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Can federal offices change neighborhoods for the better?

Do federal office buildings make their surrounding communities better or worse? Last night, 3 local planning directors discussed how federal buildings can make local areas more lively places to work and live, but how some have had the opposite effect.

Patent and Trademark Office and plaza in Alexandria. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The Washington region is unique in the number of federal jobs concentrated in large agencies. These large offices have the power to bring new life into neighborhoods and generate new urban growth around existing transit options. But security concerns can derail their positive effects on neighborhoods.

The key to success for these projects is adaptability. "There's no formula. Each project is unique," said Faroll Hamer, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, at the panel, sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.

"The first iteration is almost always horrible," said Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director. Tregoning argued that communities need to be constantly vigilant and to push back through review and input.

An example of a federal building with negative impact is the FBI Building in downtown Washington. When asked if they thought it was "the worst building in DC," a significant portion of the audience raised their hands. Foreboding and removed from the street, this building serves as an example of what not to do.

On the other hand, the sheer number of workers a new federal office brings into an area can activate the neighborhood. This activity can spur more growth and create new urban fabric where there previously was none. They can give birth to entirely new neighborhoods, or revive ones long since written off.

Qualities of many federal facilities pose problems

Federal office buildings are inherently single-use. Office workers do little for neighborhoods after business hours. This can be especially damaging when agencies cluster, creating large single-use neighborhoods. By spreading offices throughout the region, federal projects can invigorate many different neighborhoods instead of negatively affecting just a handful.

Federal buildings farther from transit often use shuttle buses. These could also provide a desirable transit option for neighborhood residents, but security rules often bar them from riding. This has been part of the conversation around the Department of Homeland Security's new offices at the former St. Elizabeth's hospital site between Anacostia and Congress Heights.

Individual buildings can do a lot to help or hurt their neighborhood. The parking garage for the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria is lined with townhouses on two sides, but other sides are just screened and set back from the street with landscaping, creating a dead streetscape. Many projects fall into this same pattern, with a mix of successful and unsuccessful components.

The GSA plans street-level retail in its building thanks to an innovative approach to security. Image from NCPC.

Security drives many design decisions and harms communities

The General Services Administration (GSA) is working to reverse damage to the streetscape from its massive headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The building is currently entirely disconnected from the street, but GSA plans to bring retail back to the building's street frontage.

To do this, they had to get creative with a factor that hampers the design of many federal projects, security. Security drives a lot of design decisions for federal projects.

USDOT. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
For example, the US Department of Transportation's building in the District's Navy Yard neighborhood takes up two entire city blocks, but has only one retail space along its entire façade, a Starbucks. It brings many workers to the area, but does little for the street.

In urban conditions, security hurts the streetscape by restricting building access from the street and for­bidding retail from lining the outside of buildings. In more suburban conditions it creates large campuses, cut off from what little grid there is and keeping workers from being able to activate the area around them. These large campuses also restrict the ability for planners to attempt to reconnect neighborhoods.

By adapting, many agencies are tackling these issues. The GSA's headquarters was formerly a Level 5 security building. In its renovation, they created a graduated security system, where not all areas of the buildings require the maximum security. As a result, almost all the security bollards around the building could be removed, a marked improvement to pedestrian conditions.

The lower level of security makes street level retail a possibility, and the GSA is looking into opening the building's cafeteria to the public, allowing the agency to share this amenity with their neighborhood.

Sustainability goes beyond LEED

Federal buildings built today have more environmentally-friendly design features. This demonstrates leadership and forward thinking from GSA and the agencies, but Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning for Montgomery County, was careful to remind the audience that the greenest building is the one that already exists, and urged federal designers not get too caught up in LEED.

A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards. There are many different factors to take into account to judge a building's true impact on the environment.

Many federal buildings, like many private buildings, are building more parking spots than they need to. Federal agencies are often surprised by how many workers will choose to commute in ways besides driving. At the Mark Center in Alexandria, offices for the Department of Defense were expected to produce massive gridlock. Instead, 50% of workers utilize transit to get to the site.

Little touches can do a lot

PTO. Photo by Janellie on Flickr.
With creative designs, federal buildings can often make the most out of restrictions out of their control. The PTO's work in Alexandria requires constant delivery of packages between offices, so the hallways were placed facing the street. This allowed workers to make deliveries by daylight and activate the streetscape. The building could not have retail, but the PTO activated the street in a unique way.

Small-scale gestures have very positive effects on the areas around government offices. The PTO provides Wi-Fi in a small park adjacent to the offices and installed glass columns that light at night. Despite larger urban design failings, small gestures like these can make a big difference in neighborhoods.

Federal projects have their own strengths and weaknesses, but each gains from the collective knowledge of the projects that have come before. Agencies are generally moving towards better designed buildings, closer to transit, that give workers more flexibility. We will surely witness missteps along the way, but the trajectory for these buildings and the positive change they can bring to the areas is promising.


Morgan Boulevard Metro is the best site for the FBI

Prince George's County has several Metro stations that could accommodate a new FBI headquarters. But to get the FBI, Prince George's County needs to pick a site quickly. The ideal site is the Morgan Boulevard Metro station.

Photo by tape on Flickr.

In a prior post, I argued that the Morgan Boulevard station is an ideal site for a new regional hospital that the county, state, and the University of Maryland Medical System plan to build in the next few years.

The station is within a mile of the Capital Beltway and has 56 acres of undeveloped land next to it—enough room to build an urban, walkable hospital campus and a host of other TOD projects.

While the FBI campus's security requirements and size would not make it a likely candidate for those 56 acres adjacent to the Metro station, another large area across Central Avenue (MD-214) would work perfectly.

Morgan Boulevard Metro. Image from Google Maps.

The yellow-shaded area, directly across Central Avenue from the station, is more than large enough to accommodate the FBI headquarters. The dark purple area, adjacent to the FBI, is ideal for the hospital, while mixed-use offices could occupy the lighter purple areas and mixed-use residential in the brown area. The county could create a pedestrian path with a Main Street character, lined with storefronts, from the station to Central Avenue where employees cross to get to the FBI.

Because it's across a major arterial from the station, the restrictive security constructs would not pose a problem with developing quality mixed-use TOD at the Metro station. Yet, because it is within ½ mile of the Metro station, it would be easily accessible to the thousands of federal employees who would be working at the FBI. Moreover, many of those same employees would have to pass through the station's core commercial area twice a day, thereby creating a natural patron base for any business located there.

Currently, the Morgan Boulevard Station's secondary area is populated with scattered automobile-oriented industrial uses. However, the county could quickly assemble and redevelop that land into a large-acre parcel suitable for the FBI headquarters facility. The existing industrial uses can be easily relocated to one of the many other nearby industrial office parks with vacant space. If there's one thing the county has plenty of (other than developable land around Metro stations), it's vacant industrial space.

Prince George's officials should make a compelling case to the GSA as to why a location like Morgan Boulevard would be a win-win for the federal government as well as the county and state governments, and specifically why it would be better than the GSA-owned property at Franconia-Springfield Metro Station in Fairfax County. Here are a few suggestions:

Morgan Boulevard is closer to DC. It is 9.5 miles from the DC core, while Franconia-Springfield is 15 miles from downtown. It is also inside the Beltway, while being equally as accessible via Metro's Blue Line.

It is one of the least-utilized Metro stations. In fact, in 2007, Morgan Boulevard had the fewest weekday riders of any Metro station. Unlike the Franconia-Springfield Station, a busy transit terminus in already-overcrowded Fairfax County, Morgan Boulevard could easily accommodate the influx of thousands of additional riders a day.

Ample roadway capacity already exists. Unlike the Beltway area around Franconia-Springfield, the roadways around Morgan Boulevard are able to accommodate the workers who would choose to drive to work. The same multiple paths that allow many thousands of fans to drive to FedEx Field for Redskins games would also accommodate the substantially fewer number of federal workers that would be driving to the new FBI headquarters during the work week. And the use of the same reversible lane technologies employed on game day should assist with traffic flow during the work week.

It would bring more parity to the region. From a policy standpoint, bringing the FBI headquarters to Morgan Boulevard would allow the federal government to better equalize the regional distribution of federal employment sites. Prince George's supplies more than a quarter of the region's federal workforce and is entitled to a fairer allocation of the job sites.

The area is comparatively less well-off economically. Unlike wealthy Fairfax County, the surrounding inner-Beltway community near this station is one that could more greatly benefit from urban revitalization, thus allowing the federal investment to accomplish multiple goals.

These are the type of specific, fact-based arguments and actions (among others) that will make a worthy case to the GSA for why it should bring the FBI headquarters to Prince George's County.

Make a specific site recommendation. Give specific justifications. Articulate a sensible TOD and neighborhood revitalization strategy. Provide quick, responsible, and decisive action by local officials.

Prince George's County deserves to attract the FBI headquarters and other large federal government offices. If it wants to do so, though, it needs to step up its game dramatically.


To lure the FBI, Prince George's must be more nimble

Prince George's officials are eager to attract the FBI headquarters to a Metro site in the county, and it's the right place for the FBI. But if they're going to win out over a competing proposal by Fairfax County, officials need to move quickly and lobby for a single, appropriate site.

Photo by Aude on Wikipedia.

On February 9, County Executive Rushern Baker signed a County Council resolution urging the gov­ern­ment to build the new FBI headquarters in the county.

But they're a bit late to the party. A month earlier, on January 10, Fairfax supervisors unanimously passed a resolution pushing for the FBI to locate on federal land near the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

The Prince George's resolution also calls for a task force to study potential sites. That will introduce even more delay at a time when Fairfax is already lobbying for a specific site.

Talk of relocating the FBI has been brewing since at least 2010, when Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) obtained funding for a study on that question. The Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress on November 8, 2011, stating that relocating the FBI headquarters from the J. Edgar Hoover Building in DC to another transit-accessible location in the region was both the cheapest and quickest option to allow the FBI to consolidate its workforce and maintain operational security.

One month later, on December 8, 2011, the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee authorized the General Services Administration to move forward with finding a site for a new FBI headquarters. The committee required that the new headquarters occupy federally-owned land within 2 miles of a Metro station and within 2½ miles of the Capital Beltway, among other requirements.

Within a month, Fairfax made a specific pitch for a specific and highly competitive location that meets the requirements in the Senate EPW Committee's resolution.

By comparison, Prince George's resolution is rather amorphous. It provides that the county government has "strong support for relocating the FBI and other Federal agencies and acquiring other Federal leased space in Prince George's County" and "is prepared to be a partner with the GSA and the private sector in utilizing appropriate economic incentives, to facilitate the location or relocation of Federal agencies to Prince George's County, Maryland."

Okay, great. What county government wouldn't want a huge federal agency, with all its employees, coming to town?

The resolution also highlights that Prince George's has historically gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to federal employment sites. Though more than 25% of the federal employees in the National Capital region reside in Prince George's, the county has only 5% of the region's federal office space. Certainly true enough and worth pointing out.

But exactly where does the county want the facility to go? How would the GSA and the federal government benefit from locating the FBI headquarters in Prince George's rather than Fairfax or any other neighboring jurisdiction? The county's apparent answer thus far: we don't know yet.

The county's unfocused approach doesn't prioritize Metro station development

The County Executive's press release announced the formation of "an inter-agency task force that will regularly meet and analyze possible sites in the County that are in accordance to" the GSA and Senate EPW Committee specifications. That sounds like an excruciatingly long, bureaucratic nightmare of a process, especially given that Fairfax County is already bringing specific proposals to the table.

Time and time again, the ubiquitous "task force" is where many worthy proposals are sent to die a slow and painful death.

Prince George's formation of such a task force at this late date raises a more significant and troubling question: Why hasn't the county already done that basic site analysis groundwork if the idea of relocating the FBI's headquarters has been floating around since 2010?

The answer is simple, and probably best explains why the county doesn't already have more of its fair share of large employers (federal or otherwise), quality retail destinations, and attractive housing choices around its Metro stations. Despite all of its lofty pronouncements over several administrations, the county simply hasn't taken enough tangible action to prioritize Metro station development and revitalization of its existing, transit-rich urban core inside the Beltway.

Moreover, as I wrote recently, the county unfortunately often actively undermines its own stated transit-oriented development goals by advancing massive mixed-use projects that are too far away from existing Metro stations, thereby reducing the market for similar development at the Metro stations.

That's why in 2007, for example, we saw an elaborate master plan being developed for Westphalia, a sprawling greenfield development on rural farmland located outside of the Beltway and far from a Metro station.

Westphalia was the brainchild of former county executives Jack Johnson and Jim Estepp; former District 6 county councilman Samuel Dean; and two corrupt crony developers, Patrick Ricker and Daniel Colton. Johnson, Ricker, and Colton have all now pled guilty to federal corruption and bribery changes and are heading to prison.

Despite the ignominious legacy of corruption and misguided policy that underlies Westphalia, the Baker administration apparently remains committed to bringing the suburban sprawl project to fruition, even while claiming that "one of [its] top priorities will be maximizing the potential at our Metro stations." Baker's spokesperson, Scott Peterson, said in June 2011, "[T]he [Westphalia] development is important to the residents of the community and the county, and we'll be working hard to keep the project on line."

At the same time it develops and actively pursues detailed proposals for suburban sprawl developments like Westphalia and Woodmore Towne Center, the county lacks a coherent strategy for developing the four largely vacant Metro stations along its Blue Line corridor (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center), or the three stations along its Orange Line corridor (Cheverly, Landover, and New Carrollton).

Only recently has the county begun to turn its attention to those station areas, with such efforts as the Blue Line Corridor TOD Strategy Implementation Project and the New Carrollton Transit District Development Plan.

Richard Layman aptly captured Prince George's Metro station TOD dilemma in a comment to a previous post: "[M]ostly, developers won't be choosing to do speculative development in most of [Prince George's County], including at Metro stations[,] without superlative station plans and great incentive packages anytime soon." Richard's comment rings true both for private developers and for public ones, like the GSA.

County should make detailed proposals for specific Metro sites, and soon

Fortunately for Prince George's, its past history of poor focus on Metro station TOD does not have to constrain its future course. The Baker administration and the current County Council are much better equipped and, by and large, more willing to embrace and pursue true TOD than Jack Johnson & Crew. But if they're going to do so, they need to adjust their thinking and sharpen their focus, so that the county's actions match its policy goals.

The task of identifying suitable space for the FBI headquarters building does not have to be made that difficult and should not entail endless deliberation by an ad hoc task force. The county already has a stated policy that assigns "top priority" to transit-oriented development around Metro stations.

This county policy priority also comports with the GSA requirement for the new FBI headquarters site to be located within 2 miles of a Metro station. So the first decision point in the selection process should be clear: locate and recommend an available site near a Metro station if at all possible.

By my count, there are only 5 Metro stations in Prince George's County that are within 2½ miles of the Beltway: Branch Avenue, Largo Town Center, Morgan Boulevard, New Carrollton, and Greenbelt. The goal should be to find a suitable site around one of those 5 stations. Within a span of a few hours, anyone working with the county's GIS mapping system and Google Earth should be able to identify which of those 5 locations has the 55 acres of developable or re-developable land the FBI needs.

Matt Johnson argued several weeks ago that putting a high-security fortress like the FBI headquarters directly on top of a Metro station site was not ideal, because such a complex would not be conducive to creating the type of walkable, open, and public environment that should define TOD at a Metro station.

He suggested a couple of alternate greenfield sites near the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, which is about a mile away from the Greenbelt Metro station. However, it appears that one of those sites is not large enough to meet the GSA requirements, and the other site is already committed for another use.

Ideally, the best location for the new FBI building would be in the "secondary area" of a Metro station. In his book The Next American Metropolis, famed architect and urban planner Peter Calthorpe explains that the secondary area of a transit station area is located within a mile of the station, often across a major arterial street.

The secondary area is an appropriate location for uses that should ordinarily not be located in the principal commercial core of a transit area, like lower-density single-family homes, automobile-oriented uses like gas stations and repair shops, and large employment-generating uses that may not fit within the compact, walkable block structure that is essential for proper pedestrian circulation in a TOD—such as a 55-acre FBI headquarters campus that requires a massive security moat around it.

Tomorrow, I'll suggest the ideal site in Prince George's County for the FBI headquarters, one that's large enough, meets the Senate committee's requirements, and lies within the secondary area of a Metro station.


St. Elizabeths plan threatens South Capitol Trail

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths is available for comment. It includes several improvements that should appeal to cyclists, but at least one alternative threatens the important, planned South Capitol Street trail.

The S. Capitol Street trail is the dotted orange line.

To accommodate the increase in jobs, the EIS primarily adds vehicular capacity by widening South Capitol Street, adding interchanges to I-295, and more. One area of such widening is at the interchange between 295 and Malcolm X Avenue. Alternative 1 rebuilds the I-295 S/South Capitol Street interchange to allow southbound traffic to use South Capitol and Malcolm X to reach the West Campus Access Road.

But to handle the added traffic, it would push South Capitol to the west using the same right-of-way that DDOT plans to use to build the South Capitol Street Trail (circled in black below). The EIS does make it clear that planners are aware of the trail, but it seems they are either unaware or unconcerned that these plans threaten it.

Alternative 1 of I-295/Malcolm X Avenue interchange expansion. Image from the EIS.

GSA should either pursue Alternative 2 or work to modify Alternative 1 to allow for the South Capitol Street Trail. If you contact GSA or go to the public hearing on Thursday night make sure they know how important this critical link is and that any alternative must not preclude construction of the South Capitol Street Trail.

But all is not gloom and doom. There are other more positive developments. As mentioned before, both alternatives for the West Campus Access Road include a 10-foot wide multi-use trail along the road from South Capitol Street (south end), across Malcolm X Avenue, and continuing to Firth Sterling Avenue/Defense Boulevard. This adds another north/south connection to the District's trail system. Even the No Build Alternative includes bike lanes and a sidewalk on the Access Road (but not all the way to Malcolm X Avenue).

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Alternative 2 widens the street by 8 feet more than Alternative 1, from 78 to 86 feet wide, to make room for bicycle lanes. This will, unfortunately, involve removing 27 trees - as opposed to 21 for alternative 1. Still, this is the better alternative of the two, as new trees will be planted to mitigate the impact.

There are also plans to extend 13th Street on the east campus, and that extended street may include bike lanes.
Finally, the Great Streets initiative for MLK Avenue includes plans to add bike racks.

According to GSA, only about 1% of employees are expected to bike to work at the new facility. But the multi-use trail is expected to become a main route for the 8% of employees expected to walk from the Metro station. GSA notes that other steps can be taken to get more people to bike. For example, the EIS notes that by building a smaller parking lot to serve the FEMA building, employees would be encouraged to use public transit, bike or walk to work.

The EIS also recognizes that planned bicycle lanes on Howard Road and along the new MLK Avenue Bridge over Suitland Parkway, as well as unplanned improvements from the Wilson Bridge would do more to improve bike/ped access. This, along with the South Capitol Street Trail—if they don't inadvertently kill it—should help the bicycle mode share to climb higher.

GSA will be holding a public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for the amendment to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Headquarters Consolidation Master Plan at St. Elizabeths on January 13, 2011, from 6-8:30 pm at the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, John H. Kearney, Sr. Fellowship Hall, located at 2616 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE, Washington, DC. You can also submit comments online.

Cross-posted on The WashCycle.


Security bollards could also provide bike parking

Security measures are often antithetical to good urban design and vibrant city streets. But instead of hoping for them to go away, we can at least push for them to serve other uses as well, like doubling as bike racks.

Image from Reliance Foundry Co.

Foggy Bottom, where I live, has high security neighbors like the State Department, Federal Reserve, several high profile embassies, the IMF and the World Bank. There's hardly a street corner you can stand on where there aren't security bollards visible in one direction or another.

For all the surplus of posts, planters and barriers of all kinds, there is a commensurate dearth of something else: bike racks. While many of these institutions provide bike parking in the building for their workers, there is little in the way to accommodate visitors to the area who come on bikes.

Scenes like this are far too common, where bikes are locked to the occasional sign pole amid rows of barriers:

The only outdoor bike racks in the Federal Triangle I could find were not even on federal land but outside the Wilson Building, DC's state house/city hall. Those racks are behind an area that looks somewhat like a security checkpoint, and are absolutely packed while the sidewalks outside other buildings are barren:

Throughout the city there are entire neighborhoods completely devoid of bike racks yet filled with bollards, planters, jersey barriers and other security perimeter devices. These include Foggy Bottom, Federal Triangle, Judiciary Square, Union Station/SEC/Judiciary Building, Navy Yard/DOT, just to name a few.

Reliance Foundry, a manufacturer of bike parking infrastructure, sells a line of "bike bollards." We've all seen similar posts, but usually they appear in places where maybe there is not enough space to fit a larger rack, or they were chosen for aesthetic reasons.

Image from Reliance Foundry Co.

But the term bike bollard implies a mixed use that I have yet to see: security bollards that double as bike parking. Some of the bollards are as thick or thicker than those around federal buildings.

It may not be practical for every bollard around a building perimeter to have loops for securing a bike, lest they inhibit effective flow of foot traffic during major events. But around a building that covers an entire city block, why not incorporate bike parking into bollards on sections of the sidewalk that have already been rendered otherwise useless by the bollards?

The World Bank has already experimented some with multifunctional security measures by incorporating benches and trashcans around some buildings. Other buildings around the city have managed similar strategies using large planters or long, oversized flower pots as security barriers that at least to help beautify the streetscape.

Benches are nice, but at most high security buildings, they are rarely used by more than the occasional office smoker because there are no other streetscape amenities like shops or cafes that would give anyone a reason to sit around. In a city with an acknowledged dearth of bike parking, this compromise seems more ideal.

Another way to make security measures useful is creating a building perimeter with usable floor space. Say what you will about the compound as a whole, this has been accomplished with relative grace and success at the ATF Headquarters across the street from New York Avenue Metro.

Image from Google Maps.

This solution reduces the wasted space and dead streetscapes from huge building setbacks and security restrictions on ground floor uses.

What other practical applications are there for security infrastructure? As the General Services Administration and the National Capital Planning Commission work on "activating federal places," hopefully some of these ideas can make it into the design of future security barriers or renovated federal buildings.

Public Spaces

How can Obama really do more for DC?

Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?

President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.

The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.

If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.

Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:

Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.

Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.

Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.

Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.

Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.

Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.

Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.

Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.

However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.

Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.

For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.

Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.

The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.

NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.

Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.

Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.

Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.

And of course:

Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.

Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.

It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.

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