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Pedestrians


Van Ness residents say their neighborhood isn't safe for walking

"My biggest concern at Van Ness is pedestrian safety. I feel my safety is constantly at risk," Benae Mosby said at a recent meeting of the Van Ness Main Streets board. As the communications and community relations manager at WAMU, whose headquarters are at Connecticut Avenue and Windom Place NW, Mosby walks this troubled intersection daily.


Connecticut Avenue at the Van Ness Metro station. All photos by the author.

It is an especially challenging time for Mosby and others on this stretch of Connecticut. On the east side, a one-block segment of the sidewalk is closed to accommodate the construction at Park Van Ness. On the west side, the entrance to the Metro has been closed since late June.

ANC 3F commissioners pushed DDOT to provide some relief to pedestrians, but to no avail. DDOT said it would add no second crosswalk on Connecticut at the south side on Windom (a few years after one of its own studies recommended one), and after adding a few more seconds to the crossing times at Veazey Terrace and Windom, DDOT said it would add no more.

With all this pressure on the intersections and pleas for changes falling on deaf ears at DDOT, a predictable outcome set in over the summer. The intersections became especially taxed in the morning rush hour, and pedestrians piled up and had a hard time getting through in a single cycle. Morning commuters, especially those traveling by bus to the Van Ness Metro stop, started taking more risks to avoid missing a walk cycle and potentially their train. Several could be seen crossing mid-block from the bus stop on the west side of Connecticut at Veazey Terrace to get to the Metro entrance on the east side.

As the problem grew, ANC 3F Commissioner Mary Beth Ray urged police action to deal with these hazardous crossings.

Police tried to make things safer

On Thursday, August 13th, MPD put up a yellow tape barricade to block mid-block access to the Van Ness Metro station. Officers were also handing out brochures and talking to pedestrians.

But by the next morning, the tape had been torn away. The next week, MPD tried another tack: Placing the tape where bus passengers are most tempted to cross.

These are short-term measures that do not address the real problem: The infrastructure is unfriendly to pedestrians, and right now it looks like DDOT would rather pedestrians bear the safety risk than accommodate pedestrian needs.

Metro escalator work has cut off what was a safer option

These hazards are what made the "secret" Metro passage under Connecticut Avenue, now lost to the escalator rehab project, so appealing.

"Metro has closed our 'secret' shortcut!" lamented Dorn McGrath, a long-time Forrest Hills resident who misses the safer underground route. "Pedestrians in the know wanting to cross Connecticut Avenue at Veazey Place could bypass the wait for a walk signal and the heavy traffic and cross in safety by using the Van Ness/UDC Metro tunnel. One could reach or depart from the Starbucks without having to rush across six lanes.

"Alas, the Metro entrance next to Starbucks is now closed and a pedestrian has no choice but to cross either through the heavy traffic or a block earlier."

To achieve Vision Zero, a lot has to change

Going back to Mosby's issue, even when the Metro entrance and Park Van Ness sidewalk reopens, the traffic and short crossing times will remain hazards to pedestrians at Windom and Veazey.

This will also continue to be the case at other Connecticut Avenue crossings, such as the one to the north on Albemarle Street. There, resident and seniors advocate Barbara Cline has seen car crashes, drivers running red lights,blocking intersections, speeding through an apartment building driveway from Connecticut to Albemarle.

Even with a new 25-year plan from DDOT that makes pedestrians the number one policy priority, the changes needed to make this a reality seem light years away. Photo enforcement can help, but the reality is that we live in a car culture, and pedestrians still need to push for changes to make room for us on the street.

Cross-posted at Forest Hills Connection.

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Transit


The Van Ness Metro station's west entrance isn't closing just yet

The west entrance to the Van Ness Metro station was supposed to start a three-year closure for escalator repairs today. But after pushback from nearby residents and DDOT, the project is on hold.


Photo by David Bardin.

"I am putting WMATA on notice that all public space permits are suspended until further notice," DDOT's Matthew Marcou said. He spoke in response to an audience member's question at a community meeting on Thursday, which ANC 3F Commissioner Mary Beth Ray organized.

Marcou, who chairs the DDOT committee that oversees permits to use public space for construction staging and other work, went on to explain that this means no trucks can bring any supplies or equipment to the site.

It's not clear how long DDOT can hold up the work. ANC 3F has asked Metro's interim general manager for a delay until the closed sidewalk at the Park Van Ness site reopens at the end of this year.

Marcou is no stranger to the community or that project. He, along with ANC 3F and developer Saul Centers, hammered out the traffic safety control plans that have closed the Park Van Ness construction site to pedestrians since late 2013.

DDOT hasn't had a chance to plan for the entrance being closed

During a community meeting with DC's Office of Planning last Tuesday, DDOT's Ward 3 transportation planner, Ted Van Houten, revealed that DDOT wasn't notified of WMATA's plans until April 21st, the same day as the general public. Further, at that point WMATA had not set up any meetings with DDOT to discuss the Van Ness station entrance being closed.

At that same meeting, Council member Mary Cheh said she would be talking to WMATA and DDOT, and specifically asking DDOT about the possibility of a temporary sidewalk at the Park Van Ness site.

Because closing the Metro entrance will add more stress to this heavily-traveled stretch of Connecticut Avenue, Marcou explained at the meeting that all options for relief are on the table. Community members' suggestions, which came in via written comments and questions, included:

  • Increasing crossing times for pedestrians at Windom Place and Veazey Terrace.
  • Marking a crosswalk on the south side of Windom
  • Installing a Barnes Dance crossing which stops cars coming from all directions so pedestrians can all cross at once.
  • A temporary sidewalk at Park Van Ness
  • The repairs at Van Ness will require a multi-step process

    WMATA sent Cedric Watson, its head engineer of escalators and elevators, to the meeting to explain the escalator replacement process. He gave a presentation and answered questions from ANC 3F commissioners.

    Watson stated repeatedly that WMATA had notified the community about the work at an ANC meeting about 18 months ago, when a representative spoke about a five-month closure of the east entrance at Van Ness that was also for replacing escalators.

    At the meeting's end, however, Watson acknowledged that ANC 3F had not been given a date for the west entrance project.

    He explained that the Van Ness station has certain constraints that are going to keep it closed for a long time. Removing the escalator at the entrance will create a chute through which workers will drop sections of three longer escalators, some of the longest in the Metro system, down tot he mezzanine level. Also, a lot of the work can only happen at night, while the station is closed. Finally, there's electrical work to do and structural upgrades to make since the escalators have been there since the station opened almost 35 years ago.

    Steve Strauss, DDOT's Deputy Director of Progressive Transportation, asked whether closing the station over the weekends would have a significant impact on shortening this time frame. There wasn't a clear answer, but the question appeared to warrant further discussion.

    ANC Commissioner Sally Gresham asked whether the entrance stairway could remain open. Watson said that might be possible if it remains structurally sound.

    Van Ness is only the first of a number of stations that need escalator repairs

    Asked about delaying the project for eight months, Watson said that would affect the timetable for the contractor, which will tackle the Cleveland Park escalators after this project is complete. He said an entrance will close for three years at that station as well. Medical Center, Woodley Park and Friendship Heights are other Red Line stations due for escalator replacements.

    Watson also said the decision about whether to delay the project or move forward with it ultimately rests with Jack Requa, the interim general manager at WMATA.

    3F Commissioner Malachy Nugent captured the frustration and anger at the meeting, stating that WMATA made working with its contractor a higher priority than getting input from the community. He warned that an injunction was not out of the question. This got resounding applause from the audience.

    It was clear that WMATA did not fully consider how closing a Van Ness station entrance would affect the community. But after the community meeting, the tone changed. DDOT's Marcou and WMATA's Watson met on Friday. And Ann Chisholm, WMATA's head of government relations, told me that Metro needs to do a better job of outreach.

    To see Metro's advisory addressing questions about the work itself, see wmata.com/vanness.

    This post originally appeared on Forest Hills Connection.

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    Transit


    An entrance at the Van Ness Metro station is about to close for three years

    The escalator at the western entrance of the Van Ness Metro station needs serious work. Three years' worth, to be exact.


    Photo from WMATA.

    When WMATA closed Van Ness' eastern entrance for five months in 2013, it seemed like an eternity. But that's nothing compared to the three years the agency is estimating this project is going to take.

    Like with the eastern entrance, I'm concerned about safety for people on foot, as more of them will have to cross Connecticut Avenue to enter the Metro on the east side.

    The closure is scheduled to start on May 4th. But why's it set to last so long? Because WMATA isn't just replacing the one escalator at the western entrance; it's also replacing the three long escalators that descend into the station to the mezzanine.

    Workers will tackle each escalator replacement one at a time, and the work will be done only when the station is closed. That will stretch the work to 40 weeks per escalator, or approximately three years. It's not clear why WMATA needs to keep the west side closed while working on the internal escalators.

    To the north of the station, the sidewalk on the east side of Connecticut is closed for Park Van Ness construction and will remain so until at least the end of the year. That means Metro-bound pedestrians crossing Connecticut at Albemarle to avoid the work zone will have to cross the avenue again at Windom Place, which only has a crosswalk on the north side.

    Every weekday, Metrobus carries scores of commuters to the Van Ness Metro stop. They, too, will be crossing busy Connecticut Avenue, this time at Veazey Street.


    The Van Ness Metro station, with Windom Place to the north and Veazey Terrace to the south. Base image from Google Maps.

    It is frustrating to receive notice of this project less than two weeks before it is to begin, especially since the planning process likely took months. WMATA should have used the time to reach out to DDOT and prepare a pedestrian safety plan, but nothing of the sort is mentioned in Metro's news release.

    In October 2013, shortly after Metro announced the five-month closure of the eastern entrance, I spoke to Ann Chisholm in the Office of Government Relations at WMATA. She mentioned the possibility of lengthening the crossing time on Connecticut at Veazey. However, she was concerned about DDOT wanting a traffic study, which would hold up the project.

    WMATA dropped the ball in 2013. I intend to learn more about how it's going to avoid doing the same next week.

    This post originally appeared on Forest Hills Connection.

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    Pedestrians


    2.5 minutes of extra walking is not nothing

    This week's Walkblock of the Week highlighted the closed sidewalk at Connecticut and Yuma, NW. To get to the Franklin Montessori School from the Van Ness Metro, people have to walk past the school, to Albemarle Stret, and double back. Is this a big deal?


    The walk from Van Ness Metro to Franklin Montessori with the sidewalk closed (left) and open (right). Images from Gmap Pedometer using Google Maps.

    It's .29 miles versus .21 miles. That's 39% more walk from the Metro, a significant jump. On the other hand, it's only an additional .08 miles plus crossing Connecticut.

    Some commenters think it's making a mountain out of a molehill to talk about this. "Notabigdeal" wrote, "Wait, they have to walk .08 miles farther? The humanity!" And "seriously" said:

    Wow you must have a great life when you consider this to be "a significant additional inconvenience."

    People, get a grip. So you have to cross the street. I live in the area, I do it all the time. Would I prefer not to cross the street? Sure. But do I give it a second thought afterwards? NO! How entitled do you have to feel to be outraged by having to walk an extra .08 miles? I mean come on.

    It's 2.5 extra minutes and 1-2 major crossings

    At an average walking speed of 3.1 mph, it takes 1.5 extra minutes to walk that distance (longer for kids who walk slowly, of course). Let's assume an extra 1 minute wait for the light and you have added 2.5 minutes to the trip.

    That may not sound like much, but twice a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year is about 17 hours a year of extra time, per person. Crossing Connecticut Avenue one or two times each way is also not nothing. Crosswalks on six-lane streets like Connecticut are common places for pedestrians to get hit, especially seniors and children, and while we all live with this risk, increasing it isn't something to do lightly.

    Would drivers stand for a delay like that?

    More importantly, these commenters' reactions highlight how we tend to think about inconveniencing pedestrians versus drivers. Would drivers stand for having their commute lengthened by 2.5 minutes each way?

    We got to see such a case recently when DC put in (and then removed) a median on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. The traffic count data said that drivers' trips lengthened by 1-2 minutes. But drivers, including Councilmember Jack Evans, who drives on Wisconsin to and from his kids' school, screamed bloody murder.

    Evans insisted that the delay was more than 1-2 minutes. But 1-2 minutes can feel like a lot when you're stuck in traffic. How do you feel if you're waiting at a light, it turns green, and you can't make it through because of traffic, or maybe someone turning that blocks the way? That's a delay of about a minute, and it can be very infuriating.

    Traffic engineering standards even agree: If the average car is delayed 1 minute and 20 seconds at an intersection, vehicular Level of Service, the measure for how well traffic flows, would be a failing F. In other words, traffic engineering considers it totally unacceptable to add that level of delay.

    Or if you commute by car, try this experiment: Pick a spot along the route (if you use Connecticut Avenue, it could be this area). Every time you get there, stop the car and wait 2.5 minutes. I know I wouldn't want to have to keep doing that.

    Maybe closing a the sidewalk was right in this case since it's such a busy street. Maybe not. But DDOT doesn't even habitually compute how much delay a closure will cause pedestrians, while it's mandatory before closing any lanes to traffic. To at least weigh the impacts quantitatively would be a good start.

    Restore the sidewalk now

    One thing is for sure: This sidewalk ought not stay closed for much longer.

    DDOT's George Branyan said that in initial applications for the permit, the developer's representatives promised that once the vault (the area under the sidewalk) is built, they would put a top on and create a pedestrian path. They estimated that would happen by about December 2014.

    It's past that time now, and the building's structure is above the street level. Branyan said permit officials will be talking again with the construction team to find out when there can be a new sidewalk.

    Crews sometimes want to keep the sidewalk closed longer than absolutely necessary because it's more convenient to be able to pull up construction trucks to the site and not worry about pedestrians. That, for sure, is not a good reason to keep a sidewalk closed, and when sidewalks do have to close, it's important for DDOT to push to reopen them as early as possible.

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    Development


    New density will change the face of upper Northwest

    Despite some bruising battles in Upper Northwest, big changes are underway. Over the next two years, a large number of residential buildings that are opening may change the area's politics for good.


    Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

    Upper Northwest has a reputation for being full of people who hate new buildings, are suspicious of cyclists, and worry that students will die chasing ping-pong balls into the street. After seeing their neighborhood commercial strips reduced to mattress stores while others thrived, many residents started looking for another way.

    They saw how progressive urban design made other neighborhoods safer, more lively, and better for people of all ages. Already, we're starting to see the effects: dense mixed-use areas and walkable blocks of single-family homes can be good neighbors. The new residents will probably like the new vitality even more.

    New buildings make good neighbors and better neighborhoods

    Cathedral Commons symbolizes the area's anti-development reputation. In 1999, Giant Food proposed rebuilding the midcentury shopping center at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street in Cleveland Park. Some residents were fiercely opposed, and the fight dragged on through multiple revisions, an attempt to landmark the dreary building, and an expensive lawsuit against the final mixed-use proposal.


    Cathedral Commons residential building under construction. Photo by the author.

    Still, a strong enough coalition of people who were frustrated with opponents' demands formed to push the project through. Cathedral Commons will finally open by the end of 2014, and even at 15 years after the start of this fight, the development's arrival is better late than never. It's undoubtedly an improvement on what was already there, and new families that move into the neighborhood will likely see the project as an amenity and wonder why anyone ever opposed it.

    Up Wisconsin Avenue, the Tenley View apartments are also under construction. First proposed in 2004, the current scheme surfaced after the financial crisis in 2011. After a lengthy "Planned Unit Development" review, DC's Zoning Commission approved the building in 2013.


    Tenley View under construction last week. Photo by the author.

    One condition of the approval for Tenley View bans not only stores selling pot and porn but also mattresses and picture frames. That may seem odd, but those low-volume destination stores represented a low point in Tenleytown, before the new library and the Cityline building that added new residents atop a historic Sears. As new buildings have attracted foot traffic, restaurants and stores that serve local needs have returned.


    Mattress store. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

    On Connecticut Avenue, new projects like Woodley Wardman and the 212-unit 2700 Woodley Road delicately add density to established neighborhoods. And despite an expensive legal challenge from well-connected neighbors, a rental building at 5333 Connecticut broke ground last winter and will open next May.


    2700 Woodley Rd. Image by DMSAS.

    In Van Ness, the Park Van Ness building is replacing a strip mall. The large, well-designed building promises to bring much-needed street presence in an area that suffered from banal midcentury design.


    A rendering of Park Van Ness on Connecticut. Image from Torti Gallas.

    Academic villages bring activity, if not ideal design

    Also in Van Ness, the University of the District of Columbia is constructing a new student center where a large plaza once sat empty most of the week. The new building will make UDC's brutalist campus more extroverted.


    The blank UDC Plaza before construction began.


    The new UDC student center focuses on the Van Ness Metro station.

    American University is making even more dramatic changes. It's about to replace a large surface parking lot with a new residential complex. Bowing to opposition, AU set the buildings back far from the street, which isn't ideal for putting eyes on the street. But it's a step in the right direction for a long-term construction project.


    East Campus site plan. Drawing from American University.

    Closer to Tenleytown, AU's Washington College of Law is constructing a large campus that will discourage car trips and bring new activity to Tenleytown. The law school is currently on a relatively isolated stretch of Massachussetts Avenue in Spring Valley, and the move will make the campus more accessible to downtown. That's crucial for a law school that relies heavily on practicing teachers.

    For development to work, the political process needs to change

    There is a common thread between all of these projects: getting them into the neighborhood required a lot of work on the ground. But more and more residents are recognizing that Upper Northwest can grow without losing the characteristics that make it so desirable. The strife has even created networks of people favorable to Smart Growth, like Ward 3 Vision.

    The downside of the fight is that it makes the process of planning a community feel piecemeal and time consuming. Facing a lawsuit against something the ANC approved can feel hopeless. Neighborhood meetings during dinner time make it hard for residents to get involved every time. And the negotiations over individual projects often get too bogged down in details for people who haven't been following a project since the beginning.

    At the heart of it is that each process lacks guidance. For development in upper Northwest to continue in a way that benefits all parties, decision-makers need to engage the public at a more basic level. I'll address that process in my next post.

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    Architecture


    Intelsat building gets a greener, but not more urban front

    The former headquarters of Intelsat, a space-age building on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness Metro, will get a new entrance. The change will soften a harsh corner, but it won't fully repair this non-urban building's relationship to the street.


    the new proposed entry. Bottom: the plaza today. Image from VOA via NCPC.


    The existing plaza. Image from Capital City, yeah! on Flickr.

    The current entrance on Connecticut Avenue is set back far from the street and up a huge flight of steps. It's not ADA compliant, and it's a pretty bleak, bricked-over expanse. The building's new owner will remove the plaza and replace it with a garden, fountains, and a more visible entrance.

    How this building came to be

    The building, rebranded "4000 Connecticut Avenue," is a product of DC's unique relationship with the federal government. The State Department owns the land as part of the International Center, a campus meant for embassies and governmental buildings. It leased it to Intelsat when that was still an international treaty organization.

    After Intelsat went private, Congress changed the law in 2008 to legalize Intelsat's lease. That opened the door for the 601 Companies to acquire the lease and reposition the building as an office building.


    The existing site plan with pedestrian improvements. The main entrance is at the right. Image from VOA via NCPC.

    Opened in phases between 1984 and 1988, the building is one of the more notable modernist buildings in DC. Its architect, John Andrews, was an influential Australian architect who made his name designing dramatic brutalist buildings in Canada.

    By the time Intelsat ran a competition to design its headquarters in 1979, the two energy crises had put the focus on efficiency. Architects worried that the new expectations would smother exciting design under layers of insulation. And so Andrews' building won heaps of praise for delivering the large, energy efficient buildings corporations wanted without losing any of the expressive geometry he was known for.


    Sectional diagram showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.

    One thing that earned Andrews particular praise is the way he repeated the same three or four elements, like the octagonal blocks, round towers, and courtyards, to create different effects. The main entrance on International Drive looks like a Battlestar Galactica set. The south entrance is a quiet corporate park. And the north entrance, at Van Ness and Connecticut, closest to the Metro and points downtown, echoes the monumental entries of neoclassical federal buildings and their brutalist successors.


    Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

    What didn't work, and what will get better

    Unfortunately, like most grand entries of the period, the entry comes across as stark and intimidating. So it makes sense that 601 Companies wants to make it more welcoming and visible as it becomes the main entrance of the building.

    The changes, designed by VOA Associates, will also improve pedestrian circulation around the building, especially the green area along Connecticut which is apparently called "Squirrel Park."


    The new entryway will get rid of a large decrepit plaza. Image from VOA via NCPC.

    More openness of the park areas is great. Like a suburban office park, the grassy areas around Intelsat are unwalkable or underused. These changes will make them more into an asset to the community. To me, new entry area is definitely an improvement, aesthetically, making it much more inviting. There are more places to sit, the high-end granite and marble will be nice additions, and the front door details are more humane than Andrews originally planned.

    But it still feels like a more ambitious alteration would be appropriate. The accessible entrance is still separate from the main one, and the renovation does not fix the fundamental error of the building, one that goes back to when the site was the secluded campus of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

    Now, the site supports an office building that is part of the city. Andrews's building has a lot of value architecturally, but its value to creating a distinctive place around a Metro station is equally important. The site deserves a bolder adaptive reuse, one that will fill in some of the unusable green space, correcting its outdated disconnection from the neighborhood, even as it preserves the existing building. A good adaptation would make the geometry of original building even more powerful.

    But for now, this is okay.

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    Pedestrians


    Van Ness construction could close sidewalk for 2 years

    The last time the sidewalk by the Van Ness Square demolition site was closed to pedestrians, it was a temporary measure. But the latest closure could last much longer.


    Photo by Pat Davies.

    Developer Saul Centers will tear down the shopping center and replace it with a new apartment building. At a pre-construction meeting last week, representatives from Saul told the community that the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk alongside the construction zone will be closed for two years. DDOT regulations won't allow a covered walkway because of underground construction that was too close to the street.

    Instead, pedestrians would have to cross to the west side of Connecticut at Albemarle and Windom. By last Saturday, Saul had already closed off the sidewalk, and it was clear how dangerous this situation was going to be.

    I saw a blind man walking north in the street and a man with a toddler on his shoulders coming toward him. Of course, the blind man could not see the large sign announcing the closed sidewalk, but the father definitely could.

    ANC commissioner Sally Gresham was also out on Saturday afternoon and spent an hour monitoring "how folks were dealing with" the sidewalk closure. "The results are very scary!" she wrote. Gresham counted 102 people walking on Connecticut Avenue itself, including 6 young teenagers on skate boards, 22 strollers with 1, 2, or 3 adults, 35 people carrying bags of groceries or small children, 26 elderly people, and 13 people using canes, walkers, or leg braces.

    Luckily, this was the weekend, and parked cars did provide something of a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. But I wondered about the march of pedestrians on automatic pilot during the Monday morning rush hour.

    When asked if there will be a police presence to monitor the situation, Commander Reese of the 2nd Police District said the agency would pay attention to it, but did not have enough officers to have them out on the street.

    On Monday morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m., I decided to take a look. Most pedestrians were crossing where they should:


    All photos by the author unless noted.

    But there were quite a number crossing mid-block and walking in the street.


    People crossing mid-block on Connecticut Avenue.


    People walking in the street.

    And with no police in sight. I forgot they were only monitoring the situation.

    I emailed the photos to DDOT, and Director Terry Bellamy replied, "I am alerting our Public Space Team to investigate and make recommendations." According to Saul Centers' Kimberly Miller, construction superintendent "Jason" met with DDOT inspectors, who noted that pedestrians weren't following the posted signs, but that the project still complied with DDOT requirements.

    This is not a satisfactory outcome. After pondering the issue, and thinking of the places I have traveled that control pedestrian crossings a lot better than we do, the solution came to me on my afternoon walk. I went home and dashed off another email proposing that pedestrian path be controlled through fencing that allows people to enter stores but prevents pedestrians from crossing the street mid-block.

    New legislation may also improve pedestrian safety around construction sites as well. The Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013, which will take effect December 20, requires anyone seeking permits from DDOT to block a sidewalk or bike lane to also provide a "safe accommodation" for pedestrians and bicyclists to use instead.

    As of today, the sidewalk is open again, but it's unclear for how long. Will the council's new legislation make a difference for pedestrians on Connecticut Avenue over the next two years? We will keep you posted.

    A version of this post appeared on Forest Hills Connection.

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    Development


    Park Van Ness will fill in Connecticut Avenue streetscape

    Developer BF Saul plans to replace its Van Ness Square, a low retail complex that contains a Pier 1 Imports, Office Depot, and a number of other stores, with a 273-apartment building and ground floor retail.

    This is the second large matter-of-right proposal on Connecticut Avenue right now, but unlike the other, the glassy Cafritz building at Connecticut and Military, this will not only add housing opportunities and activate the street but has an attractive design as well.

    Architects Torti Gallas and Partners designed the new building, 2 blocks north of the Van Ness Metro station. It's called "Park Van Ness," mirroring the Park Connecticut, an Archstone apartment building immediately next door. Park Van Ness will rise 7 stories from Connecticut Avenue, the same height as the Park Connecticut.

    This building is right at the end of Yuma Street. The plans show a large arched opening between two halves of the building that lines up with Yuma Street, so drivers or walkers on Yuma will be able to see through to Soapstone Valley Park, a branch of Rock Creek Park, immediately beyond. Past the arch, the opening turns into a large plaza overlooking the park below.


    View from Yuma Street.

    The rendering shows a security gate across the archway. It's not clear whether this will be open during the day and just control access to the plaza at night, or will block off the area beyond for residents alone 24-7. The floor plans show a "club room" for residents opening onto the plaza. It would be far better if this overlook can serve as a semi-public space where people can sit and perhaps enjoy a coffee they might purchase from one of the retail spaces.

    Representatives of BF Saul did not yet return calls asking for more details about this part of the plan.

    Area ANC Comissioner Adam Tope says that BF Saul plans to make the building some level of LEED, but hasn't yet specified what level. The owner also hopes to put up to 4 restaurants in the ground-floor retail spaces of the north half and other types of retail on the south side.

    This project could take a big step toward activating the streetscape in this area. Here, there is surface parking in front of the existing Van Ness Square, which does not create an appealing pedestrian environment. The same is true for many of the buildngs at Van Ness, constructed during a period when many architects and developers weren't trying to create appealing, walkable places; therefore, Van Ness has too many large voids, street-fronting parking, or buildings (like Intelsat) set far too far back from the street.

    The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail. That means that while many residents will bring cars, not everyone can or will have their own car. The parking will be underground in the front, while the back of those floors will have apartments overlooking the park several stories below Connecticut Avenue.


    Aerial rendering of the Soapstone Park side of the building.

    Will residents support or fight this?

    The Art Deco style should fit in well at Van Ness and please residents of the area, in addition to the benefit they gain from new restaurants and more patrons for area businesses. Still, some people may try to fight more density along Connecticut Avenue just on principle, even though this is not taller than the adjacent building.

    Saul representatives claim the building is matter-of-right, said Tope, so they will not need to go through formal public hearings for any zoning exceptions or variances.

    Some people in neighborhood are up in arms right now about matter-of-right projects, not because of this one, but because of the much less attractive glass building Cafritz is proposing farther up Connecticut at Military Road. There, some people want it to be smaller and others just want it to look less glassy, but the building conforms to zoning, so DC officials and Councilmember Cheh have no legal power to force them or block the project.


    The Cafritz proposal at 5333 Connecticut.

    Chevy Chase listserv moderator Mary Rowse recently posted a message calling for a historic district along Connecticut all the way from Tilden Street (the northern edge of the current Cleveland Park historic district) to Chevy Chase Circle. She wrote,

    This stretch would include the three remaining undesignated low-scale commercial pockets along Connecticut Avenue at Chevy Chase, Nebraska & Fessenden and Van Ness. ... Having a Historic District provides a framework for managing new construction that respects the scale, design, siting and compatibility of existing structures.
    The preservation office would likely not oppose the BF Saul Van Ness project, beyond perhaps dictating some design elements. It's harder to know what the appointed Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) might do; they often go along with staff reports, but in several cases this year, some members pushed to remove a floor or two from a building despite a favorable staff report when enough opponents show up.

    A historic district would address two impulses. First, many people want to be able to push for a better design. That could mean different architecture, or better detailing at street level, or more ground-floor retail. Others want to simply increase pressure to limit the size of new buildings.

    I sympathize with the first impulse. The Park Van Ness design seems good, but not so much at 5333 Connecticut. On the other hand, the belief that smaller is always better seems to dominate too many preservation debates these days. HPRB has used its powers much more often to shrink projects versus to improve other elements of their design.

    In fact, the question of what makes a "historically compatible" design varies widely. Ron Eichner wrote in response to Rowse's email:

    I have never been a fan of this idea of creating an historic district where nothing historic happened and neither the neighborhood layout nor the architecture is remarkable. Even as a back door way to give ANCs design review, it is a flawed idea, since all the HPRB reviews for is whether a project contributes to an historic district or not, which allows for lots of leeway—just look around town in the historic districts. In the 5333 case, I suspect that regardless of the ANCs assessment, HP would see the 'historic pattern' as big apartment buildings on the Avenue and single family houses on the side streets, and approve the project massing.

    As for the facade design of the [glassy] proposed building, as much as we don't like it, HPRB is pretty friendly to the outmoded and sorta dopey idea that glass 'expresses our time' (as opposed to expressing the Mad Men time of the 1950's when glass walls were actually new and special) and they like contrast between periods so I wouldn't assume that historic district status and HPRB review would have changed a thing.

    Residents understandably want some say in development projects, but the existing processes that give them a say, like historic preservation, often don't focus on the real factors that affect how a building interacts with its surrounding area. We end up with some cases (like 5333) where residents have no ability to push a project in a better direction design-wise, and too many others where review ends up harming our overall housing supply more than it improves a building's design.

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    Development


    UDC will fix dead plaza with student center

    The University of the District of Columbia wants to build a student center on what's now an empty plaza creating a hole in the Connecticut Avenue streetscape right at the Van Ness Metro station. An active building here would be a big improvement over dead space.

    The plan calls for landscaping and some cafe seating along the Connecticut Avenue frontage. The building will also have a green roof as well as a rain garden between it and the existing buildings. The remaining plaza area will also get a small lawn as well as some other landscaping.

    Here's the new building:

    The design happens to look quite a bit like DC's new libraries, for better or worse:


    Left: Benning library architectural sketch. Image from DC Public Libraries.
    Right: Anacostia library. Photo from And Now, Anacostia.

    These new libraries have gotten some architectural praise, and since both are institutions devoted to learning, it makes some sense for UDC to look somewhat library-like. Certainly this is far better than the concrete bunker architecture of the buildings behind it.

    On the other hand, this still seems a bit boring. It would be nice for the building to have a more defined top. and the current urban design thinking discourages arcades along the ground floor like this building appears to have.

    What do you think?

    Update: several commenters pointed out that the ground floor doesn't have an arcade, just a "structural reveal" where the ground floor has visibility into the structure.

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