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Transit


Could a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn work? A study says yes.

Getting from Georgetown to Rosslyn, or to any Metro station, isn't easy. An aerial gondola across the Key Bridge could provide the missing connection, say leaders of the two neighborhoods, and a new study looks at how to make it happen, what it will cost, and where stations would go.


All images from the Georgetown-Rosslyn Gondola Feasibility Study.

The idea for the gondola—cable-operated aerial trams, not the Venetian boats—first came up in 2013, when the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) included it in its 15-year action plan. The goal is to fill the public transit gaps between Georgetown and Rosslyn, most notably the lack of a Metro stop.

In May 2015, Greater Greater Washington contributor Topher Mathews wrote that yes, this idea was at least worth looking into. While he said there were valid reasons to be skeptical of a gondola, like it being too expensive, or a distraction from more practical transit options, or just a shiny new toy, he also noted that "we won't know that for certain without the study."

Topher went on to note that gondolas are relatively cheap compared to, say, rail, that a quick ride from Georgetown to the Metro would be ideal, and that more bus lanes between Georgetown and Rosslyn really weren't politically feasible.

In July, both the Georgetown and Rosslyn BIDs, along with DC, Arlington County, Georgetown University and a number of businesses in the neighborhood, and a group of developers began studying the possibility in earnest.

The findings of the study came out today. Here are some of the details:

Where might stations go?

The study considered several station locations on either side of the river. The report said the top preferences are the the Exxon Station/36th Street right-of-way site in Georgetown (just north of M Street, near the "Exorcist steps") and North Lynn Street adjacent to Central Place in Rosslyn. Putting stations here would not require an angle station to re-direct the cables (in other words, the route would be a straight shot), and it would provide access to both Georgetown University and M Street.

The Exxon site would require private land acquisition (which could be tough given a recent proposal to build condos there). The study says the site would allow easy access to both M Street (below the Exorcist steps) and Prospect Street above, meaning it'd be less than a 10 minute walk from both the retail corridor and the lawn fronting the Georgetown campus.

The other Rosslyn site that's under serious consideration, Fort Myer Drive, would require an angle station, as would another proposed site in Georgetown, 3401 Water Street (just below the C&O Canal).


In both of these images, the Georgetown station is at the Exxon site. The image on the left shows the Rosslyn station on Fort Myer Drive, and on the right it's on North Lynn Street.

Proximity to Metro is a huge piece of the puzzle

Connecting to Metro is a critical piece of the entire gondola idea. In fact, Georgetown BID CEO Joe Sternlieb said the "goal is to make this the equivalent of the Georgetown Metro station."

In Rosslyn, both the North Lynn and Fort Myer sites are half a block and a block from a Metro entrance, meaning it could take as little as two minutes to transfer from the gondola, according to Sternlieb.

The report proposes building a new "vertical connection" between Metro and gondola station for the Fort Myer site, while using the new elevators built as part of the Central Place development to connect Metro to the North Lynn site.

According to the report, the gondola would put a lot more places within a 30-minute transit commute: you could take the gondola and then metro further west along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor as well as to Pentagon City and Crystal City in Virginia, and you could also go east into the District toward L'Enfant Plaza, Mount Vernon Square, and Penn Quarter. (As counterintuitive as it seems, Georgetown workers and residents could take the gondola to Virginia and then Metro back into the District.)


Here, the dark colors represent the places that are currently within a 30-minute transit ride of Rosslyn and Georgetown. The lighter colors show how a gondola would expand those options.

Federal approval is key

The National Park Service has jurisdiction over the river and the C&O Canal National Historical Park, both of which a gondola would have to cross with a visible set of wires and towers.

Due to the multi-jurisdictional nature of the project and the fact that it would cross federal land, a number of agencies and entities—including the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts—would have to approve the project. The consultants conducting the feasibility study did meet with NPS, NCPC, and CFA representatives.

Also, the Federal Aviation Administration has to approve tall buildings that go up in Rosslyn because it's so close to the flight path into DCA. A real consideration with the gondola cables is that airplane wings can create vortices that might lead to dangerous turbulence.

Costs, projected ridership, and potential economic benefits

At a projected cost of $80-90 million, the gondola would be significantly cheaper than the $1.5 billion for a Georgetown Metro tunnel and station laid out in the Metro 2040 Plan. It's even cheaper than building a Metro station alone.

The report estimates that between 6,000 and 15,000 people would ride the gondola each day. The project could replace several existing bus routes, cutting nearly 100,000 Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle and DC Circulator bus trips over the Key Bridge per year.

Organizers also see economic development benefits, especially for hotels in Rosslyn—increased occupancy and rates would boost local business and tax revenue—and restaurants and retail on both sides of the Potomac. Rosslyn officials also see the potential for more Georgetown workers to live in Rosslyn, potentially boosting rent and property tax revenue.

The study says that the development community is "generally supportive" and that the gondola could contribute to vitality and "buzz" for both neighborhoods with respect to office, retail, and residential considerations.

Could this happen anytime soon?

The feasibility study is only the latest step in making a gondola happen. Future phases would involve more public input and details on funding, which would involve multiple jurisdictions. The feasibility study found that the approval process could take 3-4 years, with an additional two years for construction.

The Georgetown and Rosslyn BIDs will host a public meeting tonight at the Georgetown Theater (1351 Wisconsin Avenue NW), featuring a presentation of the feasibility study findings and questions from the audience. Doors open at 6 pm. You can find more details here.

Politics


Our endorsements for ANC in Ward 2

When tourists visit DC, they spend most of their time in Ward 2. After all, it's home to Georgetown, Dupont and Logan Circle, downtown, and the Mall. But for the people who call these places home, there are decisions to make in your local elections this November. Below, we've written about six candidates we advise voting for in competitive Advisory Neighborhood Commission races.


Map created with Mapbox, data from OpenStreetMap.

 

What are ANCs, and why should I care?

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs, are neighborhood councils of unpaid, elected representatives who meet monthly and weigh in with the government about important issues to the community. ANCs are very important on housing and transportation. An ANC's opposition to new housing, retail, a bike lane, bus improvements, etc. can stymie or significantly delay valuable projects. On the other hand, proactive and positive-thinking ANCs give the government suggestions for ways to improve the neighborhood and rally resident support.

Each ANC is divided into a number of Single Member Districts (SMDs), averaging about 2,000 voters. Races often hinge on a small handful of votes; Your vote—every vote—really counts.

Not sure which SMD you live in? Find out here.

Here are our endorsements

After reviewing the candidate responses from each competitive race in Ward 2, we chose six candidates to endorse. Here, you can read their positions, along with responses from many unopposed candidates.


Foggy Bottom. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

In ANC 2A, we endorse Marco Guzman

As with a few of the districts in Ward 2, ANC 2A covers an area that is full of buildings but not necessarily full of voting residents. George Washington University in this ANC, and the school creates an interesting dynamic (which you also see around other universities in DC). Commissioners here must balance the needs of students and residents, even if many students are not DC voters. Another interesting piece of the puzzle is that sometimes, ambitious students run for ANC seats to get their political feet wet.

Aside from influencing voters and candidates, George Washington is an issue in and of itself for ANC 2A thanks to thinks like the school's campus plan. Another topic facing 2A is homelessness in the area, an issue highlighted especially last year when the encampments near the Watergate Hotel were cleared multiple times by city officials.

There is only one competitive race in this ANC: 2A03, a small district sandwiched between Pennsylvania Avenue and I Street. And here, we like one of those aspiring GW students: Marco Guzman.

In terms of Guzman's stance on the university's campus plan, he hopes the school continues to "stay true to their 'grow up, not out' growth plan," and is happy with the university's progress in building more student housing and discouraging student parking in the area. As far as homelessness goes, Guzman says he will rely on what he learned while working on the issue with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and will make sure "homeless individuals have access to and knowledge of the resources available to them."

We liked what Guzman had to say on other issues as well. He is clear that he wants to preserve parts of historic Foggy Bottom, but also is not afraid "to see taller buildings to help accommodate increased density." While he did skip some transportation questions on our survey, he was supportive of bike lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Marco's opponent, Matthew Chwastek, seemed reasonable but opposed to many changes to his neighborhood. When asked what he would like the area look like in 20 years, his reply was short and simple: "I would like to maintain the current look and feel of the neighborhood." He also prioritized street parking over better bus service. We think Guzman should get a chance to sit as commissioner.


Dupont Circle. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

In ANC 2B, we endorse Teal Baker and Scott Davies

The neighborhoods directly surrounding Dupont Circle make up ANC 2B. Specifically, the boundaries stretch down from Florida Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue, and west from 15th and 16th Streets towards Rock Creek Parkway.

Neighbors here battle with some of the same questions DC residents are facing across the city: How do we keep this neighborhood affordable? How do we decrease our dependence on parking? How can we accommodate housing for new residents?

Teal Baker, candidate for ANC 2B05, had particularly good answers to many of these questions, and we're endorsing her. Baker's district, a relatively long one that makes up the southeastern corner of the ANC, runs north from the White House to Q Street.

For Baker, the answers to the above questions are often related, especially density and affordability: "I favor increased housing density to allow for the creation of more affordable rental units. It is vital that our Commissioners bargain hard with developers to include ample affordable housing units in each new development project." In particular, she is in favor of adding more housing along the 16th Street corridor.

Baker is hesitant to remove parking or advocate for less of it even for better bus service, but is "really proud of the protected bike lanes on 15th Street" and believes "we need more options" like those to help non-motorized commuters in the neighborhood.

We also liked some of what Randy Downs, Baker's competitor, had to say. In general his answers were less specific, but he seemed supportive of creating more affordable housing and improving bike and public transit. In the end, we thought Teal's experience and clearer vision for the neighborhood came through in her responses, and it was enough to win our endorsement.

In the northwest corner of the ANC, the small 2B09 is also contested this year. In this race, we think Scott Davies is the obvious choice.

In many places, Davies was cautious in his responses to our questionnaire. He was clearly hesitant when asked if he would support density and more housing in the area, but said he believed there should always be "room for discussion so our automatic response isn't just 'no'." Similarly, he did not take a strong stance on reducing parking, but did say "there is room to support the new zoning regulations that recognize we live in an area with great public transit."

We definitely prefer Davies over his opponent, Ed Hanlon. Hanlon was very protective of parking in his SMD, and was generally suspicious of new housing in his area. When asked about improving or adding bike lanes, Hanlon mostly discussed the problem of bicyclists riding "far too fast on the sidewalks" and advocated for extending the downtown ban on sidewalk-riding.

What is more, readers wrote in that Hanlon has had a history of drama in the neighborhood, once getting a protective order filed against him during an ongoing argument with a neighbor over an outdoor deck. We believe Davies would be a good addition to the ANC this year.


Georgetown. Photo by Bob M ~ on Flickr.

In ANC 2E, we endorse Greg Miller

ANC 2E is Georgetown, home to Georgetown University and some very delicious cupcakes. How to accommodate a growing DC in Georgetown is a particularly prevalent issue, as neighbors traditionally fight to maintain the "village" look and feel over any attempt to add more housing. Parking is another constant source of debate, as the neighborhood receives daily influxes of visitors and has no Metro stop to provide an alternative to driving.

There are two contested ANC races in this area. The first is ANC 2E03, the area directly surrounding the main entrance to Georgetown University. Looking at the two candidates running here, we think you should support Greg Miller.

Miller noted that Georgetown's federal historic status leaves few chances for adding housing, but seemed supportive of doing so in select cases when possible. He is strongly in favor of "wider sidewalks and bike lanes along M Street," and as a non-car owner, he relies "on transit, walking, and biking to get around the city so [is] generally supportive of improving our transit options." Additionally, Miller included a number of specific proposals in his responses to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Rick Murphy, Miller's opponent, had reasonable answers to our questionnaire as well. In the end, we decided to support Miller as he seemed to be more open to many of the changes we typically advocate for here at Greater Greater Washington.

The other contested race in Georgetown is 2E05, which makes up the entire southern border of the ANC, running south from Prospect and M Streets to the Potomac River. We could not identify a candidate to endorse in this race.

Incumbent Bill Starrels gave short and generally unhelpful answers to our questionnaire, but does write to say that "[t]he historic integrity of Georgetown is paramount" to development decisions. Challenger Lisa Palmer took more care with her answers and we liked some of the things she had say, in particular her ideas for bike lane improvements.

But in the end, we weren't convinced of some of her stances, as she spent more time explaining situations and promising to work closely with agencies and neighbors than making plain her views with clearer recommendations and opinions.

If you are a resident in this area, make sure to read both candidate responses here and make your own decision.


Logan Circle. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

In ANC 2F, we endorse Jason Forman and Alex Graham

The final ANC in Ward 2 with contested races is 2F, which is basically the Logan Circle neighborhood, traveling south down 14th Street into downtown. One prominent site in this area, Franklin Square Park and the adjacent Franklin School, will eventually be redeveloped and is a place where ANC commissioners will exert some influence in coming years. Also of importance in this ANC are proposals to improve bus service, including talk of potential express bus service down 14th Street.

Above the actual Logan Circle lies 2F's northernmost district, 2F01, where we're endorsing Jason Forman. Forman had good answers on bicycle and pedestrian issues, but was less solid elsewhere. He recognizes that "adding dedicated bus line for 14th Street is needed for residents," but demands that this be done with no "net loss of residential parking spaces." He is open to more development in the neighborhood, but says that the area is "already hyper dense."

Above all else, we support Jason over his opponent Casey Root. Root is clear on buses: "I am against bus lanes." He is similarly clear on bike lanes: "I do not support additional bike lanes as they are abused as they currently stand." He is definitely for parking: "I would vote against limiting and or removing any street parking."

We hope Jason wins a term as commissioner here.

Farther south, the small triangle made by Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont Avenues is ANC 2F03. This is a very close race, and we liked both candidates here a lot. Ultimately, we sided with challenger Alex Graham over sitting commissioner Pepin Tuma.

There is a lot to like in Graham's responses. He has grand visions for the future of Franklin Square Park, and "fully support[s] dedicated bus lanes on major thoroughfares including 16th and 14th Streets," despite some concerns from a few neighbors. He has smart recommendations for where to incorporate more housing into an already dense neighborhood, and wants to "make sure that our bike highways are effectively connected to each other."

Here was one reason Graham thinks he deserves your vote: "I have a knack at accomplishing things in an extremely bureaucratic environment." ANCs are the right place for you, sir.

Incumbent Pepin Tuma also seems great. He agrees that "[e]xpress service makes a lot of sense" on 14th Street, and points out that during his term he has worked to improve bus service in the corridor already. Likewise, he supports improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and wants to make sure current residents have opportunities to stay in their neighborhoods even as development continues.

Like we said, this is a tough call, but Graham just edges his opponent out to win our endorsement.

Just south of 2F03 is 2F05. This district includes Thomas Circle, the surrounding neighborhood and parts of downtown. This is another place where we didn't land on a clear winner for our endorsement.

One candidate, Ron Rubin, was hesitant to throw his support behind adjustments to bus infrastructure on 14th Street. He is supportive of bike lanes and has specific recommendations for places to add more housing, but also focused a lot on process in his answers. Omeed Alerasool was similarly defensive of parking over bus improvements, though he was more clearly in favor of an express bus on 14th Street.

While not perfect, both of these candidates seem generally good and we just couldn't find reason to endorse one over the other. Residents, here are their answers in full. Vote for who you think is best.

Want to read the responses of all of the Ward 2 ANC candidates who responded to our questionnaire and judge for yourself? Check out the full PDF for Ward 2. You can also see responses and our endorsements for all 8 wards on our 2016 ANC Endorsements Page, and we'll publish our rationale for those in upcoming posts.

These are official endorsements of Greater Greater Washington. To determine this year's endorsements, we sent a reader-generated candidate questionnaire to all ANC candidates. We then published candidate responses and collected feedback. Staff evaluated all candidate responses and feedback for contested races and presented endorsements to our volunteer editorial board, which then made the final decision.

Correction: In the original version of this post, we wrote that Marco Guzman was a George Washington student. That's not the case; Marco received a BS from Arizona State and a masters degree in public policy from George Mason.

Housing


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.


Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.


This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Development


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

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


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

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

5,000 people per square mile

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

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

15,000 people per square mile

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

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

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

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

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

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

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

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

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

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

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

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

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

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

80,000+ people per square mile

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

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

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

Transit


Is a gondola across the Potomac realistic? We're about to find out.

Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We're about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.


Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here's what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID's 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there's a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It's ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.


Portland's gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don't know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system's ability to spur economic growth and development.
The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or "fatal flaws" that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

History


You know the Watergate, but what about the Water Gate?

You might know the Watergate as the famous hotel that Richard Nixon's henchmen broke into, and maybe you think of it anytime journalists default to adding "-gate" to a word associated with whatever modern day scandal they're reporting on. But they all get their name from a real Water Gate, an actual structure to hold back water. It's still here on the Georgetown Waterfront for anyone to see.


The tide lock with Water Gate ruins and the Watergate development in the background. Images by the author.

Built in the 1830s as an integral part of the C & O Canal, the Water Gate was a reinforced wooden dam at the mouth of Rock Creek that filled a basin with water so that the adjacent Tide Lock could be used to raise canal boats from the Potomac River into Rock Creek, and up to Lock 1 for their trip in the canal.

The basin's water level was maintained with a spillway at the top of the Water Gate, allowing excess flow into the Potomac River, while always maintaining a large amount of water to operate the Tide Lock so boats could navigate into Rock Creek Basin and up to Lock 1.


The tide lock looking out to Rosslyn skyline.

The canal quickly became obsolete in the early 20th century, no longer commercially viable due to competition from railroads and a growing roadway network. Commercial operations stopped in 1924. Without the revenue to make repairs, the canal and Water Gate slipped into disrepair over the next 30 years.

In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a walk along the entire 184.5 mile canal, calling to preserve it in response to the Washington Post supporting a plan to fill-in the canal and turn it into an automobile parkway—Douglas was the most notable local advocate, though many other local advocates were involved in this effort. The preservation efforts came to full fruition in 1971, when the C & O Canal and adjacent lands were designated as a national park.


Water Gate ruins at the mouth of Rock Creek with spillway control screws still in place.

The physical work to maintain the canal is an ongoing effort. Though the Water Gate itself is now an industrial ruin, NPS and Georgetown Heritage recently announced the funding for reconstruction of Locks 3 and 4, and a planning effort and conditions assessment for other canal structures in Georgetown will commence later this year.

So the next time you see a scandal with "gate" lazily stapled to it, remember that it comes from a real place with its own very interesting history.


History


The story behind Georgetown's street grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it's the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way?

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town's early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the farthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges 280 pounds.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St./Falls St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn't filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington. What didn't survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown's streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

This post originally ran back in 2010, and was crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan. A recent visit to Georgetown inspired our staff editor to dig it back up!

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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Development


Big developments serve a huge need, but smaller ones help cities too

It's pretty common to see new buildings with hundreds of units going up across the region. But what about smaller buildings, going up one at a time? That kind of small scale development, also referred to as incremental development, is an important part of building a city.


Neighborhoods like Georgetown came about one building at a time. Photo by Norman Maddeaux on Flickr.

Think about your favorite neighborhood in DC. Maybe it's tree-lined Swann Street by Logan Circle, with it's multi-colored row homes, all similar but with details that make them special, like the flower plantings on each stoop. Or maybe it's Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown—a bustling neighborhood commercial street with café seating and colorful shop windows selling specialty wares.

These special places were not created all at once; they are the result of a buildings being built, changed, and rebuilt, which has resulted in a rich urban fabric that supports renters, owners, merchants and service providers.

Today, that process is much more rare, with whole new neighborhoods going up all at once. These projects are often quite successful, and address the need for increased housing and retail in DC. But when large companies are the only ones building in neighborhoods, would-be smaller developers are left out.

Why do we want to avoid that? Because when communities are built by the people who live there, then those people are engaged in the neighborhood. Incremental development brings more wealth into the community; the developers of small projects reap the benefits of property ownership, including income-producing properties and tax benefits. And since small developers are literally invested, they have a stake in the decisions of the community, and take part in decision-making and neighborhood advocacy.

Furthermore, the spaces created by incremental development—from pop-up food kiosks to retail under residential—are more conducive to small entrepreneurs who can't take on the high rents and long terms of new larger retail spaces. In the boom and bust cycle of real estate, communities that are built incrementally are more resilient.

Today, real estate financing, the development process, and housing demand favor larger projects. So even if you want to, say, build a small coffee shop on that vacant corner lot, or fill in a hole in a commercial corridor with a multi-use building, it can be challenging to get the resources and permits to do so.

For example, banks are hesitant to lend money to build project types that have not been proven to create a profit, especially in up and coming neighborhoods. And even if you get financing for a mixed residential/retail building, then your project could be stymied by parking requirements that were meant for larger residential projects. There are roadblocks and unforeseen issues every step of the way.

If smaller projects aren't part of the mix, neighborhoods might be less likely to get a fine-grained feel. Also, it can mean less space for small retail, and fewer business opportunities for people interested in building cities.

A new non-profit is trying to change this

The Incremental Development Alliance was created by small scale developers who had been overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to them seeking advice on how to build small, multi-unit buildings. Since the group's founding in 2015, the group has conducted over twenty workshops on this topic, and are the recipients of a Knight Foundation grant to encourage incremental development in Columbus, Georgia.

On May 13 and 14, one of the founders of IDA, John Anderson, will be in Silver Spring to run a workshop on developing small real estate projects. The Silver Spring Small Developer Boot Camp will begin with a networking on Friday at Fire Station 1, and run all day on Saturday at the Montgomery County Planning Department. Participants will learn about technical skills and resources to navigate development financing, zoning and entitlement, site selection and building design in order assemble small scale real estate deals.

Discounted pricing is available until this Friday, and registration is available online.

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