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Politics


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.


Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there notthere used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has saideven including the development community, the government, the councilmembers saidthat we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Politics


Get ready for Greater Greater politics coverage

Perhaps you've heard: there is a primary in DC on April 1. Over the next few weeks, Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education will be posting a series of video interviews with the candidates for DC mayor and the DC Council Ward 1, Ward 6, and at-large seats.


Photo by Larry Miller on Flickr.

I spoke with almost all of the candidates over the past 2 weeks, and Martin Moulton recorded the conversation on video. We'll divide it into a series of topical posts for each race, looking at what each candidate for a particular contest said about housing, transportation, education, and more.

As we post each portion, this post will include a link to that segment. Below is the list of races, candidates (arbitrarily, in the order they spoke to me), and topics for posts.

Ward 6 council: Charles Allen, Darrel ThompsonWard 1 council: Jim Graham, Brianne NadeauCouncil at large: John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio (and see note below)Mayor: Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Muriel Bowser, Andy Shallal (and see note below)All races:How did we select the candidates to speak to? We polled contributors on which candidates they wanted to hear from, and included anyone that contributors nominated.

Mary Cheh is unopposed for re-election in Ward 3. Kenyan McDuffie's Ward 5 re-election contest appears unlikely to be competitive, and contributors did not feel they needed to hear more about that one. There are no competitive primaries for mayor or council outside of the Democratic Party. Finally, we did not include races for Delegate, Shadow Senator or Shadow Representative, or state party.

Besides the candidates listed here, we reached out to Anita Bonds, Vincent Orange, and Andy Shallal. Shallal was scheduled to speak with me on Thursday, February 13, but the interview was canceled due to the snow and we have not yet been able to reschedule we were subsequently able to talk with him.

Orange returned one voicemail and expressed interest in the interview but never followed up from multiple subsequent attempts to reach him. We never received any response from Bonds to any of our inquiries. We would, however, still be happy to speak to any of these candidates before the relevant interviews go live.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood.

Politics


Most mayoral challengers oppose reducing parking minimums

At a forum last month, four candidates for DC mayor argued against a proposal by the Office of Planning to relax minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas of the city. Andy Shallal and Tommy Wells didn't address it directly, though Shallal argued for more parking capacity while Wells argued for reducing parking demand.

The Office of Planning (OP) is proposing changes to the zoning code that would let property owners choose the right amount of parking in the highest density downtown neighborhoods, including developing areas like NoMa and Capitol Riverfront. Elsewhere, the zoning code would require one space per three units in apartment and condominium buildings away from transit corridors and half that near transit.

This proposal is the result of multiple compromises by planning director Harriet Tregoning to satisfy opponents' concerns. If the response of mayoral candidates is any indication, Tregoning's compromises have resulted in only more demands for compromises, an outcome that many predicted.

At the forum, moderator Davis Kennedy, editor of the Northwest Current, asked the following question:

Some have criticized our city planners for reducing the amount of required parking in new apartment buildings in some neighborhoods and for allowing apartments in single family homes. The fear is that it will substantially reduce on street parking availability. Others feel if we did not reduce the new apartment parking requirements, as underground parking is so expensive, it would contribute to much higher rents. What do you think?
Kennedy asked a good question that fairly represented both sides of the issue. Here are the answers of each candidate, with the portions that directly answer the question in bold:

Muriel Bowser:

Bowser directly opposes OP's proposal, then argues that expanding alternative transportation is the better solution:

I think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong, and that's why I introduced emergency legislation that in some cases would limit the expansion of visitor parking. Walking in Georgetown neighborhoods, walking all around ward 2, people tell me that DDOT got it wrong and we stopped it working with your councilmember who joined me in that effort.

This is what I know: our city's roaring. We'll have 200,000 new people here by the year 2040 and not everyone will be able to drive. I approach our transportation system in a balanced way. We have to have excellent public transportation. We have to have excellent bikeshare or bike parking, bike lanes. And we have to have roads that work and the ability to park.

It's very important that we approach our entire transportation system with a balance. We asked the Office of Planning not to eliminate parking minimums, because that was their first plan, but to look at a way to manage it in a better way.

This has become the standard way for elected officials opposing OP's proposal to frame the issue, and Evans and Orange follow suit. But fewer parking requirements and more multimodal streets solve different problems. Reducing parking requirements prevents regulatory-driven overbuilding of parking, which induces greater demand for parking and streets and makes housing less affordable. Bike lanes won't do that.

What's also concerning is that she sees alternative transportation as needed because "not everyone will be able to drive." Everyone I know who uses bike lanes, buses and so on also is able to drive and does whenever they want to.

Jack Evans:

Evans goes the furthest in opposing OP's proposal, saying he would keep the 1958 minimum parking requirements currently in place:

The Office of Planning definitely got this wrong. I agree with keeping the parking requirements just as they are, and I'm joining with Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh to address that with the Office of Planning. Taking away more parking spaces in this city is a terrible idea.

What we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation, something I've done in my 22 years on the Council. I served on the Metro Board and was the advocate for not only completing the 103-mile system that currently exists but for expanding Metro and someday we hope to have a Metro in Georgetown.

Secondly, bike laneswe have more bike lanes in Ward 2 than in all the other wards combined and we will continue to promote bike as another alternative transportation. Light railagain something this Council has supported, building the light rail system that will connect Georgetown to downtown and to the eastern parts of this city. So the alternative means are very important but keeping the parking as it is is also very critical.

He repeats Bowser's framing by saying that "what we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation," taking credit for bike lanes in Ward 2 that everyone knows would have happened without him.

Reta Jo Lewis:

Lewis addresses the issue the least directly, offering general arguments for more parking. She says it would be "unacceptable" to "eliminate any parking inside of buildings," but minimum parking requirements apply to new buildings.

I served as the chief of staff in the Department of Public Works when it used to be called DPW. I want you to know that parking is one of the most important things any agency does when it deals with transportation.

Now I live right downtown, right on 5th and Mass. And I've watched everything get built. And what I've watched is not any more parking spaces coming on. And it would be unacceptable to allow our offices of administration to eliminate any parking inside of buildings.

What we have to do is continue to offer a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive plan, of how residents, not just downtown, but in all of our neighborhoods, especially like Georgetown. In your 2028 Plan you specifically talked about parking. It is fair for us in communities to have parking spaces.

Vincent Orange:

Orange, like Evans, specifically supports the existing minimum residential parking requirement of one space per unit. His unique bit of unhelpful framing is to pit new residents against long-time residents:

I also think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong. There needs to be a proper balance. If you're gonna keep building units, then there at least should be a parking spot per unit. Clearly there needs to be a balance here in the District of Columbia. We're getting more and more residents.

But also that balance has to include those residents that have been here during the bad times, to still be able to be here in the good times, and allowed to travel throughout this city and be able to find parking. So there has to be a balance.

I applaud those that really are really studying this issue, to make sure there are bike lanes, there's light rail, there's transportation needs being addressed by Metro and others. But there has to be a balance. And I believe that balance can only be maintained by when you build units there should be parking associated with those units.

It's at this point that one notices none of the candidates have responded to Kennedy's argument for reducing minimum parking requirements, that it promotes affordable housing that enables long-time residents to stay in DC. Bowser and others have complained about the high rents on 14th Street for example, but part of those rents are needed to pay for minimum parking requirements.

Andy Shallal:

Shallal doesn't address minimum parking requirements, but offers complaints about insufficient parking:

I agree there's a problem, obviously, with parking. Owning a business in the District, it's very difficult as it is. And when my customers tell me they're having a hard time parking, it really makes it even that much more difficult to attract business and keep business.

It's very interesting: often times I will get a lease for a space to be able to open a restaurant, and then all the neighbors get upset because there's no parking there. I have nothing to do with the way that it was zoned and suddenly I am the one that's at fault and needs to find parking for all the people that have to come in.

The other I think we can't really address parking unless we address public transportation. I think that's one of the major issues is the fact that a lot of people want to see the Metro open later, especially on the weekends. They want to see it later. Maybe we can go for 24 hours. A lot of my patrons and my customers, my employees, would like to be able to see that.

The other thing is that increasing the hours of the parking meters is not working for many of my customers and I think we need to bring it back to 6:30.

This is concerning given that Shallal has made affordable housing a central tenet of his campaign. His platform doesn't include any positions on transportation.

His only position on parking that he offers in his response is that parking meters shouldn't be enforced after 6:30pm. However, this a peak period of demand for scarce on-street parking, and pricing on-street parking according to demand would be a better solution.

Tommy Wells:

While Wells is the only candidate to not offer arguments against OP's proposal, he also doesn't argue in support of reducing parking requirements. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his bill to give OP the power to not allow residents of new buildings to receive residential parking permits:

I think that on something like parking, like everything else, we have to work smart. First thing is that if a building does put the parking space in there and everyone gets a residential parking sticker, we're going to wipe out all the neighborhood parking in Georgetown if they have the neighborhood right to park in the neighborhood. We have to be a lot smarter than that.

You know you've adopted a plan in Georgetown that does say that there be a new Metro station here. We'll bring in a streetcar system which I've been a champion of. As the city grows if our businesses are going to survive, and our local businesses, people have to come into Georgetown and out and they all shouldn't come in a car.

One of the bills that I've proposed (which I proposed last time, and this Council killed, and I've re-proposed) is when we have infill development and we put a building in there and they want anything from the government they negotiate that the residents at the building will not get residential parking. We can't build any more residential parking. And so, on the streets, we cannot add more spaces. So its more important to be smart.

While Wells' bill is good, it's disappointing that none of the candidates offered any arguments in support of scaling back parking requirements. Georgetown is a difficult audience with which to discuss minimum parking requirements, but if we are serious about affordable housing and not allowing our city to turn into a car sewer we have to address parking requirements directly instead of changing the subject.

Parking


Logan Circle could have a solution to visitor parking woes

In neighborhoods with streets restricted to resident-only parking, how can visitors and household workers park when they need to? The Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2F) recently endorsed giving residents a "coupon book" of passes to give visitors.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

This is the best solution for areas of DC where parking is tight. Logan Circle joined the growing number of neighborhoods where one side of every street is reserved for residents only. This makes parking much more available for residents, possibly at the expense of local businesses and houses of worship.

But this arrangement also creates its own problem: if a family member is visiting by car, or a home health worker needs to drive in to care for a resident, what do they do?

In some other neighborhoods, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) mailed out placards, one per household, which the resident can give to the visitor to display on the dashboard. But for neighborhoods like Logan Circle, this would represent an enormous temptation: if you don't need your pass, sell it to someone who works downtown and they can suddenly park in residential zones.

That is why ANCs in Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, NoMA/H Street, and other mixed-use neighborhoods vehemently objected when DDOT tried last fall to expand the visitor placard system citywide. Earlier this month, Logan's ANC instead endorsed the idea of a booklet, where people get a limited number of passes:

Commissioner Cain moved that the ANC endorse a Visitor Parking Program for all residents living within the boundaries of ANC 2F and at a Resident Parking Permit (RPP) eligible address. The proposed program shall consist of a coupon booklet containing 10 individual coupons for temporary visitor parking. Each coupon shall be valid for seven (7) days and may not be reused. Residents must opt in to the program. Each program participant may receive one coupon booklet per year (through the end of FY14). The motion was seconded and approved by the Commission (7-1).
This is a much better idea than the all-year visitor pass. Over a year ago, DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao said he thought the city should set up some kind of visitor pass system, and he was under the gun to implement something by fall 2013. For whatever reasons, which almost surely include internal agency policies and bureaucratic inertia, instead nothing happened. Maybe now there can be some momentum for a real solution.

There are still some questions to work out and some ways to improve the plan.

This proposal would make passes each good for one week. That's not so bad, though it would make more sense for passes to work for a single day, and simply offer more passes. Some people have a housecleaner who comes once a week all year. Under this plan, they would get 50 days' worth of passes, but couldn't use them once a week for 50 weeks. Why not? How about a book of 50 day passes instead of 10 week passes?

One big question: what do people do if they need more passes? Some people might get passes from their neighbors, but it also would make sense to let people purchase more booklets. The rate can be low enough that it's not extremely expensive, but high enough that it keeps the numbers of cars parking in the neighborhood from overwhelming the resident-only space, and also deters a resident from selling booklets to a commuter.

The ANC did not work out a way to get more passes; Matt Raymond, a member of the ANC, said that they, Councilmember Jack Evans, and DDOT have to work out details like this.

Another question is who gets the passes. Do people with cars and people without cars alike get them? Does a household with 2 drivers get the same number as an apartment of a single person? What about basement rental units? What about illegal basement rental units?

Raymond said the commission was split on this issue, and said, "When we discussed restricting it to Ward 2 permit holders, we admitted it was somewhat arbitrary, but there was sentiment (I among those who felt this way) that there needed to be some way to restrict them rather than a no-holds-barred approach."

"Ward 2 permit holders" are people who have a car registered with a residential parking permit in the area. That is probably not a good criterion, because a person who has no car will have visitors just as much as a person who has a car. On the other hand, it's a dense neighborhood with a lot of people, and ten week-long parking passes for every person could bring in a lot of cars.

If people can buy more coupons, then one good way to deal with this is over time to lower the number of passes in the first, free book, while letting people buy more. That would discourage over-use, and DDOT could adjust the size of the initial book and the price for more until the demand doesn't overwhelm the neighborhood supply of spaces.

Will this program (or an even better day pass version with the chance to buy more books) become reality, and even expand to other mixed-use neighborhoods? DDOT has had a years-long track record of promising to do something about parking and then failing.

Walt Cain, another ANC 2F commissioner, said, "My understanding is that the new crew at DDOT is not in favor of visitor parking generally, so it will likely be an uphill battle to actually get the program put in place."

DC Councilmember Mary Cheh's Committee on Transportation and the Environment is holding a hearing on parking Wednesday, January 29 at 11 am. Perhaps this, and the opportunity to apply it to more neighborhoods, will come up for discussion then.

Roads


DDOT removes traffic calming on Wisconsin Avenue

In January, the District Department of Transportation replaced two lanes on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park with a painted median and turn lane to calm traffic. But due to pressure from residents and local elected officials, DDOT will end their year-long trial and return the street to six lanes.


New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

DDOT created the median between 35th and Garfield streets NW to draw attention to the commercial strip and give pedestrians a safer way to cross the street. But after complaints from drivers and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the agency already removed part of the median in May.

Since DC received federal funds for this project, it must comply with federal lane width guidelines. Putting the original six lanes back would violate those guidelines, meaning the city will have to do so with its own funds.

Residents say they want pedestrian safety, but not at drivers' expense

The Glover Park ANC originally supported DDOT's plan, but reversed its position after conducting an informal online survey in October that said most Glover Park residents support a return to six traffic lanes. Just 300 of Glover Park's 10,000 residents completed the survey, but Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh agreed with the ANC's position.

Opponents claim the traffic calming has added to travel times, with anecdotal accounts citing times twice as long as the previous configuration. DDOT's official report indicates that average northbound drive times have increased by two minutes. Opponents have criticized this figure as only reflecting rush hour times and suggest that other times of day have been heavily affected as well.

Some business owners claimed a drop in customers because of difficulties driving to their locations. However, several new restaurants opened or will open in the corridor during the past year, including Sprig and Sprout, Arcuri, Einstein Bagels, and Jimmy John's. Meanwhile, Rocklands BBQ, whose owner signed a letter from local businesses saying they were getting fewer customers, recently announced that it will double in size.

At a recent community roundtable on the changes, Cheh and Glover Park ANC Chair Brian Cohen said very clearly that they did not want to change the lanes back without doing some pedestrian safety improvements to the area. Most residents testified in support of returning the street to six lanes, and some residents were open to speed cameras and HAWK lights, but little else.

DDOT Director Terry Bellamy noted in his testimony that it is difficult to both keep vehicles moving and build in safety measures. He also said that Wisconsin Avenue is too narrow for six lanes, as it is only 55 feet wide in the Glover Park commercial district.

Compromise proposal would remove just one lane

At the roundtable, Georgetown resident and GGW contributor Ken Archer offered a compromise plan, which would return one of the traffic lanes, but make them narrower, providing room for a northbound bike lane and rush-hour dedicated bus lane.

Archer argued that congestion will only get worse, pointing to residential developments all along Wisconsin. The only solution, he said, is to get drivers out of their cars. Cheh said that DDOT should consider Archer's plan for the long term, but in the short term all traffic lanes should be returned.

Political pressure on DDOT appears to work

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first called a hearing in May as a response to concerns from Massachusetts Heights residents about the painted median between Calvert and Garfield streets. Though this section of Wisconsin Avenue was the site of multiple pedestrian strikes, DDOT removed part of the median within weeks of the May hearing. DDOT has yet to release any empirical data supporting their decision.

The hearing this month was a response to continued demands to remove the median south of Calvert. And like the first hearing, DDOT agreed afterwards to undo its lane configuration with no empirical data supporting their decision.

This experience shows that DDOT is being particularly vulnerable to political pressure. It sets a precedent for opponents of other progressive transportation initiatives, particularly in Ward 3, where Cheh opposed converting the Cleveland Park service lane to a sidewalk. And it bodes well for opponents of the new bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue, who can only come away emboldened by DDOT's eagerness to placate many of their neighbors on Wisconsin.

Pedestrians


ANC 3B throws in the towel on Wisconsin Avenue median

After a survey that says residents don't want traffic calming on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B will support returning the street to six lanes.


New left turn lane in Glover Park Photo from DDOT

The District is working on a new streetscape that includes measures to discourage speeding and increase pedestrian safety. But ANC 3B commissioner Brian Cohen, a longtime supporter of the project, said at a meeting last night that it will oppose the median at a December 4 public hearing. Most of the 300 responses to a constituent survey favored returning to the six-lane configuration, he said.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first called a hearing in May as a response to concerns from Massachusetts Heights residents about a painted median that replaced one of the through lanes on Wisconsin between Calvert and Garfield streets. Councilmember Jack Evans was vocally opposed to the median, saying it created more traffic congestion as he drove his children to and from school.

The District Department of Transportation created the median to draw attention to the commercial strip, give pedestrians a safer way to cross the street and planned to keep it for a one-year trial. Though this section of Wisconsin Avenue was the site of multiple pedestrian strikes, DDOT removed the median after about six months. DDOT has yet to release any empirical data supporting their decision.

In addition to the lane configuration, the survey also solicited opinions on installing alternative traffic calming measures such as a HAWK light or speed cameras. ANC3B did not disclose the specific survey results on this question, but indicated that the results on these survey items were less definitive and suggested the community is more divided on such measures.

Commissioners explained that the wider sidewalks, streetlights, and aesthetic improvements will remain in place. There is still enough room to keep the wider sidewalks along with a six-lane street. The few residents in attendance at last night's meeting voiced their agreement with the ANC, and repeated their frustration with the slow traffic between 35th Street and Calvert Street.

The commissioners also noted that they have repeatedly complained about delivery trucks impeding the flow of traffic. and will work on pressing new rules for nighttime deliveries. Despite all the ideas residents floated from removing parked cars and ticketing delivery trucks, there was a perception that it was not working.

"I wanted it to work, but no matter what fixes we tried, it didn't," said Commissioner Jackie Blumenthal. "What did work are the sidewalks, the streetlights, and especially the new intersection at 37th and Tunlaw."

It's likely that the lanes will return to their previous form. However, there remains strong support to some kind of traffic calming measures to protect people crossing the street.

The Wisconsin Avenue streetscape has exposed DDOT as being particularly vulnerable to political pressure. It sets a precedent for opponents of other progressive transportation initiatives, particularly in Ward 3. Opponents of the brand-new bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue can only come away emboldened by DDOT's eagerness to placate many of the same people on Wisconsin.

It's clear that DDOT is willing to make significant decisions on highly politicized issues while offering no empirical support. It's a sobering reminder of the need to be vocal in support of progressive transportation projects, even after they're built.

Roads


DDOT bows to pressure, removes Wisconsin Ave. median

Last week, DC officials quietly reversed their recent traffic calming project in Glover Park and began removing a new median on Wisconsin Avenue.


New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

With the Glover Park ANC's support, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) replaced one lane on Wisconsin between 35th and Garfield streets with a painted median in January to calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety. However, a number of residents who drive through Glover Park, including Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2, including Georgetown), pushed to reverse the move.

DDOT previously said their plan was to leave the median in place long enough to study it, but in the face of pressure, the agency suddenly began removing the median between Calvert and Garfield streets. Drivers struck 2 pedestrians each year in this stretch between 2008 and 2010. DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez says the change is "permanent" and that "the plan is to monitor pedestrian safety going forward."

Community supported median on Wisconsin Avenue

ANC 3B, which contains Glover Park, endorsed the median after a long vetting process. In June 2009, DDOT and its consultants at Toole Design Group recommended replacing one through lane with a center left turn median lane. Studies from the Office of Planning and DDOT found that it would increase pedestrian safety, calm traffic and direct it to the commercial strip by removing turning cars from the through lanes.

While DDOT originally proposed a raised median, ANC 3B advocated to start with painted medians so DDOT could study their effect and make changes if needed. After multiple ANC meetings and ample discussion on the Glover Park listserv, DDOT finally completed the painted median in January. Some neighbors immediately began to question the new median's impact on local businesses and whether it had just pushed traffic onto other streets.

Despite some complaints, most Glover Park residents agreed that the new configuration made it safer to move around Wisconsin Avenue, whether by car, foot or transit. The Glover Park ANC was also supportive, though they advocated for continued study and tweaks to reduce congestion.

Political pressure trumps collecting data

DDOT offered to study traffic delays for a year and look at ways to change the light timing, signage and enforcement to reduce congestion, but opponents said that was too long to wait.

Evans kept pressure up on the issue, including railing against it at public forums. He made regular phone calls to Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3, which includes Glover Park) while driving through the area, which he traverses several times a day to take his kids to and from their home in Georgetown.

When DDOT presented preliminary results of traffic studies showing that the median only added 1-2 minutes to driving time, Evans was incredulous. "If we were talking about just a couple minutes, we wouldn't be here," he said.

Last week, DDOT quietly began removing part of the median. The agency made this decision without telling residents of Glover Park or ANC 3B. DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez says they acted based on "direction provided by those at the May 1 hearing."

ANC members are disappointed in DDOT's change of heart. "It's outrageous that DDOT would make this change without considering its impacts on pedestrian safety and traffic flow and without consulting with the community most affected by the modifications," said ANC 3B chair Brian Cohen.

Cohen also says Evans' involvement shifted the decision from safety-focused to political. "The change from data-gathering to simply reversing DDOT clearly happened when Councilmember Evans inserted himself into the issue," said Cohen. "Jack Evans hasn't shown the slightest interest in the well-being and safety of the people who live, work, and play in Glover Park. ... It's galling that he's been given carte blanche to make decisions that undermine pedestrian safety in our community."

The Wisconsin Avenue median was the result of extensive study, community discussion, and eventually community buy-in. It's disappointing that DDOT would subvert its own process and put pedestrians at risk based on political pressure. Glover Park residents deserve better treatment from their officials and elected leaders.

Photography


A Greater Greater birthday celebration

Over 100 friends, readers, and contributors turned out to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last night to celebrate Greater Greater Washington's 5th birthday.


All photos by the author.

Thank you to DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Councilmembers Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, and Tommy Wells, Arlington Board member Chris Zimmerman, and everyone else who made it to the celebration!

Many contributors, commenters, and readers joined us for fun conversation, drinks, and cake, including many longtime members of our community and a number of new ones, including contributors for our new Greater Greater Education site.

Councilmember Jack Evans brought a resolution declaring March 5, 2013 "Greater Greater Washington Day."

You can see more images from last night on this Flickr set. If you were at the party, did you snap a few pictures? Please take a moment to share them in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool for everyone to enjoy!

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