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Posts about Takoma


Whether you're traveling from Virginia or Maryland, Capital Bikeshare isn't just for short trips

People often rely on Capital Bikeshare for short, local trips. But not always; lots of times, they use the system to travel a little farther. These graphs show how often people use Capital Bikeshare to go between different groups of stations in the region and where exactly they travel to and from.

A Capital Bikeshare station in Montgomery County. Photo by author.

When Capital Bikeshare first came to our region, the vast majority of stations were in DC and a few were in Arlington. As the system has expanded, so have options for traveling between places.

I wanted to analyze bikeshare trips between counties, cities, and the District, as well as trips within different parts of the same county but still outside of DC. To do this, I divided Montgomery County and Arlington County into what I'm calling geographic clusters: Rockville, Silver Spring/Takoma Park, and Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights for Montgomery County, and North and South Arlington County, with Arlington Boulevard being the dividing line. Then I looked at CaBi trips from between September 2013 and May 2016.

This graph shows how many trips from each of those clusters ended in another one:

All graphs by the author. Click for a larger version.

As you can see, the places closest to DC are the ones from which people take the most trips between clusters; about 36% of trips in North Arlington and 35% of trips in Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights end somewhere else, while only 1% of trips in Rockville end outside of Rockville. Among all the clusters outside of DC, approximately 30% of trips go from one to another.

A closer look shows that most of the trips from one cluster to another are trips to DC, but not all. For instance, 9% of the trips that begin in South Arlington are between clusters but do not end in DC.

Click for a larger version.

This graph shows where, exactly, most bikeshare users go from various clusters:

Click for a larger version.

Further examination of South Arlington shows that approximately 71% of the trips there are local, 20% end in DC, 4.5% end in Alexandria, and 4.5% end in North Arlington. Also notice that nearly 8% of trips starting in Alexandria and 4% of trips in North Arlington end in South Arlington. As an area that is adjacent to clusters that use bicycle share, South Arlington sees more bikeshare activity.

Similar to the dense bikeshare system in DC, bikeshare outside of DC serves mostly local trips. But that doesn't mean bikeshare doesn't have a regional value, as nearly a third of trips system-wide are between clusters. As bikeshare continues to expand in the region, municipalities, especially those near other places with bikeshare, like Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, or Langley Park, would see an increase in ridership if bikeshare users could access the regional system.

This data only shows individual trips and doesn't show the length of time of trips or whether the user has a causal or annual membership. Exploring this information, as well as specific bikeshare travel patterns in more suburban areas, would tell us more about how bikeshare fits in both the local and regional transportation system.


It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won't repeat itself this time.

The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What's the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station's parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was "too dense." They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.

The Takoma Metro station today. Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn't think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA's original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.

EYA's revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA's plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA's proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: "it's too big and has too much parking."

The neighbors' petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA's proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA's use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn't perfect, but it's not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County's RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA's proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA's motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA's plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. "EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future," he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood's business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma's historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it's richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more "eyes on the street." If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let's stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be "progressive" and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It's not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro's future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you're really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those "others" to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.


These detours will help you bike during Montgomery County's SafeTrack closures

As part of Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge, trains are single tracking between Silver Spring and Takoma. To help those who use those two stations as well as the ones north of Silver Spring, Montgomery County has laid out a bike route that takes riders to the West Hyattsville Metro station, where trains are operating normally.

Metro's sixth SafeTrack surge is the first to take place in Montgomery County, and on top of the single tracking, trains up to Glenmont and down to NoMa are only running 25% as often as usual. Officials are encouraging the 94,000 riders affected by this surge to seek alternatives like taking the bus or riding a bike, as well as teleworking.

As part of the effort, Montgomery County's bike planners designed a route that directs people from the Red Line stations affected by the current surge toward the Green and Yellow Line's West Hyattsville station.

At the Glenmont, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma stations, MCDOT designed and placed large wayfinding signs to guide people on bikes around the track work and along the route it designed.

Dennis Avenue at the Sligo Creek Trail. Photo by the author.

From Forest Glen, Silver Spring, and Takoma, the route runs almost directly to the Sligo Creek Trail, a trunk route whose end is near the Northwest Branch Trail, which runs next to the West Hyattsville station. Signs direct riders along a slightly more complex route from Glenmont and Wheaton.

Map from Montgomery County.

The signs, designed by MCDOT just for this period, are the size of a political campaign sign, in bright colors, and placed conspicuously anywhere there is a turn in the route. They are temporary (and not made to withstand serious weather), so they'll be gone at the end of the surge.

Anecdotally, the signs have been helpful to occasional and first-time bike commuters on Monday morning, filling in known gaps in the permanent wayfinding signs on both county and park property. Also, one person I spoke to wished there was additional information on the sign, or a link to it, such as a web site or QR code.

There aren't directions west along the Georgetown Branch Trail to Bethesda because service is still slightly reduced on the western portion of the Red Line, but the bike route from Silver Spring to Bethesda is already marked with permanent signs.

For Surge 7, which will mean single tracking between Shady Grove and Twinbrook starting August 9th, the signs will highlight a single route from Shady Grove, through Rockville, and on to Twinbrook, where normal service will resume.

Elsewhere in the region, Greater Greater Washington contributor Joanne Pierce noted that she recently saw this handmade sign directing people toward the Huntington Metro Station:

Photo by Joanne Pierce.

It's not totally accurate—only the Yellow Line runs there—but it still lets people know how to get to the Metro.

Have these signs helped you? Are there upcoming events where similar temporary wayfinding for people on foot and bike would be helpful?


Otherwise-progressive Maryland elected officials choose exclusion at the Takoma Metro

In our region, in 2014, shouldn't building housing on top of Metro stations be an uncontroversial idea? To many people and elected officials in Takoma Park, that's only tolerable as long as you add a very small number of residents and don't build anything larger than surrounding buildings.

Photo by bradleygee on Flickr.

This attitude ensures that housing costs stay high and many communities remain off-limits to many people who would like to live there. Montgomery Council candidate Tom Hucker, gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, congressman Chris Van Hollen, councilmember Marc Elrich, state senator Jamie Raskin, and delegate Sheila Hixson all reinforced much or all of this exclusionary attitude last week.

They were writing about the planned 200-unit apartment building atop the Takoma Metro station. It will cover what's now the Kiss and Ride parking lot and a patch of trees. The site is inside the District of Columbia, but is across the street from some houses in Maryland. The WMATA Board held a hearing last week on the proposal.

A group of people, led by Takoma Park councilmember Seth Grimes, have been fighting against the project. They want the project to preserve some open space, be shorter, have fewer residents, and include fewer parking spaces. And they say that the developer, EYA, has not listened to them enough in the process.

Image from EYA.

Plan has a lot of good, some room to improve

The current proposal isn't perfect. It probably does have more parking than is necessary. Some elements of the current design aren't as attractive as they should be.

On the other hand, it's not an unreasonable size for the area and for the fact that it's atop a Metro station. In fact, EYA has already shrunk it down from the first iterations of this apartment building plan, which had 225 units. WMATA and DC worked out a deal to keep the other half of the site as a park.

This building will be more compact than a 2006 proposal to construct townhouses. Neighbors also fought against that plan, and successfully delayed it into oblivion.

The plan may get even better in the future. WMATA wouldn't be approving the final design for construction. Rather, this project is what's called a Planned Unit Development, where the DC Zoning Commission has extensive input into its design. That part of the process hasn't even begun, and so there will be a lot of opportunities for people to ask for changes.

Maryland residents will be able to testify at Zoning Commission hearings on the project, and especially with two federal representatives on the Zoning Commission, there's every reason to believe that board will listen to any reasonable arguments they make.

However, Raskin, Hucker, Hixson, and Mizeur, who are the sitting state legislative delegation for the area, argue in their letter that Maryland "has limited formal involvement" in the PUD process. They therefore ask the WMATA board to delay approval until there can be yet another process, where a neighborhood working group with members from DC and Maryland get to push for more changes (surely including reducing the amount of housing even further).

"More dialogue" is a smokescreen

That letter also states that neighbors haven't been involved enough. So does at-large councilmember Marc Elrich's letter. Perhaps the developers have listened as much as they could; perhaps not. In countless development disputes, however, opponents say that they are just looking for "dialogue" and haven't been listened to, when in fact they are demanding a substantially smaller project with less housing, and that is not a realistic request.

Years of delays and battles killed the 2006 townhouse effort. Maybe if opponents can just delay this project enough, nothing will get built, or only a very small amount of housing will end up going at this site. That would be an enormous loss to the region. There are limited developable parcels around Metro stations, and those are best places for new housing and jobs. This building may be larger than many around it, but it's not really that big.

Hans Riemer, another at-large member of the Montgomery County Council, confined his letter to making specific recommendations to improve the project. That's a good approach and the developer should heed his suggestions. Opponents, unfortunately, have responded to his more constructive approach by campaigning against him in tomorrow's primary.

When other elected officials like Hucker (who hopes to win a primary contest tomorrow to represent the district on the council), Raskin, Elrich, Van Hollen, and the others ask in letters for delay and more consultation, they aren't standing up for good civic process. They are just strengthening obstruction.

Building apartments at the Takoma Metro means more customers to support Takoma's thriving local businesses, fewer people who need to drive everywhere, and the ability to meet the demand for housing, resulting in lower or at least more stable housing costs. That's the truly progressive thing to do, not trying to keep new people out in favor of those who came here first.


Events roundup: Takoma, Braddock Road, and more

Beat this week's summer heat by attending one of these (very likely) air conditioned events to stay cool. We have important hearings for mixed-use redevelopment projects at the Takoma and Braddock Road Metro stations, presentations on complete streets and BRT in Montgomery, a book talk, and much more.

Takoma Metro station

Public hearings on Metro station redevelopments: WMATA plans to redevelop the areas around some Metro stations, and is holding community meetings and about projects at two stations to provide project updates and hear testimony from the public.

At Takoma, the agency will present the latest plans to build an apartment building and parking garage on the current Metro station parking lot. The meeting is Wednesday, June 18th from 4:30-5 pm, with a formal hearing from 5-10 pm.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a factsheet about the proposal if you're interested in testifying. The hearing will take place at the Takoma Educational Campus at 7101 Piney Branch Road NW.

Braddock Road: The community meeting for redevelopment at Braddock Road is Thursday, June 26th, 7 pm in the Charles Houston Recreation Center on Wythe Street in Alexandria. WMATA officials will present initial concepts and timelines for the redevelopment project, and will gather feedback from the community.

Complete streets in Old Town: Alexandria officials will host an open house about upcoming complete streets projects in Old Town in the Sister Cities room of City Hall, 1101 King Street. That's tonight, Tuesday, June 17th at 6 pm.

Stead Park construction: DC will soon renovate Stead Park, on P Street NW between 16th and 17th, to add a splash park, seating, running track, and trees in part of what's now the large athletic field. Hear about the plans and ask questions on Monday June 23 from 7-8 pm in the ballroom of the Chastleton, 1701 16th Street, NW.

Smart Growth, Happy City: Charles Montgomery, author of the urban planning book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design will give a seminar on his work and how the design of cities can influence how we feel, behave and treat one another. He draws on brain science and urban experiments around the world to explain how we can change our lives by changing our relationships with cities. The talk is at the National Building Museum on Thursday, June 19th from 12:30-1:30 pm. Pre-registration is required.

Rockville rapid transit open house: Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit to hear the latest updates about Montgomery's planned 81-mile network Bus Rapid Transit plan. That's at the Rockville library on Wednesday, June 25th from 6:30-8:30 pm.

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.


Breakfast links: Is the bar tender here?

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

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Termites: the new face of gentrification?: Angry neighbors in Woodley Park argued with zoo keepers at a public meeting last night, saying that the African Termite mound at the zoo's new insect exhibit is taller than what existing zoning allows.

Silver line encounters another setback: Officials have discovered that the Silver Line does not meet the current Virginia fire code and construction will have to start over from scratch. A MWAA spokesperson says the estimated opening is now the year 2525, "if man is still alive."

A religious need for speed?: One motorist sect seeks a religious exemption from traffic laws. The Supreme Court will hear a case that followers of the Futurist Manifesto, who must "sing the beauty of danger" and exalt the "roaring motor-car which seems to run on machine-gun fire," are unfairly burdened.

If this bus is rockin' then it's probably full of passengers: The DC Commission on Human Rights has officially ruled in favor of recommending changing the name of WMATA's H8 bus line to something more friendly like L0V.

Streetcar opponents agree: Skeptics of the Columbia Pike streetcar had asked for a new study comparing the return on investment of streetcars versus enhanced bus on Columbia Pike. When the study, tailored to their specific requests, showed huge benefits to streetcars, at least two skeptics admitted they were wrong.

Takoma Park residents discover station: Some in Takoma Park were surprised to find out that adjacent to the Takoma Green, a park mostly made up of asphalt with some trees around the edge, there is also a Metrorail station. One surprised resident said, "Now I can tell my neighbors they can take the train when I see them walking on the sidewalk while I'm driving to my job near Union Station."

What rhymes with "No Parking"?: A new developer has joined the ongoing debate on the controversial parking lane on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, submitting a plan to redevelop the road into a 35-yard hopscotch course. Proponents who want to see the lane kept for parking are, naturally, hopping mad.

DC to hold election: The District of Columbia will select nominees for mayor, DC Council, and federal races today, over 7 months before the general election and 9 months before any new winners would take office. If Mayor Gray does not win renomination, the DC government may achieve absolutely nothing of note for ¾ of a year while staff have no idea who will run their agency come 2015.

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Takoma Metro development proposal is a real compromise

For more than 10 years, we've discussed what kind of development at the Takoma Metro station would make this station a lively, safer place. A new plan for a residential building does just that, while offering a compromise to neighbors concerned about open space and parking.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Since 2000, WMATA has attempted to develop the area around the Takoma station. Last year, developer EYA proposed building about 200 apartments on a surface parking lot. The building would have 3 stories on Eastern Avenue and step up to 4 toward the train tracks. It would replace most of the parking, only about half of which is used at one time.

The plan keeps the existing 2.5 acre green space open, and offers some enhancements to make it more usable. The proposed building and residents overlooking the site will help foster a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment by orienting the building to the bus drive, with entrances and windows facing the lane. Previous plans for live-work units or retail space have been dropped because of the weak market for retail at the site.

A 2006 plan that later stalled out offered about 90 townhouses and a one acre village green, but no replacement for the Metro parking, which is only for short term use. While the attractive townhouse and inviting village green were worth pursuing, I always thought this site would be better for an apartment building.

Image from EYA.

Then and now, some neighbors in both Takoma and the adjacent city of Takoma Park, which sits across Eastern Avenue, have opposed the project. In 2006, both supporters and opponents gave the developer grief about building homes with 2-car garages at a Metro station. But many critics also said that WMATA should replace all of the existing parking, in addition to preserving the whole 2.5 acre open space in front of the station and adding more bus bays.

The new plan responds to nearly all of the major criticisms, while at the same time more than doubling the amount of housing originally proposed. Now, opponents mostly object to the potential building's height, even though it is on a block with other 3-story apartment buildings, all of which face single-family houses.

The proposal's modest scale is in sync with the downtown district's eclectic variety of buildings. EYA has already agreed to make the building shorter and reduce the number of units from 266.

At a March 13 WMATA committee meeting about the project, the board members incorporated amendments that the city of Takoma Park requested into its resolution to move the project forward. This Thursday, the WMATA Board will vote on an agreement with EYA to pursue the project, and to hold an official public hearing.

If WMATA approves the project, it will go to the DC Zoning Commission, which will have an opportunity to refine the design in its review process. Neighbors will have ample opportunity to raise their concerns about any aspect of the proposal then.

Like with any proposal, there is room for more improvement. The proposal offers much less parking for residents than before, which makes sense for a site next to a Metro station. But it could be lower still, since this is the transit agency's land and the point is to build housing for more transit customers.

The new proposal offers residential parking at about 0.7 spaces per unit, down from 1.5 to 2 spaces per unit in the townhouse proposal. It would be sensible for WMATA to require that developers on their property to build less parking and offer their residents incentives to ride transit and use carsharing. That makes it easier to market the building to transit-oriented households who rely much less on personal cars.

The other important way the WMATA Board could improve this project is to honor the DC Council's 2002 request that 20% of any housing at this site be set aside for households making 30%, 60%, and 80% of the area median income. This is still the right commitment for a property that the public transit agency and District of Columbia control, and our need for more affordable housing has only grown in the intervening years.

It's been a long time coming, but this proposal for the Takoma Metro station will make downtown Takoma a better place for everyone. It will help a greater number of people use transit, have daily access to local shopping, and live with a lower carbon footprint. This is exactly where our region should be growing, and where we can accommodate more people who seek a transit-oriented lifestyle.

If you agree, ask the WMATA Board to move ahead with this project. Click here to let them know.


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.

Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there not—there used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has said—even including the development community, the government, the councilmembers said—that we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.







Citizens band together to make Kennedy Street NW a retail destination

While new investment and street life arrive in Northwest DC neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, and Takoma, Kennedy Street has been slow to respond. But a group of local citizens seeks to change that.

A woman walks down Kennedy Street NW. All photos by the author.

Shuttered storefronts define Kennedy Street today, despite its population with rising incomes, newly-arrived young families, and relatively low crime. Folks who arrived in the neighborhood ten, five, or one year ago all say they thought the same thing when they first arrived: "Kennedy Street will arrive any time now." Long-term residents also complain about the lack of services, and are resigned to driving to other neighborhoods for restaurants, groceries, arts and entertainment.

Growing weary of hearing complaints and disappointments, a group of citizens and I started the all-volunteer Kennedy Street Business and Development Association (KSBDA) in January help hasten the evolution.

Geography and the street experience hold Kennedy Street back

Challenges beyond supply and demand explain why Kennedy Street has been slow to change. The street is oriented east-west, against the grain of the city's main north-south commuter routes, and it is bisected by the imposing four-lane Missouri Avenue, isolating the eastern end of Kennedy Street from the rest of the corridor closer to Georgia Avenue.

Retaining walls pinch the sidewalks, making it hard for stores to thrive.

The area's public transport connections are not ideal, as much of the street is just beyond walking distance of the Fort Totten, Takoma, and Petworth metro stations. Except along Georgia Avenue, bus service is limited outside commuter hours.

The street itself creates a difficult environment for thriving retail. Fortuitously, Kennedy Street is zoned C-2-A between Georgia Avenue and North Capitol Street, permitting a mix of housing and commercial uses. But many of the true commercial buildings are clustered around corners with row houses in between, creating gaps in potential retail clusters. In some places, alleys, the sides of houses, wooden fences, and back yards break up the street wall.

Meanwhile, the sidewalks are narrow, with retaining walls and telephone poles creating bottlenecks. Though there are few places to plant, residents and business owners alike lament the street's general lack of greenery. Some commercial buildings have no alley access at all, requiring business owners to leave waste receptacles on the sidewalk.

Limited support for Kennedy Street

The city's support for the street appears uncoordinated and uneven. After a model effort in community buy-in, the Office of Planning issued a Revitalization Plan for the street in 2008. The plan is as valid today as it was six years ago. But few of its recommendations have been implemented.

Shops along Kennedy Street.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) offered $3.75 million in funding for streetscape improvements, but it's tied up a separate $3.1 million fund to reconfigure the intersection of Kennedy Street with Missouri and Kansas avenues, both of which are behind schedule. Quick fixes like new parking lines, street furniture, and bike racks have been generally unrealized. City programs to improve building facades and invest in businesses have barely touched Kennedy Street.

Oddly, the eastern portion is not eligible for several city incentives, though the commercial buildings there are in worse shape. Pepco has refused requests to bury or even reduce the number of overhead wires, citing the cost and reliability of the existing infrastructure.

Businesses are determined to make it work

Still, some current businesses are determined to grow with the neighborhood. Culture Coffee, a community-oriented cafe at 7th and Kennedy streets NW, has fast become the neighborhood's third space. A block away, a new outpost of Taqueria DF will add patio seating for tacos and cervezas this summer. Local take-out favorite Andrene's, at 3rd and Kennedy, has pledged to remove its plexiglass windows and open up to the street.

KSBDA has found some businesses who seek locations here, but would need to buy and invest in a space. Most owners are only looking to lease, but don't have the capital to install commercial kitchens, quality floors or new facades. Some owners are speculating on appreciation, but their marginal tenants or unavailable vacant storefronts hold the street back.

More than a few prime commercial locations are shuddered and their status is entirely unclear: are they operating irregularly, defunct, or hiding from city regulators? Other owners are absent, often elderly, and have little faith that the street could ever change. Two owners have even tried to talk me out of starting a business on the street!

So how do we overcome these challenges to help Kennedy Street fulfill the potential that residents and businesses all see? How can a movement of volunteer residents and true mom-and-pop businesses help the street become a walkable, welcoming destination, without turning to major outside developers with no attachment to how we define our neighborhood?

Many of us are ready to take action to help grow the street from the bottom up, but we need your help, your lessons, your advice, and your resources to get it done.


Takoma plan addresses resident objections; is it better?

A plan to build some transit-oriented development at Takoma Metro has been in the works since 2000. After a lull of at least 5 years, it's back on the front burner. Developer EYA has devised a totally new plan that may address the objections neighbors raised to the previous plan last decade.

Image from Google Street View via WMATA.

The original concept involved 90 townhouses across most of the site and creating a "village green" of more active, but smaller, open space. Residents didn't like losing that much open space, and also argued that 2-car garages would foster too many car trips for a project right at a Metro station.

Image from EYA via WMATA.

EYA now proposes a much more compact development—a 5-story, "approximately 200" unit condo building that's almost entirely on the footprint of the existing parking lot. According to a presentation on the WMATA Board agenda for this Thursday, the large open space on the southeast side would stay mainly as is, though pedestrian "desire lines," where people cut through the site today, would become real paths.

Image from EYA via WMATA.

The bus bays would remain where they are, and expand to have 1 new bus bay and 1 "layover bay" for a bus to wait between runs. Metro would build a bike station that can hold 105 bikes.

The current surface parking lot has 141 short-term spaces, but according to WMATA documents, the lot is rarely more than 50% full, so the new project's garage would include 100 metered Metro spaces along with some resident parking.

Photo by the author.

Why did people oppose the previous plan?

The first time I visited Takoma, on a WalkingTownDC tour, the tour guide stopped at the Metro parking lot, and held up a photograph of the old commercial street that was once here, long before the Metro station.

She opposed the previous EYA proposal, and made some strong points about its weaknesses, such as the 2-car garages. However, she also talked about Takoma's "small town" feel, and seemed at some level to oppose the idea of more neighbors. The question lingered in my mind: how many were opposing the plan because of its flaws, and how many out of resistance to building anything or adding new residents at all?

The new building will bring a similar number of residents or maybe even more, but provides the 2 things residents asked for most strongly: more open space, and fewer garage spaces.

There is a community meeting on July 16 for residents to hear more about the plans and discuss with WMATA and EYA. As residents get to see more details, we will be able to understand if this is truly a better design than the old one.

This plan keeps a lot of open space, but instead of small blocks of townhouses, it'll be one large apartment building. From the massing sketches, it looks like just a parking garage will face the Metro station. For better or worse, smaller condos will probably be less attractive to families, which have been strongly drawn to the Takoma area. The Metro presentation says that "mid-rise development has occurred surrounding the site bringing into question ... the suitability of townhomes for the site."

Image from EYA.

This new plan provides a good opportunity for those who want better TOD to push for a plan that builds what would be best for Takoma. As the process continues, perhaps they can find other ways to make the plan even better, as long as that doesn't just mean shorter, smaller, or housing fewer people.

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