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Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Transit


Metro's next big shutdown starts Tuesday night

Starting Tuesday, Metro will shut down the rails between its National Airport and Braddock Road stations for seven days. Around 50,000 riders will feel the impact, and the move may provide the first big test for Crystal City's still-new dedicated bus transitway.


Decreases in Metrorail service during Surge 3. All images from WMATA.

This is the third "surge" in Metro's SafeTrack plan, and it will start at 8 pm tonight and last through the end of July 11th. It's the second time Metro has closed an entire segment during SafeTrack—a big Orange, Silver, and Blue Line closure just wrapped up, but the first surge was only single-tracking in Arlington.

South of the closure, Blue Line trains will operate every 15 minutes between Franconia and Braddock Road, and Yellow trains will run every 12 minutes between Huntington and Braddock Road. North of the closure, both Blue and Yellow Line trains will run every 12 minutes. Yellow Line trains will continue all the way north to Greenbelt.

To help shuttle people, Crystal City's Transitway will run for free, and every six minutes during peak periods, between Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Braddock Road. There will also be an "express" shuttle from Braddock Road directly to Pentagon City, running every five minutes.

Some additional shuttles will run directly between the Franconia and Pentagon stations via I-395, and local jurisdictions have made other bus schedule changes as noted on the Metrorail advisory page.


Free shuttles available between Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Braddock Road.

Can the new BRT system ease coming headaches?

The Metroway only opened back in April, and this Metro surge could be a way for the bus system to demonstrate what it's capable of. With Metroway buses running every 6 minutes during rush and possibly even more frequently like during the Orange/Silver/Blue shutdown, we should be able to see what kind of capacity the dedicated lanes can handle.

Metroway's ability to stand in for Metro during SafeTrack will stay relevant during the next surge, which will close tracks between Pentagon City and National Airport.

Metro estimates 50,000 weekday trips are made through the section being shut down, which is still significantly more per hour than the buses could handle. During the second surge with buses coming on average every two minutes, around 1,800 passengers per hour were able to be transported between either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road through to Eastern Market. There very likely still will not be enough bus capacity for everybody needing to get north of Braddock Road station, so Metro and jurisdictions hope that those who can take alternate transportation or telework do so.

The tracks between Braddock Road and National Airport are mostly aerial, which means there's less total space for crews to work in. Metro's decision fully shut service down was likely for at least two reasons: First, it's safer for the workers, as they don't have to be watching out for trains in the opposite direction every few minutes; Second, shutting down both tracks should let them get the work done quicker. At the least, since there are no wooden rail ties to replace on the raised aerial structures, there's one less type of work to focus on.

For those wanting to get a little exercise in, there are also several Capital Bikeshare stations near the affected stations, and biking in the area recently got a bit easier thanks to the completion of several changes on the Mount Vernon Trail near National Airport.

Bicycling


Near National airport, the Mount Vernon Trail is new again

A number of changes to the Mount Vernon Trail near Reagan National airport just wrapped up. The National Park Service installed a new railing where the trail comes close to the parkway as well as a much-needed water fountain, and removed a sharp turn from the trail.


The new water fountain on the Mount Vernon Trail. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The water fountain, which is already working, is the only water stop on the trail itself in the eight mile stretch between Jones Point Park in Alexandria and the trail head in Rosslyn.


Running water from the Mount Vernon Trail's new water fountain.

The park service installed a new railing between the trail and the adjacent George Washington Memorial parkway where the two are just feet apart under a bridge at the southern end of National airport.


The new railing between the trail and parkway.


The new railing is located under a bridge that carries cars from National airport to the parkway.

The park service also shifted the trail away from the parkway under the bridge that connects Crystal City and National airport.


The trail under the Crystal City-National airport bridge today (left) and at the beginning of work in October (right).

Finally, the sharp turn in the trail around a tree south of both bridges is now gone.


The newly realigned trail is on the left and the old route around the tree on the right.

Weather postponed the completion of the improvements to the Mount Vernon Trail to June from the spring, says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff of the park service's division responsible for the parkway and trail.

The trail work has been a long time in coming. The number of users continues to increase, especially since the beginning of the SafeTrack work on the Metrorail system. The Yellow and Blue lines are scheduled for a full closure between Braddock Road and Pentagon City - the section of track that parallels this part of the trail - for much of July.

Many users continue to seek more improvements to the Mount Vernon Trail. Among the various ideas are a bike bypass at Gravelly Point and snow removal in the winter.

Public Spaces


Using tape, paper, and potted plants, Arlington built a temporary bikeway

On June 11, Arlington closed a block of bustling Wilson Boulevard for what organizers called the Active Streets Festival. There were bike-oriented games and activities, plus a collection of temporary bikeways "built" with tape, paper, and potted plants.


Pop-up protected bikeway. Photo by BikeArlington.

The festival took place during the Air Force Association cycling race, when many Arlington streets were closed anyway. The Active Streets Festival gave Arlingtonians who weren't racing something bike-related to take part in.

Planners "built" a series of temporary bike lanes, all on the block of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North.

On one section, a row of potted plants formed the barrier for a protected bike lane. On another, a row of parked cars did the same. Elsewhere, washable homemade green "paint" and a thick roll of tape formed a green bike lane, a buffered bike lane, and sharrows.


Pop-up green lane and buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

By using easy-to-set-up and easy-to-take-down temporary materials, Arlington planners tangibly showed residents what Wilson Boulevard might look like if its street space were allocated differently. There's no proposal to change Wilson permanently, but the example can be instructive for future projects on other streets.


A BikeArlington worker lays down strips of tape to create the buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

Tangible benefits aside, the whole thing was a heck of a lot of fun.


Wilson Boulevard with its pop-up bike lanes in place. Photo by BikeArlington.

Architecture


Building of the Week: Terminal B/C at National airport

Ronald Reagan Washington National airport turned 75 years old this month, having served the region since president Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the first American Airlines DC-3 in 1941. Today, terminal B/C, which opened in 1997, is the focal point of the airport and an instantly recognizable part of the region's architectural heritage.


Terminal B/C at National airport. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

The most striking elements of terminal B/C, which was designed by Cesar Pelli, are its domes. Considered "Jeffersonian" in their design, each of the 54 in the terminal building is a modular, 45-foot square bay made of steel with a glass oculus at their center, according to National Airport Terminal, Pelli's book on the project.


Each Jeffersonian dome in terminal B/C is 45 feet square with a glass oculus at its center. Photo by Brian Allen.

The domes serve as a connection between the terminal and the "civic architecture of Washington DC," which is purposely visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that faces the aircraft ramp and the District, says Pelli.


Travellers can see the US capitol, other monuments and the Potomac River through terminal B/C's floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Photo by the author.

Pelli placed all of the terminal's functional elements, like ticket counters, baggage belts and restrooms, on the landside of the building to allow for the glass wall.

The domes also feature in each of terminal B/C's three piers, with nine atop the atriums at the end of each concourse.

"[The terminal] has a kind of industrialized Gothic quality inside," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in the book. "The architect has managed to combine the lightness of late Gothic architecture with the tensile quality of twentieth-century modernism."

He notes that the design benefitted from the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority's (MWAA) desire for a terminal that had sufficient "aesthetic stature" to serve as a gateway to the US capital.

A long-needed upgrade

Terminal B/C was a long-overdue solution to the problem that was National airport. By the 1980s, the airport's three terminals—the main terminal (terminal A today), north terminal and commuter terminal (see a map here)—were outdated and overcrowded.

"It is a major horror story of modern planning," James Murphy, then head of airport policy for the then Air Transport Association and a former manager of National airport, told The Washington Post in June 1986. "You can't overstate the problems. It has the most severe facility constraints per square foot of any airport I have ever seen."

Work on a new master plan officially began in 1982, MWAA documents show. However, it was not until the formation of the airport authority in 1987 that the project moved into high gear.

MWAA approved a master plan that included terminal B/C in March 1988, less than a year after its formation. The first project, the demolition of hangar one and construction of a new parking garage, began that July.

A key consideration for the project was access from the Metro. When the station opened in 1977, it was only somewhat convenient for passengers flying out of the commuter or north terminals and a long walk through parking lots to the main terminal, which handled the bulk of airport traffic. Terminal B/C was sited where it is and designed to eliminate this inconvenience and make it easy for travellers to access the building from the rail system.

In 1989, Pelli was hired to design the new terminal that at the time was expected to cost about $200 million and open in 1994.

The same year, an interim terminal opened on the north side of National to accommodate passengers displaced by the demolition of the commuter terminal and old north terminal during construction.


A diagram of National airport with the interim terminal from the early 1990s. Photo by the author.

The terminal project encountered a setback in 1990. As it was laid out, the new building would obstruct the view of the threshold of one of National airport's three runways from the old control tower atop the main terminal. The issue was rectified by the addition of a new tower to terminal B/C.

Pelli unveiled four potential designs for the terminal in early 1992. Later that year, MWAA selected the one dubbed "Jeffersonian Domes" but was forced to scale down the plans due to airline and congressional concerns about rapidly rising costs that had nearly doubled to $400 million by that time.


The four proposed designs for terminal B/C at National airport, the ultimate Jeffersonian dome design is in the bottom right. Image from National Airport Terminal by Cesar Pelli.

Construction began on terminal B/C in November 1993 and took nearly four years, with the facility opening on July 27, 1997—three years late and about $250 million more than originally expected.


A US Airways map of the new north terminal, terminal B/C today, from 1997. Photo by the author.

Adapting for more passengers

National airport again faces congestion issues. Passenger traffic increased by nearly six million to 23 million from 2009 to 2015, placing strain on facilities that were designed to handle roughly 17 to 18 million people annually.

MWAA plans to build a new commuter concourse on the north side of the airport replacing gate 35X, which is the bain of many passengers flying on small regional aircraft. The concourse will replace 14 remote aircraft parking positions with the same number of gates with jetways.


Outline of the planned commuter concourse at National airport. Photo by MWAA.

The concourse has been planned since at least 1998, when the authority approved a regional concourse on the same site for then US Airways. The project was cancelled later the same year as the airline faced financial difficulties.

MWAA also plans to move national hall—the hall with Pelli's floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the tarmac and capital—in terminal B/C behind security in order to reduce chokepoints at the entrance to each pier and ease passenger connections between the concourses.

The new concourse and reconfiguration of national hall will be the first major changes to Pelli's iconic terminal B/C.

Transit


Big parts of the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines are about to shut down for two weeks

Starting on Saturday and lasting through July 3rd, Metro is fully closing the tracks from the Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue stations to Eastern Market, along with those between Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery. This phase of SafeTrack is likely to be much harder on riders than the first, which wraps up today.


SafeTrack Surge 2 service reductions. Image from WMATA.

According to a Metro presentation on SafeTrack, almost 300,000 riders will feel the effects of the Surge 2 closures each day. That number includes both riders that use the segments of the Orange, Silver, or Blue Lines that will have no service as well as those who use the lines in places that will simply see fewer trains.

Blue Line trains from Franconia will only run as far as Arlington Cemetery, trains from Largo will only to Benning Road, and trains from New Carrollton will stop at Minnesota Avenue. The shutdown will effectively cut the the Blue Line in half. Instead of traveling through Rosslyn to get to DC, passengers will have to take the Yellow Line up through L'Enfant Plaza and transfer to another train for the rest of the trip.

Metro is offering up shuttle bus service between the affected stations that will run every 5-10 minutes depending on the location. The single bus shuttle between Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery, however, will only run every 12 minutes, and only operate midday.

Metro will be increasing some bus service on some routes, including the T18 and the X9. Arlington is also upping buses on its ART 43 route, and around 40 buses will be running Metro's shuttle bus service during the shutdown. But a single train car holds 100 or more people, and many more people ride the trains than will be able to fit into the available buses.

WMATA's website has very thorough information about alternative transportation, including lists of all the bus routes that service each closed station as well as Rosslyn and those east of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue.


Metro's estimates on per-car crowding during Surge 2.

Metro officials have asked and continue to ask for riders on the affected lines to take alternate transportation if at all possible so that those for whom it is not can ride trains. The presentation slide above shows that if all Metro passengers took their normal routes, trains from McPherson Square to Metro Center would pack almost 200 people per car—Metro considers a car with 120 people to be crowded, and it's likely not physically possible to fit 195 (or even 147) people into a single rail car without massive effort.

During the disruptive 16-day Surge 2, passengers are recommended to stay calm and prepared. Carry a towel, in other words, and find the best way to travel that you can.

There are numerous rider tools that can be used to stay on top of the delays, and being informed will be critical to getting through this with your sanity in check.

History


Here's why Arlington's streets have the names they do

Did you know there's a rhyme and reason to how Arlington County's streets are named? Here's an explanation of Arlington's street-naming system.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.

The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.

In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.

Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.

Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.

None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.

Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.

Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.

This post first ran back in 2009. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Development


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.


WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.


(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).

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