The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Columbia Heights

Development


The Hebrew Home's neighbors want density and affordability

Neighbors of Petworth's Hebrew Home, which will soon be redeveloped, recently spoke up about what they'd like to see happen with the property. They want a dense building, lots of affordable housing, and better, more sustainable uses of the surrounding public space.


The Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

The Hebrew Home building provided senior housing and medical care for over 40 years before the District bought it and turned it into a mental health care facility. The building became vacant in 2009, and multiple efforts to redevelop it have stalled out.

In April, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development renewed the effort, making the Hebrew Home part of Our RFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

More than 100 residents of Petworth and Columbia Heights attended the second Hebrew Home OurRFP meeting earlier this month to review the outcome of the first meeting and provide feedback on design and density, what kind of housing should go on the site, and public space and sustainability. There were presentation boards with a number of options for addressing each category, and meeting attendees ranked their preferences by placing stickers on measures they considered most important.

Here's what they said they want to see happen with the building:

Build as much housing as can fit

96% of the meeting attendees supported maximizing the possible density of the site through a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows a building to exceed the density that its area allows in exchange for projects that benefit the neighborhood.

The Hebrew Home site is currently zoned for residential rowhouse structures with a height limit of 35' (or 40' with a special exception). While the zoning does not impact the existing historic structure—which already exceeds zoning limitations—it does restrict the new construction planned for the eastern section of the property. A PUD would permit additional height and massing.


The profile of the building if there are no zoning exceptions. Image from DMPED.


The profile of the building if there are zoning exceptions via a PUD. Image from DMPED.

While there are many amenities a developer can provide to a community as part of a PUD process, one of those amenities can be (and often is) additional affordable housing units. More on this in just a bit.

In addition to wanting more density, 60% of the participants favored incorporating historic elements of the Hebrew Home building into the new construction. This would probably mean using materials similar to the ones used for the current building, or at least designing a more traditional building.

38% of residents would also like the project to exceed the District's green building requirements. District owned or financed residential projects 10,000 square feet or larger must meet or exceed the Green Communities Standard, but residents say they want the building to do even more to use less energy, consume fewer natural resources such as water and forest products, and emit fewer pollutants into the environment.

Make the housing affordable

As many as 200 new housing units could be part of the Hebrew Home's redevelopment. A key discussion point has been how affordable these units will be.

The Hebrew Home is public property, which means 30% of any housing that goes up there has to be set aside as affordable. Yet 94% of the participants in the June OurRFP meeting indicated that 30% was not enough affordable housing, and that they want to see more. Many participants would like to see significantly more, in fact, and they indicated this by writing 100% on their stickers.


Neighbors visiting the three topic boards and placing stickers on their priorities at the latest Hebrew Home meeting. Photo by the author.

While the outcome will likely be a mix of housing affordability across the income spectrum, there is no reason why a significant number of the housing units can't be affordable at some level—and due to available tax credits, affordable units can be easier to build than market rate units.

Less than a mile to the south, the 273 unit building planned as the "build first" site to replace Park Morton has been proposed with 94 public housing units and 108 workforce units for families earning 60% AMI. The remaining units would be offered at market rate.

In additional to support for housing affordability, 36% of the participants support reserving housing for seniors, 32% would like to have family-sized units included, and 20% would like the Hebrew Home development to create opportunities for home ownership.

Revamp the public space around the building

The Hebrew Home project has significant potential to improve the site's public space and sustainability. As the site exists today, 10th Street at the eastern edge of the property is technically part of the site. Unlike the east side of 10th Street which has sidewalks, trees, and grass, the west side of 10th Street has no sidewalks, no trees, and contains a large surface parking lot.


Image from Google Maps.

There is also a large open grass area between the historic building and its neighbor to the west at 1131 Spring Road, which could be a community garden, a playground, or an improved park space.


The grass area just west of the building. Image from DMPED.

There was more diversity of opinion on this aspect of the project than there was with Housing and Density. Still, participants' preference for sustainability was strong with 76% of them indicating that they would like to see the project incorporate sustainable public space improvements. DMPED defined such improvements as including storm water management, sustainable landscaping, and permeable surfaces.

With the exception of incorporating public art, which only received support from 8% of the participants, support for the other priorities was fairly evenly split with 40% wanting upgrades to 10th Street exceeding DDOT standards, 40% for passive uses of green space such as a community garden or public benches, and 36% wanting active uses of the outdoor areas such as a dog park, playground, or educational programming.

What's next?

After getting a strong sense of what the community wants through two community workshops, DMPED plans to formally open the window for developers to submit proposals for the site in late June. Once a developer is selected, there will be additional opportunities for community engagement.

The historic nature of the site and potential PUD will both provide opportunities for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 4C and 1A to weigh in. In addition to ANC review, residents will be able to engage through public hearings at the Historic Preservation Review Board and Zoning Commission.

Transit


New bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes could connect Columbia Heights and Brookland

People want more ways to get around by foot and on bike in the corridor that runs from from Columbia Heights to Brookland, and they want them to be safer. After receiving that message, DDOT drafted potential plans for making it happen.


The study area. All image from DDOT.

DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study focuses on an area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue. Cars in the area zip along Irving and Michigan, but for people on bikes and foot, there isn't a safe or easy way to get around (a fact compounded by the congestion once drivers get to either side of the hospital).

Also, the area's transit isn't great. Both the H2 and H4 bus routes connect the Columbia Heights Metro Station, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Brookland Metro Station along the Irving/Columbia Road-Michigan Avenue corridor. However, Medstar also provides shuttle service on the same route between the hospitals and the Columbia Heights Metro every 10 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes during other times. This service largely duplicates WMATA's service and adds additional traffic to already congested streets.

After the first public workshop about the study, nearly 700 people commented on how to address all of these issues. Back in April, DDOT unveiled three concept plans for the corridor. Here's a summary:

A new street grid

Each of DDOT's proposals suggests removing the Michigan Avenue overpass and creating a street grid west of the hospitals. Doing so would go a long way in making the area safer for people on foot and bike, as it'd get rid of unnecessary high-speed ramps and car lanes; it'd also mean chances to add new green space. How many surface streets are in that grid depends largely on where bus and bike lanes need to be.


One of the options for a new street grid.

More options for bike riders

Those who gave DDOT input were clear that they'd like to see more bike connections, and that those connections be made made up of space that's only for bikes. The proposals include a few options for doing that, from protected bikeways that run in both directions to off-street lanes next to pedestrian walkways.

Around the hospitals and toward Columbia Heights, the stronger proposals would create bike lanes in one of the existing travel or parking lanes. With one exception in one proposal, bikes and buses would not share the same lanes, and west of the hospitals, bike lanes and bus lanes would not be on the same streets.


One option is to add a bike lane along Michigan Avenue.

Dedicated bus lanes

The plans aim to improve bus service (shorter trips, specifically) by creating dedicated lanes for buses. While the extent of dedicated lanes varies among the concepts, they all suggest dedicated lanes on either Irving Street, Columbia Road, and/or Harvard Street west of the hospitals. This would be accomplished by using one lane currently used during rush hour and parking during off peak hours.


The dark blue lines are dedicated transit lanes.

No more cloverleaf

None of DDOT's three options would do away with the North Capitol Street overpass. All of them, however, would replace the freeway-style, cloverleaf-shaped ramps that run between North Capitol and Irving with more direct connections. Doing so would make it much easier to keep car speeds down and control traffic flow.


The cloverleaf is on its way out.

DDOT has scheduled its third Crosstown Study workshop for June 9th at Trinity Washington University. You can give input on the potential plans there.

In addition to the third workshop, DDOT will have two Public Engagement Events on Saturday, June 11: one in Brookland, at the Monroe Street Farmers Market (716 Monroe Street NE), and one on the west side of the Columbia Heights Metro station (3030 14th Street NW).

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

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

Development


Ask GGW: Will DC soon limit the renovations I can make to my row house?

Reader Jim writes, "I live in Columbia Heights. We own a rather tattered 'charming' row house, and are gearing up to do a big project to redo it. And I am totally confused about what's coming down the pike" about DC's so-called "pop-up" limits.


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

DC's Zoning Commission recently voted to impose new limits on how tall a homeowner can make a row house in an R-4 zone, the moderate density row house district that includes most of Columbia Heights. It also tightened restrictions on how many units such a house can contain.

But what exactly was the final rule? When will it take effect? Jim writes, "I'm wondering if there's any way for me to look at the actual language of the proposed regulations. If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate? Is there somewhere you might guide me for some clarity? Is it your sense that this is a done deal?"

Here's the scoop, Jim.

What the rules do

Right now, you can make your row house up to 40 feet tall. After the rules go into effect, you will be able to only go to 30 35 feet, or 40 feet with a "special exception." A special exception is easier to get than a variance, but it still requires the homeowner to file for a formal hearing with the Board of Zoning Adjustment, notify neighbors and attend a hearing. Most of the time people need to pay for a zoning attorney to help with this process.

Today in R-4, buildings can only have two units, except if the building is on an unusually large lot, when it can have more. The BZA has also granted variances for some property owners to make three, four, or more units in a building.

Under the proposed new rules, buildings will still be able to have three units if it was legal to make them three units before. The Office of Planning backed off on the idea of outright limiting buildings to three units, which is what it originally suggested.

Instead, now where it would have been possible to have four or more units, the building owner can still make more units, but the fourth unit will have to be an Inclusionary Zoning unit reserved for people making 80% of the Area Median Income, and so would every second unit thereafter (so a six-unit building would need two IZ units, an eight-unit building three, etc.) Also, even on a large lot, the owner can only go up to four units without getting a special exception.

There are a few more new rules as well: An addition can't block a chimney or other vent of a row house next door, and can't cut off light from solar panels on an adjacent house either. It can't remove or raise a turret or other architectural feature on top of the front and can't extend back more than ten feet past the rear walls of the houses on either side.

What does this mean for Jim?

Basically, Jim, this change doesn't affect whether you can create a third unit in his home, but it does limit your ability to make your home bigger. If it was legal before to split your home into three units (which it might have been, or might not have been), you still can.

For most people, the best way to find out about zoning rules is to talk to the Homeowners Center at DCRA. They only help people in homes of one and two units, so you should talk to a zoning attorney before pursuing any plans to make your house three or more units.

If you were planning to make your house bigger physically, you will have to get a special exception if it would be more than 30 35 feet high, more than 10 feet back past the rear of the houses next door, overshadow someone's solar panels, or conflict with certain other rules.

Also, you should make sure to know what zone you are in. Most of Columbia Heights is R-4, but a few parts are R-5 (higher density). Near the commercial corridors, some houses are part of the adjacent commercial zone. You (and everyone else) can find out your zone with the handy interactive DC Zoning Map.


Zoning in a portion of Columbia Heights.

What's next for the rules?

DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say on zoning in DC, voted for these rules on March 30 as what's called "proposed action." Next, those rules get published in the DC Register for a 30-day official comment period; they will get published May 1, according to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning.

That period closes June 1, and Schellin said the Zoning Commission will consider the rules at its June 8 meeting. The commission could choose to make the rules effective immediately as soon as they can be published in the DC Register. Or, it could choose to make them effective with more of a grace period, or ask the Office of Planning for more research and delay action entirely.

At-large DC councilmember Vincent Orange wants the commission to put the rules into effect right away. In fact, he wants a moratorium on any additions to row houses until they can go into effect. Some people have filed for permits on additions that are legal under current rules, and supporters of the new rules have asked to block any more of those.

Orange withdrew his moratorium proposal amid criticism that it was illegal—the Zoning Commission has the authority to make zoning rules, not the DC Council. But like Orange, many supporters of the proposed rules also want further limits.

Orange's bill would have not only blocked R-4 additions but additions in the R-5 zone, where row houses exist side by side with apartment buildings and converting a row house into a small apartment building has long been legal. Orange would have blocked making three units in a building even if it didn't "pop up" at all, or adding onto a building even just for a single family to have more space.

In his initial question, Jim asked, "If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate?" If Vincent Orange had his way, Jim wouldn't have been able to add a third unit in his home at all.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly listed 30 feet as the new matter-of-right height limit in R4 zones. It will be 35 feet if the proposal goes into effect.

Public Spaces


The sound of children playing bothers some Columbia Heights residents

Some condo residents in Columbia Heights want to dismantle the playground for the preschool in their building because, they say, the children make too much noise.


Image from AppleTree.

The board of the Lofts of Columbia Heights, at 14th and Girard Street NW, made plans to dismantle the playground behind the building that serves the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.

My 3-year-old son is a student there. The kids visit the playground once or twice a day. They go outside for 30 minutes mid-day to meet the curriculum requirements for "gross motor skills development" and in the afternoon for the after-school care program.

Reporter Michael Allison Chandler interviewed a resident, James Abadian, who believes the playground constitutes common space that the board can control. But school officials disagree. Reached by phone, Jack McCarthy, CEO of the AppleTree Institute, said that the school actually owns the space and that the development agreement for the building included an early childhood center, which includes the playground as well as the school.

The condo board had planned to tear down the playground over the Thanksgiving break without informing the school, and posted an RFP soliciting a company to remove the playground equipment. A letter from the school's attorneys stopped that action.

Playground conflicts are a familiar refrain in DC

AppleTree has seven campuses. Its Lincoln Park facility has also had issues with neighbors and cannot use the backyard of its own building for recreation. Ross Elementary experienced similar conflicts with its Dupont Circle neighbors as more families started staying in DC once their kids entered school.

My son's school only serves the 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergarten grades. All children then move on to enroll at other public and charter schools around the city for elementary school. AppleTree is determined to overcome the achievement gap, with strict requirements for attendance and classroom behavior. It's known for rigorous academics and lots of testing; children are assessed five times a year to support curriculum development.

Teachers trained by the larger AppleTree Institute go on to many of the highly sought-after charter schools in the city, like Inspired Teaching and Creative Minds. It's been great for my son, who has not only adapted to the concept of "circle time" but is also close to reading and is adept at basic math skills.

Kids need outdoor space

I know of kids in the school whose parents forbid them from playing outside at home, fearful of their neighbors. They are grateful for a safe, affordable place to send their children to learn.

The playground at AppleTree Columbia Heights is small. It's nestled between buildings and there is no green space. Parents consider the limited space a negative when choosing schools in the lottery. But 3- and 4-year-olds need space to run and move.

A larger DC Department of Parks & Recreation playground is just down the street, but taking a whole class of young children down there once or twice a day is demanding on the teachers, the children, and on all the neighbors in between. Also, the DPR playground is not as secured as the AppleTree playground, with litter and public access all day and night.

Chandler wrote in the Post that the condo board would like to instead turning the space into a barbecue lawn or an area for "silent study" for AppleTree students, an absurd concept for normal development of preschool-age children.

The school has already limited playground hours out of deference to resident complaints. Kids also don't go outside when it's colder than 40 degrees, so this issue is moot for at least the next week or two, and much of the winter. AppleTree also has agreed with the condo board not to host evening events, limiting parents' ability to get to know each other and get involved in school activities.

But one source of noise will never stop: the bustle of 14th Street. The building is a couple of blocks south of the Columbia Heights Metro station and amidst dense development, so there is heavy foot and vehicular traffic. I regularly see emergency vehicles. These are normal urban noises, and the sounds of children playing fit right in with that.

On the other hand, across 14th Street at Girard Park I regularly see drugs and stolen bikes exchanged, along with boom boxes, street harassment, and other loud adult activities. The residents may not be able to control that with a lease, but which source of noise is a greater detriment to the community at large?

It's clear that finding appropriate space for charter schools is a growing challenge in the District, particularly in the dense neighborhoods where they are most needed. I hope the condo residents can "play well with others" and help the school and its students succeed. Taking away a playground from preschoolers is not the answer.

Transit


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.


Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficiently—where will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.


All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

Transit


More households near transit mean more transit riders

Pop quiz! Can you name the 5 Metro stations that have the highest number of households within a half-mile walk?

Here's a hint: More riders walk to those 5 stations each morning than to just about any others in the system.

It's not a coincidence. According to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, "the more people can walk to transit, the more people do walk to transit—and data across Metrorail stations prove it."

But there's at least one surprise: 3 of the 5 stations with the most households in a half-mile walkshed are in Maryland or Virginia, not the District.


Households and walk ridership per Metro station. Image by WMATA.

Columbia Heights has by far the most households within walking distance. That makes sense. It's one of DC's densest neighborhoods, and the Metro station is right near its center.

But the second most household-rich Metro station is Arlington's Court House. Rounding out the top 5 are Ballston, Silver Spring, and Dupont Circle.

All 5 of the most household-rich stations are also among the top 10 stations with the most riders who walk to the station each morning. The rest of the top 10 walking stations are Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Bethesda.

More riders may be walking to jobs from the downtown stations, or from Rosslyn, but those are the destinations, where riders in the morning are getting off. The origin stations are the more residential ones.

All in all, Metro's stations fit neatly along a trendline that shows a strong correlation between more households nearby and more riders arriving to stations by foot.

Even the outliers tell a story. U Street and Mount Vernon Square have the 6th and 7th highest number of households nearby, but they underperform on walking Metro ridership. One might speculate that Mount Vernon Square is so close to so many offices that more people simply walk. U Street is a little farther away, but it's still close enough to downtown that buses and bicycles may be better options for a large portion of riders.

What else pops out as interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


The Metro plan has changed a lot since 1968

Saturday, the Metro system will grow in length by 10% with the Silver Line, first envisioned in the mid-1960s. A lot has changed from the original plans for Metro. Today, DDOT circulated a 1968 map of the planned system.

In the wake of the 1968 riots, DC pushed WMATA to reroute what's now the Green Line through some of the harder-hit neighborhoods. In 1970, the WMATA Board voted to change the "E route" from Massachusetts Avenue and 13th Street and instead run it along 7th Street to Shaw and then 14th Street to Columbia Heights.

The 1970 decision also deleted the "Petworth" station, which would have been at Kansas Avenue and Sherman Circle. The "Georgia Avenue" station would have been under Kansas Avenue at Georgia and Upshur, in the heart of Petworth, but the alignment later shifted south to New Hampshire Avenue.


The blue circle (not on the original map) shows where the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station is today.

In addition to the many station name changes (you won't see Ardmore, Voice of America, or Marine Barracks stations on the map today), there have been a few pretty significant changes to alignments and station locations.

At the time of this map, the line we know today as the Blue Line had a split terminus, with some trains running to Franconia and some trains running to Backlick Road (and a potential future extension to Burke).

In the northwestern part of the region, the Red Line was to stop at Rockville, instead of running all the way to Shady Grove. The northern Green Line was also shorter, including a station between Berwyn Road and Greenbelt Road, instead of further north at I-495, where the current Greenbelt station is.

Along the Orange and Blue lines, there were to be two more common stations, one at Oklahoma Avenue and one at Kenilworth Avenue (River Terrace) before the lines split. The Minnesota Avenue station was not in the plan at the time.

The southern Green Line was the subject of lots of controversy between 1968 and its completion in 2001. There were two competing routes planned, one to Branch Avenue and an alternate route to Rosecroft Raceway. The 1968 map here shows the line going to Branch Avenue via Alabama Avenue.

But later, WMATA settled on using the Rosecroft alignment in DC, via Congress Heights, and the Branch Avenue alignment in Prince George's County. This created in the "jog" along the District line where the Southern Avenue station is located.


Left: 1968 planned alignment. Right: Actual alignment; image by Matt Johnson using Google Maps.

The map also shows potential future extensions in blue. Today's Silver Line is included, though it stays in the median of the Dulles Access Road instead of detouring through Tysons Corner (which was much smaller then; the mall first opened in 1968). Also shown are lines along Columbia Pike in Virginia and extensions to Bowie, Brandywine, Gaithersburg, and Laurel. The extension to Largo was actually built and opened in 2004.

You can view a pannable, zoomable version of the map here.

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
CC BY-NC