. While this project had been approved by the local ANC and is supported by Councilmember Mary Cheh, a committed group of opponents has managed to stall the process.

If this is the case for such small projects &emdash;the low-hanging fruit that cuts neither parking nor traffic lanes&emdash;what does this suggest about gaining any ground on larger ones? It's important to work with neighbors, but at a certain point it becomes necessary to reach a decision. If DDOT is expected to assuage every concern from every resident before moving forward with a project, it will never accomplish anything.

This meeting also raised concerns about the results of interrupting the public right of way. When the traffic diverter went in, residents of the nearby streets benefitted disproportionately. But the traffic didn't disappear, it just went somewhere else. And when breaking up a street favors some residents over others, it's no surprise that those who benefit want to preserve their advantage.

Even though this particular project would keep the diverter in place and simply add some small cut-throughs for bicyclists, the residents' attachment to their preferred status is so strong that they are worried about any action that might jeopardize it. DDOT needs to be mindful about the consequences of traffic decisions that have the potential to create this dynamic.

The overwhelming majority of opponents of these changes claimed that they support bicycling. However, they worried that changes to the road to accommodate bicyclists would unintentionally lead to more reckless driving, making everyone less safe.

This is similar to the concern about how installing bike lanes might degrade air quality due to more traffic from slowing moving cars. So long as meeting the needs of bicyclists are sublimated to larger concerns about how this might lead to even more negative externalities from driving, progress is unlikely.

Additionally, meetings like this always raise concerns about the division of public and private space. Both 44th Street and Harrison Street are public streets, open to all. While those who live nearby feel that they will be more affected by any changes to the intersection, DDOT needs to weigh their interests (and how reasonable their concerns are) against the larger goals of public mobility and bicycle accommodation.

You can't build a genuine bicycle network with a patchwork of compromises, where infrastructure appears or disappears based on block-by-block votes. If DC is committed to creating neighborhood bikeways and cross-town bike routes, like those laid out in the MoveDC plan, DDOT will need to find a way to address neighborhood concerns without sacrificing its larger goals.

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