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Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Transit


Metro ran 2 red lights in 8 days. How much danger were passengers in?

Eight trains so far in 2016 have run past red signals on the Metrorail system. On July 5th, two trains ended up facing each other (though still a fair distance apart) on the same tracks, and on July 13th a train at National Airport stopped past the end of the center platform at the station. Nobody was injured in either incident, but the trend is troubling.


Red stop signal at the Silver Spring pocket track. Image from Wikipedia.

Near-collision near Glenmont

Around 7:15 pm on the 5th, a Red Line train leaving Glenmont and traveling towards Wheaton ran a red signal, went the wrong way over a switch, and ended up facing south on the same track that a train headed north toward Glenmont was on. The incident showed how the Automatic Train Control system can help prevent crashes, but also showed how human factors can still trump technology.

The incident train, train 121, was at Glenmont facing south toward downtown, and was waiting at a red signal to go the "wrong" direction on the outbound track to cross over and continue back to Wheaton. Train 125, which had departed Wheaton towards Glenmont, also on the outbound track, was set to approach the station and cross over from the outbound track to the inbound track, and berth on the inbound platform at Glenmont.

The operator of train 121 left Glenmont, bypassing a red signal, and without permission. Since the switches outside Glenmont were set for the incoming train 125 to cross over, the outgoing train (121) trailed one of the switches in the interlocking, meaning that the train went over the switch in the opposite direction that it was set. This can cause damage to the switch and sometimes requires repair, like what happened in February when an Orange line train ran a red signal and trailed a switch outside the Smithsonian station. I requested damage information from Metro regarding the Glenmont incident, but never received a reply.

When train 121 ran the red signal, it entered an Automatic Train Control (ATC) block which it didn't have permission to be in; this triggered an alarm at the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC), calling their attention to the train. The ATC system is designed to ensure that a safe distance is maintained between all trains at all times and because of this, it would have dropped speed commands (like a speed limit on the highway) to 00 (zero) for the block or blocks in front of train 121. Giving any train near train 121 zero speed commands would cause them to stop and help prevent, or at least minimize, chances of a collision.

So if the ATC system was giving trains in the area 00 speed commands—including train 121—why was it still able to move? The train was operating in manual mode (Mode 2), meaning that the train operator controlled the speed of the train with their hand on the Master Controller, sort of similar to a combined gas and brake pedal. The train was not in Automatic Train Operation (ATO) mode, in which the train would automatically speed up and slow down as necessary (in fact, no train currently is operating in ATO).

Since the train was in manual mode, it was allowed to travel at up to but not exceed 15 miles per hour, even after passing a red signal. When passing the signal the train's Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system would cause it to come to a complete stop, but the operator would be able to continue moving it at up to the 15 mph limit.

Being able to operate at up to 15 mph past a red signal isn't the typical operating procedure, but does happen from time to time on the rail system. This mode of operations, which essentially means that the ATC system is being ignored, is used when trains are given "absolute blocks." That's when the ROCC, like an old-school train dispatcher, manually gives trains permission to pass through a stretch of track at up to that 15 mph limit. This also means that only one train is allowed through that stretch at any given time, for safety.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld fired the operator of train 121 that ran the red due to the "blatant disregard for safety" and the risk they created for their coworkers.

Red signal violation at National Airport

The incident on July 13th occurred at the National Airport station, which is the north-most station of the "cut-off" portion of the Blue and Yellow lines during SafeTrack's Surge 4. All Blue and Yellow trains to and from Franconia and Huntington, respectively, berth at the station, unload and reload passengers, and leave on out. According to Metro, the Yellow Line train involved in the incident entered the center track of the station at a slow speed, and ended up about half a train car beyond the end of the platform, past a red signal.

The National Airport station includes one of the system's few "pocket tracks," a third track between the two main tracks in which a train can be re-routed or stored. On either end of the pocket track is a switch which can be aligned to send the train to either of the two main tracks. A train in the pocket track could turn out to either track leading to Huntington/Franconia on one end, or to either track leading to New Carrollton/Largo. The tracks give Metro a lot of flexibility, as they can be used during single-tracking to store trains or equipment, or to help turn trains around.

Since there are switches at either end of the pocket track leading to the two main tracks, there are also signals to tell train operators what they can do, which Matt' Johnson detailed after the Fort Totten crash. At a solid white lunar signal, the train operator can proceed straight through the switch down the track. At a flashing white lunar, the switch is set to cross the train over to another track. And at a red signal, the train operator cannot pass the signal (in this case, cannot pass through the switch) unless given permission by the ROCC.

A safety feature that Metro has installed at almost all pocket tracks is a derail, a device that can intentionally cause a train's wheels to come off of the track, in order to keep it from entering another track. In February 2010, one of these derails kept a Red Line train from exiting the pocket track near Farragut North when it had a red signal. At National Airport, the derail device sits at the north end of the pocket track on the right rail, just before the switch that the signal on the north end governs.

In this photo, the derail is shown in yellow on the left side of the right rail, near the rectangular box (a switch control box) on the right side of the rail:

When engaged, a train's wheel will roll up the derail, and off the side of the track, disabling the train. However at National Airport, since a red signal would have been displayed for all three tracks and no trains were being allowed north into the SafeTrack area, the derailer was not engaged. While this meant the train didn't need to be re-railed, it also means that if the train were to have continued onto one of the two mainline tracks and another train were to run a red signal on that main track (very remote odds that both of these happen at the same time, I know), a collision could have happened.

Just like a car shouldn't enter an intersection at a red signal and a plane shouldn't enter a runway without permission, a train shouldn't run a red signal without permission. There's been research into why operators continue to run the signals, and the Federal Transit Administration is collecting data from rail systems across the US to better understand how common the occurrence is, but the number of times it happens should never be higher than zero.

History


A streetcar used to run down Rhode Island Avenue, connecting College Park and downtown DC

Most of Washington's original "streetcar suburbs" were built within the District's boundaries. However, one important corridor of streetcar suburbs went up in Prince George's County, in the communities along Route 1 south of the Beltway.


A map of the route of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar in Prince George's County to Branchville Road. North of Branchville road, an hourly single-track shuttle service ran to Laurel until it was abandoned in 1925. Map by the author using OpenStreet Map. Click for a larger version.

A streetcar from Baltimore to Washington?

While steam railroads had linked Baltimore to Washington for half a century, the introduction of electric streetcars in Baltimore in 1885 and Washington in 1888 led to interest in the idea of an electric interurban line to link the two cities.

In 1892, the Columbia and Maryland Railway was chartered by a group of businessmen who hoped to construct an electric streetcar line from Baltimore to Washington by way of Ellicott City, Laurel, and Hyattsville. Called the Washington, Berwyn & Laurel, this line roughly paralleled the route of the B&O line (now the MARC Camden Line) between the two cities. The businessmen expected that the growth of suburbs would create a "great country city" along the route and provide enough traffic to justify the construction of a new rail line and adjacent roadway.

Although the plan as a whole never came to fruition, tracks were built along Rhode Island Avenue from 4th Street NE to a station called District Line, where there was a loop for streetcars to turn around, at 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Maryland (today, it's a bus loop). From there, the line continued to Laurel, leaving a gap of twenty miles to the Elliott City terminus of the Baltimore streetcar line it had been intended to connect to.


34th Street Terminal: the short-turn loop at 34th St in Mt. Rainier still exists, and is used by several WMATA and Prince George's County bus routes. Photo by the author.

The Route 1 suburbs and the streetcar

Service on the line to Mt. Rainier began in 1897 and, by September 1900, the line—now called the City and Suburban—provided half-hourly service from Branchville Road (just north of what is now Greenbelt Road in College Park) along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue to the Treasury Building at 15th Street NW.

Several years later, a single-tracked line was extended to Laurel and served by an hourly shuttle. Shortly afterward, the line was merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Company, one of the District's two major streetcar systems, and became known as the "Maryland Line."

Rhode Island Avenue was extended north alongside the streetcar tracks to the Hyattsville rail station, located near the current county court building. North of Hyattsville, the streetcar stayed close to the railroad as it passed through what was still the Calvert family estate. From the line's entrance into what is now College Park to its northern terminus in Laurel, it again largely followed its own private right-of-way.

The residential developments that became Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Riverdale, and much of College Park were built along the Maryland Line while the areas around them remained farmland. Up until World War II, the streetcar line into DC was central to the sale of homes in these new communities.

Rise of the roads

The rise of the automobile, which began in the 1920's, changed the nature of the streetcar route and the communities along it.

US Route 1 was eventually switched from its original alignment along Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road to follow Rhode Island Avenue into the District, and the stretch of Baltimore Avenue south of this junction, which had been a major commercial strip in Hyattsville and Bladensburg, gradually decayed and became home to light industrial uses.

North of the junction with Baltimore Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue was not extended consistently along the streetcar tracks, but disconnected segments of residential streets alongside the track were built and took on the same name. In the last decade, College Park and Riverdale have constructed a multi-use trail along this right-of-way, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.

The never-popular shuttle to Laurel was terminated in 1925, resulting in the construction of Rhode Island Avenue as an arterial road in the former right-of-way from Branchville Road north into Beltsville. However, service from downtown to Branchville became Capital Transit's route 82 and continued until 1958, only four years before the end of streetcar service in Washington.

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

Clark Enterprises, a company that formerly owned the biggest road construction contractor in Montgomery County, is fighting against a new building planned atop the Bethesda Metro station.


The plaza above the Bethesda Metro station. The former food court is behind the fountain. Photo by the author.

Brookfield Properties owns a failed food court on a platform above the station's bus waiting area, which it wants to replace with a high-rise containing homes or offices. Brookfield would also bring more light and air into the bus bays by cutting into an underused plaza that occupies the remainder of the platform.

This site, in the center of Bethesda directly above the Red Line entrance and bus terminal, is ideally situated for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. No new parking will be built. The downtown master plan now under review by the Planning Board recognizes the value of this location by allowing building up to 290 feet high.

Clark has opposed building here before

In 2008, Clark helped defeat a plan to build on the Metro station platform, and it has been fighting Bookfield's proposal since it emerged two years ago. A new structure would interfere with the view from the building where Clark's executive offices are located. As one of the building's tenants wrote, the new building would "obstruct views from our existing space." A second tenant acknowledged the same objection.

The construction firm, a relentless promoter of highway widenings elsewhere, has renewed its efforts over the last month with two mailings each sent to thousands of Bethesda residents. They call on the public to "protect open space" and suggest that the plaza could be expanded by demolishing the food court and turned into an attractive park.


Clark's first mailer.

The mailers' attractive photographs of grassy parks surrounded by trees have little in common with any possible upgrade of the plaza—tree roots can't grow on the platform—and even less with the dingy bus bays below. Indeed, Clark's proposal could make the bus bays even worse than now.

In their second mailing, the builders argue that the plaza should be made "street facing." What currently separates the plaza from the street is the one opening that penetrates the deck above the bus bays. Decking over that opening would further deprive transit riders of light and fresh air.


Top: The image from Clark's mailing opposing the new building. Bottom: The Bethesda Metro entrance. Lower photo by the author.

It's easy to laugh at a situation some have described as "builder turned NIMBY," and one might think Clark has little chance of success. But plans to build on this ideally located site have already been derailed once. Montgomery County's decision on the Bethesda Metro plaza will test its commitment to development near transit.

Correction: The initial version of this post referred to Clark Construction as the company opposing the building. Clark Enterprises, the parent company, sold Clark Construction to its executives in January 2016. However, as of this article's initial publication, the Clark website still listed Clark Construction as a subsidiary (but it was subsequently updated after this article ran).

Public Spaces


Silver Spring could get a big, new, temporary park

Downtown Silver Spring could get a big new park as part of a massive redevelopment of the Blairs, an apartment complex across the street from the Metro. The park will be temporary, but eventually several larger parks will take its place.


Plan of the new park from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

First built in the 1950s, the Blairs are a complex of apartments, offices, and a strip mall across from the Silver Spring Metro station. Owner Tower Companies will redevelop the 27-acre superblock over the coming years, replacing a massive parking lot with 1400 new apartments (there are 1400 there now), new retail, and four acres of new parks.

The first new apartment tower, called the Pearl, is under construction, but much of the new stuff won't arrive for a decade. In the meantime, Tower wants to create a park over one acre in size on the site of a future apartment building.


The Pearl under construction. The temporary park would go in front of it. Photo by the author.

Located near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Blair Mill Road, the new park would have a big lawn and a wood stage for performances. A playground and adult-sized fitness equipment would let people of all sizes work out, while a "fitness trail" would loop around the entire site. The park would also include a community garden and a temporary building that might house a leasing center.

While the park is set to go on private property, it would be open to both Blairs residents and the surrounding neighborhood. The park would be a welcome addition for neighbors who have clamored for more open space in the past. Silver Spring doesn't lack for parks, but many of them are either too small or designed to be unusable.


One of several new parks that will eventually come to the Blairs. Image from Tower Companies.

This wouldn't be the first temporary park in downtown Silver Spring. Over a decade ago, residents and visitors alike fell in love with "the Turf," an artificial grass lawn on Ellsworth Drive, and protested when it was removed to build Veterans Plaza. Possibly hoping to avoid the same result, Tower Companies will place signs at "visible locations" around their temporary park "informing both residents and visitors that the temporary green is the future location of a residential building, and that it is not permanent."

Bicycling


We're getting closer to having a bike trail from DC to Baltimore

Last month, a 1.7 mile section of the WB&A Trail opened, bringing the separate parts in Anne Arundel and Prince George's County as close to one another as they've ever been. A few more additions to the trail would mean an uninterrupted bike route from DC to Baltimore.


Image from Google Maps.

The WB&A trail runs from Odenton to Lanham, with a gap at the Patuxent River. There are plans to bridge the river, extend it south to Washington and north to BWI and then onward to Baltimore, which would create a full trail between DC and Baltimore.

When the WB&A was first built, it was a state of the art, electric commuter railroad that ran on three lines connecting Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and the B&O railroad at Annapolis junction. It operated from 1908 until 1935. Work on the WB&A trail began almost 20 years ago, when the bulk of the Prince George's section from Glen Dale to Bowie was constructed, and planning dates back to the early 1990s.

During the seven years after that first section opened, the trail was extended to the banks of the Patuxent River on the Prince George's side and 5.5 miles of the Anne Arundel section of the trail was built across the town of Odenton.

Work stalled after that, though, leaving a one-mile gap between the two sections of the trail.

The trail is expanding, but there's still a gap to bridge

In recent years, hope for connecting the trails has been rekindled. Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties have resolved the issue about how to close the gap, deciding to go with a detour that was the subject of a lot of debate. While this isn't ideal for trail users, and plans to build on the right-of-way make it worse, it does mean the stalled project is moving forward.

To that effect, this year Prince Geroge's County completed the WB&A Trail Spur, which extends the trail west along the old Race Track Railroad Spur. And last month, Anne Arundel County built the 1.7 mile trail extension. This brought both trails across the river from one another, albeit nearly a mile from where the train used to cross the river.


The newest section of the WB&A Trail along Conway Road in Anne Arundel County. Photo by John Ausema.

The next step is to build a bridge across the Patuxent River. Using a $560,000 state grant, the two counties plan to begin the design phase later this year on a bridge near the location of an old road crossing that disappeared sometime prior to 1945. Once the new bridge is there, the WB&A Trail, as officially planned, will be complete.


1908 Map showing location of old bridge between the railroads.

South to Washington, DC

The recently drafted Prince George's County Trails Plan proposes dozens of connections to the WB&A and extensions, most notably extending the trail south along MD-704 all the way to DC's Marvin Gaye Trail and to the Anacostia Tributary Trails via US-50.

Though these routes differ from the ones proposed by WABA in 2015 and fleshed out in 2016, the general idea remains the same, connect the WB&A to Washington, DC and the Anacostia.


Extensions to the WB&A Trail proposed in the Prince George's trails plan.

North to the BWI Trail

Subsequent plans to the original 1990's master plans for the WB&A, South Shore and West County (what the WB&A in Anne Arundel was called at the time it was planned) trails have taken the opportunity to expand and tie into it.

The 1995 West County Trail Master Plan included a sidepath along WB&A Road from the north end of the current trail all the way to the BWI Trail—the loop trail that completely encircles BWI airport. The 2002 Severn Small Area Plan included this same trail, built in four phases. Unfortunately, this trail extension is not included in the county's 2013 Master Plan.


Severn Small Area Plan bicycle and pedestrian map, showing the WB&A trail in red running north-south.

The BWI Connector Trail

In addition to the connection to Washington, the bridge across the Patuxent and the connection to the BWI trail, finally realizing the dream of a Washington to Baltimore bicycle greenway would require one other trail: the BWI Connector (formerly the Light Rail Trail).

This trail would extend the existing Light Rail Trail, which currently runs from the BWI Trail to Maple Avenue in Linthicum Heights, 2.4 miles north to connect it to either Baltimore's Middle Branch or Gwynn Falls Trails. Such a connection was one of the top priority projects in Maryland Trails: A Greener Way To Go, the state's 2009 statewide trail vision.

It was also one of five recommendations for a hiker-biker trail network in the 2003 BWI/Linthicum Small Area Plan and was a public recommendation in the Baltimore region's Maximize2040 surface transportation plan, though it's not mentioned in the plan itself.

A complete Washington-Baltimore Greenway could end up looking something like to this:

Four separate projects, all in different stages of planning and development, would have to come together to make this vision happen. But the small section opened last month in Anne Arundel County brings it slightly closer to fruition.

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

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