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Posts about Dupont Circle

Development


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.


A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:

Preservation


"Net zero" energy building gets the thumbs up; Graham Davidson says more nutty things about climate change

The American Geophysical Union got historic approval for a large solar array atop their Dupont Circle building. But first, Hartman-Cox Architects partner Graham Davidson suggested that stopping climate change was much less important than stopping buildings from getting taller.


Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

The AGU, an association of "earth and space scientists," is trying to renovate their headquarters at 20th Street and Florida Avenue, NW. AGU wants to make the building "net zero," meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes, on average.

To do that, the new building will have more efficient windows and walls, will tie into the sewers to exchange heat, and on top will sport a large solar array.

The attractive current building is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, but is "non-contributing," meaning it wasn't built at the same time as most of the historic buildings in that area and therefore gets more leeway. Still, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gets to review the design.

At last month's meeting, several board members fretted that the solar panels might be too prominent for the "delicate" building and the historic district.

In response, the architects at Hickok Cole lowered the solar array and added some semitransparent panels around the edge, so it wouldn't shade the street as much. They also made other changes to the window design, entryway, and plaza in front.

 
Previous design (left) and new design (right).

When seeing the project again on May 27, board members were impressed. Joseph Taylor said it would become "An icon on Florida Avenue." They unanimously supported the project moving forward.

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

One board member, architect Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox, had previously suggested a building like this might be appropriate "in some remote part of Seattle," but not in Dupont Circle.

At the most recent meeting, Davidson reiterated his opposition to having more buildings in DC follow AGU's lead. He said,

On the one hand, we have the desire to make buildings that attempt to be environmentally responsible ... but results, quite frankly, in buildings that are peculiar and certainly a big shift in aesthetics from what we're used to.

On the other hand, we have the desire to maintain the character of the city. That's what our job is, and the character of the city is unique. It's why people like to come here to visit, and what they expect to see. It's why people live here and why people live in the neighborhoods. Proposing buildings such as this, adding arrays to buildings like this, in such a manner does change the character of the neighborhood and the city.

So I was largely persuaded by the staff report [which endorsed the project] ... but I am very concerned about precedent in this case. When one person on the edge of the historic district, with a noncontributing building, builds a solar array that increases the allowable height of buildings by more than a story, we are going to have hundreds of other buildings that are proposing the same thing.

That's right—if saving the planet means buildings can get a little taller, well, that's not a tradeoff Davidson would make, anyway.

It's also somewhat unclear what he was talking about, as on the AGU renovation, the solar array will be lower than the building's current penthouse (though higher than the current cornice, the top of the building visible from the street).

He further suggested that, since other energy-saving features will have a bigger impact than the solar array, it was just "great for marketing" by letting AGU "say [it's] net zero."

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

Historic preservation cannot be so concerned with the architectural appearance of buildings that it loses sight of the bigger preservation challenge, that of preserving our very cities from the dangers of climate change.

If the sea level keeps rising and much of DC ends up underwater, it is not going to matter how tall buildings are or the "aesthetics" of the historic district. People are not going to live in the neighborhoods any more (and I actually don't think the aesthetics of Dupont Circle are the biggest reason people live there—it's for proximity to jobs and transit, though the aesthetics certainly matter).

Fortunately, many preservationists do agree, including the historic preservation office staff, members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, and most of the board.

Board member Andrew Aurbach and chair Gretchen Pfaehler also noted, in the meeting, that the preservation office is trying to start a project that would define clearer preservation standards around sustainability. This, Pfaehler said, would "further integrate and stregnthen the relationship between preservation and sustainability" and "make this kind of dialogue and review and approval happen very easily and smoothly."

According to Pfaehler's statements at the hearing, the proposal is waiting for action by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). This is a good step and should move forward. If it does, it could clarify to Davidson what his priorities should be, or perhaps clarify to Mayor Bowser that the city would be better served with a different architect on the board.

Public Spaces


Mike Feldstein revived Dupont Circle. We'll miss him dearly.

Mike Feldstein, a Dupont Circle ANC 2B commissioner who pushed to make sure we get the most out of our public spaces, passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.


Mike Feldstein. Photo from ANC 2B.

Mike had a full and rewarding career long before he became active in civic affairs in Dupont Circle. A New York native, Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked for the US Agency for International Development and as a policy planning staff member for the State Department. He represented the US around the world, and served as a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

He became involved in the ANC when another remarkable Commissioner, Curt Farrar, had to step down for health reasons. Mike's passion, from day one, was the Circle itself. He was determined to turn an urban park into a vibrant, exciting place once again.

In his quest, he became the Godfather of Dupont Circle.

When Mike was first elected, he told his fellow commissioners, "we should do more with the Circle. Seventy-five years ago, there used to be band concerts out there. There were events happening out there all the time. We should bring it back to life." Of course, we all agreed, but no one had any idea how to bring the Circle back to life.

Except Mike.

He assembled a group of volunteers who shared his vision. They came up with a name: Dupont Festival.

They spent many hours over many months convincing the National Park Service to let them sponsor and hold events in the Circle. This was no easy task, as the folks at NPS entrusted with the park were in no hurry to risk anything. If something went wrong, those bureaucrats would bear the blame. So getting permits for any event was a huge undertaking.

Mike used the World Cup to bring Dupont together

One of the earliest efforts was Soccer in the Circle. Two of his volunteers, Aaron DeNu and Michael Lipin, had the idea of hosting a giant viewing party for the opening of the World Cup in June, 2010. This would involve getting NPS permission to put up two giant screens in the park, and then—after securing permission—raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, and then assembling the manpower to put on the event and clean up immediately afterwards.

Honestly, I don't think anyone on the ANC except Mike Feldstein thought it would ever happen, but we all went along with the idea. After countless meetings, they got NPS to agree to allow use of the park, and then convinced the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association to donate something like fifteen-thousand dollars to help pay for equipment rentals and related expenses. They got FIFA and ESPN to give them the rights to stage an open air broadcast of the cable tv feed. The Screaming Eagles, DC United's booster club, would be volunteer marshals and would handle cleaning up.

On Saturday June 12, 2010, crowds began assembling at 6:30am to watch the first of three games. Because South Africa was the host country, the time difference meant a very, very early start. It was South Korea versus Greece, and the early crowd included large numbers of people from the Korean and Greek communities, including embassy staffs. With the 7 am kickoff, we were pleasantly surprised to see the park packed with people that early in the morning. We had no idea just how packed it would become.


Soccer in the Circle. Photo by David on Flickr.

By the time the third game began at 2pm, the park had been rocking for more than six hours. It was estimated as many as 15,000 people had attended at one time or another. CNN was doing live cut-ins, as was ESPN. All the local stations were there. We were seen literally all around the world on CNN International. The crowd was well-behaved. There was only one arrest, for public intoxication. Every restaurant within shouting distance of the circle ran out of beer and was scrambling for more in the intense heat of that June afternoon.

The US and Britain played to a 1-1 tie, and, immediately after the game ended, the Screaming Eagles began a clean-up blitz. Dozens of them filled plastic garbage bags with whatever trash was left over, even though the crowd had put most everything in trash cans. Within an hour, the park was cleaner than it had been the day before. Timing was crucial, because the match ended at 4:15 pm, and the annual Pride Parade kicked off at 6:30. So the soccer triple-header was only the start of a day-night doubleheader that brought a hundred thousand celebrants to our neighborhood: soccer in the morning and afternoon, and then the Capital Pride Parade. Wow! Just celebrating the day with more than 100,000 of our closest friends!

A finer day there never was.

Soccer was just the start

After the success of Soccer in the Circle, the NPS permits came easier. And, eventually, the Park Service even developed a separate policy for urban parks. Previously, NPS rules, regulations, and policy were pretty much one size fits all, whether we're talking about Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Dupont Circle. Whether the change was a direct result of what was happening at Dupont is not clear, but events like the soccer viewing certainly didn't hurt.

Mike and his Dupont Festival team—Will Stephens, Andy Klingenstein, and Aaron DeNu—made Groundhog Day great again, bringing it to Dupont Circle with the help of Potomac Phil. They found Phil in Miss Pixie's on 14th Street, brought him out of the closet and out of the shadows. We've had band concerts, Shakespeare, dance celebrations, Earth Day, science fairs, and more Soccer in the Circle viewings—both the US Mens and Womens teams—and so much more.

Mike believed strongly that parks and open urban spaces are to be celebrated, cherished, and used. He believed that free events, open to the public, are a way to build community. And he used his vast experience as a State Department official to navigate the bureaucracy and help achieve his goal of restoring Dupont Circle to its role as the center of our neighborhood life.

Mike strongly supported new housing, but wanted to make sure it was done right. "If we delay someone for a few months or a year, that's not always good," he said. "But if we tear something down, it's gone forever. And if we put up something bad, it may last for a hundred years."

Mike strongly supported walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and mass transit options. His New York background made him a dedicated urbanist.

We loved Mike dearly and grieve the loss of a true friend. He was a pleasure just to be with. Kibitzing with Mike was one of life's joys. He leaves behind countless friends, and a legacy of making our neighborhood a better place. He had a vision and made it reality. He was the Godfather of Dupont Circle and he really did bring the Circle back to life.

There will be a celebration of Mike's life later on May 1st, with the location to be determined.

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

Public Spaces


Better management can transform downtown parks into gems

It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It's time for DC to join them.


Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city's parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York's Bryant Park, for example, it wasn't until the city turned the park's management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn't part of a municipal government, it's been able to bypass onerous procurement rules. Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park's full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don't have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC's parks getting that kind of attention to detail!


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she'd improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.
In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown's Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza. Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District's bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks' operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.


Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.

Arts


Here's what Dupont's abandoned streetcar tunnels look like

The old streetcar tunnels under Dupont Circle have sat vacant and abandoned for years. A group of arts organizations has been trying to reactivate the tunnels, and recently signed a 5-year lease with DC. This video from PBS Digital Studios gives you a sneak peek at the space.

Making the space work will be a difficult task. The tunnels need a lot of work, and underground spaces can pose challenges like water getting in. What do you think of the space, and the possibility of it seeing use again one day?

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