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Preservation


Eckington is wrestling with whether to be a historic district

Eckington is the latest DC neighborhood to explore historic status. Residents' debate over the subject has centered on their ability to make changes to their property, like adding solar panels and build additions, and the impact such a move would have on affordability.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The effort is being led by the Eckington Civic Association (ECA), which has engaged QED Associates to establish the neighborhood's historic character and organized three "town halls," two of which were held earlier this year with the third scheduled for May 9th.

"The two things that come up are pop-ups and other projects that are not within historical keeping of the neighbourhood," said Randy Nolan, president of the civic association, when asked why they are looking at historic preservation for the neighborhood.

He is quick to note that the topic is nuanced and that the ECA has not taken an official position on historic designation, except to follow its membership's desire that the topic be explored and considered.

The ECA began the effort after neighboring Bloomingdale began looking at historic designation, with the association's board approving the study and town halls in the middle of 2015, said Nolan.

Is Eckington historic?

Eckington's built environment is diverse. Brick row homes (author's note: I own and live in one) that date back to the late 1800s make up the bulk of the housing stock while new development is rising in its southern reaches east of Eckington Place NE. Light industrial fills the blocks bordering the Metropolitan Branch Trail and those east of 4th Street NE.

McKinley Technical High School sits at the center of the neighborhood.


Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

But one would probably not characterize Eckington as all that unique on first glance. It is certainly one of DC's many beautiful older neighborhoods, but it does not stand out in the same way some of the city's better-known historic districts in Capital Hill and Georgetown do.

On the other hand, QED has established some important historical links in Eckington. It was DC's first streetcar suburb when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway line opened in 1888, said Peter Sefton, a historian with the consulting firm, at the first historic designation meeting in January.

Harry Wardman, known for building many of Washington DC's row houses, developed the majority of Eckington after 1905. Construction of the homes that now line its hilly streets was largely complete by 1925, said Sefton.

Establishing Eckington's historic significance—or where it is historically significant—is a key part of qualifying for preservation. This can include social, architectural or planning aspects of the neighbourhood, said Kim Williams from DC's Historic Preservation Office at the January meeting.

The borders of the proposed district have yet to be set. However, they would include many of the historic row homes that fill Eckington.

What does historic designation mean?

Historic designation means a neighborhood's character will be preserved in its current state, including previous modifications, and future changes will be required to keep with that historic character, said Williams.

Some examples are the adaptive reuse in the historic district along 14th Street NW. The corridor has been revitalized, with many of the old facades and buildings kept and adapted to modern uses. For example, the furniture store Room & Board at the corner of 14th and T Street is the site of a former Ford Motors showroom.


Room & Board at 14th Street and T Street NW. Image by Google Maps.

Some Eckington residents, though, are concerned over what historic designation means for any future changes they might want to make to their property. Everything from replacing a street-facing door to a backyard "bump-out" will be subject to approval by the Historic Preservation Office or, for larger projects, the Historic Preservation Review Board, said Williams.

Pop-ups, rooftop solar panels, and rooftop decks would be off the table unless they could be installed away from the street.


Pop-ups like this one on Todd Street NE, where the houses are very narrow, would not be possible in a historic district. Image by the author.

These limits bother some residents.

"[The] absolute restriction on massing changes in Eckington makes historic designation overly burdensome," said one resident on the neighborhood listserv. "We have a small, infill row home like several houses in the neighborhood that's only two bedrooms [and] 16 feet wide…. What happens when we need another bedroom for kids? Under historic designation, we are faced with having to buy a more expensive house that is already larger or leaving the neighborhood altogether."

Flexibility to make future modifications to dwellings as resident needs and wants change is a common theme in comments on historic designation.

In response to repeated questions over solar panels and property additions, Williams said there are some ways these could be possible within a historic district. For example, solar panels are likely feasible on flat roofs behind "half mansards" and backyard additions will likely work in most locations, even with Eckington's hilly topography.

Affordability

One argument against historic status is that it makes neighborhoods more expensive by restricting supply.

"Historic districts do sell," said Greta Fuller, a board member with the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society and former ANC commissioner, at the last Eckington historic designation meeting in March. "But the cost of housing in the District of Columbia is not run by historic districts, it's run by economics and that's another story."

None of the speakers representing the District government at either meeting gave a very convincing argument that historic status does not impact the affordability of a neighborhood, especially one that faces pressures from gentrification.

"It's not the historic designation itself, it's the historic character of the neighborhood" that drives gentrification, said Williams. She added that there is no direct connection between gentrification and historic districts.

However, she and other DC government representatives, point to Dupont Circle, the 14th Street NW corridor and Capitol Hill—some of the District's priciest neighborhoods—as examples of how well homes in historic districts can sell in response to a different resident question.

In addition to raising home prices, historic status could also put some basic home repairs out of the reach of lower income residents. A front door replacement would have to be within keeping with the character of the neighborhood, as would new windows or fixtures, potentially adding cost to such routine repairs.

Up to $25,000 grants are available to homeowners in historic districts to cover these costs but the District only awards 15 of these annually after a length application process, said Williams' colleague Kim Elliott at the March meeting.

The approvals process can also be arduous. While Williams says minor changes can be approved within a day, it does require visiting the Historic Preservation Office and submitting paperwork for a planned project. Such added steps for minor projects could be difficult for anyone working on an hourly basis or simply have difficulty taking time off on a weekday to get a window replacement approved.

These are serious concerns for Eckington residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for years, to weigh as they consider historic status.

The ECA does not have a fixed timeline for the historic designation process. Attendees at its June 6th meeting will vote on whether to go forward with seeking designation after which the association will have to canvass the entire neighborhood before submitting an application to Historic Designation Board.

Once in front of the board, Williams says it could be three months to a year before a hearing is held and the board votes on a potential Eckington historic district.

History


A bridge used to connect Eckington and Brentwood

A better way to get from the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) to Union Market seems like a no brainer, especially as the neighborhoods on both sides of the railroad tracks grow. While various studies of what to do here continue, a similar connection used to exist at T Street NE.


The T Street Bridge in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Old Time DC.

The T Street Bridge connected Eckington and Brentwood across the railroad tracks from 1907 to around 1969. The bridge did just what we are studying today—connect Eckington and neighborhoods to the west of where the MBT is today to those east of the tracks, an Eckington Civic Association brochure shows.


Another shot of the T Street Bridge from this video of the former 82 streetcar line.

Eckington resident Lorenzo Milner, who has lived in the neighborhood on and off since the 1950s, says the two-lane railroad truss-style bridge connected Eckington to the commercial strip that existed in Brentwood before the construction of the postal center that exists today. There were pedestrian walkways on each side of the bridge, he says.


The approximate location of the T Street Bridge. Image from Google Maps.

The Washington Terminal Company-owned T Street Bridge was closed to car traffic in the "interest of public safety" because it was "worn out" said then DC mayor Walter Washington in 1968, a report from the Washington Post that April shows.

However, a Post report from April 1969 says the bridge remained standing and was open to cyclists and pedestrians though not cars.

Milner says the bridge was torn down because it was poorly maintained. He cannot recall exactly when it came down.

"Nearly all things that have been done in the neighborhood have been done with good intentions," he says, when pushed on why the bridge was torn down.

Should we build another bridge?

While the T Street Bridge would not have connected directly with Union Market, nor been much shorter than taking the MBT to Florida Avenue NE—both routes are about a mile—it undoubtedly aided people moving east-west between neighborhoods.

NoMa's safety and access study focuses on four options to improve the current connection between the MBT and Union Market: a trail spur connecting the MBT to the northern base of the New York Avenue bridge, a stairway from the trail to the southern side of the bridge, a ramp to the southern side of the bridge or widening Florida Avenue NE under the railroad tracks for an improved pedestrian and bike connection.


The four options to better connect the MBT to Union Market in NoMa's MBT Safety & Access Study.

Some of the first improvements could be along Florida Avenue. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is seeking preliminary engineering services for a redesign of the corridor between North Capital Street and Bladensburg Road NE with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and fewer through traffic lanes, the agency's associate director of policy, planning and sustainability administration Sam Zimbabwe told Greater Greater Washington in February.

DDOT does not yet have a timeline for the Florida Avenue NE improvements, he said.

Bicycling


A bridge from Eckington to Union Market? It could happen.

In exchange for support to build retail and housing in Eckington, developer JBG has offered to fund a study of what it'd take to build a bridge that connects the Metropolitan Branch Trail and Union Market. That'd be a big step in joining Eckington and NoMa.


Map of potential MBT-Union Market aerial connection. Image from Google Maps.

JBG would fund a "viability and design study for an aerial pedestrian and bicycle connection between R Street NE and 4th Street/Penn Street at Union Market," a draft community benefits agreement with the Eckington Civic Association states. The developer would pay for the study in exchange for the civic association's support of the proposed three-acre Eckington Yards development.

The potential MBT-Union Market connection could use a unused tunnel under New York Avenue to link it with Union Market and connect to a future multi-use trail to Ivy City.

Union Market, an increasingly popular shopping spot, is separated from much of the District's cycling network and many of its booming neighborhoods by two main physical barriers: New York Avenue NE and the throat tracks into Union Station.

The NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) identified the area as needing a better connection in the MBT Safety and Access Study that the NoMa Parks Foundation this month.


NoMa identified a potential MBT-Union Market connection in its MBT Safety and Access Study. Image by NoMa BID.

A new footbridge might not be the way to go

However, according to Robin-Eve Jasper, president of NoMa BID, Nelson\Nygaard advised the parks foundation that an aerial connection similar to the one JBG describes in the benefits agreement as unlikely to be feasible. The distance across the railroad tracks at R Street NE and the need for Amtrak approval of an aerial structure are limiting factors, she says.

One possible option to improve the connection could be new ramps on both sides of the tracks to the New York Avenue bridge and a better sidewalk along the actual road. This would likely require fewer approvals and be more cost effective than a new multi-use bridge.

Improvements are coming to Florida Avenue

Right now, the easiest way to walk to Union Market from any neighborhood west of the trail and tracks is via the narrow sidewalks along Florida Avenue NE.


The narrow sidewalks along the underpass on Florida Avenue NE in NoMa. Image by the author.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is in the process of redesigning this section of Florida Avenue with pedestrian and streetscape improvements, says Sam Zimbabwe, the agency's associate director of policy, planning and sustainability administration. DDOT is pursuing a revised version of the proposed second alternative, which includes a wider sidewalk, some bike lanes, and a road diet to two lanes in each direction from three.


DDOT's initial alternative two concept for Florida Avenue NE from 2014. Image from DDOT.

While he does not provide a timeline, Zimbabwe says DDOT is seeking preliminary engineering services for the project.

A coming park could lead to more JBG and NoMa partnerships

JBG has a vested interest in improving pedestrian and bike access to its new development. The walk to the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station from Eckington Yards, which will be built on the site of the Washington Flower Center between Eckington Place and Harry Thomas Way NE, takes more than 10 minutes due to the detour north to R Street NE to access the MBT.

This walk could go down to about five minutes with a Q Street NE connection to the MBT, something that the NoMa Parks Foundation plans to build as part of its new two-acre park across Harry Thomas Way from Eckington Yards.


Eckington Yards in relation to the planned NoMa park. Image by JBG.

"We would be willing to contribute to making that park as great as it can be," says Bryan Moll, a principal art JBG, on a possible contribution to the park at an Eckington Civic Association Meeting earlier in February.

NoMa has only asked JBG for a cash contribution to the planned park, he adds, referring to meetings the developer has had with the parks foundation.

"We would love to consider a variety of ways we could partner," says Jasper. "The reason we haven't asked them for anything in particular is because we haven't started the design process."

The park will go through public comment process before the final design is selected, she adds.

The NoMa Parks Foundation has a $50 million budget to parks, with more than $17 million already spent on just acquiring the land for the two-acre park from Pepco and buying a much smaller plot at the corner of L Street and 3rd Street NE.

By comparison, Navy Yard's 2.5-acre Canal Park cost $26.5 million to build.

History


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.


The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.


Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.


An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.


This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.

Development


Eckington is getting some much-needed retail

A new development in Eckington will bring housing and much-needed retail to the area, including businesses that are hyper-focused on the local economy. Some residents are being very vigilant to make sure the project benefits the neighborhood.


Eckington Yards overview. Image from The JBG Companies.

Called Eckington Yards, the project will facilitate a "maker economy" of businesses that keep things local, like breweries or coffee shops that roast their own beans on the premises.

"We try to think outside the box when we bring in new retail not just bringing in five or six restaurants," said Bryan Moll of the JBG Companies, the project's developer, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting earlier this month. "You're not just selling things, you're not just making things. You make it locally [and] you sell it locally,"

The maker retail component will line the interior corridor of Eckington Yards, which will be built on a three-acre site that stretches from Eckington Place NE to Harry Thomas Way NE between existing developments. The corridor will be a rough extension of Quincy Place NE.


Eckington Yards site. Image by Google Maps.

A coffee shop or small restaurant is likely at the corner of Quincy Place and Eckington Place.


The interior corridor of Eckington Yards. Image by JBG.

The additional retail will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Eckington lacks retail in its interior, something that the civic association says was done by design when the area was developed in the late 19th century. Today, the closest restaurants are in Bloomingdale, with a grocery store and pharmacy in NoMa.

Residents are circumspect

Eckington residents want guarantees from JBG and its partners that Eckington Yards will benefit the neighborhood. They point to the developer of the Gale Eckington, formerly Triolgy NoMa, and how they promised a dog park and some retail when it opened in 2012.

Today, only a small corner on Harry Thomas Way—the furthest point of the Gale from the center of Eckington—is a dog park and there is no retail.


The small dog park at the Gale. Image from Google Maps.

"Our goal is to activate the space," said Moll on the retail component of Eckington Yards. JBG promises to keep its commitments to the neighborhood, he added, pointing to a binding community benefits agreement they plan to sign with the civic association.

A draft copy of the agreement includes ensuring that the maker retail is viable in the development, investing in a new or expanded Capital Bikeshare station, and planting trees and in and round the site.

The project is light on affordable housing

Eckington Yards is slated to have 695 residential units in four new buildings, said Moll. Only 8% of these, or about 55 units, will be included in DC's inclusionary housing program, he said.

Built on private land, JBG and its partners are not bound to the public land-deal requirement that 20% to 30% of residential units be included in the affordable housing programme.

Of the 55 affordable units, 20% will be set aside for households of four that make up to 50% of area median income (AMI)—about $50,000—and the remaining 80% for households that make 80% of AMI, said Moll.

Not all of the units in Eckington Yards will be rental. JBG plans to initially put units in only one of the four buildings up for rent with the rest condo but, Moll said, they convert another building into rental units depending on demand.

JBG will include both rental and for sale units in the affordable component of Eckington Yards.

The developer plans to seek approval for Eckington Yards from the DC zoning commission in May with construction beginning around the middle of 2017 and opening by the middle of 2019, said Moll.

Transit


Did Metro handle buses correctly in this mostly-non-storm?

On Monday afternoon, WMATA announced that Metrobuses would only run on a "moderate" snow plan, which cancels or reroutes a large number of buses. But when snow didn't materialize on much of the region, the agency restored service at dawn Tuesday. Did it make the right calls?


Not what happened. Photo by tadfad on Flickr.

Ned Russell wasn't so enthusiastic about the original decision. On Monday, he wrote,

This seems a bit much for what is forecast to be rain to an inch dusting in the city. NYC buses don't change at all for this little snow. I live in Eckington and the three primary routes that serve the neighbourhood—D8, 80 and P6—are all detoured or cancelled with far fewer stops in and around the neighborhood.
Gray Kimbrough felt some whiplash from the decisions:
I understand that there's a lot of uncertainty here and it's impossible to please everyone, but keeping transit service running is important to the region. Preemptively announcing significantly limited service only to switch back to regular service early this morning was disruptive to a lot of people.

I guess this could be the new normal strategy, which could be okay if we're clear on what it means. "WMATA plans to curtail bus service tomorrow but will reevaluate at 4 AM; check back for updates" would have been a much more helpful communication to riders if that was their intended strategy all along.

I checked and the @metrobusinfo Twitter account did tweet the revision just before 4 am, though @wmata didn't until 6 am and it didn't really filter through the media until later in the morning.

Other contributors, however, defended Metro, saying this was a very tough situation.

Abigail Zenner felt that she'd rather Metro preemptively cancel service than try to run it and have buses get stuck, as she's experienced in her neighborhood of Glover Park.

Warmer temperatures mean no ice. It could have easily gone the other way. We are cursed to be on the snow line.

In the past, we would slide to the bus stop only to find out a bus was stuck on a slippery spot never to be heard from again and blocking the road.

Adam Froehlig explained the extremely difficult forecast:
Yesterday afternoon it looked tricky. The "cutoff line" was basically right on top of the region, aligned southwest to northeast. This is a difficult forecast, as Abigail mentioned earlier. In scenarios like this where you're close to the freezing point not just at the surface but at lower altitudes, all it takes is a difference of one or two degrees at the right altitude to make the difference between rain, snow, or some other form of freezing precipitation.

What looks like happened is temperatures stayed just warm enough at the right altitudes to keep the precip as mostly rain or rain/snow mix from the District south and east. It should be noted (and highlights the cutoff mentioned above) that Dulles and BWI have been all snow since 4am, while National has been oscillating between rain or a rain/snow mix.

So the change overnight is likely what prompted WMATA to change their plans this morning, and also played a factor in OPM's status decision.

Jonathan Neeley also gave Metro the benefit of the doubt:
The thought I keep coming back to is that the blizzard was a chance to not screw up royally, and Metro seized it. They agency didn't handle everything perfectly, but given its however-many-years' worth of poor decision making and customer service, I think it's OK to say things went well.

Obviously, yesterday's precautions wound up being unnecessary, but as others have said, that isn't always clear until pretty late in the game. I don't know exactly what factors went into making decisions about bus service, both yesterday and pre-blizzard. But I'm willing to consider that being a bit too trigger happy in that realm has been part of a tradeoff that meant a positive move for bus and rail service overall.


Also not what happened. Photo by Samir Luther on Flickr.

While contributors reached a consensus that the forecast was understandably uncertain (one model predicted no snow and then 10 inches on consecutive runs six hours apart), some were still not persuaded that going to the moderate plan was necessary in the first place. Kelli Raboy said:

Going to the moderate snow plan was an overreaction, even for the worst-case forecasts. The moderate plan cuts a significant number of routes. The light snow plan would have been more reasonable.

Many people in this region rely on WMATA to get to work. When they cut bus routes far in advance of potential snow, it sends the message that WMATA is not a reliable option for transportation. I'm lucky to be able to telework when WMATA overreacts like this. Many people, especially the underserved in our communities, do not have that luxury.

From an operational standpoint, I understand the need to have a plan ready several hours in advance (so that employees and buses are in the right place at the right time). But that reasoning went out the window when WMATA changed their minds at the last minute anyway.

I also think they did a poor job communicating the changes. There was never any suggestion yesterday that the plan could change in the morning.

Matt Johnson agreed:
I think Metro is being overly cautious, and too much so in this case. The forecast was very uncertain (0-10" forecast), but Capital Weather Gang favored the "nuisance" end heavily, meaning that they thought the best chances were for very little snow.

Metro announced that they were going to "moderate" snow plan, which cuts service to many residents and businesses throughout the region long before forecasts were nailed down. And I suspect strongly that they were simply managing expectations. "Oh, look everybody, we're doing more than we promised!" That's not acceptable in this case, because as has been pointed out, the cancellation of much service was the last word anyone heard about it.

It would have been much more prudent for the agency to have said Monday night, "Given the uncertain forecast, Metrobus service and routes may be affected in the morning. Please check the website for up to date information in the morning. An announcement about service will be made no later than 5:00 am."

Ned Russell added, "Residents should not have to check their transit options every morning of their commute. I imagine a lot of people are not in the habit of repeatedly checking WMATA's status round-the-clock."

What do you think?

Education


Why we opted out of public school (for now)

I'm an all-around believer in the public school system. Yet this fall I opted to send my son to a private school in Maryland. We failed at the charter school lottery, and our neighborhood school isn't a good fit. And ultimately, my decision was made easier by the fact that next year, we can think it all over again.

Photo by the author.

I was always a public school kid. From kindergarten through high school, then right on through college, it was public school for me. Growing up in suburban Chicago, I had a first-rate education within walking distance of my house. And I'm a former DCPS and charter school teacher.

I believe that every child is entitled to an excellent, free education, and it is only when parents invest in their local schools that this can be a reality. Why, then, does my 3-year-old son, born and bred in Washington, attend a Catholic preschool in Hyattsville? Well, let me tell you:

1. He didn't get in. As a former DC charter school teacher, I was not intimidated by the charter application process. I looked at all the possibilities, ruled out the ones that were too far away, and filled out application after application. And guess what? He did not get into a single school that I applied to. At Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), my top choice, his lottery number was somewhere north of 700.

2. I was looking for added value. I am a teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom. I have a one-year-old in addition to my son, so I knew that I wasn't going back to work this year. I like being home with my children. So, if I was going to send my boy off for a large part of every day, I wanted to know that he was getting something that he couldn't get at home. A dual-language program would have met this criterion, or perhaps one with expeditionary learning. The school that our family opted for has a traditional Montessori program for 3- to 6-year-olds, which is well-suited to my son's personality.

3. Our neighborhood school was not a good fit. We live in Eckington, and our neighborhood school, Langley Education Campus, can be charitably described as "up and coming." There is a cohort of involved parents, some dedicated teachers, and a new principal. In a few years, I think it is going to be great. Even now, it is a safe, learning-filled place. For parents who need to send their kids to school for 7 hours a day, it is no doubt better (and much more affordable) than daycare. But my son just turned 3 in September, and to send him off all day, every day, seemed like too much. His preschool is a half-day program (with a full-day option), which gives us lots of time in the afternoons to pursue his other interests.

4. It's a one-year decision. There were some agonizing moments this summer as I contemplated my son's school destination. After all, what more important role do we have as parents than helping our children find their path in life, beginning with school? When I took a step back, though, I saw that I wasn't determining his future with this one decision. Our family may stay in DC, or we may not. Next year, I may feel like our neighborhood school is a better fit. Or, by some miracle, we may win that coveted spot at LAMB. In the end, our family chose what we thought was best, for now. Next year? We'll wade in those waters when we get there.

Other DC families, what has been your school choice experience? GGE would love to hear about it, so please share your story in the comments below. Or click on "Contribute" at the top right-hand side of this page for information about submitting a guest post.

Development


Plans seek to keep Mid City East affordable

The neighborhoods north of Union Station are one of the last affordable, walkable areas close to downtown DC. Can an area change for the better while keeping prices low? That's what DC's trying to figure out with the Mid City East Small Area Plan and Livability Study.


Typical rowhouses in Bloomingdale. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

As U Street to the west and NoMa to the east have boomed, the Mid City East neighborhoods of LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Truxton Circle, Sursum Corda, and Eckington remain a relatively affordable option. However, as million-dollar houses pop up, neighbors want to secure the diversity and affordability that lend the neighborhoods their character.

Since January, the DC Office of Planning (OP) and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) have been studying these neighborhoods and have released their draft recommendations for comment. The results here may provide lessons for what happens in similarly transitioning DC neighborhoods like Hill East or Anacostia, or Columbia Pike in Arlington.

The planning process kicked off in April. Through public meetings, informal office hours, and a collaboration website, neighbors have asked for a greater variety of housing and retail options, less concentration of social services, better use of vacant land and marginal land. They also want a re-think of the commuter arteries that divide the neighborhoods, Florida, Rhode Island, and New York avenues, and North Capitol Street.


Neighbors' vision as captured by an illustrator during the April 27 kickoff meeting.

Planners recommend reopening streets, preserving single-family homes

OP and DDOT spent the summer developing their respective Small Area Plan and Livability Study around the neighbors' input and released their draft recommendations September 26. OP's Small Area Plan is also based on a detailed survey of the area's built, natural, and human resources and their physical and economic connections to the rest of the District.

Based on these inputs, OP recommends focusing on North Capitol Street to take advantage of its emerging mix of creative, retail, and restaurant businesses and still-vacant lots in key locations. Among the recommendations are increases in density along the street, requirements that planned-unit developments include space for retail, and a deck over a sunken portion of the roadway between T Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

More broadly, OP would also like to open a handful of neighborhood streets to reconnect the street grid and solicit proposals to turn two vacant schools into an innovation campus.

To address neighbors' other concerns, OP recommends organizing local groups to promote preservation, walkability, and the upkeep of local parks. Through these changes, OP would promote affordable housing by giving developers incentives to build more affordable units while maintaining the current stock. But OP also recommends strengthening the zoning code "to preserve the availability of the current supply of single family housing stock" in Mid City East, which by constraining supply would seem to increase prices.


DDOT's analysis of crashes in the Mid City East area. The numbers in the yellow circles represent numbers of victims (injuries and deaths).

DDOT's Livability Study, the other component of the joint effort, further took into account neighborhood travel patterns and the state of the existing streets. DDOT's data show that crashes are no accident along the area's major arterials, with hundreds of people injured and several killed over a three-year period. DDOT proposes to improve safety by removing slip lanes and widening median refuges at major intersections and lowering speed on neighborhood-serving streets through wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and mini-roundabouts at intersections.


DDOT's proposal for stormwater management through pervious pavement in alleys (red) and tree box filters (green).

Both OP and DDOT are stressing sustainability after heavy rains overwhelmed sewers and flooded in recent years. Although a stormwater storage tunnel for the neighborhood is already in the works as part of the Clean Rivers Project, DDOT also proposes to install pervious pavement and other green infrastructure designed to keep water from entering the sewer system in the first place. As part of its most ambitious proposal, DDOT would install permeable paving in about half of Mid City East's alleys and divert stormwater to sidewalk tree boxes on about a dozen streets.

Will the vision be realized?

Are OP's and DDOT's recommendations bold enough to keep the Mid City East neighborhoods on an inclusive, sustainable path that makes the most of nearby development while preserving local character? There are few large projects; instead, OP and DDOT want to make the best use of the area's current assets and encourage neighbors to help themselves through better resident and business collaboration.

The streetscape improvements and the North Capitol Street deck, though welcome, would not change the balance between commuters and residents along the major arterials. Intersection improvements would help bridge the gaps across Florida, New York, and North Capitol, but without a clearer plan for pedestrian and bicycle circulation and connections to other neighborhoods, moving across the area will still be difficult.

What do you think about the draft recommendations? Will they help the area achieve an inclusive, sustainable future? Please leave your ideas in the comments or stop in at OP and DDOT's office hours today between 6-7:30 pm at Big Bear Café at 1700 1st Street NW.

Events


Events roundup: School's out (almost)

Thanks to everyone who came to our resurrected happy hour Wednesday night! Still hungry for more conversation? Over the next 2 weeks, you can learn about pedestrian safety in Montgomery County and DC, talk about the future of Prince George's and Tysons Corner, and hear about the intersection of food and smart growth.


Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Take it outside in MoCo: Tomorrow, join the Action Committee for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth for an al fresco discussion of pedestrian safety and transit at Fenton Street Market. We'll promote ACT's new website, SafeWalktoSchool.com, let kids draw their favorite ways to get to school, and chat about ways to improve county transit, like the Purple Line and BRT. Join us from 10 am to 12:30 pm at the market, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in Silver Spring.

After the jump: events in Bloomingdale, Tysons, Montgomery Village, College Park, Anacostia, and Trinidad.

Mobile design workshop in Mid-City East: If you spend time in Bloomingdale, Eckington, LeDroit Park, or Truxton Circle, DDOT and the Office of Planning want to hear from you. They've rented a ZipVan and will move around the area hosting "design on the fly" sessions all day on Saturday and Wednesday as part of a study on ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle access.

You'll find the workshop at a variety of locations, including the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market, along the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and outside Dunbar and McKinley high schools. For more details and times, visit the Mid-City East study website.

Evolving transportation in Fairfax: Learn about how the county's transportation network has changed over time at an event hosted by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, and the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.

It's this Wednesday, June 12 from 7:30-9:30 pm at the (very swanky) Angelika Film Center at 2911 District Avenue in Merrifield, not far from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station. For more information or to RSVP, visit the chairman's website.

The return of M-83: No, the French electronic band isn't playing here, but Montgomery County has restarted work on Midcounty Highway Extended, also known as M-83, a proposed highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg. The Department of Transportation and Montgomery Village Foundation are hosting a public meeting on the controversial highway next Thursday, June 13 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm at the North Creek Community Center, located at 20125 Arrowhead Road in Montgomery Village.

Get schooled on Prince George's future: Planners in Prince George's County want to encourage more walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, and they'd like to talk to you about it. They're holding a town meeting next Saturday, June 15 at the University of Maryland from 9 am to 1 pm and will serve free breakfast. You can register here or visit their website for more information.

Also:

This month, contributor John Muller will give 2 tours of Old Anacostia with a focus on the life of Frederick Douglass, who made his home there. The tours are this Saturday, June 8 and Saturday, June 22 from 11am-12:30pm, and tickets are $25. For more info visit the event's website.

Planners and developers in Tysons Corner will give an update on ongoing development and transportation projects at an open house this Tuesday, June 11 from 7-9 pm at Westbriar Elementary School, 1741 Pine Valley Drive in Tysons Corner.

The Historic Anacostia Block Association will hear presentations from the Office of Planning on future development in that area, including St. Elizabeth's East Campus and the Big K site, this Thursday, June 13 at 7pm at the UPO, 1649 Good Hope Road SE.

DDOT's studying ways to improve pedestrian and bike safety along Florida Avenue NE. They're hosting their first public meeting Wednesday, June 19 from 7 to 9 pm in Chapel Hall at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE.

Join food critics and restaurateurs for "Food in the City," a panel discussion hosted by Smart Growth America on the intersection of smart growth and DC's growing food community. The event's on Thursday, June 20 from 6-8 pm at Union Market, 1309 5th Street NE. For more information, visit their website.

History


Ride the 82 streetcar from 5th & G to Branchville

Thanks to video posted on YouTube, we can take a historic ride on the DC Transit 82 streetcar line from 5th & G (near what is now WMATA headquarters) all the way to the Branchville neighborhood of College Park.

Between downtown and the northern end of the line at Branchville, the streetcar passes through Eckington, Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, Riverdale, and College Park.

It's difficult to determine the exact date of this film because it was posted without a source cited. However, the streetcars are all sporting DC Transit livery. Before July 1956, the system was known as Capital Transit. It also has to be before January 1962, because that's when the streetcar system closed in DC.

We can actually narrow the dates a little more because the 80 (North Capitol Street) and 82 (Rhode Island Avenue) lines were discontinued on September 7, 1958.

Here is a map of the route the streetcar takes in this film:


Image from Google Maps.

There are a few interesting things along the route visible in the video.

At 0:48, the streetcar takes a "private right-of-way" between New York Avenue and Eckington Place. Today, this is the Wendy's in "Dave Thomas Circle," at New York and Florida Avenues.

A little farther up the route, at 1:58, you see the T Street "plow pit," where the car changed from using underground conduit to overhead wire. The bridge in the background is the T Street bridge over what is now the WMATA Brentwood Yard.

Starting at 10:18, the line begins to cross the Cafritz property in Riverdale Park. This section of the line will be converted into an extension of the College Park Trolley Trail whenever the site is developed.

At 11:20, the streetcar begins running on what is now the College Park Trolley Trail, and it continues on what is now the trail until the end of the film.

At 12:15, the trolley comes to a grade crossing of a spur of the B&O Railroad which was used to deliver coal to the University of Maryland. That right-of-way is now used for Paint Branch Parkway. Just north of that crossing (at 12:25), the streetcar crosses a tributary of Paint Branch Creek on a bridge that is is still used to carry the Trolley Trail.

At 14:18, the trolley arrives at the Branchville Loop, where Greenbelt Road, Rhode Island Avenue, and University Boulevard intersect. The narrator mentions that the line used to run further north along what is now Rhode Island Avenue. As late as 1948, the 82 line was still running as far north as Beltsville. However, the line used to run all the way to Main Street in Laurel, at the far northern end of Prince George's County.

What else do you notice in the film?

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