Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Capitol Hill


Heritage will charge closer to market rate for parking

The Heritage Foundation wants to build a large parking structure beneath new row houses on residentially-zoned land adjacent to their office building near Union Station. At their Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) hearing on April 9th and the ANC 6C meeting on April 10th, Heritage agreed to several changes which will improve this project.

Site plan image from the application.

The parking garage is now slightly smaller, including 3 levels below grade instead of 4. This will decrease the number of spaces to 90 from 105 and reduce the amount of required excavation and construction time.

Heritage will also charge more for the parking. They previously planned to charge $90 per month, the same as the current charge in their parking lot. Instead, the fee will reflect, if not the market rate, at least the cost of building this underground parking structure. This policy change essentially removes a subsidy flowing to employees who drive from non-driving employees and donors.

Close neighbors worried about potential hazards from the garage exhaust shaft. The Heritage Foundation agreed to move the shaft farther from neighboring homes and raised its height above the alley from 8 to 22 feet. In addition, it will replace an existing cooling tower with a more efficient and quieter model.

An air quality study commissioned by the Heritage Foundation at the request of ANC 6C confirms that there will not be unhealthy levels of CO, NO2 and particulate matter at neighboring properties as a result of this project.

A new Capital Bikeshare station, which Heritage will pay for at a cost of $70,000, will also help encourage employees and visitors to use other forms of transportation. It will also create a neighborhood amenity and improve access for other local businesses along Massachusetts Avenue, NE. This was included at the request of DDOT, before their BZA hearing, but was not in the original filing.

The new rowhouses are a positive improvement to this neighborhood, and recent changes will help mitigate some of the negative impacts of the parking structure.

The ANC voted to support the project, and the BZA will rule on the required variances and special exceptions in the near future. Now that the ANC and many neighbors are in support of this project, it is likely that the BZA will follow suit and approve zoning relief as well.


Heritage building 105 parking spaces under 6 rowhouses

The Heritage Foundation plans to build 6 rowhouses near its offices at 3rd Street and Massachusetts Avenue, NE. There will be 105 parking spaces underneath, which Heritage will rent out to employees, though well below market rate, and a Capital Bikeshare station.

Photo by Sam Felder on Flickr.

Heritage has an existing office building with only a small amount of parking on site. The foundation purchased a vacant apartment building on 3rd Street, which isn't considered a contributing structure in the Capitol Hill Historic District, to build a garage for its adjacent offices.

Each rowhouse will get one space, while the remaining 99 parking spaces will be reserved for employees and visitors of the Heritage Foundation at a cost of $90 per month. For secure garage parking one block from Metro, this is far below market rate. For example, the currently monthly rate one block away at Union Station is $263.39.

According to the report from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), Heritage has agreed to pay for a new 40-foot Capital Bikeshare station, which costs about $70,000. Heritage also will build 42 new bicycle parking spaces, 6 in a locked room and 36 in the new garage, in addition to 10 existing indoor spaces.

Will this below-market parking bring more traffic and encourage more driving?

In this case, the parking garage on 3rd Street will not create a void in the rowhouse fabric because it will be entirely underground, and Heritage will build the 6 new rowhouses above. These new homes match the historic properties on the block, and won support from ANC 6C and the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB).

Current (top) and proposed (bottom) elevations on 3rd Street, NE.
Images from the application. Click for full PDF.

However, this still may bring negative impacts to the neighborhood. The exhaust shaft for the parking structure will be less than 15 feet high, and the Heritage Foundation has not proposed any special filters, landscaping, or other measures to prevent buildup of particulate matter at adjacent properties.

All vehicles will also enter and exit off of a residential block of 3rd Street. A traffic study by Gorove/Slade (commissioned by the Heritage Foundation) found that the adjacent intersection already has a high crash rate, though they speculate without evidence that recent re-striping may have reduced the rate.

The study claims that this project will have a positive impact on traffic and parking, but that is, at best, still an open question.

The study found that many of Heritage's workers take transit, some park on site or at a nearby Heritage-owned lot already, and others park at other private parking lots or garages in the area. A few also park on local streets in the neighborhoodlikely a mix of Ward 6 residents and other workers who plan on paying occasional parking tickets.

The traffic study also claims that "traffic will not increase" because "the cars... already drive to the neighborhood; they just park on the street and in other locations. This parking will eliminate the pressure to use on-street parking and will not generate any new traffic."

However, it seems unlikely that the workers already parking on the streetwhether legally or illegallywill shift their patterns to park in the new garage. In addition, any existing spaces in other private garages will likely be used by other drivers to the neighborhood, driving more traffic to the neighborhood through induced demand.

The DDOT report says that:

DDOT is generally opposed to Applicants providing more vehicle parking than is necessary for land development projects. Adding parking capacity to an existing facility while holding the development program relatively constant creates potential for additional vehicular trips and increased congestion. ... The additional vehicle parking has the potential to encourage additional commuters to switch from transit, biking, or carpooling to single occupant vehicle travel.
Heritage needs zoning approvals

In order to build this project, the Heritage Foundation is seeking relief from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) from several sections of the zoning code including those related to expanding an existing non-conformance for FAR (771, 2001.3); exceeding the height limit on penthouses (1203.2(b)); vehicles parking across lot lines (2303.1(b)); and building accessory parking in the R-4 zone (214).

Zoning regulations prohibit parking from spanning multiple parcels or serving as accessory to other uses in the R-4 zone in part because it has the potential to mar rowhouse neighborhoods by disrupting home spacing in these dense, historic neighborhoods. For example, some area churches have purchased rowhouses just to raze them for parking lots. This is not allowed by right in the zoning regulations.

In 2011, HPRB denied an application by the Third Street Church of God in Mt. Vernon Triangle to raze 3 historic buildings to create a parking lot (for a net gain of 5-7 parking spaces). If the raze had been granted, the church would have needed similar variances and special exceptions to the ones that the Heritage Foundation is seeking.

Lawyers for the Heritage Foundation claim that zoning relief is justified because of the unique aspects of the property, including that the multiple properties are irregularly shaped, span across two different zones, and the two large buildings facing Massachusetts Avenue NE (214 & 236) are nonconforming in both FAR and height.

The application claims a hardship in part because these lots proposed for the parking garage are zoned residential, which they label an "accident" of history. However, the lots have been zoned R-4 for decades. This block of 3rd Street NE is narrow and has been lined with residential rowhouses for over a century.

One variance that the Heritage Foundation doesn't have to seek is one to exceed maximum parking requirements. There are none in DC, although proposals have been considered as part of the zoning update. Some other cities, such as San Francisco, have instituted parking maximums in certain areas which are close to downtown or otherwise well-served by public transportation. These maximums range from ½ to 1 spaces per unit, with a special exception required for additional parking.

The new rowhouses included in this proposal by the Heritage Foundation will likely be a positive addition to the neighborhood. However, that portion of the project is allowed as a matter-of-right. There does not appear to be much positive impact for the neighborhood or District from a new parking structure, serving a commercial use, in a historic and residential zone.

BZA will hear this proposal at its April 9th meeting, as case number 18531.

Update: We mistakenly first published an earlier draft of this post which did not include more recent information that Heritage is adding a Capital Bikeshare station and indoor bike parking as part of the project. The post has been updated.


I was in a hit-and-run by a distracted driver

My normal commute between work near Union Station and home in Dupont Circle is 35 minutes, doorknob to doorknob. Tuesday night, that commute came to a grinding halt just 2 blocks from my office.

2nd & F NE. Photo by reallyboring on Flickr.

As I crossed the street at 2nd and F Streets NE, an SUV pulled up to the 4-way stop. The SUV stopped at the stop sign, and I began to cross the street in the crosswalk. As I was just in front of the SUV, the driver, who'd looked down to his phone while stopped (it looked like he was texting), pulled forward full speed into a left turn, hitting me.

In the split second I had as the vehicle began to move before it hit me, I screamed and tried to jump back, but I was directly in front of the SUV, and it hit me squarely in the right leg, rolling over my right foot.

As I screamed, the driver finally looked up, saw me, and yelled "sorry!" out of his open window before continuing on his way. I was stunned.

It had all taken less than 15 seconds.

Waiting for the police

Once I got safely onto the sidewalk, I stopped, and the security guard at the nearby SEC parking garage stopped to ask me if I was okay and comment on the craziness of what had just happened. While I was in one piece, I was pretty banged up and definitely very shaken, and reached into my pocket for my cell phone to call 911.

It felt odd to me to call 911 when nothing was on fire and nobody was bleeding or in imminent danger, but as the security guard pointed out, I'd just been involved in a hit-and-run traffic collision.

Nonetheless, I gave the 911 operator my first name (they did not ask for my last name) and location, explained what happened, declined an ambulance, and was told that the next available unit would be on their way to me shortly. I hung up as a good samaritan came up to ask me if I was okay, and another security guard ushered me into the Securities and Exchange Commission building lobby to wait.

Collision diagram by the author.

Once I was settled inside on a bench, I called my significant other, Kian, to let him know that I'd be late getting home, and he insisted on coming from Dupont to meet me and help me get home once I was done with the police.

Once I hung up with Kian, building security suggested I call 911 againthey were very concerned no officer had responded yet. Kian arrived (via Metro) 25 minutes after I called him, but still no MPD officer had arrived.

The security guards in the building took down my information to let their supervisor know what was going on, and told me that there was a security camera on the corner of the building that might have had an angle to catch the whole thing on tape. They'd be happy to work with MPD to provide the tape.

10 minutes or so after Kian arrived (thanks to Twitter and call logs on our cell phones, I have the timing recorded), we called 911 for a third time. It had been an hour since my first call. They seemed to have no record of our earlier calls, but assured us that this was a priority and that a unit would arrive soon.

80 minutes after the collision, Capitol Police arrived on the scene. The responding officer explained that they'd heard it come in over the radio, and decided to respond. The Capitol Police officer took my full report, spoke to the security guard who'd been an eyewitness, and explained to me that Capitol Police would now have officers canvassing the area on the lookout for the vehicle, but since it had been over an hour, that it probably wasn't in the area any longer.

20 minutes after Capitol Police arrived, and as they're nearly finished writing the report, an MPD unit arrived, explaining that they'd been dispatched from the other side of the city, because of something going on downtown occupying all of the units in the area. The officer asked me to explain what had happened yet again, even though they ended up letting Capitol Police file the report.

Bad intersection?

About 30 minutes after the accident, waiting for MPD, I logged into Twitter on my phone. Many, many people on Twitter expressed their sympathy and kind thoughts (thank you!). As the discussion progressed, several people expressed frustration with that very intersection:

I've definitely noticed on my daily commute lots of drivers blowing through the intersection with a rolling stop, or occasionally no stop at all.

A serious reminder

I'm sore and bruised from the collision, but otherwise I am okay. I'm incredibly grateful for that, and for all of the kind people around me who helped me after the accident, like the good Samaritan and the building security at the SEC.

But as a smart growth and complete streets advocate by day, this experience was a serious reminder that our work for more walkable, bikeable, livable streets for everyone in our communities is far from complete. Even in a place like DC that does so many things right when it comes to transportation and planning, there's more work to do, even at the most basic level.

It's easy to get wound up in rhetoric about "us vs. them", the "war on cars", and so many other issues that we write and read about every day here. We've all been guilty of this from time to time. But when we step back, can't we all agree that cars, bicycles, and most especially, pedestrians, should all have a safe place on our streets? Washington is a great place to live, but we still have a long way to go to make it greater.

Let's do it for the kids in the daycare down the street from this intersection. For our elderly neighbors who can't get around as well anymore. For our children biking to school. From driver to cyclist to pedestrian, everyone benefits from a street that's safe and welcoming for all users.


Should corner stores require a hearing?

The ANC for southern Capitol Hill, ANC 6B, formally endorsed almost all provisions of DC's zoning update proposal, including removing many parking minimums, but it also wants to require a special exception to add a corner store in a residential area.

Photo by jacdupree on Flickr.

From their letter,

ANC 6B recommends changing the test to a special exception for certain commercial uses in residential areas in any building, including so-called "corner stores", if they meet the certain conditions set forth in OP's proposal.
A special exception for corner stores is far less onerous than the variance it requires today, but still is a significant burden to a small business owner. If the Zoning Commission does choose to require a special exception for any new store in a residential area, however, then we don't also need the long list of restrictions OP created to limit corner stores and their impacts.

Corner stores are very hard to open today

Today, it is almost impossible to put a store in a residential area, even in a location that historically had one, but the store closed. That means neighborhoods that once had walkable retail have lost the opportunity.

Someone can get a variance, but there is a very high legal bar that the owner essentially has to prove they can't use the property without it; since the building works fine as a residence, that's not possible. So even if neighbors are eager for a store, there isn't a path to get one.

One approach would be to allow a special exception, where the owner still has to go through a time-consuming and costly legal process, but the standard is lower. That gives residents a say, which is what many people want to see happen. Still, the process can be a burden; Aaron Wiener's story on the Anacostia Playhouse shows how waiting for a zoning hearing can block something even if people support it and the zoning board is almost sure to approve it.

The Office of Planning took a different approach. They instead said, if people are really concerned that a store will bring trash, noise, and smells, let's just set strict limits to avoid the impacts, but if someone can open a store with minimal effect on neighbors, then allow them to move forward without the time and expense of a hearing.

OP ended up placing so many limits on the stores, though, that it's possible we will see almost no corner stores. In particular, the stores now have to be in actual corner buildings, or buildings originally built as commercial; they also can't be within 500 feet of a commercial corridor to avoid competing with the commercial space.

The proposal also only applies in medium density house zones, but not detached house neighborhoods or higher-density apartment neighborhoods. All told, that leaves very few eligible spots for stores.

Here is Harriet Tregoning explaining the reasons for the corner store proposal at the recent DC Council oversight hearing:

An alternative: special exception, but more broadly

The Zoning Commission (ZC) ought to accept OP's proposal or even loosen the set of restrictions. However, if that board decides they aren't comfortable with any matter-of-right stores and wants to require a special exception, then potential retailers should be able to ask for a special exception to some of the restrictions as well.

In other words, if we believe that it necessary to have a zoning hearing that gives residents a chance to weigh in, and that forum can balance residents' desire for the store against the potential impacts, then we should trust the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to have the leeway to decide how many square feet is too much, or how close to other stores is too close, or whether the store can include something on the second floor of a building.

OP devised a set of restrictions they thought would ensure stores had minimal impact. They suggested allowing stores as of right in only these extremely narrow circumstances. If ANCs or the ZC don't like this approach, fine, but then we don't really need this extreme set of restrictions.

Instead, make these general criteria the BZA should consider, but give the BZA freedom to allow a corner store even when it doesn't meet all of these criteria. Instead of a rule limiting the stores to corner buildings and historically commercial ones, let the BZA consider the impact on neighbors, understanding that a corner building may be less likely to affect neighbors.

Instead of forbidding stores within 500 feet of commercial corridors, let the BZA decide if the store is going to sap nearby commercial space. Sometimes there's commercial zoning nearby but few or no actual stores, not because the properties are vacant but because they're filled with other things. The BZA could have the power to decide whether a store is going to detract from a commercial strip, or not.

ANC 6B seems open to loosening some of the restrictions:

During ANC 6B's deliberations on this issue, there was discussion about the restriction in OP's proposal that a proposed use not be within 500 feet of a commercial zone and whether a different or more flexible standard might be worth considering. ANC 6B also discussed whether to recommend that "purpose built structures" should be matter-of-right rather than require a special exception. ANC 6B will investigate these questions and may propose further comments and recommendations at a later stage of the consideration of these zoning changes.
Basically, there are two approaches. One is to make zoning define what is and isn't allowable and let people plan their houses and stores around that without having to ask some board for permission each time. Under that approach, it's important to have clear and specific zoning rules to allow what you want but don't allow what you don't want.

The other approach is to pass the ball to a group of people who make a case-by-case decision including resident input on a case by case basis. In this situation, you don't need a lot of detailed rules, just guidelines, because the board can use its discretion.

There's no reason to do have both a very tight set of rules and also require a hearing even to open a store that meets all of those tests. Either go with OP's proposal as is, or replace it wholesale with a rule that you can create a corner store in a residential area under a broader set of circumstances, but need a public hearing and a special exception to do it.


Capitol Hill ANC poised to endorse zoning update

ANC 6B, which covers the southern portion of Capitol Hill, is likely to endorse the DC zoning update after a majority of its members voted in favor at a committee meeting. It would join Glover Park's ANC 3B, which endorsed the proposals about 2 weeks ago.

Photo by katmeresin on Flickr.

In a post on his blog, Capitol Hill Corner, resident Larry Janezich (who clearly doesn't agree with the zoning update) reports that chairman Brian Flahaven, vice-chairman Ivan Frishberg, commissioners Nichole Opkins, Kirsten Oldenburg, Brian Pate, and Phil Peisch all voted for the proposals, along with 3 resident (non-commissioner) members.

According to Janezich, commissioners cited the value of encouraging more affordable housing and reducing car pollution, among other reasons, for supporting proposals to reduce parking minimums and allow accessory dwellings in single-family areas. Another part of the zoning update, allowing more corner stores in residential areas, appeared less controversial.

A majority of the ANC voted for the changes at the meeting, making it very likely they will fully approve these recommendations at their full meeting on Tuesday.

Not everyone supported the changes. Francis Campbell, Chander Jayaraman, and Dave Garrison voted no. It also got opposition from Ken Jarboe, a former commissioner defeated by Pate in 2010; Jarboe spoke against reducing parking minimums back in 2008 during the first round of Zoning Commission hearings. Janezich writes:

Former ANC commissioner Ken Jarboe, who worked on the ANC's Regulation Review Task Force, said he opposed the OP proposals because no alternative to taking away the parking had been presented. He pointed to the problems likely to ensue from the plan to put multiple small units in the Medlink building (7th and Constitution, NE) with no onsite parking. He said he was frustrated by people trying to use the Zoning Code to fix a problem that you can't solve by using the Zoning Code, likening the effort to using a hatchet where a scalpel was needed.
It's funny Jarboe makes that last point, because that statement is a perfect argument for removing the minimums, not against them. Much of the opposition to removing parking minimums has nothing to do with parking minimums at all, but on-street parking. People are afraid that the change will mean more cars competing for limited space on the street, but that's already a problem, minimums or no minimums.

At a recent debate, Elissa Silverman expressed some trepidation about removing parking minimums entirely. I had a very productive conversation with her on the phone, and we were able to explore the issues more deeply. I pointed out the analogy to why the government doesn't require, say, rooftop pools on every building. That would certainly make buildings more expensive, though it's something many residents would benefit from.

One difference, Silverman noted, is that omitting rooftop pools has no detrimental impact on other neighbors. And this is what she had been most concerned about: new development significantly upsetting existing residents' ability to park on a street near their home.

Many zoning update opponents keep claiming that no parking minimums means no parking, but that's fallacious. The Park Van Ness project, for instance, is building 226 parking spaces, far more than zoning requires, even though it is a matter-of-right proejct and 2 blocks from a Metro station.

People are also already parking on the street even when buildings have a lot of parking. Often they park on the street and spaces in the building go empty, because on-street spaces are cheaper and more convenient. In short, we have a problem that parking minimums aren't solving today. The solution, therefore, is not to keep things as they are, but to actually solve the problem directly.

Silverman also said that she wants to see housing near Metro stations accommodate everyone from singles to larger families, but a lot of buildings in places like H Street and 14th Street are just providing studios and one bedrooms. I agree we should have housing for families. Again, though, parking minimums are doing nothing today to ensure family housing near Metro stations.

There are definite problems with our parking policies today. We don't effectively manage on-street parking spaces. That causes problems. Jarboe is, therefore, right to be "frustrated by people trying to use the Zoning Code to fix a problem that you can't solve by using the Zoning Code." People are trying to use the zoning code to protect some residents' ability to park on the street, a problem you can't solve by using the zoning code.

Our current parking minimums don't fix on-street parking; if they did, it wouldn't be a problem today. They don't ensure family housing; if they did, we'd have more being built. It's wrong to oppose reducing parking minimums because of other problems which our parking minimums aren't preventing anyway.


Do we need a Southeast Boulevard at all?

A study is underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street bridges and Barney Circle with a new road. But is a new road even the best use of the space at all?

The freeway segment under construction in 1972. Photo from DDOT.

A 2005 "Middle Anacostia Crossings" study recommended a 4-lane boulevard to replace the freeway segment. That freeway was initially designed as part of a network of inner-city freeways, but DC thankfully stopped those plans before they divided and damaged any more neighborhoods as the freeway did to Southwest and Near Southeast.

Map of the area. Image from DDOT.

Now, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is starting a formal study of this as well as ways to rebuild Barney Circle. Communication about the "Southeast Boulevard" project often presumed that this project would indeed build a 4-lane boulevard.

Early concept sketches showed how some of the land could accommodate tour bus parking, but those sketches all also showed a 4-lane boulevard.

Is that the right way to use the land?

Is a boulevard the answer?

The 11th Street Bridge has added car capacity across the Anacostia and given drivers a direct connection between DC-295 north of the bridges and the Southeast Freeway. Today, the road is closed, so no cars are using it at all.

Think of it this way: What if there were no boulevard here and it were just empty space, perhaps a decommissioned railyard or some abandoned warehouses. Would DC build a road?

Houses adjacent to the construction. Photo from DDOT.

Craig Lenhart and Sanjay Kumar, who are managing the project for DDOT, say that they are indeed willing to study whether there need not be any new road at all, or a narrower one than 4 lanes. Based on feedback from a number of residents on this issue, they say they will study just that.

One of the objectives for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which includes this project, is to strengthen connections to and across the river. While the 11th Street bridges have provided better connections for car traffic around the neighborhood and across the river, bicycles and pedestrians also need better connections.

Rebuilding Barney Circle will be an opportunity to stengthen and make safer the Anacostia River trails' connections to Capitol Hill, the Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue), and subsequently neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The study will also look at ways to connect the neighborhood to the river with bridges over the CSX tracks, the DDOT representatives say.

What is the best way to use this land?

The land between the southernmost homes on L Street SE and the CSX is zoned for commercial/manufacturing currently, and the District of Columbia owns it. It could also be rezoned if the city determined other worthwhile uses to pursue here.

As one of many possibilities, David created a mockup in 2010 of how the land could house more residents (some with pretty impressive water views):

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Previous   Potential

Or, DC could build many other things. Playgrounds or sports fields, a mountain bike park, a community theater or an art museum, public buildings, or much more. What do you think DC should do with this land?


What would fix Pennsylvania and Potomac?

It's confusing and inconvenient to cross the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues on foot, to get to and from the Potomac Avenue Metro station. Could a different intersection design work better?

Two early concept designs for the intersection.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) kicked off an environmental study of the intersection with a public meeting Thursday night. This was the first of 3 meetings they will hold this year. They've also posted their presentation online.

Last week's was a "scoping meeting," the required first meeting of a NEPA process. Next, the team will develop alternatives, present them to the public, review their impacts, have public agencies review the draft document, and present a third time.

The intersection today, with sidewalks in red and parkland in green.

Redesign would accommodate crossing straight through

According to the study team, many people end up crossing straight through the intersection, and have worn a "desire line" in the median. They are crossing between signals, however, which may not be very safe. The team plans to design the intersection to help people cross safely in the direction they want to.

A prior study proposed rebuilding the intersection as a square, which would include crosswalks directly through the center from the Metro. However, that concept design hadn't gone through engineering review, and included turns too sharp for buses, Geoff Hatchard reported from the meeting.

2006 concept for a square.

The presentation has two concept sketches for the intersection. One would make Potomac Avenue end on each side at a T-intersection with Pennsylvania, and another would build an oval, though smaller and rounder than the one in the 2006 concept.

These sketches don't show crosswalks across Pennsylvania Avenue except in the center, but the planners explained in person that they will indeed include marked crosswalks at every intersection. That's important, especially since by DC law, every place a street meets another is a legal crosswalk, whether or not there are stripes.

Factors to consider in the design

The team stressed that these are not the final options, just early concepts, and they will refine and develop them more throughout the next phase of the process. As they do, here are some concepts they should keep in mind:

Traffic calming: One of the ways to make this intersection safer for pedestrians is to slow down the vehicles. DC recently installed a speed camera Pennsylvania Ave between 12th and 13th, which is a little over one block to the west. However, cars still speed through this stretch of road. The alternatives should include engineering solutions that will calm the traffic.

Seamless transit connections: This intersection has a Metro station and is a major bus transfer hub. Many of the pedestrians in this area are trying to transfer between buses or bus and Metro. The current configuration usually leads pedestrians to dash across Pennsylvania Ave to catch a bus. The proposed alternatives should consider bus stop locations.

Location of the CaBi station: When DDOT designed the original "square" concept, the Capital Bikeshare program didn't exist. The station is currently located on the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Potomac Ave.

One of the residents at the meeting pointed out that the current location is awkward if a rider wants to go westbound on Pennsylvania Ave. Also, people taking CaBi to or from the Metro have to cross Pennsylvania to reach the station. DDOT should consider where to locate the bikeshare station to make it as easy as possible to access the bikes and to help riders enter the flow of traffic safely.

Cyclist safety: One of the proposed concepts is a traffic oval. The engineers on this project explained that the traffic ovals are a method to calm traffic. While that may be the case from a technical perspective, traffic circles and ovals can be a cyclist's worst nightmare, especially when there aren't any identified bike lanes. In trying to address pedestrian safety, DDOT should not create unsafe conditions for cyclists.

Connect projects on both sides of the river: Another NEPA process is underway for reconfiguring the Minnesota Avenue-Pennyslvania Avenue intersection, immediately east of the Anacostia River. A NEPA process for Barney Circle, on the immediate west side of the Anacostia River, will start later this month. DDOT needs to make sure as these projects progress, the designs connect communities on both side of the river.

Rethink the Kiss-and-Ride: The Potomac Avenue Metro Station has a Kiss-and-Ride area that adds to the pedestrian-vehicle conflicts in this intersection. Stations in urban neighborhoods generally don't have Kiss-and-Rides, and this might be the time to remove it.

What will happen with green space? The National Park Service controls the current median of Pennsylvania Avenue, and would likely control the larger green space if DDOT chooses an oval-type design, Brian McEntee reported from the meeting. However, NPS does not have the resources to maintain its small parks around DC very well, and regulations often inhibit actively programming the space for the neighborhood.

This was a primary concern of many people at the meeting, McEntee said. Many worried this would create a dead space without any activity. Some suggested a playground; NPS rules have interfered with efforts to build a playground downtown as well.

DDOT will present its alternatives at the second public meeting sometime this spring.


On the calendar: White Flint happy hour, Dupont buses, Potomac Ave, Bethesda sidewalk, gentrification and more

What are you doing this week? If you care about the future of the White Flint area, there's a happy hour Tuesday. If you care about gentrification in DC, you might enjoy a panel discussion in Anacostia Thursday.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

If you care about bus service on 16th Street, sidewalks from Friendship Heights to Bethesda, or pedestrian and bike safety around Potomac Avenue Metro, there are local community meetings on important transportation projects tonight and Thursday. And take a tour of Frederick Douglass's Anacostia with John Muller Saturday.

Here are some highlights from the Greater Greater Washington calendar:

16th Street buses in Dupont: WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre will meet with residents about the performance of the S line, where many riders have to endure long waits during rush hour. That's not because the buses take a long time to come, but rather, full bus after full bus pass them by on this extremely popular line.

New Dupont ANC commissioner Kishan Putta organized the meeting, tonight (Monday), 7:30 pm at the JCC, 16th and Q (enter on Q Street). Residents are free to bring up concerns about other bus lines as well.

Sidewalk on Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda: Maryland SHA wants to build a 6-foot sidewalk on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue between Friendship Heights and Bethesda. The Little Falls Watershed Alliance is opposing the sidewalk because it will require cutting down trees, but WABA wants to ensure there's a safe route for pedestrians and cyclists on this road.

There's a public meeting tonight (Monday), 7:30-9 pm at Somerset Town Hall, 4510 Cumberland Avenue, Chevy Chase, where SHA will present plans and hear from residents.

Friends of White Flint happy hour: On Tuesday, Friends of White Flint and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are having a happy hour to talk about how to make the suburbs "hip," or much more than "hip."

The happy hour starts at 5:30pm at Seasons 52, 11414 Rockville Pike, a short walk from the White Flint Metro station. Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner will be there; RSVP here.

Image from DDOT.
Potomac Ave "circle": DDOT has been studying ways to improve the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues, at the Potomac Avenue Metro. A previous study recommended a sort of square with 5-lane roadways around the edge; at this meeting, DDOT will present its new ideas, which it hasn't yet released, and hear from residents.

The meeting is Thursday, January 31, 6:30-8:30pm at Payne Elementary, 1445 C Street, SE.

Does redevelopment mean gentrification? River East Emerging Leaders (r.e.e.l.) is convening a panel discussion on the positive and negative effects of redevelopment, and lessons learned for the future.

The panel will include NBC's Tom Sherwood, planning head Harriet Tregoning, Clinton Yates of the Washington Post, and a number of other community and city leaders. It's Thursday, January 31, 7 pm at the DHCD Community Room, 1800 Martin Luther King Avenue, SE in Anacostia. RSVP at

Frederick Douglass's Anacostia: Greater Greater Washington contributor John Muller, who recently wrote a book about Frederick Douglass and his years in Anacostia, is giving a tour Saturday of the places Douglass frequented, including majestic views of the Capitol, and historical explanations of Douglass's life. The tour runs from 1-2:30 pm and costs $30.

MoveDC Idea Exchange: And don't forget, Saturday, February 9th is the big "Idea Exchange" for DDOT's moveDC citywide transportation plan. You can stop by the MLK Library for fun and even family-friendly interactive transportation booths anytime from 9:30-3.

An organized program begins at 10:30, including a panel discussion at 11 featuring PolicyLink's Anita Hairston, author Chris Leinberger, and Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias.

Have an event for the calendar? Post it in the comments or email it to


Hill East changes tune on commercial strip

Do you want "commercial" uses in your neighborhood? Proposals for corner stores or commercial zoning can yield some great enthusiasm or strong antipathy. Often, this seems to depend on whether their experiences with local businesses have been good or bad.

Pretzel Bakery. Photo by Brian Flahaven.

In one part of Capitol Hill, residents once wanted to rezone 15th Street SE to eliminate an existing commercial strip, but 10 years later, many feel much more affectionately about the neighborhood businesses that have opened, and might prefer to keep the commercial strip around.

ANC Commissioner Brian Flahaven explains the history of zoning debates around this commercial corridor:

For most of the past decade, residents' experience with retail along this corridor has been negative. In the early 2000s, residents complained about crime and loitering around the now defunct New Dragon restaurant. And some residents also voiced concern that developers were taking advantage of the commercial zoning to build tall residential-only buildings along the corridor (C-2-A allows buildings up to 50 feet high compared to 40 feet for R-4).

In 2003, ANC 6B supported a request made by several frustrated 15th Street residents to rezone 15th Street SE from the commercial C-2-A to the residential R-4.

Current zoning in Hill East. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The Zoning Commission did not change the zoning, but DC's Comprehensive Plan started showing the area as residential, rather than commercial or mixed-use.

Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use Map.

When the Office of Planning finishes the zoning update, it could be an opportunity to change the zoning. But do residents still want that? Flahaven thinks perhaps not:

This past year saw the opening of two popular food establishments along the corridorThe Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. The Pretzel Bakery (340 15th Street SE) has been a huge hit. And while Crepes on the Corner (257 15th Street SE) unfortunately closed, most Hill East residents I've talked to enjoyed having a place to grab coffee and lunch in the neighborhood. Southeast Market (1500 Independence Ave SE) was also recently sold and renovated. All three of these establishments are or were positive additions to the neighborhood.

While 15th Street will never be a Barracks Row, I can certainly envision a future time when the corridor acts as a small neighborhood serving commercial zone located halfway between the heavier retail activity around Eastern Market and the future retail activity on Reservation 13. Rezoning 15th Street to R-4 would eliminate future opportunities for restaurants, cafes and shops along the corridor.

With a change in the retail mix, people can now see the commercial corridor as a positive contribution to the neighborhood rather than a blight. Attitudes about living near stores also are continuing to evolve, as more people who want to be within a short walk of shops and restaurants move into urban neighborhoods.

Hill East had a commercially-zoned area already, and since the effort to zone it out didn't succeed, that neighborhood still has the chance to welcome more beloved local markets and eateries. But in many neighborhoods, there aren't commercial corridors for new businesses to start in. Some, like Big Bear Coffee in Bloomingdale, end up occupying buildings that were once commercial but whose zoning is now residential, which sets them up for a big zoning fight when someone objects. More often, neighborhoods just don't get any stores.

The zoning update's corner store proposal will allow just a few of thesemaybe too few. To some residents in the neighborhoods that could get them, the idea of commercial zoning conjures up images of problem shops, especially the ones that are mainly liquor stores and draw intoxicated customers. To others, it's the beloved local shop that adds to convenience and makes the neighborhood more appealing.

The corner store rules try to limit the actual impacts of commercial uses, such as trash (it can't be stored outdoors) or early morning or late night noise (stores can't be open outside 10 am-7 pm 7 am-10 pm). Any such set of rules, though, can't be perfect. If they keep out all of the businesses residents don't want, they'll also keep out many that they do.

Beyond the corner store rules, we also simply need to ensure there are enough neighborhood commercial corridors with real commercial zoning. There, businesses can open next to one another and benefit from each other attracting foot traffic. In Hill East, a commercial strip on 15th Street may become an asset to the neighborhood, and other neighborhoods need equivalents of their own.


Fear is driving our zoning debates

Would DC's zoning update or a small change to the Height Act bring concrete towers and crab-shaped buildings to Capitol Hill and displace all of the families? (No.)

Photo by Ace Reston on Flickr.

A piece of fiction by the local historic organization raises that fear, and illustrates a key theme that Mike DeBonis explores in an article this weekend: our current planning and zoning debates have somehow taken on mythical proportions far out of scale to what's actually in any of the proposals. That's because the strife stems from some deep anxieties about the ways DC is changing.

We might not be able to stave off this hysteria, but we can keep it from steering officials or the Zoning Commission into a ditch by showing up at the zoning update public meetings this Saturday and next week, and pledging to testify when the time comes.

Cody Rice alerted us to this month's column by Capitol Hill Restoration Society President Janet Quigley:

The Capitol should have been beautiful on this clear night, but my view was blocked by a cement bridge connecting two high-rise office towers, built soon after the Height Act was repealed, on either side of the avenue. ... Across 7th Street loomed a large platinum building that looked like a crab. "Maybe those twisted corbels weren't so bad after all," I thought, as a streetcar lurched up 7th toward the car barn formerly known as the Eastern Market.

[Tunni's] moved to a bigger space at 9th and Penn. The mechanic who usedta be there closed up when they banned cars in the District a coupla years ago.

We walked down North Carolina Avenue toward Folger Park, past blocks of darkened houses sporting brass plaques for every imaginable trade association. I noticed two vacant school buildings and asked, "Where are the kids?" Clarence scowled at me as if I should know better. "Where do you think they'd be? All the houses have gone commercial and the biggest apartment built is a one-bedroom. They've moved away, along with their families and seniors and people who need affordable housing.

But they get a big kick out of coming back to visit Union Station. That casino in the main hall makes everyone a winner." A train blasted its horn as it rumbled by on Virginia Avenue, followed by another, and then another.

Two main themes jump out here. First is the evident, dripping contempt for all things transit. Streetcars "lurch" down the street and displace, rather than enhance, a market that was originally built around the streetcar.

Meanwhile, it's a tragedy that a beloved tavern was able to grow to take over a former mechanic's shop. An industrial use for cars is nostalgia; a train is a blight.

It's most ironic because streetcars were a historic element of Capitol Hill, as Topher Mathews pointed out. One might think a "restoration" society would want to restore historic transportation systems.

But before we mock this story too much, it illustrates an important second point: the way many people feel even small changes could start down a slippery slope to chaos. Make the smallest tweak in the Height Act, and in the blink of an eye there will be towers and concrete bridges astride Pennsylvania Avenue. Allow a few corner stores in residential neighborhoods, and before long there'll be nothing left but trade associations and one-bedroom apartments.

It's not only a rhetorical device; there are people who feel that each and every zoning rule, no matter how outdated or arbitrary or ill-fitting our neighborhoods' current needs, represents a hard-fought bulwark against ruin. The District is already changing rapidly; many fear a small push send it out of control.

That's the sentiment DeBonis captured in his article:

District planning officials are rewriting the city's zoning rules for the first time in 54 years, a process that has hastened anxieties about growth and at times has erupted into a pitched debate about the future of the city.

The proposed changes are smallallowing a corner store here, fewer parking spaces therebut the debate has grown in recent months ... The process, underway for four years, has been complicated as the debate has grown to encompass anxieties over city growth that have little to do with the zoning proposalsthe proliferation of bicycle amenities, new parking policies and a proposal to relax the federal law restricting building heights.

Thus, even fairly timid changes have become an epic battle.

The problem is that the zoning code is deeply flawed. It doesn't actually reflect the historic patterns of the city, unless you consider only construction after 1960 to be historic. It doesn't prohibit most of the things many residents really dislike, like ugly pop-ups or teardowns and McMansions, but it does prohibit the land use patterns that created places like Capitol Hill in the first place.

The code is too confusing and many restrictions burden homeowners even from making changes that enjoy near-universal support. Without fixes, the District won't stop changing, it just might grow and evolve in an even worse way thanks to restrictions designed to force people into suburban patterns of living back when planners thought anything else was "obsolete."

It would be wonderful if one could assuage these fears, or at least convince people that the zoning update's actual changes won't bring Armageddon. So far, despite the Office of Planning's efforts to patiently explain and re-explain plans at an endless series of neighborhood and community association meetings almost all in Ward 3, where the opposition centers, it hasn't worked; opponents keep repeating false and alarmist claims about the secret conspiracy to force everyone out of cars.

The only thing we can do is try to educate city leaders and convince them to let the process move forward. That's why it's crucial to attend one of the upcoming zoning update meetings this Saturday 12/8 in Southwest Waterfront, Tuesday 12/11 in Penn Quarter, or Thursday 12/13 in Anacostia. And pledge to testify when the hearings begin before the Zoning Commission.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City