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Replacing the FBI building won't work without plans for a new Pennsylvania Avenue

A mixed-use development is due to replace the FBI building in Penn Quarter. Right now, the rules that will guide that six-acre redevelopment are stalling over a few issues. The biggest problem is the risk that the current draft ignores the best possible outcome: a Pennsylvania Avenue that devotes enough space to pedestrians.


Schematic (in beige) of the height and volume planners envision for the site. Image from NCPC.

In the next decade, the FBI will leave their downtown headquarters, swapping its current home at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW with a developer in exchange for for a vast campus in either Virginia or Maryland. Right now, government agencies, led by the National Capital Planning Commission, have to clarify what the government will allow the future developer to build on the land.

The new FBI headquarters will be expensive. The larger the development rights are, the better the deal the government will get. A bigger offer means the federal government will pay less money out of pocket, or even recover a surplus. So the government agency negotiating the swap, the General Services Administration, wants NCPC to permit as much leaseable floor area as possible.

While working on the guidelines for the swap, NCPC is also working with designers to re-imagine Pennsylvania Avenue as a lively mixed-use street with performers and sidewalk cafes. A busier street requires wide sidewalks. The FBI site does have a wide sidewalk now. However, that's on space borrowed from the lots the FBI building was built on in the 1960s. The GSA wants that space back for the deal.

NCPC's planners struck a compromise: they'd give GSA about half of the space back, which would mean GSA getting a feasible building that leaves generous room for outdoor restaurant seating, similar to I Street between the Foggy Bottom Metro and Whole Foods. Not satisfied, the GSA is fighting the guidelines, threatening to use an escape clause that lets it set its own rules.

This fight is missing the point: the only reason sidewalks are tight is because the roadway in Pennsylvania Avenue is ridiculously wide. Everyone involved knows this. They're thinking of changing it, but the planners have to act like it will stay the same.

Autocentric visions reshaped Pennsylvania Avenue


Pennsylvania Avenue cross section, if L'Enfant's vision existed today. Image by author with Streetmix.

At founding, Pierre L'Enfant and later surveyors laid out Pennsylvania Avenue's right-of-way to be 160 feet wide, with 40-foot sidewalks under a canopy of two rows of trees. That didn't last. By the 1902, the sidewalks had narrowed to 27 feet.

You can see how cramped this gets on the north sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets, especially where retail windows project into the street.


Between the Victorian "projections" and the 1970s trees set usually far from the curb, the sidewalk between 6th and 7th gets cramped.

In the 20th century, planners reimagined the street as an active monumental promenade with sidewalks bigger than L'Enfant imagined. They also assumed that space given over to solely cars could never decrease. So they borrowed space from the properties on either side of the right-of-way, demolishing the older buildings and mandating that new buildings rise a prescribed distance from the property line.

On the south side of Pennsylvania, Federal Triangle's designers went with 30-foot setbacks for a total of 50 feet of setback. In the 1960s, planners decided a large federal building should sit on the northern side 50 feet back from the property line, creating a plaza-like space of 80 feet. The current FBI building is the only part of that vision that was completed.


The 1960s plan imagined a vast promenade flanked by federal buildings. Image from SOM, created for the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue.

By 1974, planners had started to see how mixed uses bring activity to streets. So, the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan added residential, commercial, and arts buildings, but kept the setbacks for aesthetic reasons.


At the FBI building, the sidewalk is wide enough to allow three rows of trees. Image from Google Maps.

At the same time, historic preservation laws blocked demolition on the remaining old buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. That leaves the north side as it is today: massive sidewalks running discontinuously for half of the length of the road, and narrow sidewalks where the historic building still stand. It will never be complete.


In this diagram of Pennsylvania Avenue, dark green stretches are setbacks of 75 feet or more, light green are about 50 feet, pink are between 26 and 44 feet, and red are 25 feet or less.
Image from NCPC

The only way to make the sidewalks consistently wide would be to narrow the vehicular roadway. For the avenue-wide plan, planners are considering doing that. The catch is that because nobody has approved an avenue design with wider sidewalks, for the FBI site guidelines, NCPC has had to assume that building back at the legal lot line would leave only the narrow 27-foot sidewalk.

The full setback has some influential defenders: DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, the Committee of 100, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the landscape architects Elizabeth Meyer and Elizabeth Gilbert sitting on the Commission of Fine Arts.

Developers and the notable architect Richard Rogers have backed the GSA's request for a bigger building. The DC Historic Preservation Office has backed a building at the lot line as well. They don't care about the square footage, they want the plan to follow the L'Enfant Plan exactly as surveyed in the 1790s.

So earlier this month, NCPC split the difference and decided new buildings on the FBI block would stand back 30 feet, for a 57-foot buffer similar to the one across the street at Federal Triangle.

This half-hearted compromise sets a precedent that will make it harder to fix the design of the street later. It will probably also result in a worse land deal. NCPC has stated that if, in the future, the avenue redesign gives sidewalks a bigger share of the roadway, they could rethink the design of the FBI site. But a change made 3-4 years from now, after closing on the deal would effectively give the developer a large amount of area for free.

If we can move buildings, we can move the roadway

The details of the deal hide the biggest assumption: that the amount of space given over to cars cannot change and the sidewalks could never get wider. But the massive roadway comes from 1900s guesswork. Now, a growing body of research based on the roads that guesswork has created says narrowing the roadway is the only sensible thing to do.

The thing is, Pennsylvania Avenue could have 40-foot sidewalks, double rows of trees, fill out the block as L'Enfant envisioned, and have a cafe, all without removing a single lane of vehicular traffic.


Cross-section of the street, if a new building were built at L'Enfant's lot line. Image by the author using Streetmix.

All of the lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue are 11 feet wide. That plus the 12-foot median-slash-protected bikeway adds up to the expansive, hard-to-cross Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleven feet is a big, suburban traffic lane. Lanes of that size are never appropriate for an urban setting, wide open views or not.

First, narrow lanes would be safer. Wider lanes encourage speeding, and streets too wide for many people to cross on time. Whatever their intentions, the current configuration is designed for moving traffic, not taking in the view as a pedestrian.

Imagine a street for tourists, not traffic

To show what's possible with only the 160' right-of-way, let's do a quick exercise. Assume each direction needs on 11' lane for buses and trucks. That leaves six feet, plus the 12-foot median up for grabs. Plus, the current road is four feet off center, and the sidewalk trees are set further in than most streets. That adds up.

Of course this will require professional study, but we can use Streetmix to understand what's possible for a 21st-century street.


Just narrowing the vehicle lanes slightly make the sidewalks wider and the road more symmetrical.

I like the double row of trees some blocks currently have. Every block could have that in this design. I like the idea of having some outdoor cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue. This design has room for that. The monumental views are important; this design keeps the avenue symmetrical by moving the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway behind a barrier on the less compressed south side.


With six lanes at 9 feet wide, L'Enfant almost gets his road back. Image by author with Streetmix.

With a more adventurous nine-foot travel lanes, I was able to split out the road with bikeways in each direction, with barriers wide enough for bus stops, a roadway that's easier for people of all abilities to cross, and as a bonus, restore L'Enfant's dimensions.

And again, this is without eliminating a single vehicle traffic lane. Think of what the possibilities could be if that is allowed.

Narrowing the Pennsylvania Avenue roadway would allow for the sidewalks planners want for the FBI building site. It gives GSA a more valuable building to swap in its deal. And it restores consistency to the historic streetwall Pennsylvania Avenue had, before planners who'd never been stuck in traffic tore it up.

There's a joke in architecture that "there's nothing more designed than the site." That is, designers are used to working inside artificial parameters as if they're laws of nature. As a result, public is missing the only win-win scenario. Narrowing the road is the only way to meet historic, economic, and vibrancy requirements this project has.

At the least, the guidelines should include a stronger statement of support for a narrow road and a consistent streetwall to avoid setting this condition in stone.

No trends suggest 11-foot lanes are what DC needs in the future. The lack of this perspective by the leadership of the multiple agencies involved is a bad sign.

In the meantime, consider reimagining Pennsylvania Avenue with Streetmixand sent what you come up with to NCPC, along with any other comments on the FBI site's square guidelines: info@ncpc.gov

Bicycling


Capital Bikeshare members ride here, bike lanes or not

Over half of the miles that Capital Bikeshare members ride are on streets without any sort of bike lanes. This map shows you which of those streets are the most popular:


Heat map of where Cabi members ride when there aren't bike lanes. Image from Mobility Lab.

Jon Wergin, of Arlington's Mobility Lab, put together the map after checking out data from GPS trackers on a number of CaBi Bikes, which showed what specific routes riders actually took between taking and returning a bike.

Wergin then separated data from riders who were regular CaBi members and those who were casual, less frequent users. Wergin's map focuses on the regular users, as the more casual ones overwhelmingly stuck to off-road paths close to the Mall and Monuments.

Only about 10% of DC's roadways have some sort of cycling infrastructure, but those routes still got about 1/3 of the bike traffic from regular CaBi members. Even more frequently, though, regular riders took the most direct route possible, which is why the long state avenues seem to have some of heaviest usage. Thick bands dominate Massachussetts, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania Avenues. M Street in Georgetown, K street near NOMA, and 14th in Columbia Heights also see heavy usage.

Some of these streets are due for new bike infrastructure in the next few years. Louisiana Avenue is slated for protected lanes that would connect existing protected lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue and First Street NE, and new bike lanes might also go in west of the White House.

But plans for Massachussetts and Florida Avenues are more vague. This map shows that DDOT may want to think about more specific plans for these and other roads since they're proving popular with cyclists, even without bike lanes.

What do you notice about the map? Tell us in the comments.

Bicycling


Just blocks from the White House... new bike and bus lanes?

A new protected bikeway could go in along Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House, along with a contraflow bus lane on nearby H Street. DDOT is launching a study to review these possibilities, and is seeking public input.


DDOT is studying how to make this area more pedestrian, bike, and bus-friendly. Image from Google Maps.

The area that the Downtown West Transportation Planning Study is looking at, outlined in the image above, is basically the area immediately north of the White House. It includes Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 17th Street and Washington Circle, and H Street NW between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues.

When the 12-month study is over, DDOT will compile a few options for making travel by bike, walk, and travel by bus in the area safe, more efficient, and more inviting.

Pennsylvania Avenue Reconfiguration

Not unlike its counterpart between the White House and the US Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House is primed to be reimagined and repurposed.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks May 1995, vehicle traffic was permanently banned along the 1600 block immediately in front of the White House (between 15th and 17th streets). Since the closure, Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House has been less of a major vehicle artery because drivers heading downtown have more efficient alternate routes (such as K Street, H Street, and Constitution Avenue).

The DDOT study will evaluate alternative ways of setting up the western segment of Pennsylvania. Each build alternative will address changes to the existing right-of-way, in which approximately 80 of the 130 feet available is currently dedicated to vehicular traffic.

New options will focus on protected bike lanes, and an enhanced streetscape to make the corridor more inviting for foot traffic. In addition, stormwater retention infrastructure will be put in place as part of plans for a full rebuild.

As the western segment of Pennsylvania Avenue falls within the Golden Triangle BID, the BID has taken an active interest in enhancing the corridor. The BID recently partnered with KGP Design Studio to develop conceptual designs for enhancements to the streetscape.

The conceptual designs are independent of DDOT, but the BID hopes DDOT will take them into consideration.


Pennsylvania Avenue how it is now, contrasted with a conceptual design provided by the Golden Triangle BID/KDG Design Studio.

In addition to fundamental transportation enhancements, the BID sees potential to make the western side of Pennsylvania Avenue a world-class destination. It connects directly to the White House, is home to many international organizations (IMF, the World Bank) and is home to a top-tier university (George Washington). Yet the current space is barren, uninviting, and underutilized.

The conceptual designs provided by the BID/KGP include fewer traffic lanes and more dedicated and protected bike lanes. The designs also present a focus on building fully integrated and connected green spaces, which would make the area more welcoming to foot traffic while also serving to better manage stormwater runoff.

Ultimately, the Golden Triangle BID envisions an enlivened boulevard that can capture and celebrate the global scope of western Pennsylvania Avenue's iconic geographical positioning.

A new bus lane on H Street

In 2013, WMATA conducted a study to evaluate options for improving bus throughput on the heavily-trafficked corridor along H and I streets west of New York Avenue. There are approximately 3,000 daily bus trips along this corridor, carrying 62,300 riders. Frequent and efficient service is extremely important.

WMATA recommended a dedicated contraflow bus lane traveling west on H street, and DDOT will consider that option as it conducts this study.


Image from WMATA.

What's next?

DDOT is hosting a public meeting Wednesday, June 15th to share draft goals and objectives, and solicit public feedback. It's from 6-8 pm, with the presentation starting at 6:30, in Room A-5 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G Street NW.

For further details, refer to the Downtown West Transportation Planning Study website.

Development


The FBI building's new owner will be allowed to build tall, and D Street is coming back

Reconstructing D Street NW and allowing buildings taller than DC's usual height limit are likely at downtown's J. Edgar Hoover Building, once the FBI moves out. The National Capital Planning Commission's staff backed these proposals, and today the official commissioners will likely accept them. The staff left a third question, how wide the sidewalks should be on Pennsylvania Avenue, up for debate.


Photo of the J. Edgar Hoover Building site before its construction, with lot boundaries outlined in yellow. Photo from NCPC.

The single brutalist building sits on two parcels, called "squares," which D Street bisected before the 1960s. The FBI plans to trade the land with a developer (where it would move is TBD), and the NCPC's decision will make clear exactly what could be built on the land once the FBI moves out.

The first recommendation from the NCPC staff is to return the 70-foot wide swathe of land where D Street once ran to a public right-of-way. That doesn't mean this space will be a typical street. Since the rules are just shaping the building's mass, NCPC's staff left open the door open for other possibilities, like pedestrian-only and pedestrian-priority woonerf spaces between the two restored blocks.


The FBI site in the Pennsylvania Avenue special planning area. Image from NCPC.

The North block will be tall and dense.

The second rule NCPC is poised to adopt is that buildings on the large northern block, called Square 378, will rise to 160 feet. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act specifically allows buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to climb that high, measured from Pennsylvania Avenue. The 1974 plan that created these square guidelines has sculpted the surrounding cityscape, so although some buildings reach 160 feet by the White House, those buildings' bulk steps back in tiers several times away from Pennsylvania. The Newseum is a great example: it's only 90' at the Pennsylvania Avenue property line, but rises to 140' at the apartment building at the rear.


Maps showing heights around the FBI Building. Buildings to the west (left) tend to be taller. Map from NCPC.

Buildings on the north block also have to fill out much of the block on the first floor. Because of its size, the block will almost certainly end up as a few different buildings above grade. The 2016 D-7 zone caps offices and hotel density, but allows unlimited apartment density, and planners will likely insist on some mix of uses. Plus, with buildings aligned to the property lines, the likelihood of an internal semi-public central space, similar to CityCenter, is higher.

The southern block is wedged between priorities

The future of the southern, triangular block is more complicated because of the way Pennsylvania Avenue was reimagined in the 20th Century. In order to shape the scenic view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue symmetrically with Federal Triangle, planners want the new buildings to have horizontal setbacks, like New York skyscrapers. More importantly, the size depends on how wide planners choose to make the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.


The current building is set back 75 feet from the curb, which is enough for three rows of trees. Image from NCPC

The current FBI Building sits nearly 75 feet away from Pennsylvania Avenue's curb and 40 feet from the property line laid out in the L'Enfant Plan:

That's the result of a 1964 plan that envisioned the avenue as a grand federal space and nothing else. Providing space for parade grandstands was more important than street activity. Later planners went for a more modest setback, but recently, facades have risen close to the property line, as at the Newseum.


The Newseum is much closer to the street than the FBI building.

With a re-opened D Street and a 50-foot sidewalk, the south site will be small. Leaving a larger footprint seems like the best way to get an active ground level. Setbacks a few floors up would protect the views and leave a large enough footprint for uses other than high-end residential, at least at the lower levels.

The NCPC report leaves this issue up for debate, apparently because of a conflict between two roles it has to uphold. One is to preserve the 1974 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan that created these guidelines in the first place. The other is preserving the L'Enfant Plan, which says buildings should rise at the property line. In fact, the District's Historic Preservation Office feels that not building to the property line would have a negative effect on the L'Enfant Plan. Their objection might be a formality, but it's enough to leave it up for a longer debate.

It comes down to the roadway

NCPC's staff mildly recommends mirroring the setback on the south side of the street, at Federal Triangle, to create a more symmetrical streetscape and leave generous sidewalks to handle the crowds. Where buildings rise from the historic streets, like between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the 20-foot sidewalks can get crowded.

This rationale leaves out an important detail: the reason those sidewalks seem crowded is the width of the roadway.


L'Enfant's design for Pennsylvania Avenue had an 80-foot roadway, 30-foot sidewalks, and 10-foot buffers. Image from NCPC.

There's nothing sacred about that width. In the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a much narrower roadbed there. Then, at the cusp of the automobile age, the McMillan Commission and others decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue to make it more striking. As with the other roads widened in the wake of this plan, the reality of streets congested with fast moving vehicles was obscured behind glamorous renderings of grand boulevards.


The McMillan Commission and its successors widened the roadway to 107.5 feet. Image from NCPC.

The truth is that Pennsylvania Avenue will never be symmetrical. On the north side, multiple landmarked buildings rise taller than Federal Triangle. One side will have some street bustle, the other will be formal. It may be better to accept this asymmetry and design around it.

While part of NCPC considers what will replace the FBI building, other staff are studying how to make Pennsylvania Avenue more lively in the long term. If that's the goal, right-sizing the street is the best way to get the sidewalks to handle crowds. It wouldn't be the first time space allocated to cars in the early 1900s was returned: the two gravel paths on the Mall were turned over to cars for decades before pedestrianization in the 70s. The aesthetic impact remains the same.

NCPC planners will move on to finer grained detail with today's decisions out of the way. A reopened D Street and a dense north block are steps in the right direction. Planning the south block for a future where pedestrian space and monumental views aren't beholden to car traffic follows as well.

Housing


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Transit


Five bus lines everyone in DC should know, love, and use

Metrorail's six lines are so easy to remember that most Washingtonians have memorized them. Here are five convenient bus lines that everyone in town should know just as well.


Simple map of five main DC bus lines. Map by the author. Original base map from Google.

These five lines are among Metro's most convenient and popular. Buses on them come every few minutes, and follow easy-to-remember routes along major streets.

For the sort of Washingtonian who's comfortable with Metrorail but hasn't taken the leap to the bus, these five lines are a great place to start. Unlike some minor buses that only come once every half hour, you can treat these five lines the way you'd treat a rail line, or a DC Circulator: They're always there, and it's never a long wait before the next bus.

If you can memorize Metrorail's Red and Orange Lines, you can memorize these streets:

Wisconsin / Pennsylvania (30 series): If you want a bus on Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, just remember to catch anything with a number in the 30s. Nine bus routes cover this line, each of them with slightly different details, but a similar overall path: The 30N, 30S, 31, 33, 32, 34, 36, and the express 37 and 39. Collectively they're called the "30 series."

The other four lines are similar. Each has multiple routes with slightly different details combining to form a family, or series. Within each series some individual routes may come at different times of day, or continue farther beyond the lines this map shows. But the key is to remember the series name.

16th Street (S series): Four routes, each beginning with the letter S: The S1, S2, S4, and the express S9.

14th Street (50 series): Three routes, each in the 50s: The 52, 53, and 54.

Georgia Avenue (70 series): Two routes, in the 70s: The local 70 and the express 79.

H Street (X series): Two routes, starting with X: The local X2 and the express X9. When it eventually opens (knock on wood), the DC Streetcar will beef up this same corridor.

For the Metrobus veterans among you, this is old news. About 80,000 people per day ride these five lines, so they're hardly secrets. But if you're not a frequent bus rider, give these a try.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


Which DC Councilmembers support fully protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway?

To stop drivers from making dangerous U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway, DC has installed physical barriers—except on two blocks right where DC councilmembers park. Are councilmembers the obstacle? We asked them if they support completing the barriers.


A U-turning driver strikes a cyclist. Image from David Garber on Twitter.

From the moment the bikeway opened on Pennsylvania Avenue, there were problems with drivers parking in the lanes and making U-turns mid-block. U-turns are very dangerous, as drivers often do not see cyclists riding in the lanes.

It took three years and a mayoral order to even confirm that these U-turns were actually illegal. During this time, many cyclists were struck by drivers, and 12 of Capital Bikeshare's first 14 crashes happened on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Wheel stops on Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

After almost two years of experiments with tools like "zebras," the District Department of Transportation started lining the lanes with rubber curb stops. At Bike to Work Day in May, officials announced plans to install them all the way from 3rd Street NW to 13th Street NW.

But curiously, that announcement omitted the two westernmost blocks, from 13th Street NW to 15th Street NW. DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair said in an earlier statement to Greater Greater Washington, "In the immediate future, DDOT will not be installing the park-its between 13th and 15th streets, NW, on Pennsylvania Avenue. The agency still needs to analyze those blocks along with several mitigating factors that it must take into consideration."

Are politicians one "mitigating factor"? Along that stretch is the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the executive and legislative offices of the District of Columbia government. Councilmembers park in front of the Wilson Building, and many make U-turns to either get to the parking space or leave.

I reached out to all 13 members of the DC Council for comment. Here's the scorecard.


Top from left to right: Vincent Orange, Elissa Silverman, David Grosso, LaRuby May, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, Anita Bonds, Charles Allen. Bottom from left to right: Yvette Alexander, Jack Evans, Chairman Phil Mendelson, Kenyan McDuffie, Mary Cheh.
Green circles denote members who stated they support barriers, question marks show members who did not reply, and X's show those who made negative statements. Image by Greater Greater Washington from base image by the DC Council.

I got supportive comments from at-large councilmembers Anita Bonds, David Grosso, and Elissa Silverman, and ward members Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Brandon Todd (Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and LaRuby May (Ward 8).

I got no response from Chairman Phil Mendelson or at-large member Vincent Orange.

Ward 7 representative Yvette Alexander's office did not reply to my request for comment, but I had the opportunity to speak with her during a recent rally in support of adding barriers to the rest of the bikeway.

At first she equated cycling with lawbreaking, complaining that bicycles need to get off sidewalks and follow the same laws that apply to drivers. I explained that better bike lanes means more people will use them and follow the laws, a statement which she found funny for some reason. She then complained that the demonstrators were blocking the U-turn she wanted to make that day.

Update: Yvette Alexander says on Twitter that yes, she does in fact support barriers for the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway. She has not yet responded to GGW's request for clarification that she supports barriers specifically between 13th and 15th Streets.
Below are the full comments from each councilmember's office who responded.

Anita Bonds (At Large): "Councilmember Bonds supports the completion throughout PA Avenue. Additionally, she prefers the usage of 'sticks' as she calls them to create a visible barrier on as many bike lanes possible throughout the city."

David Grosso (At Large): "As you know, Councilmember Grosso joined the protest a few weeks ago on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania regarding protected bike lanes on that block and the 1400 block. The Councilmember is very supportive of increasing DC's bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including moving forward as quickly as possible on planning that has already been done. Grosso [has met] with DDOT director Dormsjo to discuss these issues more in-depth. And he has been biking to work on a regular basis, which gives him a firsthand look at the issues facing bicyclists in DC."

Elissa Silverman (At Large): "I support extending the existing wheel stops through 15th Street. They are in place to protect both cyclists and car drivers. I biked to work on Pennsylvania Avenue this morning, and I was behind a mom commuting with her toddler in a seat on the front handlebars. As we encourage people to get out of their cars and use alternate transportation—walking, biking, subway, bus, even Segway—we need to keep everyone safe. Installing the wheels stops between 13th and 15th will do that. And, by the way, I also drive that route—and when I park in front of the Wilson Building I make a left turn at the light and drive around it to get back on Pennsylvania. It does take an extra minute or two—and I've been late to a meeting to do it!—but it is worth the time."

Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1): "Councilmember Nadeau is a strong supporter of building more protected bike lanes throughout the District, including along this section of Pennsylvania Ave where it's especially important to prevent illegal U turns. She is currently working with WABA on a letter to DDOT requesting the prioritization of several protected bike lane projects in Ward 1, and also secured a commitment from the Director of the DMV to provide drivers with information about bike lanes. Recently, she also joined Bike Ambassadors in Columbia Heights and participated in Bike to Work Day."

Jack Evans (Ward 2): "Councilmember Evans supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th."

Mary Cheh (Ward 3): "The Councilmember feels that as long as safety equipment isn't affected, the curbs should be added now."

Brandon Todd (Ward 4): "Councilmember Todd fully supports improving bicycle safety along Pennsylvania Avenue, including adding curbs wherever necessary along the bike path. He would like to see those safety improvements implemented as quickly as possible, especially in those areas where bicyclists are particularly vulnerable and currently unprotected."

Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5): "Councilmember McDuffie is in support of installing curbs between 15th and 13th streets on Pennsylvania Ave."

Charles Allen (Ward 6): "The Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack is an important east-west connective link in the District's bicycle infrastructure. Protecting these bike lanes with parking curbs, while not a perfect solution to dangerous illegal U-turns, is an important means of improving safety for cyclists. Leaving two blocks unprotected is, frankly, baffling and unacceptable. A physical barrier to deter illegal U-turns is needed the full length of the corridor."

LaRuby May (Ward 8): "Councilmember May absolutely supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th and is a strong supporter of more protected bike lanes in Ward 8 and across the District."

We will update this post if other councilmembers respond with comments.

Update: Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), LaRuby May (Ward 8), and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) followed up soon after this article was published to state their support for protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes. The graphic and post have been updated to reflect their positions.

Public Spaces


The secret park by the White House could be great, if people knew about it

Pershing Park is one of DC's most unique and potentially pleasant public spaces. Unfortunately, few people have ever enjoyed it because the park's best elements are hidden behind an uninviting raised embankment.


Pershing Park as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Google.

It's nice on the inside

I like Pershing Park, at Pennsylvania and 15th Street NW. I wish it worked better.

The inside of the park is a terraced wetland garden that, when it's in good condition, is absolutely lovely.


The pleasant interior. Photo by pcouture on Flickr.

There are ample shady seats, a duck pond to dip your feet in, and climbable concrete terraces that make the park feel like an adult-size jungle gym.

It's fun, and pretty, and unlike anything else in DC.

Or at least, it was fun and pretty a few years ago. The park has fallen into disrepair lately. The pond is dry. Orange cones litter the open plaza. It's abandoned and depressing.

Part of Pershing Park's problems are simply neglect. Better maintenance could fix the pond and the concrete.

But there's one big problem, and it may well be unfixable.

People can't see it

Most people don't know the park is there. You can't see it from the street. From three sides, the only thing visible is a grassy embankment straight out of a suburban McDonalds parking lot. The fourth side is literally a parking lot.


Pershing Park from above. Image from Google.

Good urban parks draw pedestrians in from the surrounding sidewalk. When you're standing outside Dupont Circle, you can see and hear interesting things happening inside the park there. The activity and people inside Dupont make you want to enter it yourself.

Pershing Park is the absolute opposite. It's plain and boring from the sidewalk. There are interesting things there, but you can't see them so they don't draw you in.

Most people just ignore it; the park blends into the background and they don't give it a second thought.

Those who do look closely see a bunker, a hostile sloping hill with few entry points. From busy Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park more closely resembles an 18th Century military stockade than an inviting civic space.

Until that problem is solved, Pershing will never be a good park, no matter how pleasant it is on the inside. Until that's solved, Pershing will always be an afterthought.

Let's fix it

What to do with Pershing Park is increasingly becoming a hot-button issue. One group wants to redevelop it as a national World War I memorial. Kriston Capps at CityLab takes a preservationist bent and says we should restore it.

Either way, the park is falling apart and needs work.

Would it be possible to save the pleasant interior and radically change the bunker exterior? Maybe, maybe not. The park occupies sloping terrain that any design will have to work around. Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid a retaining wall somewhere. At least not if we want to keep the terraces.

But retaining walls don't have to be so plain or uninviting. There are better examples elsewhere in the city.

It would be a shame to lose such a unique space. If designers can find a way to restore Pershing Park's terraces and pond while altering the park's exterior to be more inviting, that would be an ideal solution.

But if not, tear the sucker out. A downtown park that nobody uses isn't a useful downtown park.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


Bollards shape bicycle tracks in the snow

Snow is not just fun or a chore to shovel, but also a planning tool in the way it visually reveals the paths people take as they walk, bike, or drive. Jeff Miller captured this fascinating photograph of how bicyclists' many paths converge on a few points as they pass through the bollards on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.


Photo by Jeff Miller on Twitter.
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