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History


2015's greatest hits: Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC

To close out 2015, we're reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on January 8. Enjoy and happy New Year!

Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.


In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.

Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.

The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.

When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.

By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.

And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.

A block of spacious front yards


Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.


Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.

An alley out of nowhere

One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.



The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.

An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek

In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.


Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.

In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.


Photo from the National Park Service.

Indentations in the land mark the ghost road

Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.


The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.


Rock Creek Ford Road branching off from Fort Stevens Drive.

The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.


The old narrow road as it met the turnpike that is now Georgia Avenue.


1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.


The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.

The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.



The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.


The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.

DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.

You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.

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Development


Opposition to housing in HBO's "Show Me a Hero" sounds eerily familiar

In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—all white—protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn't be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I'm not so sure.


Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.

DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.

DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.

In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.


Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.

The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.

Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.


The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.

In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight

There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.

The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.

And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.

None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.

The specter of different people raises alarm

In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."

In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."

And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?


Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.

This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.

With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.

Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon."

Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.

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History


Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC

Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.


In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.

Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.

The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.

When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.

By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.

And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.

A block of spacious front yards


Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.


Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.

An alley out of nowhere

One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.



The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.

An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek

In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.


Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.

In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.


Photo from the National Park Service.

Indentations in the land mark the ghost road

Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.


The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.


Rock Creek Ford Road branching off from Fort Stevens Drive.

The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.


The old narrow road as it met the turnpike that is now Georgia Avenue.


1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.


The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.

The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.



The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.


The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.

DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.

You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Bicycling


DC has too few dedicated east-west bike pathways

While DC's bicycling network has grown, there still aren't a lot of crosstown connections. In fact, there are no protected east-west bicycle routes in the whole third of the District north of Florida Avenue. Cyclists need more of these, as well as north-south routes to form a grid of dedicated paths.


Bike lanes around a northern section of DC. Image from Google Maps.

Much of DC's bicycle infrastructure, like trails, dedicated bikeways, and bike lanes concentrates in the downtown core, primarily south of Florida Avenue. DDOT's official bicycle map, last updated in 2011, shows that outside of downtown, most bicycle facilities run north-south.

Unless they are willing to ride on six-lane, shoulder-free roads with fast-moving traffic, cyclists have no way to traverse the northern part of Rock Creek Park, where only a freeway-like portion of Military Road crosses the park.

The same goes for Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, the only direct paths from Columbia Heights to Brookland across the vast acreage of McMillan Reservoir and Sand Filtration Site, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

"East-west mobility for bicyclists in the northern neighborhoods of DC can be a significant challenge," said Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) Advocacy Coordinator Greg Billing. "Large campuses, parks, hospitals and cemeteries limit the available east-west connections. The MoveDC plan calls for high quality bicycle facilities from neighborhoods to downtown and better connections between the neighborhoods."

That plan recommends some form of dedicated bikeway along Irving Street, as well as for a cycletrack on Military Road.

A route between Columbia Heights and Brookland would connect two vibrant neighborhoods and serve an area that will gain population as the McMillan site and part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property redevelop.


Google Maps' bicycle directions from the Columbia Heights Metro to the Brookland-CUA Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

Currently, both the DDOT map and Google Maps advise cyclists to use Irving Street between Brookland and Columbia Heights. However, between Park Place NW and the Catholic University campus, Irving Street is a busy six-lane near-freeway with no shoulder. Cyclists have to navigate among drivers merging on and off at the massive cloverleaf intersection with North Capitol Street.

However, the right-of-way through this section seems wide enough for DDOT to add a protected cycle track or trail. One possibility is a cycle track in a protected median down the middle of Irving Street, which would avoid dangerous crossings of the off-ramps at the Irving and North Capitol cloverleaf. Another is to have a trail parallel the existing sidewalk on the south side of Irving Street.


Google Maps street view of Irving Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW.

Worsening traffic congestion is a major concern at the McMillan site. The area has infrequent bus service and is far from a Metro station, but improving bicycle access could provide an important alternative to driving, reducing the traffic impact of new development.

Military Road NW across Rock Creek Park is a similar case. Tilden Street and Park Road to the south, and Wise Road, Beach Drive, and Kalmia Road to the north, are more bike-friendly ways to cross the park. But they're far out of the way for neighborhoods on either side.

According to DDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Mike Goodno, DDOT controls the road itself and a handful of feet on either side. The National Park Service would have to okay any further widening. DDOT has not yet studied whether there is room to add a cycletrack on Military within the right-of-way it controls.


Google Maps Street View of Military Road NW through Rock Creek Park.

The only other connection through Rock Creek Park that is further along in the planning process is the Klingle Trail, which will connect the Rock Creek trail to Woodley Road NW. DDOT completed an Environmental Assessment in 2011.

As activity centers outside the downtown area grow and travel patterns become less centralized, we must enable cyclists and transit users to get across town as easily as drivers. A grid-like, interconnected network of bike routes would make that possible.

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Education


School boundary review, part 2: Parents at two Northwest DC schools want to keep current boundaries

As a committee works to redesign DC's school assignment policies, some parents who are happy with the status quo are urging caution.


Bancroft Elementary. Photo from DCPS website.

In yesterday's post we looked at issues the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment is grappling with as it reviews school boundaries and feeder patterns, which haven't been overhauled since 1968. Today we'll look at two groups affiliated with schools in Northwest DC that like the attendance zones they're in and don't want them to change.

One group is made up of parents and prospective parents at Bancroft Elementary in Mt. Pleasant. The other is affiliated with Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase DC. Both have sent letters to the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) and other DC officials expressing their hope that the schools' current boundary and feeder patterns will be maintained. The DME, Abigail Smith, is in charge of the boundary overhaul process.

Both Bancroft and Lafayette currently feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Ward 3. Bancroft students also have the choice of attending the Columbia Heights Education Campus, but few do so.

The Mt. Pleasant Family Association sent its letter about Bancroft, with 137 signatures, earlier this month. The letter said that many young families move to the area in part because of its "access to excellent schools," and predicted those families would go elsewhere if the feeder pattern changed.

Josh Louria, a spokesperson for the group, said that a majority of its members are prospective Bancroft parents like himself, since the DME's office has said that current students would be exempt from a change in policy.

Lafayette letter has 700 signatures

The Lafayette School Boundary Working Group has about 700 signatures on its letter, which the group originally sent to both Mayor Vincent Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson in May 2013, when DCPS was in charge of the review process. Leadership of the process was later transferred to the DME's office, and the group has since sent their letter directly to that office twice.

The letter speaks of the "central role" that Deal and Wilson "have long played in our community's history and daily life." The group said it hopes those conducting the review will uphold "the principles of proximity and community that have long guided" enrollment rules in DC.

Claudia Lujan, a senior policy advisor to the DME, said her office and the advisory committee "are considering all the issues raised by these communities, as we are doing with the proposals and petitions we have received from across the city."

Jenny Backus, a spokesperson for the Lafayette group, said it has been meeting for about a year and a half and has a core group of about 35 people, with several hundred attending larger meetings. About half are current parents at the school and half are prospective ones. Community members and alumni of the schools have also signed the letter.

Backus said that parents feel confused about the goals of the boundary review. She and others from the community have participated in focus groups led by the DME's office, and she said the discussions have largely addressed qualitative issues, like what parents value in a school, rather than boundaries per se.

Both Backus and Louria also said the process feels rushed, and the fact that it's happening with a mayoral election looming is another source of concern. And both said that DCPS should improve schools across the District before engaging in the process of redrawing boundaries.

"It seems like it's being proposed as a way to improve schools elsewhere," Backus said.

Diversity and school boundaries

Some argue that one way to improve weaker schools, most of which are also high-poverty, is to increase the number of middle-class families attending them. But Louria said that middle-class parents at Bancroft "need DCPS to meet them halfway." If the District provided more help to high-poverty schools, he said, "folks wouldn't feel that the school's improvement would be all on their backs."

The issue of diversity is one that frequently comes up in boundary review discussions. As more neighborhood parents send their kids to Ward 3 schools, the out-of-boundary students, who are generally less affluent and are more likely to be racial minorities, are being squeezed out.

Keeping Bancroft, which is 73% Hispanic and 71% low-income, within the Deal and Wilson boundaries would at least help ensure some diversity there. Lafayette is geographically closer, but its population is 73% white and only 7% low income.

Some have suggested that a proportion of slots at Deal and Wilson should be reserved for out-of-bounds students. But Louria says Bancroft parents wouldn't want to have to take their chances in a lottery. And Backus says that Lafayette parents value diversity, but that "everyone wants proximity to good schools," including parents in other wards.

"We don't want the city to become divided in this process," Backus said. "We want to come together to make all the schools stronger, but we have questions about whether drawing lines is the way to do that."

Overcrowding at Wilson

One immutable fact is that Wilson, whose boundaries include almost half of DC, is seriously overcrowded. Recently modernized to accommodate 1,550 students, it currently houses almost 1700.

But Louria and Backus say there are other solutions that wouldn't require their schools to be zoned out of Deal and Wilson. One that both mentioned was turning the building that now houses Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Georgetown back into a neighborhood high school. That would relieve some of the pressure on Wilson.

That proposal has been floated for the last several years. Some say it would make sense to put a magnet school like Ellington in a more central location and closer to Metro.

Louria and Backus seem to feel that idea isn't on the advisory committee's table (although committee members frequently say that indeed everything is). But they may be surprised.

"Some people are anxious about things they might not need to be anxious about," said Matthew Frumin, a member of the committee. "And some people have yet to focus on options that if they did might make them anxious."

He says "the real debate and discussion will begin after April 5th," when the committee will unveil several draft scenarios for student assignment. At that point, Frumin says, people will "have something much more concrete to react to."

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Public Spaces


Playgrounds show how far DC has come in 20 years

Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his "Play DC" project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That's a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.


Chevy Chase Playground today. Photo by the author.

The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.

I'm truly happy for today's young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District's largesse. But I can't help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn't quite as vigilant, or as generous.

I hadn't intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.

But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn't something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.

Well, of course, I told her. That's when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.

Little help from DC

Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn't possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion's share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I'm not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other's living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.

We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don't always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.

We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)

Looking back, it's amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn't rely on the District to provide certain basic services.

You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn't expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of '96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.

The Wild West

It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.

Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn't afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.

But frankly, I'm willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.

I'm not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to "encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds," and that's great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.

True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.

No doubt it's human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren't around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.

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Development


Eric Colbert releases new renderings for 5333 Connecticut

Architects Eric Colbert and Associates shared renderings of the latest design for their proposed apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue. Few renderings of the project have been available until now, so it's been difficult to understand how it will look.


Rendering of 5333 Connecticut's front entrance. All images from Eric Colbert and Associates.

The design depicted in the renderings is substantially the same as the one presented at an ANC3G meeting in August, when commissioners voted for the Memorandum of Understanding with developer Cafritz.

Colbert applies planes of glass and white frames to a glass block in manner similar to the neomodernist apartment buildings of Richard Meier. Two of those buildings are regarded as kicking off the trend for glass-enclosed apartment buildings in New York.


5333 Connecticut from Kanawha Street.

The sides of the building that face single family homes have significantly fewer windows, addressing the light pollution concerns the neighbors are reasonably worried about. Having such an dramatic transition from one side to another puts a lot of pressure on the corner, architecturally. Colbert negotiates this shift with a line of windows on the edge of the Kanawha Street wing, shown above. Whether this shift succeeds will depend on how transparent the glass appears at a given time of day.

The change of transparency is driven by the sun, whose heat and light are serious concerns in a glazed building. The renderings show similar treatments on both the north and south elevations of the building. That much glass on the southern exposure will lead to an excess in heat in light, but on the northern side, the glass might also abate the worries about shadows by reflecting light down to the street.


5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Military.

To me, the building is the most successful at the edges of the projections from the sides of the building. There, the relationship between interior walls and the opaque frame around the edge makes it feel like volumes have slid out from the building. This could have been a simplistic, cheesy move, but Colbert's office wove translucent balcony railings into the white frame. The result is a sensitive corner, a feature often absent in glass-heavy modern architecture.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity is absent where the building touches the ground. Considering that the ground has been so controversial, the design would be better if the walls changed as they met the landscape designed by Trini Rodriguez. Whether becoming more solid, showing the weight of the building, or simply transitioning from vertical to horizontal, this relationship is key to producing a building that feels appropriate for its site.


5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Kanawha.

Developer Cafritz has stated their desire to have a building that is contemporary and of its time, and meant "glass." However, glass is only "modern" when it calls attention to relationships of inside and outside, ground and sky, and between the people who look through it as neighbors. Like any materials, how a window shapes our environment is more important than the sheer technological thrill of transparency.

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Development


Fight over 5333 Connecticut reveals dysfunctional process

After decades of fighting, work began last month on a new residential building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. While neighbors had few good reasons to oppose it, the project embodies the loopholes developers use in DC's patchwork of building regulations and zoning.


The site before construction began. Photo by the author.

The 261-unit building has long been approved as matter-of-right. It will not be a great building, but it is legal, and further appeals from residents to stop construction will only reduce their credibility in the future. Elaborate delay tactics will only reduce developers' willingness to cooperate with them.

On the other hand, the opponents' objections do reveal how Calvin Cafritz Enterprises designed the building to be as large as possible, using a thorough knowledge of DC's regulations. Architects Eric Colbert and Associates employed clever interpretations of what constitutes a "cellar," adding living space beyond the site's allowed density. The building's height was determined using the most favorable location of measurement.

However, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition doesn't simply want these irregularities fixed, they want a smaller building. They want a smaller building because they believe the effects of density will "harm" their community. They claim that added activity, reduced sunlight, and reduced tree canopy will degrade their quality of life.

Instead of looking for creative solutions to minor problems, they have chosen to fight the building itself. Rather than promoting uniform regulation across the city, opponents are using legal objections as easy tools to prevent a permissible project.

Recognizing that they have no legal standing, the majority of the ANC commissioners negotiated a memorandum of understanding that stipulated a number of design improvements for energy use and multimodalism. The four commissioners who voted for it were those closest to the project. The three who worked on the memorandum of understanding represented the areas that were most directly affected. The dissenting commissioners were in the suburban part of ANC3G, east of Broad Branch Road.

Despite the negotiations, opponents went ahead to protest the building at the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Given that there is no evidence that what Cafritz and Colbert have planned is illegal, the BZA should dismiss the complaints out of hand to avoid setting a precedent whereby the affluent and the influential preserve the narrow, short-term interests of their property at the expense of the rest of the city.

Opponents' case looks good at first, but lacks depth

With a little digging, it becomes clear that the 5333 CNC has no case against the building.

The project uses two sides of the building to calculate the height, a standard practice explicitly permitted by the Height of Buildings Act. Height must be measured from the existing elevation of the curb across from the middle of the mass of the front of building and height is determined by the width of the wider of the two streets it abuts.

Kanawha is narrower, but it is also at a higher elevation. Using the longstanding interpretation of the law, the Cafritz organization declared the Kanawha side the "front" and gained a few extra feet of height.

Opponents use a document from the Zoning Update process to show that this approach is unpopular but elide that the zoning update closes this idiosyncrasy in section 502.3, defining the height as originating from the midpoint of the facade that is closest to the lot line.

They further claim that the roof deck is 1.73 feet above the legal height because of how the development team calculates the Kanawha street frontage. The permitting calculations include portions of the facade of the longer, Military Road wing visible from Kanawha Street. The developer's midpoint is about 50' to the east, and 1.73 feet higher in natural elevation, allowing for the building to be that much taller.

A plain reading of the regulation suggests that this is permissible, if kind of tacky. Perhaps the regulation should be rewritten. Either way, the developer conceded this issue in the MOU, and will lower the building.


Site plan showing building mass, disputed frontage and measuring points.

A similarly shrewd, but legal, reading of code adds habitable spaces in a "cellar story" that does not add to the official FAR. Regulations distinguish "cellars" from "basements," where a basement is simply below the entry floor, and a cellar is a space whose ceilings are no more than four feet above the adjacent grade.

The architect designed the finished grade to hide a string of apartments along Military Road, but also excavated an full-height window well in front of them. This "areaway" also appears in the interior courtyard, projecting into berms in the central courtyard.

DC classifies areaways and parking vaults as projections from the building, and every story of a sub-grade projection is considered independently of all others. Therefore, their claim that the berms around the areaways are "planters" is at some level correct, but not according to the regulations.

I agree with the opponents that this common interpretation of the regulation is sneaky. The city should revisit this regulation, not because density is bad, but because it is opaque to the public.


North-South Section showing disputed projections

The final legal challenge in the opponents' BZA testimony is that the Military Road wing of the building extends beyond the plot of land zoned as R-5-D by 40 feet. A 1965 amendment extended the zoning of the plot to a length of 290 feet on Military. The zoning maps in 1966 and 1973 show this number. For some reason, from 1975-2003, the numerical description of the zoning plat appears as 251'. The graphical description of the lot remains the same, following the existing alley.


Changes in the zoning plat 1958-1984

Neither side can find why the number was changed. Cafritz's lawyer claims that it is a misreading of the lettering of the 5/9, which I find unconvincing. Opponents have no better case, claiming without proof that the ZC wanted to prevent inappropriate growth and so changed it. The current, digital zoning map shows the current line ending at the alley, as consistent with all maps since 1966.

The opponents' limited familiarity with development issues extends beyond legal practices and into architecture. In response to the MOU, opponents write that they are for "practical, modest changes that would not require wholesale redesign," including shifting the mass towards Connecticut Avenue and creating a "buffer zone."

However, re-masssing a building is a redesign at a fundamental level. Foundations, floor structure, column placement, parking spaces, circulation routes, apartment layout, pipe routing, curtainwall drawings, and even the landscaping plan would have to be redone. Other than a few design motifs, there isn't much work left to save.

By suggesting that their objections are simple, legitimate, and simply resolved, opponents are disguising their desire to have as little built on the site as possible. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up this much of a fight over less than two feet of height and a cellar.

Fighting a legal building discourages collaboration in growth

The majority of the legal objections are in response to loopholes that will be resolved by the update of the zoning code initiated under Harriet Tregoning. The other dubious interpretations should be resolved uniformly across the city. It is unfair to reject these rules in this case specifically when so many other projects have employed them.

It's not fair to other communities if this building is an exception. Closing loopholes would benefit the city by making the development process more predictable for the public.

Tellingly, the opponents of 5333 Connecticut do not want to resolve these regulatory flukes. At a September 15th meeting, Peter Gosselin, one of the 5333 CNC's leaders specifically said he would not ask for city-wide change to any of their complaints.

More locally, all of the objections could be resolved by removing one floor of the building. They are not asking for that either. The 5333 CNC are asking for the Cafritz team to come back and negotiate for their own property on the neighbors' terms.

The developer was under no legal obligation to engage the community. But that does not mean that they shouldn't have. In an ideal world, developers should go into communities in a transparent and open-ended way.

New projects often alter the dynamics of neighborhoods, and developers should work with communities to make a new building amplify the value new residents bring while minimizing the negatives through walkability and sensitive design. Similarly, neighbors should recognize the need for a city to grow and respect others' property rights.

With that in mind, I can't blame the Cafritz organization for not asking permission. The strife over this project is part of long-term context of opposing development through extremely effective legal means. Whether it is the lawsuits that delayed the Cathedral Commons project for ten years or the defeat of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study through lobbying, the neighborhood has shown that it has the means to oppose legal changes.

If I were a developer, I would choose the least complicated permitting option and hire an architect who can get me the most out of the zoning envelope. In other words, I would build matter-of-right and hire Eric Colbert.

The process for this building has proceeded so poorly because Upper Northwest's anti-development groups have consistently punished developers without providing guidelines that are commensurate with the demographic realities of 21st-century Washington. Even when developers try to work with neighbors, as at the Akridge and Babe's projects, they have faced stiff anti-urbanism groups. Now, a dangerous cross between the cost of collaboration and the desirability of the land ensures that development in Upper Northwest will proceed without community input for the forseeable future.

In the current political climate, only large developers, working with the government can handle the risks of Upper Northwest. That is the reality a handful of vocal opponents have earned multiple neighborhoods.

The only way out is for residents to take a broader perspective towards the issues a growing city faces, and propose a vision for development that integrates new residents and buildings into a diverse city. It is up to citizens to begin that kind of planning.

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Places


DC has a Unicorn Lane, complete with unicorn statue

Everyone knows about the dignified statues in places like Logan Circle and Lafayette Square, but do you know about Unicorn Lane? It's in Upper Northwest, along Oregon Avenue, just west of Rock Creek Park (map).
Now if only we had a Hippogriff Street.


Photo by BeyondDC on flickr.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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