Posts about Ballston
Arlington is trying to make Glebe Road safer for pedestrians in Ballston with changes at several key intersections. These will make pedestrians safer, but as Ballston evolves into a more urban place, Glebe may need even more significant changes which VDOT may resist.
Glebe Road is a major north/south artery in Arlington County running from the Chain Bridge to US 1 near the border with Alexandria. As Ballston initially evolved into a denser, urban neighborhood, Glebe Road more or less marked the western border of any change. Now, that border is shifting farther west and Glebe Road is itself developing as a node of urban activity.
Many of the car dealerships and gas stations are being replaced by taller and mixed-use development. This includes several new bars and restaurants, which mean that Glebe Road is also seeing more pedestrians along its sidewalks at all hours.
This is great for the neighborhood, but it is tempered by the fact that this section of Glebe also has some Arlington's biggest and busiest car intersections.
In response, Arlington is proposing a number of changes for pedestrian safety at the intersections with Wilson Boulevard, Fairfax Drive, and Carlin Springs Road.
These changes are definitely an improvement to the current conditions, but ultimately Arlington needs to more completely rethink Glebe, from its intersections to how many lanes the road really needs.
The picture above is what a driver sees while waiting to proceed north Glebe at Wilson Boulevard. Several cars could fit in the space between the crosswalk and the white line.
The intersection itself is very large and it is difficult for drivers to see what is ahead of them, not to mention those trying to cross on foot before the light changes. Even despite this large distance, a driver trying to left onto Wilson Boulevard does not have to wait for a green arrow if they think the way is clear.
The plans move the crosswalks to align with the white stop line. This would reduce the amount of pavement that pedestrians need to cross. The county will also eliminate a slip lane on the southwest corner.
However, the new design still leaves two slip lanes which encourage speeding and create potential conflict points between drivers and pedestrians.
At Glebe Road and Fairfax Boulevard, two slip lanes are being removed but one slip lane will remain. This is unfortunate, since pedestrians already face the task of crossing 8 lanes of traffic at this intersection.
Other corners will get rebuilt and become sharper. This will extend the sidewalk and slow down cars negotiating a turn, reducing the amount of roadway that pedestrians need to cross and make pedestrians more visible at the intersection.
Concrete will replace some of the brick sidewalks at the intersection with Wakefield Street, closer to the ramp to I-66, and provide a smoother surface for pedestrians and cyclists connecting to the Custis Trail and the Arlington Loop.
At the intersection at Carlin Springs Drive, Arlington will move a stop light pole to be less intrusive on the sidewalk, replace brick crosswalks with the more traditional zebra-style painted crosswalk, and replace the concrete on the sidewalk itself.
There are no slip lanes at this intersection, but pedestrians face challenges from crossing another 8 lanes of traffic while cars are negotiating unprotected left turns and avoiding traffic that is entering and exiting from the Ballston Mall Garage.
But turning Glebe Road into a safer street cannot just focus on the intersections. Planners must consider if Glebe Road is wider than necessary. The section through Ballston is 6 lanes compared to the usual 4 along the rest of the route.
These extra lanes are less than a mile long, and allow parking in some sections but not others. Passing Ballston Mall, there is not any parking. Drivers speed up into that third lane for about ¼ mile before having to turn onto Wilson or merge back into the travel lane.
This means that in an area with increasing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, drivers have to make confusing lane changes that can distract them from seeing other road users or encourage them to be reckless.
The intent of these lanes is to serve drivers coming on and off I-66. But Glebe doesn't have similar extra lanes around exits onto US 50 and I-395. It would be better to simplify the road so that drivers can focus their attention on what is going on around them rather than trying to negotiate a confusing right-of-way.
Glebe Road is Virginia State Route 120, meaning the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) controls the road. Thus far, VDOT has been unwilling to consider changes to roads that reduce the amount of space for vehicles, which ties Arlington's hands.
The pedestrian improvements for Glebe Road are welcome, but as more development comes to Ballston, Glebe Road needs to become a street that better balances the needs of all users and keeps them safe.
As enclosed malls continue to decline and close, more and more retailers are opting to locate in pedestrian-friendly urban districts.
3 years ago, I expressed sentiments that the car-oriented shopping mall was a business model with no future. The events since have offered further proof that retailers and customers now prefer an urban format, at least in our region.
Recent news that Bloomingdale's in White Flint and Macy's in Laurel will close has little to do with the sales performance of those stores, and everything to do with their host malls being unable to survive. Both have been visibly declining for years, and will soon be redeveloped into mixed-use walkable urban places.
The Laurel Macy's has managed to remain open for years despite much of its host mall being shuttered. That store would likely have closed years ago if it wasn't making money, especially in the wake of the Great Recession.
Similarly, if it had not been profitable the White Flint Bloomingdale's would have closed in 2007 when another location of the luxury retailer opened a mere 3 Metro stations away.
Within the Favored Quarter, the most economically competitive and healthy part of our region, only the largest and most dynamic enclosed malls are continuing to thrive. The rest are slowly dying.
In Maryland, Montgomery Mall is the most vibrant, while in Virginia the Tysons cluster reigns supreme.
When the White Flint redevelopment plan was approved in 2010, it provided the owners of White Flint Mall the opportunity to earn a healthier profit by giving the market more of what it wants: walkable urbanism.
Elsewhere in the region the malls are doing as bad or worse. Most have either closed or are in the process of being converted to walkable town centers.
Arlington has had success turning the area around its two enclosed malls into mixed-use towns, first at Ballston and now at Pentagon City, where the process is still under way.
In Prince George's County, the area around the Mall at Prince George's (formerly Prince George's Plaza) has been undergoing a process similar to Pentagon City. At Bowie Town Center, County officials are looking at adding more entertainment and housing options.
Meanwhile, urban shopping areas that I mentioned three years ago have increased in prominence:
In the District of Columbia, there are four shopping districts that support clusters of national retail chains that are usually mall-based: Downtown (Old Downtown clustered around Metro Center), Connecticut Avenue between Farragut Square and Dupont Circle, Friendship Heights, and Georgetown. Columbia Heights is emerging and has a different mix of retailers.Urban-format suburban shopping districts also continue to thrive and grow.
Silver Spring's retail is more vibrant than ever. The space vacated by Borders was quickly filled by Smart Toys. Bethesda and Clarendon are continually adding to their mixture of chains and smaller upscale retailers. Wheaton is a work in progress.
Even outside the Beltway, urbanism is catching on. Rockville Town Square and Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Center are growing, and National Harbor is setting the standard for Prince George's County. Two decades ago, all those developments likely would have been enclosed malls.
While purely car-dependent malls aren't going to go completely extinct, they are becoming far more rare. In the future, it is likely the only enclosed malls that remain will be the largest super-regional "winners" inside the Favored Quarter. Meanwhile, no new malls are planned.
As the 21st Century continues, both living and dead mall sites will be either be completely redeveloped or will evolve into mixed-use walkable urban places. Retailers will continue clustering at transit-oriented, walkable urban locations, both downtown and at new suburban "uptowns."
Despite support from the neighborhood ANC and historic staff, the Historic Preservation Review Board last month rejected designs for a 6-story building along the east side of 14th Street, agreeing with some neighbors who have organized to fight the proposal.
The opponents, Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein, warn that this project will make the neighborhood become "like Ballston," claimed it will "hulk over the entire block, casting neighbors into constant shadow," and posted some pictures with the caption "Wallachzilla."
HPRB asked architect Eric Colbert to redesign the project, with particular attention to the Wallach Street setback. HPRB chair Catherine Buell told me that the board felt this "will change character of this narrow street in particular," and that the board "has consistently ruled that buildings have to be set back."
But there are plenty of buildings adjacent to narrow streets, not set back, that exist and more importantly don't ruin the character of the street. Here's one from right near my own house (and thus not the same historic district as the Wallach one):
The Wallach proposal has 6 stories adjacent to narrow Wallach Place, with the bottom one larger. This building has 6½ stories. Yet I've walked past this building countless times, and never thought, ugh, this building is so tall and imposing! If it does cast a shadow, I've either thought, "It's great there is shade on this hot day," or, "It's too bad this building has so many ugly air conditioners sticking out and dripping on the sidewalk."
And the feel of the street is just simply not ruined by the building. Yes, it helps that there are large trees, which hopefully Wallach can gain as well over time. But even without them, such a building can easily coexist with small row houses. These ones near the building are only 2½ stories above ground.
Johnson and Brownstein seem to hold a minority view among active residents in the neighborhood. The ANC and its design review committee both approved the project. The HPO staff report also endorsed it as consistent with preservation.
Johnson and Browstein say "nobody told us about" the project. But some other active residents have pushed back on that assertion, noting that it had come up in neighborhood meetings and on the neighborhood email list.
Their biggest concern seems to be parking. They write, "Traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate; ... Residents on T and Wallach who share the same alley will face exponentially more trouble negotiating in and out of their off-street parking spots; ... What is in the developer's own terms "a building for interns" is being air-dropped into a neighborhood that's now more Sesame Street than Soho."
There are, as always, better solutions to parking. As they note, U Street already has scarce street parking because the neighborhood is popular. Keeping people out doesn't solve that. Besides, if the building is really for interns, and right by the Metro, how many will really bring cars to DC or even register cars here? Interns are probably the ideal neighbors if you're worried about on-street parking.
And as someone who lives near large apartment buildings, I can assure them that people don't park in the alleys unless they're allowed to. It's not harder to get in and out of an alley parking spot just because an apartment building is down the block. The only issues are how wide the alley is and who's parked at the houses on either side.
HPRB, and Johnson and Brownstein, did all agree that the building looks a lot like others in the neighborhood. If HPRB can push for the highest quality architectural work, great. But this is a side issue and not really a preservation one; buildings that look just like others in a historic district are, by definition, compatible.
ANCs are notoriously biased toward opposing projects. HPO staff tend to take expansive views of the historic preservation laws. It's too bad the HPRB is forcing reductions in a project which all of these groups support, one which is not that different from other buildings, and which won't really destroy anyone's neighborhood.
Could an inviting urban plaza take the place of a fallow plot by the Ballston public garage?
Giving inspiration to its former name, the old Parkington Shopping Center in Ballston once held claim to being the first shopping mall in the country to be built around a multilevel garage. The complex was redeveloped into the Ballston Common Mall in 1986. At that time, Arlington County built an adjacent replacement public garage but inexplicably sited it at an angle to Glebe Road.Kettler Capitals Iceplex (a twin-rink practice facility for the Washington Capitals and community skating) opened on the roof of the garage, with access from a dedicated elevator adjacent to Glebe Road.
Because of the unusual angular siting of the garage, the smartly designed glass elevator shaft opens onto an unappealing grassy triangle with mud patches where the groundcover has died. Neither an urban pocket park nor an attractively landscaped buffer, this section of the Ballston Common block lays fallow in a rapidly developing neighborhood.
Comprising approximately a quarter-acre on its triangular parcel, the lot sits on the least active front of the Ballston Common Mall complex. While other fašades of the mall hold patio restaurant seating, retail entrances, and display cases, this lot is fronted only by a brick-and-concrete garage.
Presently, this face is blessed with less pedestrian traffic than its other fronts, though that is bound to change as the redevelopment game washes anew over the surrounding blocks.
Owned variously by Arlington County and Macy's, Inc. as tax-free open space, the small bit of land is ripe for something better. But what?
Likely too small for an active grassy space, perhaps it could be hardscaped into a Belgian-blocked plaza with a series of eight or ten tall specimen trees, benches, and a kiosk offering another lunch option, as well as giving a small food business a low-rent opportunity.
If you have any other ideas for this space, leave your thoughts in the comments. Do you use this space as it is now and think it could be better served simply by re-sodding the grass? Or do any changes need to wait until the other properties along Glebe Road have been redeveloped to be successful?
I Wish This Were... is a series in which Greater Greater Washington contributors imagine a better use for vacant properties and poorly-conceived public spaces in the DC area.
The Calvert Street Bridge is the only connection between Adams Morgan and the closest Metro station, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan. It's not unusual to see a steady stream of pedestrians crossing the bridge on weekends. But that may change if Metro cuts late-night service.
Throughout the debate over whether or not Metro should cut the service for financial reasons, owners and managers at bars, clubs, and lounges in DC and beyond have been concerned about what impact such a change would have on their businesses and way of life in the region.
Cronin worries that lost tax revenue to the city will exceed the amount WMATA will save if service is cut. "I want to see the numbers make sense," he said. He predicts his business will probably drop 20% on Fridays and Saturdays, and that a number of the city's establishments will go under. "The whole District will be damaged by it," he worries.
Cronin predicts such a dramatic loss because weekend parking in Adams Morgan is already at critical mass, and there will be no method of transportation to replace Metro. "It's a horrible parking situation," he laments, "We do a valet, but the valet fills up."
The Woodley Park station, about a half-mile away from one of the top club districts on the East Coast, is one of the most utilized Metro stations between midnight and 3 am. Cronin also expressed concerns over drunk drivers, and taxi shortages plaguing Adams Morgan come last call. "This is the capital of the free world, and to have a Metro that doesn't run past midnight is just embarrassing."
Just outside the District, the concerns about cutting Metro's late-night service are not tied to losing business. At Union Jack's in Ballston, operations manager Anthony Murphy actually believes business will increase if the changes take effect. (Full disclosure: I am a former bouncer at Union Jack's in Bethesda and Anthony Murphy is my brother.).
Even with the potential for more business, there are concerns about the changes. Murphy worries about drunk driving. "If a bar can be held accountable for a drunk guy getting behind the wheel of a car, then the Metro should also be held accountable if they make this change."
Union Jack's will also likely close their kitchens earlier. "Many of our back-of-the-house employees depend on Metro to get home," Murphy said, "This change could create a lot of unemployment in the industry." Murphy's wife, Paige, also relies on Metro to get to her job as a bartender at the Chesapeake Room on Barracks Row near the Eastern Market Metro station.
The increase in business, it seems, is just not worth the added liabilities. "Metro should do a bake sale or a car wash or whatever they have to do to get the funds to not keep the Metro from shutting down earlier, but also maybe have it stay open later," said Murphy, calling the service cuts an "irresponsible move."
Indeed, bar owners throughout the city are weary. If the late-night service cuts happen, it could mean drastic changes in revenue, increased liability issues, and difficulty for employees getting to and from work.
In the meantime, Metro will continue to serve tens of thousands of customers during weekend late nights. And for hundreds of gussied up bar patrons, the late night parade across the Calvert Street Bridge will remain a staple of the Adams Morgan night life experience.
Here are a few of our favorites from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool this week.
Join the Flickr group and submit your own photos! Photos will ideally depict either great or not-so-great features of a part of the Washington, DC region, showing people, roads, parks, stores or buildings as beautiful and lively places filled with people, or unsightly or desolate places that could be greater.
One specific request: We could especially use photos of SmarTrip cards. This one from Mr. T in DC has gotten used many a time, but we try not to repeat more than necessary. There are a number on Flickr that aren't CC licensed. If you get any photos of your SmarTrip, please CC license them and/or post them to the pool. Thanks!
Last weekend, we visited a friend who recently bought a condo in Ballston. Zachary Schrag highlights the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor as the region's biggest success from Metro's original construction, creating a new transit-oriented Smart Growth development around the subway, and it's true: there were people and shops and other signs of life everywhere, and much of Wilson Boulevard was clearly designed with pedestrians in mind. This area is a great reminder that suburban areas can be so much more than what they usually are.
At the same time, everything still feels a little disjointedly spread out. Rob Goodspeed uses his urban planning knowledge to explain the "structure of voids" that has emerged due to disjointed open spaces that "has not created a coherent urban space." The end product has many qualities of urbanism, but also a certain feel that someone jumbled up a bunch of cities and some suburban areas at random.
Our friend enjoys living in Ballston, but also lamented the lack of real independent restaurants. Almost all restaurants are chains, either regional chains that operate across Virginia and Maryland, or a national chain. One of their favorite places in Clarendon had recently closed, supposedly due to high rents that only the chains can afford. It's important to preserve and encourage the eclectic mix of small, independent shops and restaurants in neighborhoods. Planners and economists have been looking for the best strategies; here's a presentation about it from the Pratt Center in New York.
Areas like Ballston are a reminder that it's not just preservation, but active expansion, so that newer areas develop into something more than yet another mall. (A good place to start is not to build an actual mall, like Ballston or Columbia have.) One big part of encouraging smaller businesses is to have smaller actual spaces for the businesses; developers like to sign a big contract with a huge restaurant or retailer to fill a big ground-floor space in one swoop, but the mix is much more eclectic in older areas with more, narrower buildings, perfect for a little pizzeria or a boutique store (or a bank, which is another challenge).
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- PG planners propose bold new smart growth future