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Posts about Spingarn High School


Streetcar car barn design improves in latest round

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will discuss a new set of designs for the Benning Road streetcar maintenance facility this Thursday. The US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) already got a look last week.

Aerial view. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) showed earlier concept designs to HPRB and CFA in November. CFA recommended "a more urban and civic condition of a public building," while HPRB wanted it to be as small and unobtrosive as possible.

Therefore, DDOT has developed 2 concepts. One has more vertical architectural elements designed to give the building a "civic" look, while the other has a more horizontal feel dubbed "podium." Both are the same height, but the "horizontal/podium" design sets the 3rd floor back from the front façade, while "vertical/civic" does not.

View from Benning Road. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

These designs look much better than the previous ones. Historic Preservation Office staff, in their report, say that the architects have better related the building to Spingarn High School by using a brick veneer, preserving certain sight lines to Spingarn, and creating a border of green space around the perimeter.

It's too bad DDOT wasn't able to locate the building on the nearby RFK parking lots. Streetcar planners should have started pursuing this option with the federal government sooner, but there's no guarantee they ever could have gotten permission; the National Park Service is fairly jealous about keeping "recreational" land free of buildings even if that "recreation" right now is just empty parking space for a stadium.

At the MoveDC kickoff forum, Meg Maguire of the Committee of 100 made the sensible suggestion that DDOT plan locations for other car barns early, so that other communities have more chances to participate in designing them, and so that there's time to work more thoroughly to pursue the most appropriate sites.

26th Street elevation. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

HPRB members will be tempted to block the building because they wish it could be elsewhere, but that's not their standard. This building is compatible with the adjacent historic ones and should go forward, though if HPRB members have suggestions to improve the design, it's certainly worth getting the best example of a civic building that's practical to build here.

DDOT is holding a public meeting Tuesday to update the community on the streetcar's progress. It's 6:30-8 pm at Miner Elementary, 601 15th Street, NE.


Spingarn car barn design sounds good, but isn't public

DDOT has apparently been hard at work designing an attractive streetcar maintenance facility at the corner of Benning Road and 26th Street, NE. They've worked extensively with historic preservation officials on what sounds like a good design, but still have yet to release it publicly.

Today, DDOT presented the concept design to the Historic Preservation Review Board for comments. The staff report supports the concept so far (but doesn't include any pictures). It says:

Although the northwest corner of the Spingarn site was originally favored as the location most likely to minimize the car barn's overall visual impact, it was later agreed that the corner of Benning Road and 26th Street was preferable since it would allow the new facility to better conceal the necessary streetcar tracks and overhead wires, and because it would more closely relate to the orientation of the other buildings on campus, thus providing opportunities to design a more dignified, civic-minded building rather than an industrial structure that was being hidden from view.
The resulting concept design, and its subtle variations, consists of a large, brick-faced streetcar maintenance facility oriented on the same alignment as the rest of the campus buildings and projecting far enough forward to balance the easternmost projection of Brown Junior High School to the north. The street-facing façade of this component of the car barn will be articulated with large louvered openings, clerestories or other elements that will establish a visual connection to the regular fenestration of the Spingarn and other schools to the north. Solar panels will be incorporated onto the roof of the facility to maximize its energy efficiency.

To the south of the maintenance facility, offices, training facilities, public meeting spaces and related functions will be housed in a lower, sweeping arm of the building that curves to respond to the alignment of Benning Road and establishes a more pedestrian scaled public entrance at the prominent corner of 26th and Benning Road. Although the specific materials that will be used to complete this portion of the car barn have yet to be identified, they are likely to consist of light colored, solid cladding materials and curtain walls of translucent glass.

Through a combination of massing and orientation, the currently proposed concept design establishes a logical and complimentary relationship to the arrangement and hierarchy of buildings on the campus and to their open setting. The proposed red brick of the maintenance facility contrasted with the light colored solid materials and translucent glass of the office portion of the car barn also relate directly to the schools' predominant red brick and limestone color palette. In short, the concept as currently proposed appears to be generally compatible with its historic context. However, some further refinement of the building design and site features will likely be necessary to better relate the new facility to the historic schools and other historic properties in the surrounding area, including the landmarked Langston Terrace Dwellings which are located just to the west.

Board members had a number of general design comments. A few members expressed opposition to siting the maintenance facility at Spingarn at all; if a majority of the board wants to block the facility, they can agree to landmark Spingarn and then interpret any building closer to the street as being historically incompatible. This debate will rage at the board's hearing on the actual decision whether or not to designate Spingarn as a landmark, scheduled for November 29.

DDOT did not respond to a request I sent last night for the latest design. DDOT spokesperson John Lisle previously wrote on September 26 that, "Additional opportunities for public participation/feedback will be scheduled over the next 90-120 calendar days."


Landmark nomination, or DDOT snafus, may delay streetcar

The historic landmark nomination for Spingarn High School could delay the H Street streetcar by 3 months or even much more, said DDOT Director Terry Bellamy at a DC Council hearing today. But could DDOT have avoided this long ago? Councilmember Mary Cheh rebuked the agency for not planning effectively and not sharing its plans with the council or public.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

The Kingman Park Civic Association filed a petition in September to designate the school. A landmark application prevents any action while it is pending, and if the building gets designated, it may be difficult to build a car barn in the open space between the school and Benning Road.

Bellamy said that they were shooting to open the line in "late 2013," but now that they have to deal with the historic issue, it will likely push the opening date back by 90 days or more. He did assure Cheh that DDOT would have 5 working cars, enough to run the line, by opening day (whenever that is).

Maintenance facility decisions fell through at the last minute

Some have charged that the association's true goal is to stop the streetcar entirely. Unfortunately, DDOT made this snafu possible by really blowing the planning for the maintenance facility for the H Street line.

Former streetcar head Scott Kubly spent years believing that the agency could put the facility in the underpass below the Union Station tracks, but Amtrak ultimately decided to use the space for its own Union Station plan.

At that point, DDOT turned around and said they would put the facility at Spingarn, because that's the only place they could get approval quickly enough. A far better choice would be the edge of the massive parking lots at RFK stadium, but that is federal land, which DC controls but can only use for recreational purposes.

WMATA was able to build the Orange and Blue Line through the parking lots on a long ramp from underground to a bridge over the river, and one can certainly argue whether giant parking lots are really a recreational use. Still, any effort to get permission for a car barn would be complex and take a long time.

It's hard to really fault area residents who are frustrated that DDOT didn't pursue alternatives for the car barn location, then had to put it at Spingarn because it didn't have time to pursue any alternatives.

Will car barns look attractive?

The very industrial look in DDOT's early sketches also doesn't do much to assuage residents' fears. DDOT now says they will be designing a more attractive facility that fits better with Spingarn's historic architecture. They should, but can residents feel confident a better design will actually come to pass?

Sketch of possible car barn. Image from DDOT.

DDOT is finishing the line under a design-build contract, which includes the maintenance facility. In a design-build process, DDOT picks a contractor and then works with that contractor to work out design details as they go. This can significantly speed up projects, but it doesn't always allow for a lot of public participation or transparency. A lot of details of the 11th Street Bridge project remained somewhat vague until very late in the process, often far too late to change anything.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says that the contractor has "commenced" the design process for the facility, and that "Additional opportunities for public participation/feedback will be scheduled over the next 90-120 calendar days." We just have to hope that this process is more participatory than DDOT's last few efforts, and gives residents real choices.

If DDOT ends up only offering unattractive designs and says they are the only possibilities because of the short time frame or limited budget, it will only validate the arguments of those who seek to landmark Spingarn.

Streetcar planning has been limited or secret

The fact is that most large transportation projects involve a lot of different pieces, and an agency must either plow ahead knowing it will probably encounter some hiccups, or the project may never get done.

Still, it has been years since DDOT promised to flesh out details of the streetcar system, with almost no progress. The agency promised a plan for financing the streetcar, and also for how it will procure cars that can run without overhead wires at least in key viewsheds. Bellamy alluded to a lot of work getting done on these issues at the hearing, but has never actually shared any of that work with the public.

The Committee of 100 has been arguing for such plans. They initially wanted to halt progress on the project until DDOT finished the plans. That could have killed the streetcar, and we pushed hard at that time to let DDOT keep moving forward. As the years pass without any more details, however, I find it harder to keep justifying this approach.

Business groups have been talking about setting up a "value capture" mechanism that applies some of the real estate appreciation, which the streetcar brings, toward financing the lines. The farther DDOT goes down the path of planning new lines, the harder it will be to set something like this up. Already, as Cheh pointed out in the hearing, it may be too late to do this on H Street.

Similarly, where will future maintenance facilities go? For some other lines, the best locations might take time to secure permission and build community support. DDOT needs to start far sooner than it did with Spingarn to plan for these locations and create designs that satisfy neighbors.

Cheh also harangued DDOT for dragging its feet on a governance plan. When the council approved the streetcar plan, it required DDOT to study and report on options for what authority or board would control the streetcar system in the long term. Bellamy has come to multiple hearings promising that such a report was just around the corner, but then nothing happened.

Today, he said they had such a report, but some unnamed "stakeholders" had asked DDOT to hold off on releasing it. When Cheh threatened to withhold a key authorization, however, Bellamy promised to give her staff copies of the draft report. Why can't the public see this report?

DDOT might be doing a lot of work behind the scenes, but it's high time the conversation moved out into public view. Former director Gabe Klein was moving very rapidly on the streetcar, sometimes so much so that he smashed headlong into some obstacles, but he and Kubly also were forthright with residents about the way they were operating. They also built public support for the streetcar program by sharing details and progress regularly.

As we saw with the battles over streetcar funding and council authorization in 2010 and 2011, residents eager for this very important project will forgive a lot of mistakes as long as they know what is happening. With a more secretive approach of late, DDOT risks squandering a lot of the enthusiasm from residents outside the line's immediate area.

That would be a shame, because the streetcar is an important project to shape the future of the District. We can't build Metrorail everywhere it doesn't serve today. A streetcar can stimulate transit-oriented growth that buses simply don't, but if the line doesn't work well, the maintenance facility looks ugly, or a value capture mechanism for funding never comes together, neighborhoods outside H Street will either oppose or never get streetcars of their own.


Spingarn remains the best option for streetcar barn

A group of residents in the Carver-Langston neighborhood of Ward 5 have successfully lobbied councilmember Kenyan McDuffie to oppose a streetcar maintenance facility in the southeastern corner of the ward. If they succeed in blocking the planned facility at that location, the city is left with few options that aren't very viable.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie released a letter asking the Gray administration to find a location for the facility that's not adjacent to Spingarn High School.

The letter said, "Many residents have indicated that they found the justification for the Spingarn site to be one of expedience, rather than necessity."

Letter makes several specious arguments

McDuffie's letter goes on to say that residents felt "disrespected" because more meetings weren't held in Ward 5. This is a straw man argument: Ward 6 meetings were held within blocks of Ward 5. A streetcar meeting at the Atlas Theater may have been outside of the ward, but it was close enough that anyone from the Trinidad or Carver Langston neighborhoods could walk to it.

A hypothetical meeting in North Michigan Park would be in Ward 5. While that would allow planners to say they held more meetings inside the ward, it wouldn't actually make it easier for neighbors voices to be heard.

The letter further says that residents are "dismayed that a major decision affecting our ward was made without the benefit of a Councilmember at the table to represent the community's interests." While this might be true about the apparent "final" decision to place the bar at Spingarn, Harry Thomas, Jr. was in office for years during the planning and construction along Benning Road. Perhaps he didn't reach out to members of the local neighborhoods for their input because he was busy stealing from them?

McDuffie used the term "dumping ground" as well. While he didn't say whether he feels this is an appropriate term to describe the ward, it's disappointing to see him giving the term credence by perpetuating its use. In debate and discussion during the election season, he distanced himself from the use of that term, but chose not to in this instance. Why?

Push DDOT to address real neighbor concerns

Finally, in his letter, McDuffie laid out five points that he classified as major concerns coming from neighbors. They include:

  • Lack of material benefits to the Carver Langston neighborhood;
  • Safety of students during and after the construction phase;
  • Environmental impact;
  • Level of noise from repairs and maintenance;
  • Resources and job opportunities available at the training center for Spingarn students and Ward 5 residents.
On the first point, increased, reliable, safe, affordable transportation towards downtown is already a material benefit to the neighborhood. DC officials have frequently stated that streetcar pricing will be the same as Circulator service. That would be cheaper than taking the X2 bus along Benning Road and H Street.

The safety of students is an important concern. The streetcar project would be subject to the same safety requirements as any construction project in the city. After construction, when operations begin, the concern likely turns to students being hit by streetcars. It's worth noting that students stand a higher risk of being hit by cars speeding down Benning Road or 26th Street, yet neighbors are not seeking a ban on automobile traffic on those roadways.

The environmental impact of the construction can be mitigated with a green roof, solar panels, or other carbon-neutralizing accommodations.

The level of noise is a very valid concern, and DDOT should provide hard data showing the current decibel level at the site, and the expected future level, along with concrete plans to mitigate any increase in noise.

DDOT and DCPS also need to show plans for how a training program run through the school would work, how many spots would be available for students, etc. This is something these agencies should have worked on already, and it's certainly the city's fault for not having this information available by now.

Other options are not practical now, though it's worth pursuing them for the future

If all of these points still do not satisfy the residents of Carver-Langston, what options does the city have for alternate sites for the maintenance facility? Other locations were discussed at an April meeting at Spingarn High School. One of those is the RFK Stadium north parking lot area, across Benning Road from the Spingarn site.

However, the federal government owns this land, and leased it to DC with the limitation that it be used only for recreational purposes. Perhaps McDuffie could initiate a serious discussion with Eleanor Holmes Norton, for whom he interned before attending law school, about relaxing this requirement and allowing a car barn to be built on this land.

Another possibility was the site that is currently home to the Pepco plant just east of the Anacostia River. Unfortunately, that site is not under the control of the DC government either, and is much larger than what a streetcar facility would require.

If the District were able to get control of that site (which may require years of environmental mitigation), there would still likely need to be a small-area plan created for the entire site, which would take even more years of planning and meetings. Even if there were a way to fast track all of that, the line doesn't yet extend that far. DDOT plans to build the line there and beyond, but can't do that before next year, when they hope to open the line.

DC didn't plan adequately

The fact is that the District didn't plan well enough for the streetcar barn. DDOT officials long assumed that a space under the H Street "Hopscotch Bridge" would be available for a maintenance facility, and this never came to be. They should have put more time and effort into making sure that plans for the area under the bridge were solid, and should have planned for an alternate location in case the original plan fell through as it did.

As things stand now, the streetcar maintenance facility can't be built anywhere other than the area south of Spingarn High School without delaying the start of revenue service for at least another 5 years, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, or both. If that happens, Ward 5 residents will definitely lose out.


"Trolleys" are good for Ward 5, if we can get them

A vocal minority in Ward 5 is pushing back against a streetcar maintenance facility at Spingarn High School, and has recently broadened its opposition to the streetcar system as a whole. But while loud, these opponents don't reflect the views of most Ward 5 residents. It's time for Ward 5 residents to speak up in favor of new investments in our ward.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

I live in Ward 5 and I support streetcars. Anyone reading the Ward 5 listserv this week would see that it has become quite a contentious topic, and might even think that my opinion is in the minority. But I don't believe that is true.

The debate first arose from the proposed streetcar maintenance facility on part of the Spingarn High School lawn and the outrage that some in the community feel about this proposal. Some residents have taken the opportunity to bash the streetcar system as a whole.

As the discussion evolves away from the location of the car barn to the entire streetcar system and even further into the "bike lanes, dog parks and gentrification" realm, I am left frustrated. I have read countless pros and cons on streetcars and light rails. I have experienced streetcars in many other cities around the world. I want them and everything that comes with them.

I want the increased ridership, permanent tracks and stops, overhead wires and the big, shiny red streetcars traveling down them at regular intervals. Instead of opposing any projects at all costs, we should be lobbying for more of the coming investments to happen in Ward 5, and ensuring that we reap a fair portion of the economic and infrastructure benefits that will come with the new transportation system.

I want the District to take a real interest and invest in Ward 5, helping to fill our empty storefronts and letting our residents travel comfortably around the city.

"Car barn" could improve, not harm, Spingarn and the area.

The proposal for the Springarn maintenace facility, or "car barn," does not bother me. The location is off a major road that will have a streetcar line running down it. The current streetscape in the area could easily accommodate a new building.

If DDOT sites the facility close to Benning Road, which is one of the 2 options, it will leave a large space, partly green and partly tracks, between the car barn and the school, and it will actually replace a grimy, shuttered DC Library mini-branch building.

Potential locations for car barn at Spingarn. Image from DDOT via Frozen Tropics.

Concept sketch for car barn. Image from DDOT.

The car barn will be brand new. We can ensure that it blends in and adds to the area. It could even be designed to match the architecture of the school. Many of DC's historic car barns are beautiful buildings; a new one could be, too.

Historic car barn on Capitol Hill. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Instead of opposing to the car barn, Ward 5 residents should be working with DDOT to ensure it is the best car barn that we can get. We can set an example for the many more similar facilities the District will build as it adds and extends the streetcar lines.

We should make sure that it is a true training facility that ties in and expands the current curriculum at Phelps Vocational Technical Academy and provides strong job training for students and adults alike.

Debate really isn't about the car barn, but the streetcar generally

Sadly, some vocal Ward 5 activists have seized on the Springarn controversy to spread opposition to the entire streetcar system. They've sent press releases, posted messages and issued calls to action. For example:

Premier Community Development Corporation, PCDC, is opposed to the District Government's proposal to spend over 1.5 billion dollars on a trolley car. PCDC also opposes the DC Department of Transportation's ill made decision to build the streetcar barn on the front lawn of Spingarn High School.

PCDC opposes these short cited[sic] decisions in support of the trolley car for the following reason. First, the trolley plan is not well thought out and does not serve the needs of the majority of the residents that elect to use public transportation. The trolley does not connect to any transportation hubs and thus is not a part of a comprehensive city-wide transportation system. Currently, the trolley starts at the foot of the Hopscotch Bridge and ends around 26th and Benning Road. Clearly, the trolley is only intended to ferry bar and restaurant customers from one end of H Street to the other.

The opening lines demonstrate that the Springarn issue has already become secondary. As Rhode Island Ave Insider has written, some members of PCDC are older residents who feel threatened by the engagement and activism of newer, younger residents who want to see a different kind of investment and change. It's not surprising that they've latched onto the term "trolleys" as a derogatory. This fear is so deep-seated that they ignore the fact that their outright opposition just further delays DDOT from connecting the streetcar to transportation hubs, as planned.

Then there are community members who are more concerned with making sure DDOT listens to them than with getting the best investments for Ward 5. Activist Kathy Henderson wrote:

I am glad many of Ward 5's leaders attended the meeting regarding the car barn fiasco. It is really a bad idea to tear up Spingarn's front lawn for an industrial eyesore. I find the entire matter to be very disrespectful to residents, underscoring that DDOT representatives were not chastened by the last meeting on the issue in April; they came back and uttered the same nonsense again. [Emphasis added]
Still others see streetcars as an investment that's not for them, such as LeRoy Hall:
By the way, who are the streetcars for anyway? This reminds me of those red Circulator Buses for people in Georgetown to visit people on Capitol Hill.
It's sad that some people have lost sight of the streetcars as an investment in our communities and in our mobility. That makes it that much more important that the larger community speak out in support.

Streetcars will benefit all residents, include the lower-income residents of Ward 5. About 35% of residents do not own cars, and DC plans to make the streetcar fare the same as the Circulator, which is less today than the bus fare.

Streetcars, much like the Metro, will become a permanent fixture in the community. Ward 5 has the Red Line of the Metro running through it north to south, and is briefly touched by the Yellow and Green Lines at one station, Fort Totten. Many of us define our location by the nearest Metro stop. The planned streetcar lines for Ward 5 would run mostly east to west across the ward, creating new transportation connections and new stops to identify with the community.

The permanent nature of the streetcars with their tracks installed in the ground will develop a confidence in the investment in an area. Adding streetcars and streetscape improvements would enhance the travel, experience and atmosphere of our ward.

Anyone that has walked down Rhode Island Avenue NE can will agree that we still need a lot of infrastructure improvements to ensure it becomes a more vibrant destination, attracting new businesses to empty storefronts and bolstering existing ones. The success of streetcars in spurring economic development is well demonstrated in other cities such as Portland.

Planning in Ward 5 and the rest of the District, especially near streetcar lines, needs to ensure that affordable housing is a priority. The streetcar will make the neighborhoods near it more valuable. That's great for existing homeowners; Ward 5 should discuss how it can do more to ensure that residents on fixed and low incomes are able to stay in their homes if they wish.

Ward 5 should fight to get streetcars early

Ward 5's southern edge will benefit from the first streetcar line, the so-called "One City" line along Benning Road to downtown. In Phase 2 of the streetcar system, Rhode Island Avenue will get a line from Eastern Avenue, past the Metro station, to Florida Avenue where it will connect with the Florida Avenue line. A line in Phase 3 would connect Brookland to Woodley Park and Adams Morgan.

The District released a Request For Information this week that would privatize and prioritize 22 miles of the streetcar system to be built over 5-7 years. However, except for the Benning Road segment at the ward's edge, none of the Ward 5 sections were included in this proposal. It is imperative that we push to have the Ward 5 lines included to spur the economic development in our ward, not fight against the streetcars.

22-mile priority streetcar system. Image from DDOT.

I am a Ward 5 resident and I want streetcars. As a vocal minority in my ward spreads fear, uncertainty, and doubt, not to mention false information, opposing the streetcars, it becomes more and more important for those of who do support them to speak up. Who's with me?

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