Posts about Van Ness
A key review board has denied Chick-fil-A's controversial request for a drive-thru in Van Ness. But it might not have the last word.
At its meeting on Thursday, April 28th, the five-member Public Space Committee voted unanimously to deny Chick-fil-A a permit to widen an existing curb cut for a drive-thru at 4422 Connecticut Avenue, which is now the site of the Van Ness Burger King.
The committee, which has five members from various DC government agencies, made its decision based on testimony from Chick-fil-A, Van Ness community members and representatives, and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning (OP) staffers. Ryan Westrom of DDOT and OP's Tim Maher recommended against approving the curb cuts, concerned that the increased drive-thru traffic projected by Chick-fil-A would result in more conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.
Chick-fil-A says it'll stop traffic backups, but not persuasively
There is already a drive-thru here for Burger King, but it gets little traffic. A Chick-fil-A would draw much more. To try to prevent traffic backups, the store plans to have three to four employees taking orders on iPads on the north driveway, more employees at another station for taking cash in the back, and another area on the south driveway with a door for more staff to deliver the food. They also mentioned using the rear parking lot for overflow, assuming there would be available spaces.
"What would prevent a back up onto Connecticut Avenue?" they were asked. Chick-fil-A had a ready response: They would hire an off-duty police officer to direct traffic. Matthew Marcou, the chair of the Public Space Committee, raised his eyebrow at this, and quipped, "DDOT can't get any for other projects."
Chick-fil-A also promised to have additional staff on hand to quickly handle orders if a surge in drive-thru business was causing backups. ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham said promises of "self-monitoring" – which Chick-fil-A representatives continued to stress – were not enough. The city had no enforcement mechanism, she testified, if Chick-fil-A did not uphold its agreements.
Community groups and experts oppose the drive-thru
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F voted unanimously in February to oppose Chick-fil-A's drive-thru. Steve Gresham, a member of an ANC committee formed to study Chick-fil-A's application, testified about flaws in the drive-thru system, such as the lanes being too narrow to accommodate employees taking orders. And during peak hours of business, he said, cars could be blocking the sidewalk at either the entrance or exit of the drive-thru more than half of the time.
ANC 3F hired Karina Ricks, a former chair of the Public Space Committee, to consult. She stated in written testimony that the drive-thru did not meet regulatory muster. Ricks also said the drive-thru would create an unsafe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists – conditions that would run counter to DDOT's moveDC, the long-term DC transportation plan, and the goals of Vision Zero to reduce all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District to zero by 2024.
In addition, she said, the city was making substantial investments in Van Ness, in planning and implementation, to create a vibrant, walkable commercial area.
The Chick-fil-A can thrive without a drive-thru
Dipa Mehta, a co-chair of the economic development committee of Van Ness Main Street, presented research showing a safe, walkable environment is a key ingredient to fostering economic development. The car traffic generated by Chick-fil-A would be detrimental to the business climate at Van Ness, she said.
Chick-fil-A has stated in the past that the Van Ness location does not currently generate enough pedestrian traffic to support its business. However, I as a Van Ness Main Street board member testified that Chick-fil-A was underestimating the chain's potential to attract walk-in customers from the immediate area, given the large number of high-rise residential buildings nearby.
Marcou asked Chick-fil-A about pedestrian traffic in Tenleytown, where Chick-fil-A is building a restaurant without a drive-thru. The answer: They had not done a pedestrian count there.
Though comments on Forest Hills Connection articles about Chick-fil-A's plans indicate at least some residents support a drive-thru, the opposition has been more outspoken and organized. A Ward 3 Vision petition opposing the drive-thru collected 366 signatures. In addition, The Northwest Current published an open letter to Mayor Bowser from several signatories, including the owners of Bread Furst and Acacia Bistro, and co-presidents of the Hastings Condo Association, representing the building just north of the site at 4444 Connecticut. They asked for Bowser's support in opposing the drive-thru.
Only one resident testified in support of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. However, he explained that he had business ties to the location. He said similar driveway situations exist in nearby locations – at the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park, at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, and at the Tenleytown CVS – and pedestrians adjusted.
Committee member Reg Bazile cut him off. "Those locations are not similar," he said.
Marcou recommended that Chick-fil-A continue to pursue a Van Ness location, only without the drive-thru element. Chick-fil-A also has the option of going to court. That's what a citizens' group did in 1980, when a Burger King franchisee sought and received permits for the drive-thru in 1980. The court sided with the franchisee.
Van Ness Main Street President Mary Beth Ray said the community would support the restaurant without the drive-thru. "Our research has shown how wildly popular their food is, and we hope [Chick-fil-A's] interest in Van Ness goes beyond the drive thru," Ray said in an email. "Van Ness is open for business."
This originally ran on Forest Hills Connection.
Chick-fil-A has plans to put a drive-thru store on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness. But neighbors are saying the site's business plan doesn't mesh with the neighborhood's aspirations to be more walkable.
Rendering of the Chick-fil-A proposal. Except where noted, all images from DDOT public space permit application.
Chick-fil-A plans to take over the property at 4422 Connecticut Avenue NW, just north of the UDC campus and Van Ness Metro station.
Today, the space is occupied by a Burger King, which also operates a lightly-used drive-thru. The site is sandwiched between a dry cleaners and a heavily-trafficked car wash that already caters to Maryland commuters, causing traffic backups on Connecticut Avenue spilling over to nearby Albemarle Street.
Plans for the Chick-fil-A site include a new sidewalk cafe enclosed by a low retaining wall where today there is unappealing empty pavement, new landscaping and signage, and a renovation of the existing driveway.
Neighbors are up in arms over the Chick-fil-A proposal. They see a popular driver-oriented fast food restaurant as decided step backward for the neighborhood. Van Ness has made significant progress toward being a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
In the past few years, neighbors have established Van Ness Main Streets to fight for better walkability, a suburban-style parking-in-front shopping center has redeveloped across the street from the Burger King, and UDC built a new student union that bring will bring to life dead pedestrian plaza once the landscaping is ready.
Increased traffic volume is the problem, for people and cars alike
At the heart of the concern are Chick-fil-A estimates that the drive-thru will see three times as much traffic as Burger King does today. That's more than 90 vehicles per hour during its projected busiest period, Saturdays at midday.
Most of those 90-plus vehicles will be crossing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk twice (entering and exiting the drive-thru). If Chick-fil-A can keep the line moving, that means a vehicle will be traversing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk roughly three times per minute, roughly tripling the odds of pedestrian/motorist conflict.
If Chick-fil-A doesn't keep the line moving, it could see traffic backups similar to, or compounding, the ones that are already happening today at the car wash.
On sunny weekends, the line for Flagship Car Wash wraps around the block. (Left: The line at Connecticut Avenue; Right: The line continuing on Albemarle.) Photo from Forest Hills Connection.
In response to the expected traffic increases, Chick-fil-A presented a detailed traffic study and plan to ANC3F at its February 23 meeting. To keep traffic from backing up onto Connecticut Avenue at the busiest times, it would send out employees armed with tablet computers to take orders, collect payments and deliver food to waiting motorists.
In a perfect world, the plan might work. But new Chick-fil-A stores have caused significant traffic chaos in other communities. Bellevue, Washington, had to change traffic patterns and hire police to handle all the business that a new Chick-fil-A attracted.
And while Chick-fil-A presented this plan for dealing with auto traffic, so far, it hasn't addressed concerns about conflicts with pedestrian traffic.
Chick-fil-A's drive-thru plan depends on moving cars into and out of the drive-thru quickly. The chain's drive-thru in suburbs and exurbs rarely have to deal with pedestrians, if at all. But here, drivers will have to wait to turn into the drive-thru and wait again upon exiting for an opening not only in car traffic but in pedestrian traffic.
DDOT will weigh in on the issue
As is standard process for many projects across the District, to move forward with its plans, Chick-fil-A has applied to the DDOT public space committee for two use-of-public-space permits. One permit covers the elements making up the sidewalk cafe seating. The other permit covers the plans to close, renovate, and reopen the driveway. The committee is currently scheduled to hear the application on March 24.
Residents have started a petition against Chick-fil-A's plans, and ANC3F has voted unanimously to oppose Chick-fil-A's application for the driveway. 3F's resolution calls on DDOT's Public Space Committee to reject Chick-fil-A's application, as "A busy drive-thru in the neighborhood now would represent a major step backward."
DDOT's design standards on minimum distances between driveways represent what may be the strongest argument for the ANC and other voices in the community to advocate against the drive-thru.
The DDOT public space committee could deny the driveway permit thanks to it not meeting the minimum distance requirement. But they could also choose to approve the permit. Ultimately in situations like this one, the committee is the final decision-making body, and has discretion to weigh whatever arguments for and against the permit however it likes.
A version of this post first ran on Forest Hills Connection.
"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.
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.
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.
"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:
The repairs at Van Ness will require a multi-step process
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
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.
The escalator at the western entrance of the Van Ness Metro station needs serious work. Three years' worth, to be exact.
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.
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.
Wow you must have a great life when you consider this to be "a significant additional inconvenience."It's 2.5 extra minutes and 1-2 major crossings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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.
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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