The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Petworth

Roads


Pedestrian tunnels would not make DC's streets better for walking

DC is looking at ways to make city streets safer in and around Petworth and Brightwood. At least one neighborhood official thinks the best way to do that is to put pedestrians in tunnels—yes, tunnels. But tunnels make for longer trips for people on foot, can encourage crime, and don't really make dangerous streets any safer.


No. Photo by Matt Niemi on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) put together the Rock Creek East Livability Study to come up with ideas and recommendations to improve safety and accessibility for streets in the area north of the Petworth Metro station, east of Rock Creek Park, and west of North Capitol Street.

These places are dense, walkable, and home to many people who do a lot of walking and biking. But they're also primarily designed for cars: the roads are wide, with intersection designs meant for fast turns that encourage drivers to look for gaps in traffic rather than crossing pedestrians.

The final results of the study came out in August, and they included suggestions for things like bike lanes, traffic calming, and intersection designs that are more pedestrian-focused. DDOT engineers hope that different street designs will bring driving speeds down and make people feel safer walking or biking in the neighborhood.

Two major traffic circles, Grant and Sherman, got special treatment in the study. Right now, both have two lanes for cars and none for bikes. Petworth residents have long complained about speeding through the circles and how it makes crossing them on foot to go straight across a dicey proposition. DDOT looked at traffic volumes and determined that each circle could probably stand to have only one driving lane, which would mean room for bike lanes and shorter crosswalks.


Grant Circle Today. Better parking, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks are proposed. Image from Google Maps.

An ANC commissioner says tunnels would be better

Petworth Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C commissioner Talib-Din Uqdah is not a fan of the plan. He thinks the ideas proposed as a result of the study would negatively affect traffic in the area too much. In an attempt to explain to Petworth News' Drew Schneider that he is concerned about the dangers pedestrians face, he suggested that DDOT should dig tunnels underneath Grant Circle for pedestrians to use:

Since I'm now living in a city nostalgic for days past—street cars and "barn-dancing" (sic) at downtown intersections—why don't we consider bringing back the underground walkways that would take you from one side of a busy street, intersection or "circle," to another?

Coming up in the 50's and 60's, the city's earlier solution for pedestrian safety was to construct these underground walkways many of us used. I believe they are all closed-off now, Dupont Circle being the exception...Just something to think about—a win-win for the pedestrian and above ground modes of travel—cost should not be a consideration; all what price do we put on safety?

Here are the problems with pedestrian tunnels

It might seem like tunnels (and bridges) are a no-brainer way to get people across busy streets. There are, after all, places where they do just that, like on trails that cross over rail lines or interstates. But by and large, there are very good reasons for not making them part of our cities.


This pedestrian bridge over I-495 in Annandale makes sense. But over city streets? Not so much. Image from Google Streetview.

Simply re-routing people away from one or two intersections certainly doesn't mean dangerous driving will stop (it could increase since there'd be even fewer people around), and there are still plenty of other people crossing the streets that don't have tunnels.

Meanwhile, simple physics says that with a tunnel, you not only have to walk the distance to your destination, but also up or down the equivalent of a story. It also seems perverse to make walking harder and more inconvenient under the pretext of keeping people safe, especially when other safe options do the same job with less effort.

Moreover, unless you are talking about a lot of pedestrians using a particular tunnel at all hours, you have to deal with other safety concerns about potential crime. Tunnels and bridges that are out of the way of police cars driving by make many people feel unsafe and loathe to use a particular piece of infrastructure. If people feel unsafe walking down a dark tunnel alone at night, they'll decide to take their chances with speeding cars.

And despite Mr. Uqdah's assertion that "cost should not be a consideration" that is simply not true. DDOT and the city certainly do not have unlimited funds, and tunnels of any type are very expensive.


Randolph Street in Petworth. Photo by Rob on Flickr

Traffic calming helps drivers too

Another bad assumption is that traffic calming is just frustrating drivers for the sake of helping others feel good. That's simply not true. Reduced collision rates on calm streets are an obvious benefit for drivers.

Meanwhile, the fears that slower speeds (which usually just brings things down to the speed limit) just lead to increased congestion have not been borne out across the city.

Time and time again, it has been clear that a low-cost solution like traffic calming has great results for everyone when they travel, whether it's on foot or by car. We should get away from the assumption that a tunnel or bridge is far safer than the street.

Something as simple as walking around the neighborhood should not involve elaborate infrastructure plans. Walking is good for people as individuals, it's good for the city, it's good for business, and it's good for a safe and vibrant city. If people do not want to walk because they feel unsafe on the street, then it's going to be very hard to convince them to walk somewhere else.

Suggesting tunnels as a way to keep traffic moving implies that people on foot as mere obstacles for drivers. Tunnels would make the urban environment hostile to the people that live and work there.

Development


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.


This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.


Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.


Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.


The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.


The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.

Development


The Hebrew Home's neighbors want density and affordability

Neighbors of Petworth's Hebrew Home, which will soon be redeveloped, recently spoke up about what they'd like to see happen with the property. They want a dense building, lots of affordable housing, and better, more sustainable uses of the surrounding public space.


The Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

The Hebrew Home building provided senior housing and medical care for over 40 years before the District bought it and turned it into a mental health care facility. The building became vacant in 2009, and multiple efforts to redevelop it have stalled out.

In April, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development renewed the effort, making the Hebrew Home part of Our RFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

More than 100 residents of Petworth and Columbia Heights attended the second Hebrew Home OurRFP meeting earlier this month to review the outcome of the first meeting and provide feedback on design and density, what kind of housing should go on the site, and public space and sustainability. There were presentation boards with a number of options for addressing each category, and meeting attendees ranked their preferences by placing stickers on measures they considered most important.

Here's what they said they want to see happen with the building:

Build as much housing as can fit

96% of the meeting attendees supported maximizing the possible density of the site through a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows a building to exceed the density that its area allows in exchange for projects that benefit the neighborhood.

The Hebrew Home site is currently zoned for residential rowhouse structures with a height limit of 35' (or 40' with a special exception). While the zoning does not impact the existing historic structure—which already exceeds zoning limitations—it does restrict the new construction planned for the eastern section of the property. A PUD would permit additional height and massing.


The profile of the building if there are no zoning exceptions. Image from DMPED.


The profile of the building if there are zoning exceptions via a PUD. Image from DMPED.

While there are many amenities a developer can provide to a community as part of a PUD process, one of those amenities can be (and often is) additional affordable housing units. More on this in just a bit.

In addition to wanting more density, 60% of the participants favored incorporating historic elements of the Hebrew Home building into the new construction. This would probably mean using materials similar to the ones used for the current building, or at least designing a more traditional building.

38% of residents would also like the project to exceed the District's green building requirements. District owned or financed residential projects 10,000 square feet or larger must meet or exceed the Green Communities Standard, but residents say they want the building to do even more to use less energy, consume fewer natural resources such as water and forest products, and emit fewer pollutants into the environment.

Make the housing affordable

As many as 200 new housing units could be part of the Hebrew Home's redevelopment. A key discussion point has been how affordable these units will be.

The Hebrew Home is public property, which means 30% of any housing that goes up there has to be set aside as affordable. Yet 94% of the participants in the June OurRFP meeting indicated that 30% was not enough affordable housing, and that they want to see more. Many participants would like to see significantly more, in fact, and they indicated this by writing 100% on their stickers.


Neighbors visiting the three topic boards and placing stickers on their priorities at the latest Hebrew Home meeting. Photo by the author.

While the outcome will likely be a mix of housing affordability across the income spectrum, there is no reason why a significant number of the housing units can't be affordable at some level—and due to available tax credits, affordable units can be easier to build than market rate units.

Less than a mile to the south, the 273 unit building planned as the "build first" site to replace Park Morton has been proposed with 94 public housing units and 108 workforce units for families earning 60% AMI. The remaining units would be offered at market rate.

In additional to support for housing affordability, 36% of the participants support reserving housing for seniors, 32% would like to have family-sized units included, and 20% would like the Hebrew Home development to create opportunities for home ownership.

Revamp the public space around the building

The Hebrew Home project has significant potential to improve the site's public space and sustainability. As the site exists today, 10th Street at the eastern edge of the property is technically part of the site. Unlike the east side of 10th Street which has sidewalks, trees, and grass, the west side of 10th Street has no sidewalks, no trees, and contains a large surface parking lot.


Image from Google Maps.

There is also a large open grass area between the historic building and its neighbor to the west at 1131 Spring Road, which could be a community garden, a playground, or an improved park space.


The grass area just west of the building. Image from DMPED.

There was more diversity of opinion on this aspect of the project than there was with Housing and Density. Still, participants' preference for sustainability was strong with 76% of them indicating that they would like to see the project incorporate sustainable public space improvements. DMPED defined such improvements as including storm water management, sustainable landscaping, and permeable surfaces.

With the exception of incorporating public art, which only received support from 8% of the participants, support for the other priorities was fairly evenly split with 40% wanting upgrades to 10th Street exceeding DDOT standards, 40% for passive uses of green space such as a community garden or public benches, and 36% wanting active uses of the outdoor areas such as a dog park, playground, or educational programming.

What's next?

After getting a strong sense of what the community wants through two community workshops, DMPED plans to formally open the window for developers to submit proposals for the site in late June. Once a developer is selected, there will be additional opportunities for community engagement.

The historic nature of the site and potential PUD will both provide opportunities for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 4C and 1A to weigh in. In addition to ANC review, residents will be able to engage through public hearings at the Historic Preservation Review Board and Zoning Commission.

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

Bicycling


More than 20% of people bicycle to work in some DC neighborhoods

Over 20% of commuters in Bloomingdale, Mount Pleasant, and Petworth get to work each day primarily using a bicycle. That doesn't even include people who use bikes to reach Metro.


Bike mode share in central DC. Image from DDOT.

This fascinating map is part of the background data DDOT is preparing to study a possible protected bikeway on or around 6th Street NW.

It shows how hugely popular bicycling can be as a mode of transportation, even in the United States. What's more, this data actually undercounts bicycle commuters by quite a lot.

It's originally from the US Census' American Community Survey, which only counts the mode someone uses for the longest segment of their commute. People who bicycle a short distance to reach a Metro station, then ride Metro for the rest of their commute, count as transit riders rather than bicyclists.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


How U Street almost became strip malls and office parks

Planners in the 1950s wanted to replace large swaths of central Washington with freeways. Canceling those plans saved the city not just from the freeways themselves, but also from an equally stunning plan to demolish thousands more blocks alongside said freeways and "renew" them with a suburban landscape of strip malls, office campuses, and apartment towers.

Justement U St 1
The cloverleaf to the right is what the intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire nearly became. Aerial perspective rendering by Louis Justement. Photo by author.

Architect Louis Justement was tremendously influential from the 1920s through the 1960s, both locally and nationally; he chaired the American Institute of Architects' national Committee on Urban Planning for a spell. Gravely concerned with the tremendous overcrowding and traffic congestion that characterized wartime Washington, Justement published a short book in 1946 called New Cities For Old.

In it, he proposed not just replacing many major streets within DC with limited-access freeways. He also wanted to replace the neighborhoods that had grown up alongside those routes—or, rather, along the streetcars which traversed said streets—with modern new buildings suited to line those modern new roads.

Justement U St 2
A more detailed look at the proposed Jefferson Boulevard. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Justement's startling vision for the U Street corridor would have replaced T Street NW with "Jefferson Boulevard," and the slightly confusing intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire would have been radically simplified with a giant cloverleaf. The backs of two-block-long stripmalls, fronted by broad parking areas, would have lined Jefferson.

Between R and S Streets, the rowhouses and small apartments would be replaced by regimented rows of slabby tower-block apartments. Lining the towers up north-south and leaving space in between would, in theory, make sure every unit got an equal chance at sunlight, and would leave room for plentiful surface parking as well.


Development surrounding a freeway that would have run between Decatur and Emerson Streets NW and between 7th and 16th streets NW, north and west of Sherman Circle. Image from the Theodor Horydczak Collection at the Library of Congress.

For the blocks between Buchanan and Gallatin Streets NW, around Sherman Circle in the Petworth area, Justement proposed something even more radical: a ""Lincoln Boulevard" circumferential freeway bound by surface "access roads," with a constant series of loops permitting cars to switch back and forth.

A giant parking garage would fill the two blocks currently bound by Georgia, 13th, Emerson, and Gallatin, serving a monstrous shopping mall (crowned with office towers) stretching from 7th Street over to 16th. The blocks beyond would see yet more towers-in-parking-lots.

Justement plan for NW
Connecticut Avenue NW between Cathedral Avenue NW and Albemarle Street NW. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Even upper Connecticut Avenue, where developers had been building auto-oriented buildings since 1930, was to be comprehensively renewed. Within 20 years, Justement forecast, Connecticut would become a freeway, with underpasses and "feeder streets" carrying local traffic. The streetcar would be replaced with buses that would pull off the freeway into parking lots.

Cleveland Park's shops, which Justement said caused "traffic hazzards" by being arrayed on both sides of Connecticut and thus inviting pedestrians to cross the road, would be consolidated into a shopping center where Tilden Gardens stands today. The grand apartment houses lining Connecticut would be summarily demolished, replaced with new towers further from the unceasing traffic.

While most of DC was lucky to escape these ideas, there was one DC neighborhood where Louis Justement's vision came to pass: the Southwest Waterfront.

The rest of the country was not as lucky, though. Many of the ideas that Justement sought to impose on DC found their way into other plans all across America. His ideas for Petworth resemble the march of office towers lining the access roads of the Katy Freeway outside Houston; his sketch of Connecticut Avenue looks like the geometric clusters of offices arrayed between Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills, the "feeder streets" paralleling the Dulles Toll Road in Reston; his plan for U Street resemble any number of Edge Cities, like Tysons Corner or Parole outside Annapolis.

Parking


Can a housing development go up in Petworth if it doesn't build new parking?

The developers behind a proposal for a new residential building in Petworth say it doesn't need parking because there are plenty of non-car transportation options nearby. Some residents disagree, saying the area can't accommodate new housing if new parking doesn't come with it. But take a walk around and you'll see their concerns are overblown.


Image from Rooney Properties.

In April 2015, Rooney Properties purchased the property at 3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW. Rooney began making plans to redevelop the site, formerly home to Sweet Mango, into a mixed-use building with ground floor retail and 21 living units in accordance with the property's zoning.

The property is configured as a triangle, with Rock Creek Church Road to the south and New Hampshire Avenue to the north. It is located near seven bus lines, the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro rail station, and a Capital Bikeshare station. Due to these factors, the developer is seeking a zoning variance to exclude parking from the development. But with a number of other new developments to the north and south also receiving parking relief in the past few years, residents are concerned that exempting 3701 New Hampshire Avenue from parking requirements will make it harder for everyone to park.


Base image from Google Maps.

Last week, the plans to redevelop the site encountered opposition from ANC 4C and members of the community. Petworth News did a good job covering the blow by blow of the meeting, accurately describing it as dysfunctional. One of the key areas of opposition in that meeting had to do with how the 21-unit building would impact residential street parking.

Last month, ANC 1A also weighed in on the variances required for this project to move forward. Based on the Comprehensive Plan, the goals of the Georgia Avenue Overlay for the corridor, and need for more density and housing in the community, and how the developer is proposing to find solutions to accommodate potential car owners, ANC 1A passed a resolution in support of this development (read here). It is important to note that neither ANC 1A's support nor ANC 4C's opposition was unanimous.

Concerns over parking are a bit inflated

It is fair to say that parking is an important issue—and an important quality of life issue. It must also be recognized that no two developments are exactly the same. In the case of 3701 New Hampshire, due to the oddly shaped lot, it just isn't physically possible to build underground parking on the property, especially to the extent that zoning would require. The property also doesn't have abutting properties to the north or south within the Georgia Avenue Overlay that would be able to be added to the development making parking possible.


3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW today. Photo by Owen Chaput.

Keeping this in mind, along with the property's close proximity to a Metro station, several bus lines, and a Capital Bikeshare station, there is no reason why this building should not be built. Furthermore, ANC 1A's request to remove the loading zone and associated curb cut on Rock Creek Church Road as part of their approval should add two on-street parking spaces to the block.

To manage parking, Rooney Properties (the developer) is planning to provide new residents with SmarTrip cards, a bike share membership and car share membership for the first three years. Rooney is also including space for bicycle maintenance and storage within the new building, and the lobby of the building will offer a transit screen that shows the number of bikes available and a real-time Metro train schedule.

Finally, Rooney is also actively seeking off-street parking options and has noted that several of the recent buildings in the area that have off-street parking are not parked up. The developer would be willing to provide free parking in these garages to new residents for three years as well.

Here's what parking the area currently has

According to the Petworth News report from the ANC 4C meeting, the following gives an idea of how much off-street parking is available in the immediate area. The Swift apartments (above Safeway) have 70 spots leased of their available 158 spots. The Park Place development has 138 spots leased of their 181 spots, and the 3 Trees Flats has 115 spots leased of their 130 spots. There is a lot of untapped parking potential in these buildings.

But another part of the story that wasn't part of the ANC 4C discussion—one important to developing some understanding of the potential hardships the immediate neighbors may face—is how much off-street parking exists in the community.


Rock Creek Church Road NW, with the development site to the north (left in the photo). Photo by Owen Chaput.

Residents from the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road were among those expressing concern about the potential impact this development could have on that block, so I took the time to walk the alleys to the north and south of that block to see if any off-street parking existed for these properties currently. What I learned was that 63% of the residential properties on the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road currently have some form of off-street parking that they are currently using, or have the potential to use. If I include the west side of Warder street, this goes down to 61%.

The map below shows the location of the proposed development and all the residential properties that have off-street parking.


(Map key: Orange=two-car garage; Yellow=one-car garage; Red=four car garage; Dark Blue=two car parking pad; Light Blue=one car parking pad)

Here is how the parking on the residential properties represented on the map above breaks down:

  • There are 54 residential properties on Rock Creek Church Road and the west side of Warder Street. 33 of these properties (61%) have off-street parking.
  • 10 residences (18%) have garages. There is 1 four car garage, 6 two car garages, and 3 one car garages.
  • 23 residences (42.5%) have parking pads. 6 properties have two car parking pads. 17 properties have one car parking pads.
  • Note: in taking this survey of parking, I did not include a garage if its entrance was bricked in, but did include a garage if the doors were merely boarded up. In one case, I included a single-car garage that was too small for a modern car, but which had a driveway currently used for off street parking.

Garages and parking pads abound on the north side of the 700 block of Rock Creek Church Road. Photo by the author.

Overall, in adding all this up, there are currently 48 spaces on this block for off-street parking. In looking at the south side of the 700 block of Quincy, each residential property there similarly has at least one off-street parking space.

With the amount of off-street parking currently in this area, one starts to question why parking is so tight currently and based on my observations I believe some (but definitely not all) of this stress is caused by factors other than housing.

For instance, the 700 block of Quebec Place and nearby blocks are often stressed due to church parking from the Fisherman of Men Church. I have also witnessed on several occasions residents from further north in Ward 4 using Quebec, Rock Creek Church, and other nearby streets as commuter parking so that they can easily drive, park, and ride Metro. Whether there are solutions to these stresses or not, they certainly aren't related to development or housing in the immediate community.

Factoring all of this together, I believe that the benefits of the proposed development far outweigh the cons, and that the impact the building may have on parking and the surrounding community will not live up to people's worse case scenarios.

The case is scheduled to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment on November 17, 2015.

A version of this post recently ran on Park View, DC.

Roads


Petworth residents complained drivers are speeding. DC says it's true, but "acceptable."

Half of drivers on Illinois Avenue in Petworth exceed the speed limit, and residents asked for traffic calming. But an analysis from the District Department of Transportation says that speeding is "acceptable." Instead, DDOT will install signs reminding drivers to stop for pedestrians.


Illinois Avenue at 9th Street, NW. Images from DDOT.

Responding to resident concerns, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 4D, passed a resolution in January, saying,

Several of these blocks of Illinois Ave. have awkward intersections leading to pedestrian safety concerns. Cars are parking within signed areas but too close to the intersections, blocking the view of crossing traffic. Additionally, the lack of stop signs on Illinois at the intersections with Emerson and Farragut Streets result in speeding traffic. When combined with the difficult visibility, the community believes this leads to unnecessary accidents[sic].
Illinois Avenue has just one driving lane in each direction and one parking lane on each side. The buildings are mostly row houses, some small apartment buildings, and small detached houses. There's also a public school, the Truesdell Education Campus, serving children from 3 years old to eighth grade.

A team from DDOT's Traffic Operations Administration studied the area and reviewed crash data, culminating in a report in June. The report says that from 2012 to 2014, there were 47 crashes including 19 injuries. Three of the crashes involved pedestrians and two involved bicycles.

Two of the crashes involving people not in cars happened at Farragut Street, where there is not a four-way stop or a traffic light, as the ANC resolution highlighted. The other three happened at other intersections.

The speed limit here is 25 mph, and the analysis concludes that only 52% of drivers are staying at or below that level. Another 34.2% are driving between 25 and 30 mph, while 13.8% traveling faster than that (one, it appears, clocked at 56-60 mph).

The report's language casts this as not a problem, such as by saying that 67.8% travel below 30 mph and that the average speed was 23 mph. It concludes:

Additionally, the 85th percentile speed is within an acceptable range for the posted speed. Of note, the criteria typically employed by DDOT for installation of traffic calming measures requires the measured 85th percentile speed to substantially exceed the posted speed limit, defined as exceeding by at least 25 percent (31 miles per hour in this location). Thus, while the 85th percentile speed is 4 miles per hour above the 25 miles per hour speed limit, this measured speed does not substantially exceed the posted speed limit. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, while legally there is a rule that everyone has to travel below a certain speed, DDOT's policy is not to take action unless at least 15% of drivers are traveling at least 25% faster.

This is the opposite of Vision Zero

Certainly, it's fair to say that this is far from the worst street in DC for speeding or for safety. However, DC has adopted a policy called Vision Zero. The objective:

By the year 2024, Washington, DC will reach zero fatalities and serious injuries to travelers of our transportation system, through more effective use of data, education, enforcement, and engineering.
The report doesn't say if any of the 19 injuries were serious or fatal, but the blasé attitude of the report toward speeding and 19 injuries is the polar opposite. It's Vision Zero, not Vision Nineteen.

Remember, the chances that a driver striking a pedestrian is fatal rises from 5% to 45% as the car's speed goes from 20 mph to 30 (and then to 85% at 40).

To eliminate—not just reduce somewhat, but eliminate—fatalities and serious injuries will require a readiness to actually make changes. A policy that nothing can be done beyond posting signs unless 15% of drivers regularly go more than 31 mph in a 25 mph zone will not achieve this.

There will be a lot of ways to improve traffic safety that don't also slow down cars, but DDOT will have to also be willing to calm streets, and not just where speeding is egregious. A smaller residential avenue with a school, where the local ANC wants traffic calming, would be a good spot.

Roads


Petworth residents say changes to a dangerous traffic circle should go further

Many people in Petworth lament how dangerous it is to cross the street and get to Grant Circle, one of their neighborhood parks. DDOT has an initial plan for addressing the problem, but pedestrian advocates say the real way to make the circle safer is to make the streets narrower and add more crosswalks.


Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Like a lot of circles in DC, Grant Circle has a design that's invites people to use the interior space as a park but, more recently, has made moving traffic between its several intersections a major priority.

Drivers tend to speed through Grant Circle, partly because it has two wide lanes surrounding it that encourage passing. With drivers entering from the eight different intersections around the circle, and sometimes speeding to pass each other, it can be a harrowing place for people on foot or riding bikes.


Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Every few months, a new thread starts up on the Petworth neighborhood listservs about near misses or actual crashes around Grant Circle like one last week, when someone drove their car into the circle.

"Grant Circle is an absolute mess for pedestrians," wrote one resident recently. "When I drive, I often hesitate to stop for pedestrians because I know cars will zoom around me and make it much more dangerous for the people that are crossing. When I do stop I often go between both lanes to try to ensure the pedestrian safety which is obviously not the best thing to do."

While well-intentioned, that second solution obviously isn't a safe alternative to Grant Circle's hazards.

"The design of the circle is so wide and big that instead of helping to slow down cars, it makes them to speed up," added another. "If so many of us have already had nearly misses, some tragedy will end up happening."

Plans to calm Grant Circle's traffic have fallen short of a bigger vision

After hearing from community members and ANC commissioners, DDOT released initial plans to both add new striping to the streets around Grant Circle and to narrow their lanes. Both should calm traffic as it enters the circle.


DDOT's immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

This is a step in a process that started in 2009, when DDOT completed its Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan's goals were to make it safe and comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, both through city-wide policy solutions and targeted changes to certain streets' designs.

The Master Plan placed a heavy focus on L'Enfant's radial avenues, which is where the majority of today's crashes involving pedestrians happen. It plan designated "priority corridors" in each ward, which were places that saw a lot of pedestrians, had a dangerous design, and had a lot of crashes involving pedestrians as a "priority corridor."

New Hampshire Avenue, including Grant Circle, is Ward 4's priority corridor, and it was slated to get bumpouts along New Hampshire and a new design to calm traffic around the circle. These plans represent a more complete vision to calm traffic than the initial striping DDOT is proposing, though new ideas in traffic engineering could help even more.

Grant Circle's two-lane design is needlessly dangerous

Every street intersecting Grant Circle is one lane in each direction, except for New Hampshire Avenue south of Grant Circle. There, New Hampshire has two lanes in each direction until it turns into Sherman Avenue, which has one lane in each direction.

If New Hampshire has one lane in each direction north of the circle and again a few blocks south, does it really need two lanes in the first place?

The two lane design means that parents with kids, dog owners with dogs, elderly people and those with disabilities, and anyone else trying to get to the park have to contend with serious traffic, which enters the circle from eight different points, to do so. And while relatively few cars use the passing lane, those that do tend to speed and pose an extra risk to people walking.


Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Let's consider some possibiltiies

All Walks DC, an organization I'm a part of, has a few thoughts for how Grant Circle could be made safer to walk and bike to and through.

When you look at Grant Circle's interior paths, you can see where the original designer intended for people to be able to cross into and through the circle (though for some reason it leaves out paths to 5th Street NW). But out of the 12 places that those interior paths intersect Grant Circle, only 5 have crosswalks today. Some streets, such as Varnum on the East, don't have any crosswalks at all, meaning that all the neighbors on that street have to walk a block south to use a marked crosswalk.

One simple fix would be to to add the crosswalks that are obviously missing.


DDOT's 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

Narrowing Grant Circle to one lane would make crossing on foot much safer. DDOT's 2009 plan includes a proposal to make the inner lane raised brick, which is a half step in this direction. But while this would discourage speeding and passing, it would likely be expensive, and there are probably better uses for that space.

For a lot less money, DDOT could bring down speeds and make Grant Circle more pedestrian and bike-friendly by allowing parking in the inner lane and building bumpouts at all the crosswalks.


Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT could also car lanes by creating a protected bikeway, which the Move DC plan calls for, along the outside of the circle.

Finally, it's worth considering using lanes to increase park space, which has happened in New York City. Extending Grant Circle outwards would be more complicated due to coordination with the National Park Service, but would add about a half acre to the area of the park.

Calming traffic around Grant Circle is an important part of kicking off DC's Vision Zero efforts, as it would be an example of a community-supported project to make a street with known dangers safer for people walking. Several residents have already noted dangers around Grant Circle on DDOT's Vision Zero map, which you can view and add to here.

If you live nearby and would like to sign a petition for a safer Grant Circle, click here.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC