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A court just halted DC's McMillan development

DC's highest court just blocked development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. This is a setback for the city's effort to turn an empty yet historic field, which previously served to filter drinking water, into a complex of housing, offices, and more active parks. This may not be end of the project, but it's added some significant new hurdles.

McMillan's silos. Photo by Elliot Carter.

The 25-acre site along North Capitol Street was established in 1905 as a way to purify the water of the Washington Aqueduct. The water ran through 25 underground vaults which filtered out impurities. But we don't filter water this way any more, and in 1986 the federal government declared it surplus.

For years now, DC (which now owns the site) has been trying to work with a consortium of developers, called Vision McMillan Partners, who won a bidding process to redevelop the site. The plan would include 655 units of housing, office space for Children's Hospital, and retail.

The development plan. Image from Vision McMillan Partners.

A park would keep part of the site open, and preserve the above-ground silos (the concrete tubes in the image above). The developers would also try to restore one of the vaults for people to explore and experience. Other vaults are not stable enough and could collapse, so they would be removed.

This week, DC officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project, but Thursday, a court opinion halted further progress.

What the court said

The court opinion hinged on two project approvals. First, the DC Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say (except this court) on zoning, approved this project. It was a Planned Unit Development, which is where a project gets some relief from zoning in exchange for community benefits.

Second, this site is a historic landmark. DC's law allows demolishing some historic resources, either because of financial hardship or to construct a "project of special merit." The Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation, the administrative judge who decides such cases, determined this did qualify as special merit.

A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals vacated both approvals and sent the project back for another opinion, and possibly more hearings, before both.

Opponents have waged a sign campaign as well as a legal one. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The zoning case is all about the Comp Plan

The DC Zoning Commission, which approved the project, is required to follow DC's Comprehensive Plan. However, the Comp Plan is often compared to the Bible: it says whatever you want to read into it.

Contradictory policies in the Comp Plan simultaneously say, for instance, that DC needs more housing but should preserve open space; that established neighborhoods should be protected but there should be infill development; that there should be density near transit stations but then a map shows low density in that area.

In approving the project, the DC Zoning Commission traded off among some of these conflicting priorities. An while I am not a zoning attorney (and haven't yet heard back from the ones I called), it appears the Court of Appeals understands this. However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission didn't adequately explain why it was choosing to honor the policies it did over the ones it did not.

The court doesn't prohibit high-density development

Some of the project would have larger buildings which qualify as "high density" in DC's land use categories. One part of the Comp Plan is a map, the Future Land Use Map or FLUM, which shows density levels in different areas, and McMillan is not colored red for high density. It's a combination of "moderate density commercial," "medium density residential," and "parks, recreation, and open space."

The Future Land Use Map around McMillan.

Opponents argued that since some buildings are high density, those aren't permitted here. However, the court disagreed, saying two things: First, on a large site like this, there could be some tall buildings and some short ones which essentially average out to moderate or medium density, and that's okay. Second, the Zoning Commission has the perogative to weigh the map's colors against the other provisions of the Comp Plan.

(Lawyers will parse how consistent this is with a recent case in Brookland, with two of the same three judges, where the court basically took the map literally and rejected a project for not matching its categories.)

However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission must explain its reasons for weighing some factors over others. The judges seem to take issue with some factors not being adequately explained. They have instructed the Zoning Commission to make another decision, potentially after more hearings, that better explains this:

The Commission stated that permitting high-density development on the northern portion of the site was "a critical and essential part of fulfilling the parks, recreation, and open space designation of the [FLUM], while at the same time achieving other elements of the Comprehensive Plan and the city's strategic economic plan."

[Friends of McMillan Park, a leading opposition group] argued before the Commission, however, that the other policies reflected in the Comprehensive Plan could be advanced even if development on the site were limited to medium- and moderate-density uses. The Commission neither provided a specific basis for concluding to the contrary nor stated reasons for giving greater weight to some policies than to others. We therefore vacate the Commission's order and remand for further proceedings.

The court worries about environmental impacts and housing costs

Environmental Impact Statements are an important tool to ensure that governments don't run roughshod over the environment. However, they require a lot of analysis by those advancing any project, and often that gives courts an opportunity to nitpick one or another of scores of analyses in the EIS. For example, the Purple Line, which is clearly better for the environment than everyone driving, was blocked for EIS deficiencies because the Maryland judge quibbled with ridership projections.

The court here may be adding some EIS-like procedure to approval of projects like this. The judges say that the Zoning Commission did consider environmental impacts, but not as thoroughly as it should have. That wasn't their reason for remanding the project, but it points to a way these judges might find fault with a subsequent approval as well.

(The environmental benefit of dense development in the core of the city is that it lessens pressure to build sprawl in farms at the edge of the region. This is an area of some disagreement between Smart Growth environmentalists and others that fight for open space regardless of its location.)

Opponents further argued that the project would "accelerate gentrification, increase land values, and result in a net loss of affordable housing." The opinion doesn't get into the policy issues here, simply saying that the commission didn't sufficiently address these either.

In reality, this project will not lead to a loss of affordable housing because it is creating more affordable housing. Having housing here is not going to push up housing prices nearby as compared to not having housing here. The opponents are making economic arguments that are intuitively true to some but contradicted by economic research, but it seems the judges identify with those arguments.

Is this "special merit"?

The court also vacated the Mayor's Agent approval to demolish much of a historic resource to construct a "project of special merit." This part of the ruling seems to pose an even higher hurdle for the project, as the court did not only find that the Mayor's Agent failed to sufficiently explain himself.

Rather, the court disagreed with the overall definition of "special merit." The Mayor's Agent in essence found that the affordable housing, medical office needs, and other overall economic development value of the site outweighed the historic preservation value.

If I'm reading the opinion right, it seems this court disagrees. Special merit can be things like outstanding architecture and also a "specific feature of land planning." That term is pretty vague, and the court is not at all convinced by the more general conclusion from the Mayor's Agent:

"If the special-merit inquiry could appropriately focus on the "totality" of the benefits arising from a project,
then presumably the Mayor's Agent should also take into account all of the project's adverse impacts. Under such an approach, the Mayor's Agent would function essentially as a second Zoning Commission, evaluating all of the benefits and adverse impacts associated with projects requiring a permit from the Mayor's Agent. We conclude that the Preservation Act assigns the Mayor's Agent the more discrete role of determining whether one or more specific attributes of a project, considered in isolation or in combination, rise to the level of special merit, thus triggering a balancing of those special-merit benefits against historic-preservation losses.
The developers weren't clear about whether some cells could be preserved, at least according to the judges. The Mayor's Agent dealt with that by requiring an additional step before the developers could demolish the cells, but the judges don't feel that is sufficient.

Finally, the judges pose one more, perhaps quite big hurdle:

Among other things, an applicant seeking approval to demolish or subdivide a historic landmark bears the burden of showing that demolition or subdivision is "necessary." ... "The applicant must show that it considered alternatives to the total demolition of the historic building and that these alternatives were not reasonable." Although an applicant need not demonstrate that there are no other feasible alternatives, an applicant "should be required to show that all reasonable alternatives were considered."
In short, to be able to demolish a historic resource, the court is saying that the property owner needs to show that there is no "reasonable" other way to preserve the historic resource. This creates a high hurdle.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

The preservation law doesn't deal well with situations like this

Perhaps such a hurdle is appropriate. After all, if someone's talking about demolishing a really special, historic building, these kinds of obstacles seem intuitively sensible.

But this isn't a single, really significant building; it's a giant 25-acre site. The preservation law seems somewhat ill-suited to such things, because it doesn't provide for weighing various needs. If something is historic, it's historic. There's no "a little bit historic," and the law doesn't say the Mayor's Agent can consider how the historic value weighs against the need for housing, tax revenue, medical office space, or active (rather than fenced-off) parks.

The Mayor's Agent had, in other cases, used the "special merit" category for such situations, but this court decision throws that into doubt. DC makes it easier to designate things as historic than in some other places, but also somewhat easier to make changes as well; that may be changing.

If DC wants to be able to continue to add housing, it will eventually have to reckon with the twin trends of running lower on empty land and having more and more land designated as in historic districts or sites.

Historic preservation is valuable, but it needs to be weighed against other factors as well amid the various priorities for the city. If the court is going to reduce the Mayor's Agent's powers, perhaps the DC Council needs to amend the law to broaden them again.


New bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes could connect Columbia Heights and Brookland

People want more ways to get around by foot and on bike in the corridor that runs from from Columbia Heights to Brookland, and they want them to be safer. After receiving that message, DDOT drafted potential plans for making it happen.

The study area. All image from DDOT.

DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study focuses on an area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue. Cars in the area zip along Irving and Michigan, but for people on bikes and foot, there isn't a safe or easy way to get around (a fact compounded by the congestion once drivers get to either side of the hospital).

Also, the area's transit isn't great. Both the H2 and H4 bus routes connect the Columbia Heights Metro Station, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Brookland Metro Station along the Irving/Columbia Road-Michigan Avenue corridor. However, Medstar also provides shuttle service on the same route between the hospitals and the Columbia Heights Metro every 10 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes during other times. This service largely duplicates WMATA's service and adds additional traffic to already congested streets.

After the first public workshop about the study, nearly 700 people commented on how to address all of these issues. Back in April, DDOT unveiled three concept plans for the corridor. Here's a summary:

A new street grid

Each of DDOT's proposals suggests removing the Michigan Avenue overpass and creating a street grid west of the hospitals. Doing so would go a long way in making the area safer for people on foot and bike, as it'd get rid of unnecessary high-speed ramps and car lanes; it'd also mean chances to add new green space. How many surface streets are in that grid depends largely on where bus and bike lanes need to be.

One of the options for a new street grid.

More options for bike riders

Those who gave DDOT input were clear that they'd like to see more bike connections, and that those connections be made made up of space that's only for bikes. The proposals include a few options for doing that, from protected bikeways that run in both directions to off-street lanes next to pedestrian walkways.

Around the hospitals and toward Columbia Heights, the stronger proposals would create bike lanes in one of the existing travel or parking lanes. With one exception in one proposal, bikes and buses would not share the same lanes, and west of the hospitals, bike lanes and bus lanes would not be on the same streets.

One option is to add a bike lane along Michigan Avenue.

Dedicated bus lanes

The plans aim to improve bus service (shorter trips, specifically) by creating dedicated lanes for buses. While the extent of dedicated lanes varies among the concepts, they all suggest dedicated lanes on either Irving Street, Columbia Road, and/or Harvard Street west of the hospitals. This would be accomplished by using one lane currently used during rush hour and parking during off peak hours.

The dark blue lines are dedicated transit lanes.

No more cloverleaf

None of DDOT's three options would do away with the North Capitol Street overpass. All of them, however, would replace the freeway-style, cloverleaf-shaped ramps that run between North Capitol and Irving with more direct connections. Doing so would make it much easier to keep car speeds down and control traffic flow.

The cloverleaf is on its way out.

DDOT has scheduled its third Crosstown Study workshop for June 9th at Trinity Washington University. You can give input on the potential plans there.

In addition to the third workshop, DDOT will have two Public Engagement Events on Saturday, June 11: one in Brookland, at the Monroe Street Farmers Market (716 Monroe Street NE), and one on the west side of the Columbia Heights Metro station (3030 14th Street NW).


Video: Crossing a city street should not be this dangerous

Crosswalks are supposed to make it safer to walk across a street, but they don't work if drivers don't stop or slow down. This video of my morning commute shows how scary walking can be, and why it's worth taking efforts to make crosswalks better.

Video of the walk across North Capitol at Pierce Street NE by the author. "Please pardon the Blair Witch Project-style framing," he says!.

Motorists in DC are required by law to stop when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, just as if there were a stop sign. But morning commuters on North Capitol Street don't seem to know or think much about this law.

Every day, the 80 and 96 buses let off passengers by a crosswalk on North Capitol at Pierce Street NE. There aren't any signs reminding drivers to yield, and trying to cross the street to get to NoMa is something people do at their own peril. Check out the video to see what I mean.

North Capitol and Pierce Street NE, where the author shot the video. Image from Google Maps.

I didn't set out to film this video. I was more focused on crossing the street alive than documenting the experience. But I had my camera out and it just occurred to me to hit record since nobody would otherwise believe what I face every morning trying to get to work.

As you can see, drivers don't stop regardless of whether a person is standing in the middle of the intersection long before they get there. And that's even when cars may have to stop after they get through the crosswalk.

Wildebeest migration across the Mara River. Photo by jeaneeeem on flickr

In my 14 years here, I've seen DDOT add more prominent street paint, signs, and bollards, all of which I have to assume is to remind motorists to stop and to make streets safer.

For the specific problem I'm talking about, perhaps WMATA could move the bus stop to coincide with a traffic light one block south of Pierce Street at L Street. DDOT could also make the light timing accommodate people crossing instead of just motorists turning left. Either way, leaving a crosswalk there and no protection for anyone using it is a recipe for disaster.

As an occasional motorist myself, I know it's not fun to stop every few blocks when you're trying to get somewhere. But if we can learn to yield to people in crosswalks, we won't need a dedicated light or stop sign and everyone can get where they are going safely.

Another crossing that's particularly dangerous because drivers rarely stop is where Rhode Island Avenue NW meets 7th Street, right by the Shaw library. Do you know of others? Let us know in the comments. Maybe DDOT will take note.


Even more development may come to North Capitol Street. Will transportation be ready?

A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?

The Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington. Image from AFRH.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers' Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.

The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.

Possible layout of future buildings, from the 2008 master plan.

The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.

What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?

This isn't the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home's land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what's now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center.

National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.

That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers' Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.

Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It's the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.

In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.

The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the "parkway/memorial," the "circle," the "four corners."

It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.

On the other hand, if there's at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH's property and the intersection.

While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University's land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.

How can people get here?

Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.

The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan

Possible future roads. Image from the 2008 master plan.

These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.

If that doesn't happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

DC doesn't have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what's being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.

Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it's time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.

A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.

Will governments be ready?

This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:

We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. ... We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. ... With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that "the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment," but added, "While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study."

GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is "starting the consultant selection process," so it's still in the early stages as well.

Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program.​ The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we'll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today's cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.


No carmageddon at McMillan, says a study

Redeveloping DC's McMillan Sand Filtration site will not choke neighbor­hoods in new traffic as long as the District follows through on transit plans, says a transportation study from the project team.

McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

The most important element: better transit

The study says that it's quite possible to avoid burdening busy roads in the surrounding neighborhoods, as long as planned improvements to transit actually happen. The report says is transit is actually necessary regardless of whether the project goes forward or the site remains fenced off.

In the short run, improving the Metrobus 80 bus line on North Capitol Street, which WMATA has already designated a "bus priority corridor," will help the most. Other bus lines also need improvements that previous studies have identified.

The report also calls for building the proposed streetcar line along Michigan Avenue from Woodley Park to Brookland Metro. If these projects get delayed, he report recommends coordinated shuttles to the Brookland Metro station.

Along with some tweaks to surrounding roads, the traffic will be no worse with the McMillan project than if nothing gets built.

The report also calls for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including completing the street grid through McMillan, multiple pedestrian access points in each building, ample bicycle storage, and space for three Capital Bikeshare stations.

Top: Transit today around McMillan. Bottom: Proposed transit. Images from the report (p. 92 and 97).

Pitfalls remain

While the study demonstrates the redevelopment can move forward without burdensome traffic impacts, it also points to potential problems that the project team will need to take care to address.

There needs to be ongoing pressure on the city and DDOT to move forward on transit. The city has moved slowly to upgrade transportation elsewhere, so project partners need to keep a close eye on progress.

Walking and bicycling conditions on and off the site also need more attention. Busy driveways on Michigan Avenue pose potential new conflict points for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the city reviews this project, it should take every chance to improve access and safety in the area. Also, while it's great to leave space for three Capital Bikeshare stations, the development should pay for at least one.

The transportation plan specifically cites a proposed DC Circulator route from Brookland to Tenleytown, which covers the same ground as the current H buses. Instead of duplicating existing service, DC and Metro could work together to improve existing H bus service. In fact, Metro recently studied the H lines and made several recommendations to make service faster and more reliable through the area.

New traffic signals will help pedestrians and bicyclists, but the added turn lanes and driveways on Michigan Avenue and First Street NW could pose additional barriers and hazards.

The report also recommends incentives to reduce driving, lower vehicle parking ratios, and encourage transit use in later phases. Instead, these efforts should start now.

With a redevelopment as large and controversial as McMillan, it's important to push for the right policy decisions. To voice your support for the right policy decisions regarding the McMillan redevelopment, head over to the Coalition for Smarter Growth to sign up to speak at an upcoming hearing.


New McMillan plan blends growth and preservation

The developers of DC's McMillan Sand Filtration Site have listened to community concerns, from open space to traffic to transit, and created a plan for a new community that residents should one day see as a city landmark and a source of civic pride.

Photo by the author.

Envision McMillan released a revised plan in March for the long-awaited redevelopment that will transform the historic, off-limits site. It blends mixed-use office and apartment buildings with ground-floor retail, single-family townhomes, and open space to augment and enhance the surrounding neighborhoods.

As with all development plans of this scope, not everyone in the neighborhood is happy. While the current plan leaves 55% of the site as open space, some want the entire site to be a park. Others want to incorporate urban agriculture and renewable energy production, and a few want development limited to just a grocery store or public market, library and recreation center.

Residents in these camps concerned about development at the site have organized two groups, Friends of McMillan Park and Sustainable McMillan. The groups' leaders claim that Envision McMillan virtually ignored the ideas community members presented in the various public listening sessions.

In fact, the team has significantly altered the plan based on community feedback. It now has much more open space, with 13.55 acres overall, including a 4-acre central park and 8 acres of large, public, open spaces. The team also added a grocery store, a library and a community center.

The plan mixes preservation and growth

Envision McMillan comprises 9 architecture, design, landscape architecture, and consulting firms selected as the site's developer by the DC Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The District government bought the site from the federal government in 1987 and has sought to develop it ever since.

Conceptual plan for the site. Image from Envision McMillan.

The majority of the existing above-ground structures on the site would be retained and repurposed. The plan calls for preserving more than one of the underground sand filtration cells for visitors to explore. The historic McMillan Fountain, currently in storage at the adjacent federally-owned McMillan Reservoir, would sit in a prominent location in a public plaza on the site.

The southern row of cylindrical sand silos would form the border between the project's central park and a cluster of row houses, which would match the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. Stormwater runoff from the site would be completely captured on site by using state-of-the-art runoff management techniques.

Envision McMillan seeks to draw a grocery store and an eclectic mix of local retailers. Developers hope to create approximately 4,000 jobs at all levels as part of new healthcare office space on the northern end (adjacent to the VA hospital and Washington Hospital Center).

Additionally, the city plans to sponsor job-training programs to help District residents qualify for these jobs. 100 housing units will be designated as "affordable senior housing," and a mix of workforce and market-rate housing will be available throughout the site.

The team responds to community concerns

The next step for Envision McMillan and project supporters is to win the public-relations battle by convincing residents of the area, and the entire city, that the current plans represent the most appropriate balance of competing community needs and desires.

Traffic has been a central area of concern for nearby residents. First Street NW, in particular, is often bumper-to-bumper at rush hours between Michigan and New York Avenues, and Bloomingdale residents fear this will get worse once new homes, offices, and shops open up at McMillan. Envision McMillan analyzed current traffic to help create a plan to efficiently move people to and from the site, both by car and by other modes.

The study showed that there are no safe pedestrian crossings of North Capitol Street between Michigan Avenue and Channing Street. The restrictions on left turns from North Capitol onto Michigan from both directions cause more traffic to flow onto neighborhood streets. Cut-through traffic also overtaxes the alleys in the neighboring Stronghold neighborhood.

Envision McMillan's traffic plan calls for building 2 new through streets across the site from North Capitol to First NW, reducing traffic flow on existing neighborhood streets. It also recommends 2 new signalized intersections along North Capitol, and widening the North Capitol and Michigan Avenue intersection. Almost all of the parking on the site would be below ground.

But perhaps more importantly, the plan would enhance access to the site by non-automobile modes, thereby reducing the number of cars that will have to move through the surrounding neighborhoods. It proposes a transit hub on the north end with frequent Circulator buses connecting to the Brookland Metro station, a hiker-biker trail along North Capitol for the length of the site, several new sidewalks, and two Capital Bikeshare stations on the site—one near the grocery store and one in the middle of the mixed-use medical office/retail complex.

Yes, the surrounding neighborhood will feel growing pains as new residents, shoppers, and medical clinic patients move in. But maintaining the site as it is, empty and off-limits to the public, benefits nobody.

The only viable alternative to the status quo is some form of development. Putting this residential and business development in an urban neighborhood where people can take advantage of existing infrastructure at modest incremental cost makes the most economic and environmental sense. The long-term benefits to the region of developing the site in a conscientious way far outweigh the short-term costs.

Envision McMillan has proposed a plan for intelligent development and adapted it around reasonable concerns from the community. The plan will create a desirable place to live, work, and shop that retains both the character of the neighborhood and the uniqueness of this historic site.

Public Spaces

Make North Capitol Street a true gateway

North Capitol Street, framed by the Capitol dome and used by hundreds of commuters and visitors, stands as an oft-overlooked example of a highway mentality misapplied to an urban setting. To rectify this longstanding gash in the city's fabric, DDOT should look into reshaping of the less appealing highway-like portions of North Capitol Street around Rhode Island and New York Avenues.

In Boston: once an elevated freeway, now a beloved city park. Photo by the author.

North Capitol Street was originally a wide urban boulevard that hosted a streetcar line (predecessor to today's Metrobus route 80). Truxton Circle, which sat at the intersection of North Capitol and Florida Avenue until 1947, provided a focal point and pedestrian refuge that enhanced the corridor's visual appeal.

However, planners in the 1950s were more concerned with getting automobile commuters from the north into and out of downtown quickly than with aesthetics or neighborhood cohesiveness. They sped through traffic by building underpasses beneath Rhode Island and New York Avenues and replacing Truxton Circle with a signalized intersection.

Things could have been worse. Much of the neighborhood could have been bulldozed to make way for a proposed expressway. But these underpasses have remained eyesores that detract from a community whose century-old turreted rowhouses otherwise maintain considerable curb appeal.

Looking north from D Street. Photo by Chris Petrilli on Flickr.
The District government has already undertaken some studies towards enhancing North Capitol. Improvements for the segment north of Michigan Avenue around the Old Soldiers' Home have been proposed, but the segment from Michigan Avenue south to M Street remains largely unexamined.

Well-designed enhancements to North Capitol would enhance the community, improve safety by increasing pedestrian activity and putting "eyes on the street," and would serve as an amenity to attract business investment in a corridor the city has targeted for commercial revival. It would also serve as a nice complement to the current plans for the McMillan site development, which would make the view of the Capitol from the site a focal point.

DDOT should begin by studying the cost, feasibility and impacts of decking over the dug-in portion of North Capitol between Rhode Island Avenue and T Street and creating an attractive public square—replacing a noisy eyesore with a neighborhood amenity. Should a full decking over prove prohibitively expensive, other more affordable aesthetic enhancements, such as covering the fences with native flowering vines, ought to be considered.

The planned park covering Dallas's Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Photo from the Dallas Observer blog.
Converting highway corridors into public parks is becoming a trend amongst American cities. Boston exemplifies how greatly a city can be enhanced when an ugly highway corridor is put underground and converted into a well-designed park. Dallas also seeks to convert its Woodall Rodgers Freeway into greenspace.

Improvements to the North Capitol Street and New York Avenue intersection should also seek to address traffic bottlenecks. The ramp from southbound North Capitol onto New York Avenue, which is now used by two high-ridership Metrobus routes and several delivery trucks, is a notorious one. A redesign of this intersection that improves traffic flow, while also leaving space for a greenery or a public monument or fountain would greatly benefit this developing part of the city.

Instead of a noisy, unattractive mini-freeway that benefits those driving through Bloomingdale/Eckington/Truxton Circle/NoMa at the expense of those who live along it, future residents and business owners and patrons could benefit from visual enhancements that complement the surrounding Victorian architecture and the view of the Capitol, while still allowing traffic to flow smoothly. Turning this part of the North Capitol Street corridor into a desirable destination would generate benefits that could exceed the significant costs of remaking parts of the infrastructure.

Public Spaces

Street tree care: How can it improve?

Washington, DC is nicknamed "City of Trees," but its appropriateness is at risk along with many of DC's trees. We must improve the way we care for our city's trees to make this nickname relevant again, and soon.

A few years ago, the city planted trees in the median of North Capitol Street, from Michigan Avenue to Hawaii Avenue, while the street was undergoing a complete reconstruction. The trees all died within the year, due to a lack of water. Casey Trees recommends that a newly-planted street tree receive twenty-five gallons of water per week for the first three years while establishing a healthy root system. (I am a Casey Trees Citizen Forester.)

Over the last year, the city reconstructed Brentwood Road NE from Rhode Island Avenue south to T Street. That reconstruction included the planting of approximately 64 new trees in the treeboxes lining the street. The photographs above show the condition of the trees on this stretch of road now—namely, they've nearly all died.

On a recent weekend, I counted only four trees, or 6% of the total from this project, that remain alive. Weeds choke the treeboxes that line the street (save two in front of the Lowest Price Gas Station, where the trees are still dead), all of them neglected. That's unacceptable.

A new section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail recently opened between the New York Avenue Metro Station and Franklin Street NE. Trees were planted along the trail at many points, including the pocket park pictured at 4th and S Streets NE. Many of the trees are already dead due to the extremely dry spell we had in June and early July.

All of that is unfortunate, and easily could have been prevented, had the property owners and neighbors along the Met Branch Trail and Brentwood Road taken the time to water the nearby trees, or if the city had planned to water the trees in the North Capitol Street median, as the road there is practically a freeway where watering would be difficult. But there is hope ahead!

The city is actively working on a streetscape plan for the entire length of Sherman Avenue NW, between New Hampshire and Florida Avenues. One of the elements of this reconstruction will be a planted median. After seeing what happened on roads like North Capitol Street, it's reasonable to see why residents might be skeptical that trees could survive without a dedicated source of water to keep them alive.

Thankfully, Sherman Avenue resident Craig Sallinger was able to get a guarantee from a DDOT employee that an irrigation system will be included in the construction of the road, so it will be easy to get water to those trees while they're trying to establish roots. Hopefully this will be a consideration DDOT makes in all of their future streetscape programs.

In the August 4th edition of the Dupont Current, there is a story about the DC "Tree Fund." The fund is partially filled by fees levied as part of the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002, and is legally required to be kept separate from the city's general fund. (I wish I could link directly to the story, but the Current has a strong dislike of Internet publishing.)

The Current says that the 2011 budget, proposed by the Mayor and approved by the Council, removes money from the fund and places it in the city's general fund. In the article, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) states she wasn't aware that the money was being diverted from the Tree Fund into the general fund when she voted for the budget.

The government agency tasked with planting and maintaining street trees in DC is the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA), which is part of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). I recently had the opportunity to speak with John P. Thomas, the Urban Forestry Administration's Chief Forester, about some details of the city's street tree planting and maintenance program.

DDOT's yearly street tree budget is $7.5 million. As John Kelly noted on Sunday, the city is not responsible for watering trees once they are planted (contractors plant most of the street trees in the city). Mr. Thomas said that watering will be a line item in the planting contract this coming year. It will most likely mean that the city will not be able to plant as many trees as they have in years past, but I see that as a net positive for the DC.

Spending money on in-ground watering systems and paying more individuals (be they UFA contractors or students employed during the summer) will inevitably take money away from actual tree planting. I think that's a good thing.

I'm not saying I want fewer trees. I want more! But I want them to be mature and healthy, not first-year seedlings, struggling to stay alive.

DDOT's current planting process doesn't work, through no fault of their own. Mr. Thomas noted that 95% of what they plant comes from resident requests for trees in front of their house. A program called "Canopy Keepers" exists to encourage residents to water the young trees on their street. Some of my friends here in Trinidad are participating in this program. Walking around the city, though, you can easily see that many residents are not holding up their end of the bargain. The UFA staff does an admirable job with limited resources, but I believe it would be better to help young trees mature instead of wasting those resources replacing trees year after year.

You can only count on the kindness of strangers to a certain point. Eventually, money talks, and it can also water trees.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

Public Spaces

North Capitol study recommends parkway and boulevard

The North Capitol Street study has released a set of recommendations, WashCycle notes.

North Capitol Street study area.

North Capitol Street has gradually evolved into more of a freeway over time, including a 19-acre cloverleaf interchange where it meets Irving Street, which the report calls "an anomaly" in DC. But the surrounding neighborhoods are growing, and the street abuts properties planned for development, including the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and the edge of the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

Right now, the freeway character makes the street "a barrier" to any users except for automobiles traveling between the neighborhoods. To the south, the report writes, "where North Capitol joins the more typical urban fabric of the city, the street should fill the role of a symbolic entry to the Capital, but largely fails because of the poor streetscape conditions and unwelcoming pedestrian environment: gaps in the sidewalk network, little or no street furnishings, sparse and inconsistent street trees, chain-link fence, and overscaled, highway-style "cobrahead" light fixtures that leave sidewalks dimly lit."

The study recommends a "parkway" character for the segment north of Irving Street, similar to Rock Creek Parkway with a wide hiker-biker trail along side (hopefully wider and less windy than Rock Creek's), and an "urban boulevard" to the south, with a median, better sidewalks and lighting, and furniture and street trees similar to DC's other axial boulevards.

Renderings of North Capitol Street north of Irving Street now (left) and proposed (right).

Renderings of North Capitol Street south of Irving Street now (left) and proposed (right).

For the cloverleaf itself, the study doesn't choose between the three options, the parkway/memorial, the circle, and the "four corners." I recommended the circle, which has the most development potential ($188 million) but also the least parkland (2.7 acres). The cheaper "four corners" option, with 10 acres of parkland, splits it into four pieces with a major road cutting through, and the parkway/memorial option is both the most expensive and the least likely to develop a usable sense of place.

The study team also looked at the possibility of realigning North Capitol to follow the straight axis from the Capitol. A realigned North Capitol could become a main street for the new AFRH development instead of having it turn its back on the street. However, they determined that it's infeasible because of historic buildings a cemetery, and part of AFRH's grounds in the way, and the fact that the AFRH planning has already progressed very far. An at-grade intersection at Irving and North Capitol was also rejected because of traffic volumes.


On the calendar: Shoup!

Donald Shoup, the "parking guru," is coming to Alexandria and making a public presentation tomorrow. If you make it down to Alexandria for just one event this year, this is the one. In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup laid out the economic fallacies in underpricing parking, and popularized the concept of market-based performance parking which dedicates revenue to the local neighborhoods and businesses.

Shoup's talk is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 27th, 6-8 pm at the George Washington Masonic Memorial's theater right by the King Street Metro.

One of Shoup's graduate students sent in a tip that Shoup will be Twittering at shoup1234 during his six-week national tour. There are no tweets there yet, however.

This weekend is WalkingTown DC, the twice-yearly bonanza of great walking and bicycle tours of DC neighborhoods. Arlington will also open the Four Mile Run trail, and the schoolchildren who designed a better North Capitol Street will present their designs on Saturday.

Know of an event we should list? Submit it here.

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