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Posts about Muriel Bowser

Public Spaces


Are public spaces really public when not everybody can use them?

All around DC there are structures designed for the public that aren't actually very pleasant or easy to use, like dog ears on ledges, third armrests through the middle of public benches, and ridges in common seating areas. These things are there for a reason, but do they actually limit people's ability to live in the environment around them?


All photos by the author.

In July, well-known radio producer Roman Mars invited authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic onto his podcast, 99% invisible. Savicic and Savic co-edited a book called Unpleasant Design, which looks at the idea that while some things are built with a purpose that might seem reasonable-- for example, third armrests on benches that keep people from sleeping on them and therefore giving more people space to sit-- accomplish a greater effect of shaping city environments and how citizens interact with them without those citizens' consent.

There are examples in cities across the world. For example, in Europe, some store owners deter teens from loitering out front by playing classical music or high-frequency sounds, or using pink lighting to make pimples on their face stand out (particularly cruel!).

Should our cities ban skateboarding? Should they ban homelessness?

In most instances, skateboarding is legal unless posted otherwise. But like many other cities, DC has incorporated "dog ears" to deter skaters from using public spaces. This is de facto prohibition, and even though it's subtle, it sends a clear message that skating is not particularly welcome.

Many people would argue that skateboarding is one of this country's longstanding forms of expressionit makes space more inviting, and it gives people a reason to come and sit and look. If you value skateboarding as a way of breathing life into a city, public design that bars people from doing it is problematic.


As you can see, this ledge restricts skating.

Beyond skateboarding, there are also designs that stop people from doing more basic, fundamental things. In fact, while DC is known for its expansive "public" spaces like the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and numerous parks and squares, some people might tell you that these places really aren't very public at all.

DC has a homeless crisis, with the homeless population having risen 30 percent in the last year. And while Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated that combating homelessness will be a staple of her tenure, those who are left out have to exist somewhere. More likely than not, the aforementioned public spaces make the most sense.

But check out these public benches and how they keep people—homeless or not&mdashl from comfortably and freely using them:


The two armrests on the end of the bench would only allow a very short person to lie down, but the third armrest through the middle makes it impossible for most.


The ridges on this one aren't conducive to lying down and it is curved.

Unpleasant design negates usable public space, which is the hallmark of a thriving city

To be fair, unpleasant design, as a whole, is well intentioned. The risk in any public space is that a few people acting out can make the space unusable to everybody.

When it comes to the dog ears on ledges, skateboarding can damage property and possibly put people in harm's way, and lying down uses up more park bench space so fewer people can sit. In those ways, unpleasant design can make public space more inviting.

But where is the line? Who decides what should be forbidden and what shouldn't? Why not tell someone that if they want to eat lunch, they need to go to a restaurant rather than sit and eat in the park? Or that if they want to read, they need to go to a library rather than sit and do it on a public bench?

Skateboarding is an art form and organic culture in its own right, and limiting skateboarders use of public space is counterintuitive to why public space exists—to bring people together and allow cultures to thrive.

And regarding the homeless, it is entirely unfair to restrict access to an individual who literally has nowhere else to go. It is especially unfair when design restricts access to the very harmless activity of lying down.

So at what point does restricting human activity take the "public" out of public space? I'd say that it's when something gets built into the environment; at that point, it becomes non-negotiable. Laws can restrict activities, but you can protest and repeal those.

We should be mindful of what we build, what effect it has, and on whom If you restrict people's ability to use public space too much, then nobody goes there at all. I would argue that if space is truly public, then people on skateboards or people without homes are as entitled to use it as anyone else.

Development


Peter Shapiro is nominated for a seat on the powerful DC Zoning Commission

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated Peter Shapiro, a resident of the Chevy Chase neighborhood of DC, to the board that decides DC's zoning and rules on many large development projects.


Image from Prince George's County.

Shapiro would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times.

Shapiro's day job is head of the Prince George's County Revenue Authority, an entity which acquires and helps develop land in the county to boost its economy. He used to live in the Prince George's town of Brentwood, where he served on the town council for two years and then the county council for six.

He helped bring community members, developers, businesses, and others together around a vision for the Route 1 corridor just east of DC, which ultimately led to the Gateway Arts District spanning four towns (and including Bird Kitchen, the site of our extremely successful recent happy hour with County Executive Rushern Baker).


Left to right: Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, Chief of Staff Glenda Wilson, Communications Manager Barry Hudson, and Revenue Authority Executive Director Peter Shapiro. Photo by the author.

Shapiro later moved back to DC where he ran unsuccessfully for DC Council against Vincent Orange four years ago, winning our endorsement but splitting the anti-Orange vote with Sekou Biddle. (Our endorsed candidate Robert White beat Orange this year.)

He has long been a proponent of better transit and transit-oriented development. Way back in 2001, he endorsed the Purple Line and supported running it through existing communities with people who need to get to jobs, such as the area he represented.

He served on a Maryland "Special Task Force for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)" in 2000, chaired the regional Transportation Planning Board in 2003, co-chairs the Urban Land Institute's Regionalism Initiative Council, and is part of a joint ULI Washington and Baltimore TOD Product Council. He is an elected member of his neighborhood's the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, but says he would resign that seat if confirmed to the Zoning Commission because both are very time-consuming, volunteer jobs.

Nomination, take two

Mayor Bowser initially nominated developer David Franco for the seat, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson refused to hold a hearing.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. Franco is very civic-minded and more supportive of affordable housing than most developers, but according to the Blade, Mendelson opposed confirming any developers, period.

Shapiro does not have the potential conflicts of interest that a developer would, but as someone with long experience with how well-designed development can enhance communities and boost the economy, he would be a valuable member of the Zoning Commission. Mendelson will hold a hearing on Shapiro's nomination at 1 pm on Thursday, November 10.

What is the Zoning Commission?

The Zoning Commission is far more powerful than planning boards in other jurisdictions. When DC got home rule, Congress did not want to give the local legislature full authority over land use. Instead, the Zoning Commission has the final say (other than potential court appeals) over zoning and development decisions in DC.

The DC Council can guide the future direction of growth through the Comprehensive Plan and smaller plans, which the Zoning Commission is required to follow. But when it comes to changing zoning rules or approving particular developments, it has no authority; all councilmembers can do is write letters expressing an opinion.

There are actually two zoning boards in DC, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Zoning Commission. Mainly, the BZA handles smaller individual projects; it grants variances and special exceptions to zoning rules for unusual circumstances. The Zoning Commission makes bigger-picture policy, like changing a neighborhood's zoning or a citywide zoning rule. It also reviews Planned Unit Developments, generally big development projects which need more flexibility and also provide more community benefit. The BZA is somewhat more legalistic, while the Zoning Commission focuses more on policy.

The Zoning Commission has three members nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council, as well as two federal members, one from the National Park Service and one from the Architect of the Capitol. This makes DC's three appointees even more crucial.

While the federal representatives serve as part of their jobs, locally-appointed Zoning Commissioners are not paid for their service. Yet, they have to attend two (often long) meetings most weeks and also sit on some meetings of the BZA, which has a seat for a rotating Zoning Commission member.

This makes it tricky to find someone with experience and knowledge who is not also a developer. The city would be lucky to get Shapiro, with his regional perspective, experience with development, and positive vision for DC.

Transit


Metro won’t open early for DC's biggest race of the year

Big marathons lean heavily on transit, whether it's local rail systems or networks of shuttle buses, to get thousands of participants to their start lines. However, due to SafeTrack, Metro will not be an option for the more than 30,000 runners in the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and its associated races this October for the first time in years.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Metro has historically opened two hours early, at 5:00 am, for the race. This allows runners to get to the start line near Arlington Cemetery from all points in the system well ahead of the 7:55 am start.

On average, 24,000 runners use Metro to get the race, according to the MCM's organizers.

This year, however, Metro will open at its usual Sunday time of 7:00 am on race day, October 30th. This is not early enough for most runners to take Metro to what was the fourth largest marathon in the USA in 2015.

Instead, the organizers will offer parking in Crystal City and Pentagon City with runner-only shuttle buses to the starting line. Runners will also be able to begin the race for up to an hour after the 7:55 am start. Arlington Transit will run extra buses for runners as well.

The race has also changed its course slightly, adding sections in Arlington and shortening ones in DC. This was necessary because some road closures had been planned far in advance and the times couldn't be shifted; this is also why the organizers can't just delay the start.

Metro says no exceptions

WMATA announced a blanket one-year moratorium on early openings and late closings as part of its SafeTrack plan this May. The moratorium has stood since then for any event, from concerts to Nationals games and now the MCM.

Metro has not wavered on the moratorium, even under pressure from local pols including DC mayor Muriel Bowser.

To date, WMATA has only considered adding to the time it needs for maintenance work, seeking board approval in July to make a "temporary" suspension of late night service permanent.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Opinions are mixed on Metro's decision

The majority of participants in large marathons take transit to start lines, with races all over the world encouraging runners to rides trains or buses. The benefit of existing transit networks is just that: the network. With one in place, race organizers do not need to create a network of shuttle buses that can collect runners from the various corners of a metro area.

While Metro does need to accomplish the SafeTrack repairs and the reduce its backlog of deferred maintenance, not opening early for the MCM, when the vast majority of runners ride the train, is far more detrimental to them than not staying open late for, say, a Nationals game, when on average only 11,000 attendees ride Metro.

Metro could be more transparent about what it needs to accomplish when it refuses to adjust its hours slightly for large events. In the case of the MCM, what work will be done during those two hours that cannot be done another time? Knowing this would help people understand if Metro really needs the time or just wants to stick to one standard for simplicity's sake.

Elizabeth Whitton feels Metro isn't being unreasonable:

"I've organized large scale athletic events in the past and take an opposite view of the issue. For these large scale events (across the country, not just DC), the usual protocol is for the event organizers to request additional public services (transit, port-a-potties, police, etc) and then work out agreements with the necessary government entities. Most local governments charge fees in exchange for additional services.

I read this news as: Metro does not feel it is mutually beneficial to provide additional rail service to the MCM start due to its on-going Safetrack program.

Realistically, the marathon could change its start time. Lots of reasons why this is not practical, though. For one, the race has a permit to use the 14th Street Bridge for a specific time of day. The logistics of changing this permit would be a nightmare.

Bottom line: Metro should not receive a lot of the blame for this. It is the responsibility of the race organizers to ensure participants can access the start line."

Metro certainly is not entirely to blame in this situation. The MCM organizers have already made some lousy decisions for this year's race, for example, moving the pre-race expo, where the majority of participants go to pick up their bibs and race packets, to the transit-desert of National Harbor from the transit-rich Washington Convention Center.

Gray Kimbrough thinks that some intermediate threshold is warranted.

"I understand that Metro can't open early or stay open late for every event. They absolutely need to have set thresholds so that it's not up in the air.

It seems like now is as good a time as any to come up with reasonable thresholds. Or is Metro's stand really going to be that SafeTrack can never be delayed or altered for any events? Will they continue to close down lines through the Cherry Blossom Festival, for example? Are they not going to alter anything for the next inauguration either?"

Canaan Merchant thinks the situation presents some opportunities for Metro to consider:
"Metro could charge more money to organizations who want to hold an early or late event. Or Metro could see if the work that they're planning on even affects downtown areas; if not, then the system could maybe open in some parts and not the others.

In general, as much as Metro needs to get its maintenance straight, they need to think long and hard about turning away easy ridership boosts like this one as well."

What do you think?

Development


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match; our schools can't afford it; what about neighborhood security; this will add to traffic and harm my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.

Poverty


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.


Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.

Government


In its attempts to provide affordable housing, DC has struggled to set clear goals

In 2006 and 2012, DC set clear numbers for how many affordable housing units either needed to be built or needed to be preserved by a specific date. In both cases, there wasn't enough data to actually track progress, and the goals fell by the wayside. Today, there still isn't a plan for providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Advocates and District officials often find themselves jumping from crisis to crisis. At Museum Square, for instance, residents are scrambling to prevent landlord Bush Companies from evicting half of Chinatown's remaining ethnically Chinese population, after tenants (and many District officials) were notified of Bush's plans via demolition notices.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote in a 2015 paper, "While there have been some very important successes, the lack of a coordinated, proactive policy for [affordable housing] preservation has led to many missed opportunities, resulting in the loss of whole communities to sale [and] large rent increases."

Meanwhile, too many DC residents don't understand how big the problem of affordable housing is. They hear about crises like Museum Square, but are left to cobble the bigger picture together through disparate facts like "there are over 70,000 families on DC's affordable housing waitlist," or "there are effectively zero market rate units left in DC that are affordable for low-income workers."

Here is an overview of the District's past targets, and some ideas for new ones.

There have been attempts to set clear goals and stick to them

Two-dozen representatives from District agencies, local housing nonprofits, and research organizations helped author a 2006 report that then-mayor Anthony Williams commissioned. At the time, developers were starting to pour money into new projects west of the Anacostia River; DC's housing problem in Wards 1-4 was less that development dollars were scarce, and increasingly that the new projects were raising rents, making it hard for low-income families to stay.

District leaders and the authors of the 2006 report were beginning to realize this, and they set these goals:

  • Produce 55,000 new units by 2020.
  • 19,000 of those units should be affordable (7,600 below 30% of AMI; 5,700 between 30-60% of AMI, and another 5,700 between 60-80% of AMI).
  • In addition, preserve 30,000 currently affordable units.
  • Adopt a local rent supplement program and reach 14,600 households.

Of course, goals don't matter if nobody takes them seriously.

In 2007, Mayor Fenty appointed Leslie Steen as "housing czar" to implement the 2006 plan. She was supposed to cut through red tape and coordinate the many District authorities that touch on affordable housing, including DCHD, DCHFA, DCRA, DMPED, and DCHA. But she ended up being marginalized within the administration, and ultimately resigned in frustration.

In 2007 and 2011, Alice Rivlin wrote two follow-up reports; she praised the District's progress on some fronts, and basically threw up her hands on others; in 2011, nobody had the data to track progress towards the 2006 targets.

Another report was released in 2012 under the auspices of the Grey administration, and laid out these goals:

  • Preserve 8,000 existing affordable units.
  • Produce and preserve 10,000 net new affordable units by 2020 (I couldn't find a detailed AMI breakdown for these 10,000 units).
  • Support development of 3,000 market rate units by 2020.

Grey made a public commitment to reach the "10 by 20" goal, but since 2012 talk of these goals has faded. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has worked hard to get the District to commit to an investment goal: $100 million a year in the Housing Production Trust Fund. But Mayor Bowser has yet to adopt specific goals for the number of affordable units she wants to preserve and produce.


Mayor Bowser announcing affordable housing initiatives in January of last year. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Setting numerical goals might be worth another look

If we establish another set of city-wide goals, they must be clear, and we must be able to track progress towards them. Such goals could accomplish at least two things:

  • Helping focus our collective efforts. Once we've agreed on a set of targets, we can get creative with solutions. Maybe it's up-zoning some parts of Ward 3; maybe it's strengthened Inclusionary Zoning, maybe it's more preservation and accessory dwelling units. (If we set respectable goals, it'll probably require some combination of all of the above).
  • Having a clear, public goals can help District residents hold their government to account. We could ask, "Why are we missing our targets?" We cannot ask that question now.

Here's an example of a measurable goal, just as food for thought: "The District should have no net loss of affordable units, relative to our current stock and distribution of affordability."

So if we have 40,000 units affordable to people who make below 40% of Area Median Income, we should still have that many in 2030. That's a clear goal, which the public could use to hold their representatives accountable.

An equally clear, less conservative goal might be, "The District should ensure that 30% of its total rental units are affordable to people making below 40% of AMI."

Today we're closer to having the data to track progress towards city-wide goals. The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the DC Preservation Network, has compiled currently available records (you can find a report from December here). The city's trying to improve its own data collection.

Clear goals and stringent data collection have helped the District come close to ending veteran homelessness. As Kristy Greenwalt, head of DC's Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the City Paper, "In the past, there was no systematic approach. We're in a very different place now, so we can actually track what's happening and why."

Goal setting alone can't build or preserve housing, and planning isn't execution. But without precise goals, it's hard to know if we're falling down or making progress—ensuring that new people can move to DC, existing residents can stay, and low-income people can live close to good jobs, schools, and public amenities. A comprehensive, strategic solution to our housing crisis begins with knowing what it would mean to win.

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