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Arlington has a great new park, and it was easy to build

What if you turned parking space in your neighborhood into the area's newest park? Staff members from a handful of Arlington County agencies recently did just that, creating a new "pop-up plaza" near Courthouse Plaza. It only took paint, plantings, outdoor furniture, and two days of work.

Though the County may have borrowed this idea from New York City, it has recently shown an ability to get innovative in transforming public spaces using inexpensive materials: in May, tape, paper, and potted plants were all it took to build a temporary bikeway.

The pop-up plaza calls to mind the temporary "parklets" that pop up on Park(ing) Day each September, but it's great to see these innovative spaces being created at other times of year.

Hopefully this plaza will remain a permanent fixture of the Courth House neighborhood (at least until the entire parking lot is reclaimed and transformed into a park).

Where do you think Arlington's next pop-up plaza should go?

Arts


This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.


A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild Healthcare.gov, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Healthcare.gov. Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.


Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

Transit


At the King Street Metro, parking is out and a pedestrian plaza is in

At Alexandria's King Street—Old Town Metro station, there's a whole lot of space dedicated to cars and buses and not much for people on foot. But the station's parking lot will soon become a pedestrian plaza with wider sidewalks and more parking for bikes.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Today, when you come out of the Metro at King Street, you walk into a parking lot with 30 spaces and six bus bays. Contributor Gray Kimbrough noted that that's a lot of space devoted to cars, but also that the station is tough for walking around:

The station has Old Town in its name, but it's not at all obvious how to walk out of the station in the direction of Old Town. And all of the roads around the station seem to share the problem of missing or inconveniently placed crosswalks.
Joanne Pierce added:
The parking lot is not proportional. There is not enough parking to make it worthwhile for commuters but because it's a popular drop off/pick up spot (which Metro apparently never intended to be the case) there are more moving vehicles during rush hour, creating congestion and lots of pedestrians have to avoid the cars and the buses. There are no stop signs for the cars, either.

There are two station exits but one is much more heavily used. If I recall correctly, there isn't a tourist-friendly map outside of the other exit, nor are there signs telling tourists where they should go from the other exit. This means more tourists are using the main gates and then cross the parking lot to reach King Street or cross the bus lane to get on the King Street bus trolley that shuttles riders directly to the waterfront.

I myself will add that when you're coming up King Street, it is not immediately evident how to access the station entrance. I often find going to the north entrance, which is not immediately obvious to pedestrians, is often easier.

A plan to replace the parking lot with a pedestrian plaza and to add four new bus bays to the existing six could be the first step toward the station becoming more walkable, and it gained approval last week.

The reconfigured plaza will make it easier to get to the station by walking as well as accommodate WMATA's plans to increase bus service in the area. WMATA has also said there will be more bike parking, but there aren't yet any details beyond that.


Planned layout of the new bus and pedestrian plaza in front of the King St station. Image from the city of Alexandria.

The project will cost $11.7 million, and has been planned since at least 2012.

A public hearing is planned for the fall with final approval expected by the end of the year, WMATA board documents show.


The current King St station plaza includes 30 parking spaces and six bus bays. Photo from WMATA.

More improvements are coming to the King Street station

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is also working on improved access to the King Street station. Design is more than halfway done on a new pedestrian tunnel linking Alexandria Union Station and the adjacent Metro station, a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority project update from July shows.


The planned pedestrian tunnel from Alexandria Union Station to the King St Metro station. Image from VRE.

The authority awarded VRE a $1.3 million grant for the tunnel in 2014, however, the agency has yet to identify funding for the balance of the roughly $11.3 million project.

The tunnel is currently scheduled to open by the end of 2017.

Bicycling


What do you think of these bike plans for Columbia Pike?

Columbia Pike is one of Arlington's least bike-friendly corridors—there aren't any bike lanes, traffic is heavy, and the bike boulevards on parallel streets are disjointed and disconnected. The good news it that there's a plan to make the Pike a better place to bike. The bad? It isn't exactly going to win any awards.


Riding a bike down Columbia Pike? Harrowing. Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

The transportation planning for Columbia Pike largely grew out of 2004's Columbia Pike Streetscape Task Force Report. This report set the ultimate vision for what each block of the Pike will look like in the future, once the corridor redevelops.

With that ultimate vision expected to take 30 years or more, Arlington is undertaking a short-term solution, the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project. This project includes plans to create a way to bike down Columbia Pike, or on 9th Street or 12th Street, which parallel the Pike.


The bike-related infrastructure that's planned for Columba Pike. Map by the author, base map from Google Maps.

Below are the details of the project's plans for bike infrastructure, from the western end of Columbia Pike to the east:

The west end sidepath

Starting in the west, at the Fairfax County line, Columbia Pike will get a 10-foot wide shared-use path on the north side. The path will stretch from the county line to the bridge over Four Mile Run just east of Arlington Mill Community Center.

This portion of the Pike Multimodal project is slated to being begin construction fairly soon. Fans of such a facility would likely describe it as a "trail," detractors would probably say it's "just a wide sidewalk." Having a curb to protect you from traffic is certainly a plus, but mixing with pedestrians is a negative, and having a bike route that runs in two directions cross driveways and side streets is certainly a safety concern.


The narrow sidewalk that currently runs across Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

The Four Mile Run bridge is one of the gaps in planning for biking Columbia Pike. The 10-foot sidepath suddenly becomes a narrow and busy sidewalk that sits immediately adjacent to traffic. Right now, the only alternatives to biking in traffic over the bridge are sharing that sidewalk with pedestrians and other cyclists or detouring north past the community center, down into the stream valley via a number of switchbacks, across a fair weather ford over Four Mile Run, and then back up a steep hill to 9th Street.

Ideally, the county would either renovate the bridge to widen the sidewalk to 10 feet to match the sidepath to the west, or add a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridge either immediately to the north of the bridge, or further upstream to connect to 9th Street.


Fair weather crossing alternative to Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

A bike boulevard for the central core

Moving east across the stream, the county's planned bike infrastructure transitions to a bike boulevard along 9th Street, which runs parallel to Columbia Pike. Bike boulevards are easy to bike on because while they're open to cars, they keep speeds and volumes low.

This quiet neighborhood street will get you approximately two blocks before arriving at the second potential gap in the planned bike network along Columbia Pike: crossing George Mason Drive. Most cyclists right now head another block to the north where they can safely cross George Mason Drive with a light at 8th Street.


The proposed 9th Street bike boulevard ends before George Mason Drive. Photo by the author.

While the additional two block detour is relatively negligible for someone on a long-distance ride, it could potentially double the length of a trip for anyone trying to go just a couple blocks. A better long-term solution would be a bridge across George Mason, from where it dead ends at Taylor Street to where it picks back up at Quincy Street.


9th Street before and after it reaches George Mason Drive. Image from Google Maps.

From Quincy, the 9th Street bike boulevard continues, to Glebe Road, where engineers evaluated the intersection for a HAWK signal to make crossing there easier and safer. Unfortunately, because the traffic control manual that Virginia's engineers defer to says a signal there isn't "warranted" because not enough people use the route, there won't be one.


View as a cyclist on 9th St Bike Blvd approaching Glebe. Photo by the author.

This is a common chicken-and-egg problem for bike and pedestrian crossings: Nobody crosses there because it's difficult and feels unsafe, and it's remaining difficult and unsafe because nobody crosses there. Common sense says that many cyclists and pedestrians are likely going out of there way to cross at Columbia Pike or at 8th 7th Street so that they can do so at a light, but would prefer to cross at 9th if a signal were there.


9th Street at Glebe (Route 120), and the detour at Ivy Street. Image from Google Maps.

East of Glebe, cyclists are directed to detour up to 7th Street for one block at Ivy Street because of a one block stretch of one-way street between Ivy and Irving Street. The county proposed making this stretch of road two-way as part of the initial bike boulevard roll-out, but ran into fierce neighborhood opposition.

Nearby residents were very concerned about opening the street up to two-way traffic around a narrow curve with bad sight-lines and contended that while the curb-to-curb width may appear to be wide enough, the mature oak trees that line the street mean that nobody is actually able to park adjacent to the curb which leaves less room for driving than you might think at first glance.

The 9th Street bike boulevard continues east to the intersection with Walter Reed Drive. Here, Arlington engineers decided the intersection needs a full traffic signal. It will be installed as part of the long-delayed Walter Reed Drive Complete Streets Project sometime in the next few years. That project will also rebuild the intersection into a more traditional and understandable layout.

A sidepath for the east end

At Wayne Street, the 9th Street Bike Boulevard ends and the planned bike facility transitions back to a 10-foot shared use path on Columba Pike. That path is planned to stretch all the way from Wayne Street, down the hill, underneath the Washington Boulevard bridge, back up the hill past the Sheraton and all the way down past the Air Force Memorial to at least Joyce Street and potentially all the way to the Pentagon.

A stretch of the 10-foot path already runs under the new Washington Boulevard bridge. The remainder of the sidepath will be built as part of future phases of the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project, but probably not until 2018 or 2019.


New 10' sidepath beneath Washington Blvd bridge. Photo from Google Streetview

Again, the choice of a sidepath here is less than ideal. The sidepath would cross a number of side streets and driveways, not to mention the off-ramps from the Washington Boulevard bridge. Cyclists going downhill will pick up a fair amount of speed, and drivers rarely expect high-speed cyclists on what looks like a sidewalk, especially when they are coming from the "wrong direction" (because the sidepath is on the north side of Columbia Pike, cyclists headed east would be on the left side of the street).

From the east end of Columbia Pike, cyclists could continue along to the Route 27 trail past the Pentagon Memorial, or head along the Joyce Street sidepath to the future protected bike lane on Army Navy Drive into Pentagon City. Plans for this end of Columba Pike are somewhat in flux because of the land swap that is still being negotiated between Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County and VDOT.

The land swap would potentially re-align Columbia Pike and reconfigure the Columbia Pike / Route 27 interchange near the Pentagon, changing it from its current cloverleaf configuration into a more compact signalized setup.

What about 12th Street?

There is also a bicycle boulevard on 12th Street, but given that it's on the opposite side of Columbia Pike from the sidepaths, I've focused on 9th Street in the context of a cyclist trying to travel the full length of Columbia Pike. People are unlikely to want to cross Columbia Pike multiple times just to continue on their way.

Why bike boulevards and sidepaths? Why not bike lanes or protected bike lanes?

If this plans seems a bit old-fashioned, building parallel boulevards and sidepaths instead of protected bike lanes, remember that they all grew out of that 2004 Streetscape Task Force Report. The biggest driver however, is space: there isn't that much of it, and there are a lot of competing demands for it.

In many places, the space available across Columbia Pike from building to building is less than 80 feet. In some places, the land the county currently owns is as narrow as 60 feet.
In that space, the county has been trying to accommodate wide sidewalks with street trees for a pleasant pedestrian experience, 24,000 vehicles a day with heavy transit traffic, and safe accommodation for cyclists. They don't all fit, and what has been compromised the most is the bicycle facilities.


In this cross section of Columbia Pike, there are 56 feet just for cars. The remaining space has to juggle bike lanes, pedestrian space, and trees. Image from Arlington County.

Converting some or all of the bike facilities on Columbia Pike to bike lanes or protected bike lanes would require identifying significant width to be taken away from some other use on the Pike. Turning a standard five-foot sidewalk into a ten-foot shared use path requires five feet of space beyond a typical Arlington Cross-section. Standard bike lanes would require an additional five feet, buffered or protected bike lanes additional width equal to the width of the buffer or the protection.

Does that space come out of the sidewalk? The street trees? The left turn lanes? The travel lanes?

Arlington County is set to spend over $100 million rebuilding Columbia Pike, and yet the "Complete Streets" project will not result in a bike facility that runs the entire length of the corridor. Is that really a complete street? Columbia Pike is the most affordable area of Arlington, and would be the ideal place to have top-notch facilities for one of the most affordable means of transportation: the bicycle.

Right now that isn't going to happen. Should it?

Transit


This map shows how easy it is to take transit to work

We spend a lot of time praising neighborhood walkability and proximity to transit. But how valuable is the ability to walk to the grocery store if residents still need to drive a long distance to get to work?


A map of "Opportunity Score" values from Redfin for the DC area, with county boundaries added by the contributor. Scores are based on the number of jobs paying $40,000/year or more accessible by a transit commute of less than half an hour from a given point.

The real-estate company Redfin recently released an online tool called "Opportunity Score" that lets you explore the number of jobs that are accessible by transit from any address in a number of metro areas, including DC.

For any address in an area that the tool covers, the tool can calculate a numerical score between zero (least transit-accessible jobs) and one hundred (most transit accessible jobs). Alternatively, by searching for a metro area without a specific address, you can see a color-coded map of the numerical scores throughout the region, where green corresponds to the highest scores and red to the lowest.

The Transit Score map for the DC area reveals some interesting, if not entirely surprising, patterns. Thanks to Metro and good bus service, nearly everywhere within DC, Arlington, and Alexandria has good transit access to jobs.

Some places farther out are similar: several areas in Fairfax County (particularly in the vicinities of Tysons and Reston) and a large part of Montgomery County (in Silver Spring and along the Wisconsin Avenue-Rockville Pike corridor) have very good access to jobs.

In Prince George's County, however, things are quite different. The relative lack of high-paying jobs in the county and the low density around most of its Metro stations, along with more limited bus service, result in there being very few areas in the county where it is possible to commute to many jobs by transit in under thirty minutes.

Notably, the Prince George's County section of the Purple Line will connect a number of areas with low access to jobs to the employment centers in Bethesda and Silver Spring. However, this will serve only a very small portion of the county. Better bus service as well as increasing density in the more transit-accessible parts of the county are also essential to scaling back the car-dependence of commutes in Prince George's.

The tool might not be as useful for some as it is others

It is worth noting that Opportunity Score, which is based on Redfin's Walk Score tool, has a couple of notable limitations. The list of jobs only includes ones that pay over $40,000/year, so it doesn't tell you anything about the commutes to low-paying jobs (and people with those jobs are particularly likely to use transit).

It also considers some commuting options that only run at rush hour (i.e., I could take the Camden Line from my apartment in College Park, but it only runs at rush hour, so it doesn't do me much good if I have a night shift job, for example).

Most jobs that pay over $40,000 do follow the usual 9-to-5, though, so the fact that some of the transit considered is rush-hour-only will matter less to people looking for those jobs than to service workers looking for lower-paying jobs, but who will need to commute at less standard hours.

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