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Public Spaces


Can NoMa turn dank underpasses into lively public spaces?

Can the mostly-empty space beneath the railroad tracks approaching Union Station become active spaces that enhance the NoMa neighborhood? The NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) hopes so. Some other cities have been able to activate underpasses; can these show the way?


An idea for the L Street underpass from the NoMa BID public realm design plan.

The BID launched a design competition to find "an artist, team of artists, designer or architect" to "beautify, enliven and activate" the spaces under the tracks on Florida Avenue and K, L, and M Streets NE with a "sensory experience."

"We want to turn those spaces into places that people want to come visit because they are so attractive and cool," says Robin Eve-Jasper, president of NoMa BID.

Funding comes from the $50 million Mayor Gray recently authorized to help NoMa combat its dearth of parks. The DC Council still must approve the spending, but Eve-Jasper says that she expects this to happen by the end of May. Responses from design teams are due by May 9, with a plan to present proposals to the public in September and select a final design in October.

Underpasses get little activity today

Pedestrians currently use the underpasses as little more than empty zones to cross from one side of the tracks to the other.

M Street is the most active of the four, as it is the main access route to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station and the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for residents who live on the east side of the tracks. It also contains a Capital Bikeshare station on its northern sidewalk.

Neighborhood residents headed to NoMa's main activity center at the corner of M and First Street NE, where there is a Harris Teeter supermarket, other stores and offices, also use the M Street underpass.


M Street NE underpass looking west.

Cars dominate the Florida Ave and K Street underpasses, which dedicate six and four lanes to car traffic, respectively. Both streets have narrow sidewalks and see significantly less pedestrian traffic than M Street.


Florida Avenue underpass looking east.


K Street underpass looking west.

The L Street underpass is the least used of the four, according to my observations. It has wide sidewalks and only two lanes for carslike M Streetbut lacks easy access to the Metro or the MBT, and the activity center of its sibling a block north.


L Street underpass looking east. Photo by author.

Other cities have activated underpasses

Highway underpasses have become public space in a number of other cities. Many include basketball courts, bike trails, skate parks and play areas for children.

Underpass Park in Toronto, located under the western end of the Eastern Avenue overpass near the Don River, is a widely-cited example. A recent Architectural Record report found the park's basketball courts and skate park popular among area residents, but the children's area was less so.

The article also noted that an art installation called Mirage, which includes reflective panels that add light to the underpass, does provide some illumination but adds that more mirrors would have brightened the space.


Underpass Park, Toronto. Photo by Rick Harris on Flickr.

Other examples include Burnside Skatepark in Portland, Oregon and I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park in Seattle, both of which are under overpasses.

The underpasses in NoMa lack the height and depth of many of these spaces. This makes it difficult to fit amenities like basketball courts or skate parks, though a linear children's play area could fit on either L or M Streets.

Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood may offer some of the closest examples to the spaces in NoMa. A number of underpasses under a Metra rail line through the neighborhood sport murals by local artists and some even have corner shops built into their corners.


Underpass mural in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Photo by Marc Monaghan on Flickr.

Asked what NoMa BID envisions for the four spaces, Eve-Jasper says that she is leaving that up to the architects and designers to decide. What do you think would work best in the underpasses?

Transit


Disguised "houses" help Purple Line blend into neighborhoods

To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.


"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.

Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.

Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."

Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for comments until October 21, the line's preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit "transformer hum" sounds.

MTA plans to mitigate the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, "The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment."

Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.


A traction power substation in Minneapolis. Photo from MTA.

In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.


Possible Purple Line substation house. Photo from MTA.

The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.

Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City's subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne's 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations.

In 1987, Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called "bungalow-style substations," throughout Toronto. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.

Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on Pepco's program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. Pepco employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.


Washington Post cartoon. "These Homes are Really Electrifying," April 4, 1954.

Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren't limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.


A "monopine" at the Montgomery County Trolley Museum. Photo by the author.

One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower's visual impact to the established neighborhood.

One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.


The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.

It's far too soon to know whether the Purple Line's faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied "real" homes.

MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won't be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And it's not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.

Transit


Streetcars are more flexible about capacity

Streetcars and buses have different strengths and weaknesses, and are better at accomplishing different goals. Flexibility is often touted as a major strength of buses. Although buses are legitimately more nimble in some ways, when it comes to flexibility of capacity, it's streetcars that have the edge.


Image from the American Public Transportation Association.

It's true that buses have tremendous routing flexibility. Since buses can operate on any normal traffic lane, routes can be reconfigured on a whim and individual buses are free to move around obstacles. These are real benefits, and sometimes they mean that a route is best off using buses.

At the same time, streetcars are customizable for high-capacity service in ways that aren't available for buses.

Streetcars can be longer

In simplest terms, streetcars can be longer than buses. Since streetcars run on tracks, there is no danger of jackknifing. Likewise, since streetcars are powered by overhead wire, there's not a single engine distributing power. Thus there's no physical limit to their length.

For example, streetcar manufacturer CAF offers its Urbos model in options ranging from 60 feet long up to 141 feet long. Bombardier's similar Flexity model comes in any length from 69 feet up to 148 feet.

Portland's famous streetcar is a relatively diminutive 65 feet long, but longer vehicles are beginning to show up in North America. Cincinnati is using a 77 foot long Urbos for its future line, and the first 78 foot long Siemens S70s have already been delivered to Atlanta. In Toronto, 99 foot long Flexities will soon ply the continent's largest streetcar network.


99' long Toronto streetcar. Image by Bombardier.

And that's just single streetcar vehicles. Streetcars can also be coupled into trains of multiple cars, so transit agencies that own shorter vehicles can still get the benefits of extra length without needing new railcars.

Agencies that want to run longer trains do have to provide longer stations, but since streetcar stations are typically simple, that's relatively easy to accomplish.

Ultimately the limiting factor on streetcar length is the size of city blocks. Streetcars can't typically be longer than one city block, lest they block traffic on perpendicular streets. But city blocks are usually hundreds of feet long, so streetcars can still be much longer than buses.

Streetcars can have diverse interiors

Even compared to buses of exactly the same length, streetcars can support a higher passenger capacity. Since gliding along rails is so much more smooth than rumbling along asphalt, and since there's no need for huge wheel wells, it's more practical for streetcars to have a lot of open space that maximizes standing capacity.


Interior of one of DC's streetcars. Photo by BeyondDC.

The 3 streetcars that DC has in storage use this strategy. They're 65 feet long, but they have much more capacity than a 60 foot long articulated bus because of the open floor plan. The trade off, of course, is that they have fewer seats, but only streetcars practically offer the choice.

What kind of flexibility is more important?

Faced with the choice of operational flexibility or capacity flexibility, which one rules?

It depends on the needs of the corridor and the goals of the transit line. Sometimes buses are the correct answer, and other times it's streetcars.

Sometimes it might make sense to use both on the same corridor. For example, streetcars capable of providing very high capacity might serve most passengers along a line, while buses capable of skipping around traffic might serve longer express trips on the same road.

There are 157 WMATA bus routes in the District of Columbia alone, with hundreds more WMATA and non-WMATA routes around the region. The majority of them are probably better served with buses, but some of them are undoubtedly better fits for streetcars.

The key for decision makers is to embrace the differences inherent to each mode, and decide accordingly.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Pedestrians


Weekend video: Toronto's Pedestrian Jar

Safety for bike riders and pedestrians has become a big issue in Toronto lately. One workplace there has come up with an innovative idea to help improve safety for people crossing the street.

Maybe money raised from the jar could help Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his allies on city council pay for the $375,000 study of a popular "Barnes Dance' pedestrian scramble already installed at a major intersection that handles more pedestrians than automobiles.

Thanks to Where the Sidewalk Starts and Walk Silver Spring for the link.

Roads


Breakfast links: It's the 21st century


Union Station Bicycle Transit Center rendering. Image from DDOT.
Union Station bicycle transit center photos: DC has begun construction on the Union Station bicycle transit center, which will have parking for 150 bikes and lockers, though no shower facilities. DC Bicycle Examiner has more information and a slide show of the station's construction.

Toronto's TTC also beta-phobic: Toronto riders discovered a publicly available test of their own NextBus implementation-in-progress. And just like here, the transit agency asked NextBus to pull the link. (Toronto Star)

Wake up, VDOT, it's not 1950: Under orders from the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, Cathy Hudgins voted to reinstate the I-66 widening in the region's plan. However, the compromise resolution only allows the first of three phases until VDOT completes the promised multi-modal analysis. BeyondDC calls it a "wake up call" forcing VDOT to "take multimodalism seriously".

DOT, HUD create livable communities task force: A new initiative between the federal DOT and HUD departments will coordinate transportation and housing policy to encourage "affordable housing near employment opportunities, more transportation options, ... and safe, healthy and livable communities." Ryan Avent is especially enthusiastic about the part where the agencies will produces useful research to help regional planning. (Yglesias)

Nominate an innovative land use project: The Committee of 100 may often disagree with us on land use, but they're still interested in your nominations for an "innovative" project, plan, or organization in planning and land use. Nominate something using this form.

On the calendar: Friday is Gabe Klein's confirmation hearing to head DDOT, rescheduled from an earlier date which coincided with the big snowstorm. Despite what the notice says, it'll be at 2 pm, right after our live chat with Zachary Schrag. ... Saturday evening, get gussied up for WABA's annual gala and silent auction at the German Embassy.

Taxis


West Coast cheers and jeers


Photo by minwoo on Flickr.
Cheers...

Want transit? Build housing: Toronto has a new policy to only build transit in neighborhoods that zone for enough housing units within walking distance. The Bay Area already does this, and Antioch, CA may even move its stop so it can be near more housing. (The Overhead Wire)

Jeers...

Radical idea: hailing cabs: It's illegal for cabs to pick up people who hail them in LA. The city is considering changing that. But only in two neighborhoods and only if it doesn't slow down the real cars, of course. (Streetsblog LA)

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