Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Tenleytown


Parking-free, mixed-use building is right for Tenleytown

Douglas Development wants to rebuild Tenleytown's long-vacant Babe's Billiards into a mixed-use development with 60 residential units and ground floor retail space. Perhaps most significantly, Douglas wants to build no parking at all on the site.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The once-popular neighborhood nightspot has been shuttered for several years, despite its location just a few hundred feet from the Tenleytown Metro station.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E will hear about the proposal tomorrow night (Jan. 12) at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets NW. It would help for smart growth supporters in the area to attend and encourage the ANC to support this worthy project.

The former Babe's sits on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street, near the top of a hill with downward slopes to the south and west, and Douglas's proposal promises to utilize this topography creatively.

Douglas Development's proposal would allow for a potential sit-down restaurant to have an outdoor seating area along Brandywine Street and for the sought-after retail tenants (no dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants, or banks) to have tall, airy ceilings as high as 16-18 feet.

Renderings by Douglas Development Corp.

Although the retail mix in Tenleytown is improving, this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has long been associated with mattress stores, cheap fast food, dry cleaners and lots of banks (okay, maybe not the banks) that belies the affluence of upper Northwest and the proximity to the student population at American University.

A ground-floor restaurant would be an ideal tenant for the space and provide significant value to the community, but if the ANC or Zoning Commission requires parking, that won't be possible due to the topography.

Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

The site is also just a few hundred feet from the Metro station, is well-served by several bus routes, and is within walking distance of two grocery stores and other amenities.

Despite the fact that people who are willing to pay a premium to live directly next to a Metro station have fundamentally different travel patterns, with much lower car ownership and transit usage rates than the surrounding neighbors, Douglas Development is planning ahead for the few people who may own a car. The company proposes to aggressively pursue shared parking agreements with neighboring businesses with spaces that go unused every day.

Douglas could also help reduce driving demand further by providing amenities like car sharing spaces and dedicated bicycle parking. Supportive neighbors have recommended making both a part of the community benefits package.

While the predictable opponents of any change have opposed the Babe's development, city officials in Santa Monica, California, recently approved a very similar 56-unit mixed-use development without any off-street parking. This despite the fact that it will be at least a half decade until the light-rail Expo Line is extended to Santa Monica. The Babe's site already has Metro nearly at its doorstep.

If a mixed-use development can be built in car-centric Southern California without any off-street parking, years before a light rail connection will be provided to the neighborhood, DC's elected leaders and planning officials should have the courage to support a similar development in a walkable community, already well-served by transit.

I urge smart growth advocates to attend the ANC 3E meeting. The Babe's issue might not come up until later in the meeting (perhaps around 9:30pm), but if you come earlier, you can hear from the folks at Safeway who are planning to rebuild the store at 42nd and Ellicott Streets NW, along Wisconsin Avenue.

There are sure to be the usual opponents of any Wisconsin Avenue development in attendance, so the more proponents of a mixed-use development of the Babe's site in attendance, the better.


Activate Ward Circle for pedestrians and cyclists

The center of Ward Circle near American University is an unused and wasted space. The road design heavily favors car traffic and features few bicycle or pedestrian facilities. Closing some traffic lanes and adding pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes could make Ward Circle a more coherent public space.

Photo by clgregor on Flickr.

The center of the circle, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues NW, is currently inaccessible to pedestrians and features only a statue and some shrubs in the middle. Pedestrians and cyclists are able to travel around the circle but not into or through it.

An improved park would serve many, as both American University and the Department of Homeland Security headquarters are within walking distance. Students could study or take a break from classes, and DHS employees could eat lunch in the circle, in the vein of the denizens of Dupont Circle.

In addition to sharing the two circumnavigating lanes with Massachusetts Avenue, Nebraska Avenue has two express lanes that travel through the middle of the circle. Even if pedestrians did want to travel into the middle of Ward Circle, they would have to cross both the outer travel lanes and the inner express lanes.

DDOT studied the option of closing the Nebraska Avenue through-lanes in the Rock Creek West II Livability Study. Doing so would slow automobile traffic but could help make for a better public place.

One alternative to improve traffic flow, through an expensive and logistically difficult proposition, would be to tunnel Nebraska Avenue under Ward Circle. Several other avenues tunnel under other circles in the District: Connecticut Avenue under Dupont Circle, Massachusetts under Thomas Circle, and 16th Street under Scott Circle.

Even without a tunnel, eliminating the express lanes and routing all traffic around the circle would improve the space. Crosswalks with leading pedestrian intervals would make it easier to cross only two lanes of traffic. Otherwise, DDOT will have to install crosswalks for both the outer and inner lanes.

Benches would also make the circle a more attractive place to spend time. Trees or larger shrubs along the edge could screen some of the traffic noise and provide shade. Lighting would make the circle a safe and attractive place to be at night.

DDOT redesigned Thomas Circle in a similar way in 2006. DDOT removed the middle lanes through the circle and restored the circular shape. Thomas Circle still needs additional amenities in the center to make it a more welcoming space, however, and similar improvements to Ward Circle would create a better community park.

Nebraska Avenue is also an unfriendly bike corridor along an important commuter route. Nebraska connects AU and DHS to Tenleytown, the closest Metro station. AU runs a shuttle to the Metro and DHS runs some shuttles, but biking along Nebraska can be treacherous with the traffic.

DDOT is considering widening the sidewalk on the north side of Nebraska and installing a bike path. According to Jim Sebastian, Nebraska Avenue is too narrow at 40 feet to install bike lanes on the street. The north side of Nebraska has heavier pedestrian traffic than the south side, so DDOT is only looking to expand there.

Increasing bicycle accessibility and mobility between Tenleytown and the circle should also be a goal of the redesign. A bike path along the sidewalk could encourage more bike commuting from Tenleytown to Ward Circle. DDOT should also add a second Capital Bikeshare station at the circle and expand the station at Tenleytown.

Currently, there is only one bike share station on Massachusetts Avenue to the northwest of Ward Circle. A station directly at the circle would not only accommodate more bikers, but it would also make it more of a destination. DDOT is now crowdsourcing suggestions for new stations, so residents, students, and nearby employees can suggest adding one here.

Finally, the bike lane network near AU is incomplete. Massachusetts Avenue has no lanes, and ANC3D opposed adding bike lanes to New Mexico Avenue near Nebraska. It's good that DDOT wants to add a bike path to Nebraska, but the agency should also push for a more connected and complete bike lane network around Ward Circle.

Ward Circle is close to students, residents, and federal workers, all of whom could benefit from a large green space, and the District should include in its planning modifications that activate the space. The proposed changes will create a better community space that is welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists, while still allowing for automobile flow. What else do you think would improve the circle?


Don't just preserve history at AU, interpret it

With a more creative approach to preservation, American University's plan for its Tenley Campus could produce better urban design and a more compelling presentation of the site's history.

Capital Hall. Image from Wikipedia.

AU has agreed to preserve several structures on the site: the a former farmhouse called Dunblane House, Capital Hall the main building visible from Tenley Circle, and a Chapel. Together, these buildings form an axis that the Historic Preservation Office has insisted on preserving.

The Historic Preservation Office is right to emphasize this axis; it is probably the most interesting part of the site. The architects at SmithGroup have worked within these requirements to create a private quadrangle between the old house and Capital Hall, which looks good so far.

But AU has also decided to build on the footprints of the existing 1950s buildings and not construct anything that would obscure Capital Hall. The buildings are preserved, but no part of the campus will feel different from the others, even if they are in a slightly different style. The new buildings offer no key to understand on the site they inherit.

To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti's renovation of the Getty Villa. They combined the pragmatic need for an an entry stairway with architectural promenade that helps visitors understand the museum's curatorial approach.

An abstract amphitheater is used to frame the Getty Villa as an an art object.

Treating the 1970s replica of a roman villa as an object in a collection, stairs and pathways frame the building in a sequence that calls to mind an excavation. The stair gives visitors a lens with which to understand the building and clears their minds of the drive out to Malibu.

At Tenleytown, the preservation aspect should have the same approach. Rather than preserving the front of the campus as slice of DC's rural history, any new buildings should frame the old buildings in a way that heightens one's awareness of the area's history, which dates back to the tobacco plantations and and dirt farmers who worked the land before the streetcar suburbs.

Dunblane - marked H. Blunt in 1859. Image from the Library of Congress.

By at least 1820, Dunblane House stood on the site, connected to what was then called Georgetown Pike by a long perpendicular driveway. In 1902, when the Sisters of Providence purchased the property for a women's college (Immaculata), they constructed Capital Hall and a chapel over that driveway.

Then, when the city was carving out Nebraska Avenue in the early 20th century, they designed it to intersect Wisconsin Avenue at the same spot where the Dunblane axis ends. Now, from the Dunblane site to Tenley Circle, we have a series of related buildings with a lot of history. But those buildings feel disconnected from the neighborhood.

A good redesign of the campus would link the neighborhood to the campus without diminishing the historic structures.In most projects, architects contrast new work through a difference of style. Here, the architects have an unequaled opportunity to explore the difference through urban design strategies.

The carefully arranged axes at the Tenley Circle. North is up. Image by the author.

Capital Hall is oriented towards Wisconsin Avenue, but it's hard to see the connection to Wisconsin Avenue for two reasons. The first is the lawn in front of the building, which distances Capital hall from its focus. The second is that none of the adjacent buildings are on the same axis. The residences on Nebraska are face that thoroughfare, while St. Anne's Church and the old convent on Yuma Street are aligned north-south on the city's grid.

I propose that the most effective way to contextualize the historic buildings is to heighten the sensation of contrast between the four axes at Tenley Circle by framing part of the frontal lawn with buildings. One would be aligned to Nebraska Avenue and the other to Yuma Street, with a staircase and plaza preserving line-of-sight between Capital Hall and the circle.

A rough alternative for the Tenley Circle campus. A public stair leads up to a semi-private courtyard, framing Capital Hall. Wings along Yuma and Nebraska tie the campus to the city.

The plaza would serve as the badly needed front entrance, while focusing the view from Capital Hall to Tenley Circle. Wings that face Nebraska Ave. and Yuma St. would relate the campus to the city streets. The difference in orientation would allow for a poetic negotiation from the historic architecture to the contemporary, and from the work world to the academic one.

At the opposite end of the axis, AU should not have to keep the physical structure of Dunblane House, which does not have any merit for legal protection. However, AU should reinterpret the outlines, either another building or a garden feature, to anchor the axis and suggest an imprint of history.

AU's current plan misses a unique opportunity to interpret history through public space. The HPO's insistence that nothing can occlude Capital Hall will render that history as inaccessible the building itself. A different approach is necessary, one that lets us understand the past in relation to our needs and ideas. I believe that I have only scratched the surface of the tremendous architectural potential at the Tenley Campus.

Public Spaces

AU's Tenley campus proposal is pinned to the past

American University plans to move its law school to its land two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro. That has enormous potential, but the design should more directly engage the surrounding urban fabric.

Unfortunately, as expansion plans are presented it is becoming clear that AU's designs remain pinned to the past. Despite the urban location of the Tenley campus, plans for it are based on flawed and outdated suburban design principles.

Site Plan as of June. Tenley Circle, Wisconsin Avenue, and the front lawn are to the upper left. Up is north. Image from AU.

It makes sense to move the law school to the Tenley campus. Most law school faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school from homes and jobs elsewhere in the city, making the site's accessibility a strong feature. In addition to the Metro, bus lines in eight directions link the circle to points all over Northwest DC. This level of accessibility will make it easy for students to attend classes without ever parking a car on local streets.

The law school should also benefit the community. The Tenley campus is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue that have been struggling for years. An expanded campus would energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity between them where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field.

Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.

But as of July, the designs do not meet of the location's potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus. Those objects relate to each other, but to the city or the local streets.

A big empty lawn. Photo by the author.

The worst consequence of this decision is the retention of the marginal green space between the main building and Tenley Circle. Instead of a place for people, the most visible and accessible part of the site becomes a large no-man's-land. At precisely the spot where the campus should best engage the city, it turns its back.

Around the sides, the site plan leaves even more empty shrub-filled spaces. AU has assured worried neighbors that these large setbacks will screen the bulk of new buildings, but they are a half-measure. As at East Campus, AU is trying to screen the buildings as a substitute for designing more attractive or exciting buildings. Here, the choice makes all of the perimeter conditions the same, front and back, and all relatively unproductive.

Only the area shown in green is park space. The rest is a green buffer.

Moving the buildings to the front would let the designers consolidate the green space into useful parks at the rear of the site, rather than left as unused spaces on the fringe. It is completely contextual to have a larger building with strong streetwalls fronting the main street, with smaller structures set back on the side streets. This is how nearby blocks have developed, and how most blocks on Wisconsin are zoned.

The 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave has a wall of attached storefronts on the avenue and detached homes behind.

SmithGroup's challenge at this site has been to lay out a plan that creates a campus environment internally, and that meets the neighborhood on one side and greets the city on the other. Their plan achieves a campus feel and blends into the neighborhood relatively well, but does not greet the city.

The campus needs an urban front, a kind of civic space where the main building meets Tenley Circle. One way to achieve that would be with a public staircase.

There are many precedents of public staircases connecting dense urban areas with campus environments, both grandiose and intimate. Columbia University's enormous cascading plaza does double duty as the main social location on campus and and as a threshold between the busy street and the academic campus above.

Left: Columbia's Low Plaza. Photo by Julia Fredenburg on Flickr.
Right: Pioneer Courthouse Square. Photo by Bob I Am on Flickr.

The smaller staircases at Chicago's Field Museum and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are great places to wait, socialize and watch: quintessential urban places.

And these don't have to be so grandiose. Polshek Partnership's entryway to the Brooklyn Museum includes two large stair-like seating areas with pragmatic ground-level access. Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland is a more casual example of an urban stair.

Also out in the Pacific Northwest, the FDR Memorial's designer Lawrence Halprin designed two fascinating parks that reveal the natural environment and the experience of spaces on sites with significant slopes.

These are all great places to wait, socialize and people watch. They are quintessential urban spaces, and illustrate how clever architecture can connect an urban environment to a campus by a great front door.

AU's choice to locate the law school at Tenley Circle is an opportunity to dramatically improve the character of the neighborhood, leaving it more vibrant and green. To take advantage of this opportunity, AU needs to rethink the urban design of their site plan.

In part 2, I'll discuss the historic preservation issues about the proposed campus.

Cross-posted at цarьchitect.


AU's East Campus plan is a good start

American University's campus plan goes before the Zoning Commission on June 9th. It's imperfect, but the plan still deserves support.

Last May, I wrote in support of the plan to build a residential complex across Nebraska Avenue from AU's main campus at Ward Circle. Over that time, the design has changed significantly. In response to overarching objections raised by some neighbors, the design has taken on less of an urban character than it originally had, which reduces its potential. Nonetheless, with architectural alterations, it will be one of the most important developments in Ward 3.

May 20th Revised Plan. Image from AU.

As part of a larger strategy for growth and consolidation of its school, American will replace a parking lot with six buildings of two to six stories, including 590 beds, a bookstore, admissions offices, classrooms, administrative spaces, as well as some retail. The benefits for AU have been argued over many times; I'll let AU speak for itself. But the benefits of the expansion to the neighborhood and the city are public business.

The new facilities will bring students out of neighborhoods. Currently, AU undergrads are spread out, with roughly 2,000 of 6,000 living off-campus. Some of those students do so by choice, but AU only has room to house 67% of its students. Many juniors and seniors have to look to the neighborhood for a place to live.

The East Campus would pull students from the neighborhood and the Tenley Campus. Better residential facilities would mean fewer students spread out in the neighborhood, fewer noise disruptions, and less of a demand for vehicular commuting.

That reduction in traffic is no small thing. The new facilities adjacent to the central campus mean fewer trips for students and faculty alike. AU is also reducing the total number of parking spaces on campus, and has promised to expand its existing transportation demand management program. Even so, AU's transportation study found that its users never contributed more than 12% of all traffic during rush hour.

The rest of the vehicles are commuters passing through the Ward Circle area. The three avenues in the area, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Massachusetts currently serve primarily as automobile routes. The new buildings offer the potential to reorient the circle for those who live and work in the area.

Rather than gnarling traffic, as opponents have insisted, the slight uptick in pedestrian activity caused by the new buildings will force drivers to pay better attention to their presence on this urban street. The potential for more stoplights and a redesigned circle opens the opportunity to reduce speeds and dangerous behavior, likewise making the area safer for residents of all ages.

Through commercial frontage and foot traffic, Nebraska Avenue would become a pleasant place for locals to enjoy. Leaving the interior of the campus for students, a commercial perimeter would become another node in the geography of Upper Northwest. It would never become as dense and vibrant as Bethesda, let alone Tenleytown, but as a tertiary urban center, it can merge into the neighborhood.

Finally, the scheme laid out in the university's plan continues to facilitate the economic activity of American and its affiliates, estimated at $415 million. Although academic institutions do not pay taxes for noncommercial properties, the Examiner reported last week that students and faculty bring money and talent to the area when they come to the region's universities. By building on its land efficiently, AU will be making an optimal contribution to the city and enlivening the streetscape through the benefits of density.

There are potential negatives, which AU needs to mitigate. However, in its effort to compromise on objections, AU has layered the new buildings in greenery and minimized certain urban features, compromising potential, while still not satisfying opponents' demands.

For example, a 40' buffer of greenery adjacent to Westover Place feathers the campus into the neighborhood, but it's not good on all four sides. Adding a similar barrier of impenetrable greenery along Nebraska Avenue will separate the campus and retail from the sidewalk. It requires creating a second, separated walkway that will reduce the very urban characteristic of unplanned interactions. It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city.

Nebraska Avenue Buffer.

Worsening the Nebraska Avenue elevation, the most recent plans call for a roadway to be punched through building #1 to the interior campus. A roadway in that place would disrupt the crucial urban space at the sidewalk. Instead, the plans should return to the right-in, right-out entrance on Massachusetts Avenue presented in the March 18th Final Plan. This is similar to the one at Westover Place, the Berkshire, and other nearby driveways.

At the least, the university could build on their plans for the Mary Graydon Tunnel and design the proposed road as a woonerf, prioritizing pedestrians in a roadway that runs through what is the students' front yard.

Woonerf in Victoria, BC. Photo by Dylan Passmore on Flickr.

Likewise, AU should not be advocating for a new actuated signal on Nebraska Avenue. Instead, it should build timed signals that guarantee AU students the opportunity to cross as frequently and in rhythm with the city's traffic.

A new stoplight, combined with the recommended changes to Ward Circle, would make the area safer than any phystical barrier by limiting the incentive to jaywalk. If a physical deterrent is necessary, planters between the street and the sidewalk should be sufficient, as at Bethesda Row.

Finally, the project should serve as a catalyst for alternative transportation in the area. Bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue would mean better safety and better quality of life for students and neighbors alike. On campus, the administration already promotes a progressive Transport Demand Management plan, with dedicated ZipCar spaces, Capitol Bikeshare, carpooling assistance, shuttles, and SmartBenefits. But without adequate facilities, the full benefits of cycling and bus transit will not be realized.

Smart Growth refers to planning that is appropriate not only at the local level, but across multiple scales: architectural, local, metropolitan, and regional. AU's expansion plan, which would consolidate students, tame traffic, and create a new node of community, works at the larger three scales. Where it fails is in the way that it addresses the street and human scale, compromising enormous potential for solutions that will please no one and will require remediation in the future.

The Zoning commission should endorse AU's 2011 Campus Plan with alterations at the architectural scale.


Chevy Chase residents oppose proposed Metrobus cuts

WMATA is proposing to eliminate the E6 route to help close a $66 million budget shortfall. But residents of Chevy Chase oppose cutting the route, which serves a retirement home in Northwest.

Photo by philliefan99 on Flickr.

Residents from the Knollwood senior community and other Chevy Chase residents came out in strong support of keeping the E6 bus line at WMATA's public hearing in Tenleytown Tuesday night. Councilmembers Mary Cheh (Ward 3) and Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) also spoke in support of the E6, which serves parts of both wards. Residents had a chance to ask questions about other issues, including customer service and SmarTrip problems.

Metro would eliminate the E6 route and other routes to help balance the FY12 budget. The proposal would also cut service on the N8 and K1, extend headways for weekend rail service, and eliminate the Anacostia special fare.

The E6 carries an average of 373 riders per day, according to WMATA, and eliminating the route would save an estimated $385,000. To replace the Knollwood portion of the E6, Metro would extend the M4 along Western Avenue to Oregon Avenue. Most residents testified in support of the E6, and a small number spoke about changing or eliminating the N8. No one spoke in support of the N8 as is, and no one spoke on the proposed K1 or V8 changes.

Cheh, Bowser, and others testified that the E6 serves upper Connecticut Avenue and Friendship Heights, both important commercial and medical destinations for seniors. They argued that cutting the E6 would hurt local businesses and burden seniors trying to reach doctors' offices.

Knollwood employees also use the E6. One resident said the M4 begins too late in the morning for staff members to arrive on time. The M4 terminates at Tenleytown and residents connecting to Friendship Heights would have to transfer to the 30s, take the Red Line one stop, or walk down Wisconsin Avenue. Although they are close, the extra commute time and walk to Friendship Heights would unfairly burden seniors and disabled riders. Several residents said shifting ridership to the M4 would create significant overcrowding and slower service.

One Barnaby Woods resident said the neighborhood is wealthy and many residents have cars. If Metro were to eliminate the E6, he would simply drive instead. The E6 is the only transit connection for many Chevy Chase residents, and some said eliminating the service would effectively isolate this section of Upper Northwest.

Metro's budget gap is $66 million. Cutting the E6 would only save $385,000, a tiny portion of this gap. Certainly, if this argument were made for every cut, it could cumulatively fail to close the gap. But because this route provides direct transit access for seniors, it is not a wise choice. Cheh indicated at the end of her testimony that the Committee on Transportation and Public Works may have found additional funds to save the E6.

The committee report does identify sources of revenue to help fund the District's WMATA subsidy, and perhaps some of this money could continue to fund the E6. Metro is considering asking the three jurisdictions for more funding.

Some residents also spoke about the N8. The N8 runs eastbound on Yuma Street from 49th Sreet to Tenley Circle. Metro estimates an average daily ridership of only 300. Eliminating service on this route would save an estimated $516,000.

Yuma Street residents are concerned that the street is too steep and with low ridership, N8 drivers often speed down Yuma, making it dangerous for children and other pedestrians. One Yuma Street resident joked that more people had spoken to save the E6 route than ride the N8.

An American University student did speak in support of the N8, saying it helps students living in Glover Park travel to AU. She supported moving the N8 off Yuma to create a more direct connection to AU, but said the route should stay.

No one spoke on the K1 or V8 routes.

In addition to public testimony on the proposed service changes, Metro officials gave a short presentation on the FY12 budget and took questions from the audience. Residents asked about customer service and problems with the weekly bus pass.

Several residents said they have had negative encounters with bus drivers and station managers, including problems using the 7-day bus pass. WMATA CFO Carol Kissal said the agency had fixed the bus pass issue and apologized for poor bus driver service. Kissal said customers will be able to load their SmarTrip cards online this summer.

Few at the meeting spoke about extending weekend rail headways, though one man commented that stopping weekend rail service at midnight would be a mistake. A representative from Amalgamated Transit Union 689, which represents Metro employees, said the union opposes service cuts because it will hurt bus and rail operators.

The WMATA panel included General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles, WMATA board members Tom Downs and Mort Downey, and Barbara Richardson, Assistant General Manager of Customer Service, Communications and Marketing at Metro. The agency held two hearings each in the District, Maryland, and Virginia. The entire docket, including all proposed bus and rail service changes, is available here.


Consolidate bus stops to speed up the 30s line

Metro should consolidate bus stops on the 30s line to improve bus performance on Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Avenues. Metro streamlined other lines to stop no more than 4 or 5 times per mile, but the 30s line can stop as much as 9 times per mile.

Photo by Beechwood Photography on Flickr.

Alternatively, Metro could convert some local buses into express buses during peak hours. This option could give Metro more flexibility to meet peak demand. These buses could follow a predetermined express schedule so riders would know which stops the bus would serve.

Currently, the 30s routes serves 9 stops on the 1 mile stretch between the Friendship Heights and Tenleytown stations. Similarly, there are 9 stops on the mile-long stretch from the Tenleytown to the National Cathedral.

The buses are particularly slow through Georgetown, where the avenue narrows to one lane in each direction. There are 7 stops on the mile-long route on Wisconsin Avenue from R Street to 28th Street. The bus also stops 7 seven times downtown between 24th Street on Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place on H Street NW.

On many of these sections, there is a bus stop at every block for multiple blocks. The 30s stop at Dumbarton, P, Q, and R Streets in Georgetown and at both ends of Lafayette Park and 18th and 17th Streets downtown. More stops means slower trips, particularly during rush hour when crowded buses increase the probability of a passenger requesting each stop.

Metro removed some bus stops earlier this year to improve on-time performance, which lags below the 80% target level (page 25 of the PDF). However, some residents oppose these consolidations and Metro relented on many of them.

It's certainly understandable that communities would want to preserve all of their bus stops. Frequency of stops makes riding the bus more convenient and riders don't have to walk as far to reach the nearest one.

But more bus stops generally mean slower buses, which ultimately makes the bus less convenient. In certain places, removing a bus stop has little impact on the convenience of the bus. For example, do the 30s really need to stop at Jackson Place and Madison Place on either side of Lafayette Park? The park isn't that big and this stretch of H Street is often cluttered with rush hour traffic and other buses.

Alternatively, WMATA could turn local buses into express buses when demand is high. A manager at either end of a line could designate a bus "express" during peak times when the route is particularly slow and the bus could easily flash between "32 Friendship Heights" and "Express," for example, to alert riders. If WMATA published an express schedule, riders could know whether to take the express bus or wait for the local one.

WMATA does currently run an express bus on part of this route, the 37 line. This bus connects Friendship Heights with Archives, but does so via Massachusetts Avenue and Dupont Circle. While this route speeds up the connection for riders going downtown, it does not service Glover Park, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, which are often slower parts of the route.

Turning a local 32 into an express 32, for example, would mean the bus continues to run the entirety of the Friendship Heights to Southern Avenue route. But this express service would service fewer stops with a high number of boardings. This way, riders in Glover Park and Georgetown could connect to the Blue and Orange lines at Foggy Bottom much faster.

This real-time change could be implemented soon without the need to create an entirely new express route like the S9 or X9 buses. Bus stop consolidation could take more time, but is ultimately necessary to reduce travel times.


Upper NW study suggests traffic calming, bike boulevards

DDOT has completed its "livability" study for upper Northwest neighborhoods, which recommends a number of changes to calm speeding traffic and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety.

42nd and Albemarle. Photo from DDOT.

The study focused on Friendship Heights, Chevy Chase DC, Forest Hills, AU Park, and Tenleytown. DDOT tabulated motor vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle crashes; surveyed residents to find out about problem spots; and analyzed the street network.

Recommendations include adding bulb-outs to aid pedestrian crossings, small roundabouts to slow traffic, speed cameras, and new "bicycle boulevards" that have bikes and cars share the road at slow speeds.

Here's a video about bike boulevards from New York:

The bicycle boulevards would go on certain streets which travel through residential areas but stretch long distances. This not only gives cyclists a safe and comfortable through route but also discourages motor vehicles from using the streets for long trips, instead pushing them to use the major arterial routes and making the resident streets quieter and safer.

Map of proposed bike boulevards.

Several other roads would get "sharrows," which also promote sharing space between bikes and cars but don't give priority to bicycles.

For a number of intersections, DDOT is proposing curb extensions, or bulb-outs. Some, where there is a high volume of pedestrians, would be paved, adding space for pedestrians to wait and also shortening the crossing distance.

In other places, they would be "green curb extensions," where most of the added space is filled with plantings and designed to capture and hold stormwater that runs off from the surrounding street.

Curb extensions would go along River Road at 45th/Fessenden (paved) and 44th (green), on Davenport at Reno Road and Connecticut Avenue (both green) and 36th (paved), and at a lot of corners in Tenleytown.

Recommendations for Tenleytown.

At some places where three roads come together, small side roads serve as slip lanes encouraging fast turns and speeding. The study recommends closing a small section adjacent to main streets at 36th Street between Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street, and Brandywine Street between 42nd and River Road.

The former road space would either become a basic grass area or get additional stormwater facilities, like rain gardens, to capture and store rainwater and runoff.

From Albemarle to Brandywine Streets just east of the Tenleytown Metro station, between the Whole Foods and Wilson High School, is a pair of parallel roads, 40th Street and Fort Drive. They are only a median's width apart and serve essentially as two directions of one street with a median in between. The report calls the intersection between these and Albemarle Street "awkward, confusing, and obstruct[ing] some views."

40th Street and Fort Drive. (North is to the right.)

It suggests reversing the direction, so cars travel clockwise instead of counterclockwise, and replacing parallel parking adjacent to the median with angled parking, almost doubling the amount of parking. A break in the median for U-turns, currently adjacent to Albemarle, would be moved to the center of the block, lining up with the Whole Foods while also adding crosswalks there.

42nd and Warren.
42nd Street and Warren Street meet in a large, gently curving triangular intersection which also encourages speeding. The plan suggests a pair of small neighborhood traffic circles, essentially small islands in the middle of the intersection which drivers have to travel around more slowly instead of zooming through the large intersection.

These items are far from all the suggestions for improving safety and mobility in Upper Northwest. Part 2 will look at Ward and Chevy Chase Circles, other ideas that didn't make it into the report, and when all of this might actually become a reality.


AU students need more, quality on-campus housing

American University recently presented neighbors with the latest draft of its 10-year campus plan.

Photo by the American University.

The top priorities are to increase undergraduate student housing and provide more space for student recreation, dining, and activities on campus.

The most controversial of the plan's elements is the construction of an East Campus, across Nebraska Avenue from the current main campus.

AU would like to increase its on-campus bed count capacity to 4,100 students, down from the 4,900 proposed in the previous draft. AU's dorms are currently designed to house 3,533 students, but through tripling students and agreements with the nearby Berkshire apartments, the university is able to hold over 4,000.

On-campus housing is better than off-campus housing for many reasons. It puts students closer to everything that happens on campus, from speakers to classes, and almost always means a better relationship between students and landlords.

But on-campus housing can't be built with paper-thin walls and stack students up like sardines. Meeting the housing needs of students means building exactly the kind of living that the east campus offers.

New dorms

The plan details a new dorm on South Side to hold about 200 students, an addition to Nebraska to hold around 125, and a series of dorms on East Campus meant for just under 800 residents. The increase in housing is meant to guarantee housing for both freshman and sophomores (currently, AU can only guarantee 85% of sophomores housing) and to reduce the number of triples, or the practice of cramming three freshmen in rooms meant for two residents.

Plan for the main campus. The dark color shows new buildings, the light color potential future development.

Currently a large parking lot, Nebraska Lot lies east of AU, separated from the campus proper by Nebraska Avenue, a fairly busy road. The plan calls for that space to be replaced by six buildings, four of which would be dorms (the other being used for the alumni center, the new campus center, and office space). Underneath the new campus would be an underground parking garage.

To ensure that students could only cross Nebraska at the signaled crosswalk, the entire campus would be fenced, with the only entrance/exit by foot being a gap in that fence near New Mexico Avenue (at its intersection with Nebraska). Two roads also enter the campus, but both lead to the underground garage.

Residents are concerned that this campus will be relatively close to their homes. The back of the furthest buildings rest 40 to 80 feet or more from the backs of the adjoined houses at Westover Place, and residents there are worried about how these new buildings will affect their lives.

With no real buffer between the homes and the lot currently, the height of the buildings (54 feet for the dorms and slightly lower for the others) have the potential to dominate their sights out of their back windows.

Residents also complain that noise from the dorms will disturb them. Many at recent ANC meetings have complained of potential and raucous partying (an unneeded anxiety, given campus policies) and the potential for vandalism, which is also unlikely.

Pedestrians at Nebraska Avenue

Photo by ehpien on Flickr.
Neighbors also complained that the increase in number of pedestrians crossing Nebraska would both disrupt the flow of traffic on that road and be dangerous for both students and drivers. Both claims require study, but cannot be determined at this time with the certitude residents put forward).

Regardless, the issue of East Campus remains the flash point of this campus plan, and the University doesn't seem to be willing to budge. While this draft (the third of this campus plan) showed a reduction of 800 housed students from the previous one, the number of students being housed on East Campus has been held more-or-less constant throughout the whole process.

The University insists that an East Campus remains the best place to house that volume of additional students, and that it will not negatively affect traffic flow. However, it could have done a far better job of explaining these claims at meetings with local stakeholders.

Retail and urban design

Retail would be part of the proposed east campus. Having more that students can reach by walking is good for the students, the environment, and the city's revenues.

Students should hope, though, that the University avoids the mistakes from past construction on the campus. It's hard for a business to survive on students and employees alone. Witness the failure of the McDonald's hidden away in a tunnel in the middle of campus, and the pizzeria before it.

Bringing the buildings with retail closer to the street could expand the buffer offered to our neighbors in Westover, help the businesses attract outside customers, and provide a visual cue to passing drivers to slow down.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
The plan also shows the Washington College of Law moving to the Tenley campus, and calls for the construction of an Alumni Center, a new Campus Visiting Center, and several other new buildings.

Another facet of the plan is growing the number of enrolled students from 10,297 to 13,600. However, grad and law students dominate this increase in population; the number of undergraduates will be modestly raised from 6,300 to 6,400.

Several other issues have been raised by the community as well. Some say that the increased traffic from graduate students and new university employees will make the horrid traffic problems around Ward Circle even worse. Others raise the concern that dangerous chemicals from Army Corps of Engineers operations during World War I still remain around the Nebraska lot, and could prove hazardous to students living in dorms there. However, it's unclear what evidence there is to support this claim.


Finally, residents complain that the reduction in surface parking on campus will adversely affect the current problem of students parking in neighborhoods and walking to campus. Students do this often to avoid the high costs of parking on campus, which in themselves are meant to encourage students to carpool or walk.

The American University campus plan has attracted a lot of attentionmost of it angry and resentful. At the special meeting ANC 3D recently held on the campus plan, most of the normal complaints about students and universities were trotted out: students are all raging drunkards, the school is a neighborhood bully, further development will destroy property values, and did you hear about that time that one kid did that one ridiculous thing?

We agree more with some of the things we've heard our neighbors say than others. What we didn't hear was a lot about what the new plan means for students and what they need.

Student needs matter

What American University students want from our plan is simple: building for our needs. We aren't the only stakeholders in the process: professors and departments need be wooed and supported, and neighbors have legitimate concerns.

But at the end of the day, we are the university's customers, products, and inhabitants. We come to the school at what are often some of the most vulnerable, confusing, and thrilling times of our lives, and we rely on the campus, the community, and the neighborhood to help us make something of ourselves.

The campus plan is a part of that, and it's important that we make our voices heard in its crafting and implementation. Even if each of us is only here for a few years, together there are thousands of us here for decades. We want both the next few years and those future decades to be good ones.

Cross-posted from two posts at DC Students Speak.

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