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Public Spaces


Congressional impasse shuts down DC's trails

DC bicycle commuters woke up this morning to find that one popular rail-trail was closed due to the government shutdown, which took effect at midnight.


Some cyclists are ignoring the barriers erected by the National Park Service and using the Capital Crescent Trail despite the shutdown. Photo by someone named Ricky, who is friends with DC Bike Ambassador Pete Beers.

The Capital Crescent Trail is the most heavily-used rail-trail in the United States, with more than a million users a year. Not just a weekend pleasure-ride spot, the CCT is thick with bicycles during morning rush hour as people use it as a safer and more pleasant bike-commuting alternative to DC's congested streets. Now, the government would give them no choicethough the Washington Area Bicyclist Association reports that there's little enforcement and intrepid bike commuters are using the trail despite the barriers.

Since this important bike route is managed by the National Park Service, it is part of the vast collateral damage of the embarrassing scenario unfolding on Capitol Hill. WABA warned yesterday that "all or part of the heavily-commuted Rock Creek Trail, Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and George Washington Memorial Trail are on NPS property" and could also be shut down, but early reports seem to indicate that they're still open.

The 185-mile C&O Canal trail, which runs from DC's Georgetown neighborhood to Cumberland, is also closed.


The 185-mile C&O Canal Trail, which begins in Washington, DC, is closed. Photo tweeted by Bike Arlington.

All roads are open during the government shutdown, except some leading into national parks, which are closed. In DC, this would include Rock Creek Parkway and other roads through the largest urban national park in the countrybut, curiously, that key car-commuter route is still open. However, Rock Creek Park's Beach Drive is closed to car traffic during the shutdown, so people who enjoy riding their bikes there on weekends, when drivers are normally kept out, will enjoy riding it today. That's one nice trade-off for losing the CCT.

WABA learned about the possible Capital Crescent Trail shutdown yesterday, and bollards were put in place at the entrances to prepare to block trail traffic. The sections of the CCT within Montgomery County remain open, since they are owned by the county, not NPS.

DC has a disproportionate number of city parks under NPS, but certainly the shutdown will prevent people from using other popular off-road trails around the country, like this one in the Philly area. Where else are cyclists and pedestrian commuters being impacted?

Crossposted at DC Streetsblog.

Public Spaces


Four suggestions for a new Franklin Square

DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC's most underused parks into one of America's best public spaces.


Franklin Square today. Photo by the author.

Work with the city's edges

Most of downtown DC's existing squares pay little attention to what's around them. They're laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what's across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.

Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what's around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn't be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.

Embrace transit

One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That's a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.

New York's Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.

But the Metro station isn't the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It's also a major transfer point for several of DC's busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.

But Franklin Square's current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.

By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square's current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.

And don't forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.

More stuff is better, but make it visible

Franklin Square's existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it's not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won't be any better than what's there now.

The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.

Interactive features like movable seating, splash fountains, and vendor kiosks are all great ways to add vitality to parks, and should be considered in Franklin Square.

The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it's nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It's impossible to see until you're right on top of it. If designers want people along the park's edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.

Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.

Consider what's missing from downtown

Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can't. It's worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn't have any ponds, like Boston's Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.

Franklin Square won't be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin's particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn't an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it's worth exploring all the options.

The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss the redesign on the evening of October 2, at the Sheraton at 1201 K Street, NW. Come with ideas!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Park Service could route cyclists away from White House

E Street NW in front of the White House was closed to traffic after 9/11. While car traffic is banned, bicyclists face barriers to using it as well. A new plan by the National Park Service could push cyclists off the street entirely.


Proposed President's Park South Alternative 3. Image from NPS.

Back in early July, the NPS and the Secret Service held a public open house on the joint-agency President's Park South Project. This project will redesign the park immediately south of the White House, including E Street NW between 15th and 17th streets. E Street was closed after 9/11 and has never been reopened. Unlike Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also closed to car traffic, pedestrians can usually use E Street but not bicyclists, for whom the street is a barrier.

In 2011, the National Capital Planning Commission held a design competition for the park and selected five finalists, some of whom recommended putting bike lanes on E Street. But NCPC's chosen entry proposed keeping the street closed unless security threat conditions change in the future.

NCPC's contest was non-binding, but it "informed" the eventual design process. The four new alternatives NPS and the Secret Service presented at the July meeting are very different from the ones in the NCPC contest.

Alternative 1 is a no-build option. Alternatives 2 and 3 include a bicycle path along the southern edge of E Street, and Alternatives 4 and 5 route bicyclists around the existing perimeter streets, 15th Street, Constitution Avenue, and 17th Street. The latter two do this to create an expanded viewing area south of the existing fence, shown as the shaded purple area on the image below.

I think it would be a shame if this project didn't include a space for a bike path on E Street. I don't see why they can't expand the viewing area and include the bike path, as the two do not seem mutually exclusive. Isn't that what we have on the north side of the White House?

If you'd like to comment to that effect, public comments are being accepted until September 12th at the NPS website. Comment early and often.

A version of this was crossposted at the Washcycle.

Bicycling


DC Water proposes sewer improvements, new roads

Major infrastructure projects, such as sewer construction, can cause a lot of disruption without many tangible benefits. But in Upper Northwest, proposed sewer repairs could result in new bike paths and connections to local parks.


Glover Archbold Park today. Photo by l r on Flickr.

DC Water needs to repair disintegrating sewer lines in Glover Archbold Park and the Soapstone Valley, which could include building an access road. Not fixing the lines could cause sewage to build up in the park. But both conservationists and the National Park Service, which owns the land, are afraid that it will require losing trees and disrupting wildlife habitats.

Another proposal, to completely move the pipes and build pumping stations, has residents concerned that DC Water and NPS are not fully considering all policy alternatives. At a public presentation in July, ANC3B Commissioner Mary Young, who represents Cathedral Heights, said the proposal could violate Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. "No one has spoken much about the enormous carbon footprint that the city will face with the pumping stations," she said.

At the meeting, DC Water presented several options for the repairing the sewer. Their intent is to find a way to do so while also preserving parkland. Options include lining the pipes to repair them, daylighting some of the stormwater pipes, removing the lines completely, and building pumping stations.

If the pipes are abandoned and left as they are, sewage could build up in the park and become hazardous to everyone. In an email, DC Water spokesman John Lisle says the existing pipes and manholes are structurally compromised.

While the repairs may be disruptive, they present an opportunity to make it easier to reach Glover Archbold Park and the Soapstone Valley. The proposed pipe lining option will require an access road, which could provide connections to Glover Park. ANC3D Commissioner Kent Slowinski, who represents Wesley Heights, suggests that an access road created in consultation with NPS could have bike lanes and link to the future bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue, creating a direct route between Georgetown and American University.

The access road could accommodate other users as well, like visitors with disabilities. Today, the park is "totally inaccessible" to wheelchairs because of a lack of paved paths, said Young.

As with many infrastructure projects, DC Water and NPS will need to find a solution that creates needed sewer infrastructure while minimizing impacts on the ecosystem and neighbors. But the added benefit of a paved, multi-use path in the park could make this project much more attractive to the community.

Lisle notes that the design process has just started, nor have any decisions been made. It's possible that construction may not happen for at least 2 years, he says. That means now is the best time for the community to weigh in. The National Park Services will take public comments on the proposal until August 18. After that, ANC3B will host representatives from DC Water and NPS at their next meeting September 12.

History


In 1892, DC had railroads and windy paths on the Mall

Tom at Ghosts of DC posted an 1892 map of the L'Enfant City. Union Station did not yet exist, and instead, railroads from the south carried trains right to a terminal where the National Gallery is today. Streetcars plied most major thoroughfares.


Image from the Library of Congress.

Ed Summers pointed out on Twitter how the paths on the Mall are much windier and loopier than the straight, formal paths today. The same is true of Dupont Circle and Iowa Circle (now Logan Circle, but at the time, Logan Circle was the name for what's now Sheridan Circle), and other parks.

Many DC parks changed from a more natural, Victorian-era layout to a more formal one around the time of the 1902 McMillan Plan, which also created the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial sites, and other elements that shape the monumental core today.

Maybe the 20th century patterns are better, or maybe not. But it does further make a mockery of the National Park Service's claims that parks forever must match the layouts they had around, say, 1929. Our parks have changed and should continue to change to accommodate the recreational and relaxational needs of residents and visitors.

What else do you notice on the map?

History


1886 plan would have built atop Rock Creek

Tom from Ghosts of DC found an 1886 Post article about a plan to put Rock Creek in a tunnel from about M Street to just north of R Street, fill in the ravine, and create city blocks between Georgetown and Dupont.


Photo by Evan Parker on Flickr.

Proponents estimated it would create 50 "squares" (generally city blocks) of space, for a cost of about $600,000 to $650,000, or about $15-16 million in today's dollars.

By keeping Rock Creek, DC has not only a surface waterway but a number of park spaces on the banks, such as Rose Park. Unfortunately, a different plan ultimately greatly marred the creek: Rock Creek Parkway, which dominates this section of the creek valley.

At any spot, someone trying to enjoy the edge parks or trail has to contend with a large freeway creating most of the noise and taking up much of the ravine floor. National Park Service management practice in this part of Rock Creek prioritizes motor vehicle traffic over any other user. Features in the park, like signs that tell trail users to yield to cars when crossing the on- and off-ramps, further make clear that nature and recreation come last here.

Here is the map from the article:

Tom also has an excerpt from the story:

"From what I have seen in the papers," said Capt. Symonds, when asked by a POST reporter for his opinion regarding the cost and practicability of the proposed Rock Creek tunnel, "I should consider it a perfectly practicable and feasible scheme, and I should think that the benefits resulting would fully justify the outlay necessary."

"How long would be the tunnel?"

"From the location as described it would require a tunnel about 2,000 feet long with some open cut work at the ends."

"What would be the cost?"

"Its cost would depend largely on the nature of the rock encountered. It would probably be necessary to arch it over throughout its length and if the excavated rock were suitable in quality it could be used for this purpose. In this case I should estimate the cost of the tunnel, with a sufficient water-way for all floods, to be about $250 per lineal foot. This would make the 2,000 feet of tunnel cost $500,000. Another $100,000 would cover all the open work at the ends, and all engineering expenses, etc. If it was found necessary to use brick for arching the cost would be about $50,000 more. This would make the cost from $600,000 to $650,000, which I believe would cover all expenses for the work proper without including any question of right of way. The excavated material would be used for arching in the form of rubble masonry, not in the form of concrete. The bed of the creek could not be used for a dumping ground. It could not be filled up directly with the excavated material, for it would have to be kept open for the passage of water until the tunnel was completed.

"It is not at all improbably," continued Capt. Symonds, "that a sufficient amount of good material would be excavated to arch the creek over from the lower terminus of the tunnel to the outlet of the canal. In this way the improvement could be made more far-reaching and beneficial. The creek would be blotted out of sight from Lyons' Mill to the mouth of the canal. I should think that the best use for the excavated material, beyond that used for curbing the tunnel, would be in building embankments across the valley of the creek connecting the streets of Washington and Georgetown, thus doing away with bridges and uniting the two cities. The spaces between the embankments could gradually be filled in. If properly managed it would be a splendid improvement.

Transit


Circulator will go to Mall, bus priority gets funding

The DC Circulator bus will add service to the National Mall by 2015, and Mayor Gray has added funding to the budget to improve bus service elsewhere in the city, Mayor Gray and Councilmember Mary Cheh just announced in a press release.


Photo by JLaw45 on Flickr.

The Circulator service would not be the same as the old loop around Constitution and Independence Avenues, which DC discontinued in 2011. That line ran without any cooperation from the National Park Service (NPS), which wouldn't even mention it on signs, claiming that their concession contract with the Tourmobile prohibited even telling people about other, cheaper forms of transportation.

When NPS terminated the Tourmobile contract and updated its concession agreements to be more flexible, officials began working with DC to prepare for Circulators that could offer transportation within NPS land and to and from adjacent neighborhoods.

Multiple sources have said that the District expects to get much of the operating funding for the Circulator from the National Park Service and/or Mall visitors. A Circulator on the Mall primarily benefits tourists, though with easy transportation to and from nearby neighborhoods, it could also help encourage tourists to spend some money at local shops and restaurants.

That funding might come from Circulator fares, parking meters on the Mall (where on-street spaces are now free and thus usually nearly impossible to get), or other sources. Specific details are not yet public and, based on the press release, may not be yet worked out between DC and NPS.


Circulator Phase 1 expansion. Image from the Circulator plan.

This is the diagram of proposed Circulator routes from a recent plan from DC Surface Transit, the public-private partnership that runs the Circulator. According to the press release, funds in the coming fiscal year will fund planning the actual routes, which might or might not be the same as some of these.

New fund supports bus priority around the city

In addition, Gray has added a $750,000 annual capital fund to support projects that improve bus service and reduce delays. This could presumably fund dedicated bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board fare payment or other projects that make buses a quicker and more appealing way to travel.

DC won a TIGER grant way back in 2010 to improve buses on several corridors, but 3 years later we've seen few if any changes. According to an email forward to me from DDOT, they are planning to use the money to optimize traffic signals downtown and install backup traffic signal power.

The TIGER money will also fund 120 real-time digital displays in some bus stops, "some minor bus stop improvements on 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Georgia Avenue," and "some bus stop safety features" on H Street and Benning Road, the email says. For a grant which was supposed to fund "shovel-ready" stimulus projects in the immediate term, though, it's taken quite a long time.

Finally, DDOT is working on a short bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place, a spot where buses get significantly stuck in traffic.

There is also an ongoing WMATA study looking at potential bus lanes on H and I Streets in the area north of and around the White House. This would be a more complex project, but it's important for DC to take some big steps that speed up buses significantly, in addition to small and easier steps like new signals.

Neighborhoods still benefit from performance parking

Another new fund creates a pool of money for neighborhood improvements in areas that adopt performance parking. The original performance parking law dedicated some of the extra money to neighborhood-specific projects, and around the ballpark, it has already funded new trash cans, benches, bike racks, and signs for a historic heritage trail.

Gray's budget eliminated the dedicated funding, but to make up for the loss, this new fund will let neighborhoods with performance parking still have some say in local fixes. This fund will have $589,000 for the rest of this current fiscal year and $750,000 a year in future years.

Public Spaces


DC to host race on South Capitol "racetrack"

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

The puzzling design for DDOT's South Capitol Street project has become much more clear as the DC Spors and Entertainment Commission rolled out a plan to host regular auto races on the track.


Sketch of planned South Capitol Street project.

In a press conference today, Mayor Gray announced plans to host an IndyCar race as soon as the project is complete. "DC is joining the ranks of other world-class cities like Toronto and Monaco in hosting a race on our city streets," the mayor said. "The same cars and drivers that race at the Indianapolis 500 will be racing here."

IndyCar officials expressed surprise that a city would build what appears to be a purpose-built racetrack. "Usually for our street races, we make do with city streets that people use every day, like in Houston or Long Beach. To have a city build an oval for us is a real treat. I mean, clearly that circle can't be great for moving pedestrians or cars, can it?" said Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar parent company Hulman & Company.

IndyCar drivers on hand for the announcement praised the course layout. "It looks to be fast and very wide, which should make for some great racing," said driver Will Power. "It's almost perfectly built for us."

Indeed the course has a very similar shape to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire, which is known as a "paper clip" oval as its long straights and tight turns resemble a paper clip.

This is actually not the city's first foray into auto racing. In 2002, DC hosted an American Le Mans Series race in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. You can still make out the outline of the track today. The race only ran one year after noise complaints from neighbors. "We don't think that will be an issue here," said Gray. "People here are used to cars whizzing by."

National Park Service representatives said they should have no objection to using federal land for the racetrack, as their regulations only make it very difficult to place playgrounds, food vendors, or pleasant places to sit in federal parkland, none of which the racetrack requires.

Meanwhile, the National Capital Planning Commission chairman Bryan Preston said the race will work well with their plans to put another memorial in the circle, which will probably be unappealing for people to interact with as a city park but will be perfect for cars to drive around and around all day.

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