Posts about Anti Neighbors
At a recent public hearing, neighbors of McMillan Sand Filtration Site renewed calls to make it a park. But the only way that can happen is by developing part of it as a neighborhood, and it's up to the DC Council to make it happen.
Residents filled a June 6 public hearing held by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to oppose plans to sell the derelict 25-acre site to Vision McMillan Partners, who will build homes, shops, offices and a park there. But others, including Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth say it's the best way to bring McMillan back to life.
It would be prohibitively expensive just to make McMillan a park. Since the underground cells are made of unreinforced concrete, they would have to be demolished and rebuilt just to make them safe to enter. Allowing some private development will give the neighborhood new amenities while paying to keep the best of what's already there.
Plan preserves historic structures while creating new park
VMP's plan preserves all 24 of the plant's above-ground structures, including the vine-covered sand silos visible from North Capitol Street, along with 2 of the below-ground filtration cells. 2/3 of the site will remain open space, while the southern third will become an 8-acre public park with a pool, recreation center, and a community center with meeting rooms and an art gallery. VMP promises that this will be "one of the largest and best-designed public park spaces in the District."
The historic buildings will become part of a new neighborhood with
about 800 585 apartments and townhouses, half 10% of which will be set aside for families making between 50 and 80% of the area's median income. There will also be street-level, neighborhood-serving retail anchored by a 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store. Along Michigan Avenue, there will be taller office buildings with a medical focus, taking advantage of proximity to Washington Hospital Center across the street.
To make this happen, however, the DC Council must decide this fall whether to declare the land as surplus and "dispose" of it. They can do this either by selling it to VMP or granting it as-is to VMP under existing zoning, which wouldn't allow major redevelopment to occur. They could also divide the property and sell off the parts to different owners and under different zoning. They can do all of this in a single set of hearings and votes, and they should to ensure that this process happens as quickly and fairly as possible.
Throughout the summer and fall, the council will hold separate public hearings on whether to surplus McMillan and the details of VMP's plan. Meanwhile, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board is reviewing VMP's plan to redevelop the site with housing, shops, offices and an 8-acre park and will hold hearings about it this month and in September. They've already offered comments about the proposal and will make their recommendations before the end of the year.
Plan will improve stormwater collection, traffic
Groups like Friends of McMillan Park and the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club argued that McMillan is already a public space and should become a public park. However, one DMPED official I spoke to after the hearing said that the city can't afford to do the work necessary to make the site safe for public occupancy. If the District retains ownership, the site would most likely remain decrepit and fenced off indefinitely.
Opponents maintain that the site's underground cells are needed to retain stormwater, mitigating the effects of frequent floods in Bloomingdale, which is downstream from McMillan. But DC Water already plans to replace two of the cells with water storage tanks, which will remain after redevelopment. Meanwhile, VMP has also promised to incorporate stormwater retention and buffers into the buildings and landscaping on the site, reducing stormwater runoff.
Another top complaint was traffic. Residents feel that the neighborhood's roads are already quite congested, especially at rush hour, and could not handle the extra trips generated by a major office, retail and residential center on the McMillan site. There is no question that the Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest non-government employer, needs better public transportation service, as it is not located near a Metro station.
VMP plans to build a bus turnaround for shuttles between McMillan and the Brookland Metrorail station, which would operate until a planned streetcar line along Michigan Avenue is built. Moreover, North Capitol Street has been designated a Bus Priority Corridor, meaning that the city intends to make changes to the street design and traffic flows to permit faster and more frequent bus service. The development would also open new through streets across the McMillan site, improving traffic flow and connections within the larger neighborhood.
Ward 5 needs parks, but it needs housing too
Some opponents say that new development should happen elsewhere in Ward 5, like on vacant and abandoned lots along North Capitol Street or Rhode Island Avenue. While not enough resources have been dedicated to encouraging more infill development, there's no reason why that can't happen in combination with the redevelopment of McMillan.
It is true that Ward 5 needs more and higher-quality parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. But the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole are growing and are need more affordable housing, as well as more diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within walking or biking distance or a short transit ride.
VMP's current plan reflects the input of community members gathered over the course of several design charrettes that were open to the public. It satisfies the need for several types of amenities in this part of the city in a balanced way. It combines buildings that are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods with a large park, and preserves some of the historic filtration cells and all of the silos and brick regulator houses.
We have an opportunity to transform a decrepit former public works site that has been fenced off for over 70 years into a citywide destination: a vibrant and attractive new place to live, work, shop and play that serves many of the needs of residents in this part of DC while incorporating many reminders of its unique history. The Council shouldn't waste any time taking advantage of it, as an opportunity like this won't come again soon.
If you'd like to tell DMPED and the Council to surplus McMillan and allow VMP's plan to happen, you can contact them here. Comments must be received by June 20.
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood fought plans to rebuild the local Safeway and add apartments. Now that the project's stalled, a new group called Bluemont Forward wants to change the debate over growth.
In April, the Bluemont Civic Association voted to oppose a proposal from Safeway and developer Silverwood Companies to replace the 1960's-era store on Wilson Boulevard just west of Ballston with a new supermarket and 160 apartments. They claimed that the building would harm the area's quality of life and left no room for compromise.
Now, neighborhood leaders say Silverwood has quietly backed out of the project. As a result, Safeway could continue to pursue plans for the site, or it could simply close the store and leave Bluemont without its only grocery store. Silverwood won't comment on the record, but it's possible that BCA's hard-line stance was a factor in the decision to pull out.
Bluemont Forward touts the benefits of progress
Residents formed Bluemont Forward around a common vision of remaking their stretch of Wilson Boulevard as a walkable, vibrant place. Their website invokes tradition and history, inviting people to "rediscover the benefits of rationally scaled, neighborhood-oriented, mixed-use commercial areas." The group's supporters include former BCA presidents from the past 20 years.
While recent BCA meetings suggest the neighborhood is a hotbed of hostility to change, Bluemont Forward demonstrates that neighbors holds a variety of views. Many welcome progress and are ready to embrace the benefits of new development. Group members push for a pragmatic, collaborative approach that would serve the neighborhood well in future discussions.
"Arlington County, the developers, the Safeway, can come together for the common good," says Bluemont Forward spokesperson Chitra Kumar. "The Safeway is really a centerpiece of the community. Right now it's mostly a parking lot, and the community would like to see it redeveloped. We have talked to our neighbors and we know there's a sense of wanting to see some change, especially in that site."
Kumar says a new Safeway could bring about many positive changes. "If you have more foot traffic in that area, potentially have street improvements, a lot of positive things could come," she says. "We want to see that happen in a reasonable way."
Opponents' fears are overblown
Research shows that we have what psychologists like Dan Gilbert call an "impact bias." In the context of neighborhood development, author Edward Glaeser explains it best: "people…significantly over-estimate the impact that a negative shock will have on their happiness. The enemies of a new high-rise may think that the tower will make them miserable, but in reality, they will quickly adapt to the new situation."
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right).
Photos by the author.
Roger Lewis, an architect and frequent guest on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, offered similar thoughts to radio listeners in February. On the subject of "people worrying about everything from parking to density and property values, et cetera," Mr. Lewis said, "I think a lot of the fears are unjustified. A lot of the anxieties at least that I've heard voiced…are bogus. I don't think they're justifiable."
Neighbors who voted against the change may have legitimate concerns, but in time they'll become accustomed to it. "We do think people will get used to seeing it, especially if they see the benefits they get out of it," says Kumar. "There can be a lot of them: a walkable, biking-friendly Wilson Boulevard village center that they can walk their families to."
However, the difference between the BCA and Bluemont Forward is about more than tone or attitude. BCA has taken a hard-line position against any development whether or not the existing Safeway is economically viable. They unequivocally oppose rezoning the Safeway site, saying they want no additional density there.
Meanwhile, Bluemont Forward's vision for the Safeway site is arguably moderate: not too restrictive but not too big, either. They worry that 160 apartments may be too dense, but are open to changing the current zoning. "To encourage a service-rich neighborhood center," says their website, "we agree that a redeveloped Safeway site that offers public amenities should be allowed a level of density greater than the currently allowed density, which is amenable primarily to one-story strip-mall type development."
No one actually wants to lose Safeway
Surveys of Bluemont residents show that everyone wants to have a grocery store in their neighborhood. But with the redevelopment plans in doubt, so is the future. The worst-case scenario is that Safeway may decide it's easier to sell the property than to maintain an outdated store. The new owner may then build a big car wash or another auto-oriented facility, which are allowed under current zoning.
Former BCA president and former Arlington Planning Commission member Gerry Procanick confirms the possibility that Bluemont could lose the Safeway: "The analysis we did a number of years ago showed that the current zoning would not support any viable by-right upgrade to the property," he says. "Without significant re-development the site will remain mostly asphalt, or default to some sort of townhouse project. For those of us who plan to stay and have seen what other neighborhoods have done with similar properties, there is no doubt that our neighborhood can do better."
Development opponents say that this argument plays on people's fears. But by warning that a new Safeway and housing could produce more traffic, parking problems, noises, smells, threats to safety, and school overcrowding, they're doing the same thing.
Bluemont certainly can do better than the current Safeway. If Bluemont Forward is any indication, the neighborhood can also do a better job of working with Safeway than its civic association has in recent months.
Greater Greater Washington staff editor Dan Reed appeared on Fox 5 to talk about Montgomery County's BRT plans along with opponent Paula Bienenfeld. Visually, even just the scene on set brings into sharp relief the changes the county is undergoing.
The segment, starting with the anchor's introduction, seems to frame the issue around what this means for drivers. Reed talks about how BRT will move more people, and even those who don't ride the bus will benefit.
Bienenfeld, meanwhile, reads out the standard playbook of opposition. "We're not opposed to public transit," she assures everyone, before casting everything associated with transit as bad, such as devoting any space to bus stops. She also claims that having to cross a bus lane is unsafe for children. Reed later points out that crossing the regular car roadways is far more dangerous.
Bienenfeld criticizes the plan for not including things like Google self-driving cars, signalization, and "personal electric vehicles." Montgomery County already times its signals to move the most cars, even at the expense of those children walking and crossing the street, and none of the other options could move more people in fixed space.
Primarily, though, her objection is that "there was no public input" into the plan, which was created through "secret behind-the-scenes deals that have been cut." This seems astounding, given that a task force worked for a long time to create a plan, then released that plan a full year ago. Since then, county officials have refined and, in many cases, scaled back the plan, each time in full view of the public.
As Reed pointed out in the segment, this is still only a draft plan, with many more hearings yet to come. Unfortunately, people argue that there hasn't been enough input or a good enough public process almost no matter how long or short the public process actually is. This creates a "boy who cried wolf" effect for those times when government agencies really do try to ram a plan through with minimal public comment. The BRT plan is, at least thus far, not one of those cases.
One other argument from Bienenfeld rings particularly hollow: she argues that the plans "cram all the bus routes downcounty into underserved areas and lower-income, avoiding the wealthier parts of the county." Yet the bus routes include Wisconsin Avenue, which passes through some of the county's most affluent communities; most of the opposition has come from the neighborhoods between Bethesda and Friendship Heights.
Some Chevy Chase residents are fighting one of Montgomery County's proposed bus rapid transit routes on Wisconsin Avenue, saying it will create new pedestrian hazards. But building a better transit system can lead to a safer, more walkable environment as well.
Photo used with permission from BethesdaNow.com.
Pedestrian safety is an issue in Montgomery County. On average, drivers strike 400 people in the county each year, accounting for 20% of all traffic deaths. Nationally, buses were responsible for less than 1% of all crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The lion's share of threats to pedestrians come from passenger vehicles, not transit.
As they stand now, the proposed BRT routes are a dangerous environment for pedestrians: fast, wide roads designed to maximize the flow of cars. By promoting a more multimodal transportation network, building a better transit system on these roads can be part of the solution. After all, people have to walk to the bus, and we need to get them there safely.
Concern that dedicated lanes will hurt pedestrian safety by allowing buses to travel faster also doesn't hold up. In Los Angeles, which has two major BRT lines, the rate of accidents in designated BRT lanes is significantly lower per mile than in the city's conventional bus system. Los Angeles has also reduced the speed limits for buses crossing intersections, reducing collisions even more. BRT is a fast and reliable service because vehicles have their own lane to bypass traffic, not because they speed on our already-busy roadways.
The rate of accidents in BRT lanes in Los Angeles is significantly lower per mile than in the city's conventional bus system. Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.
At a basic level, more cars on the roads means more potential for trouble. According to a recent report by EMBARQ, higher driving rates lead to more traffic fatalities. By attracting more riders, high quality transit service reduces the amount of vehicles on the road, directly reducing the chance for crashes and fatalities.
Montgomery County Planning Department staff have found that without rapid transit, countywide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will increase 22% by 2040. That's a whole lot of additional cars on the roadways, meaning even more danger to pedestrians. In contrast, the Rapid Transit proposal is projected to actually reduce VMT levels by as much as 6% by 2040.
Higher transit use also means a greater number of pedestrians on the road, which studies have demonstrated make drivers more attentive. A report on the health impacts of BRT in the San Francisco Bay Area reinforces the safety in numbers concept, finding that pedestrians are less likely to get hit by a car if there are more pedestrians around.
Implemented correctly, Montgomery's rapid transit plans will add more foot traffic to the county's major thoroughfares, exponentially increasing pedestrian safety.
New Bike-Pedestrian Priority Areas in Montgomery's Bus Rapid Transit plan. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Design that encourages pedestrian use and alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians will be critical. The current BRT proposal before the Montgomery County Planning Board incorporates several important recommendations for pedestrian and bike safety, like designating several new Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas, a state designation which targets investment in pedestrian infrastructure to certain areas. The plan also calls for improving intersection and sidewalk lighting, using different lane striping to highlight pedestrian areas, having more traffic signals to accommodate pedestrian and cyclist crossings, and building median refuges at intersections near bus routes.
These recommendations are a strong start, but we need to ensure the county both implements these plans and additional measures to stop treating pedestrians like second-class citizens. The proposed BRT routes are all roads under the jurisdiction of Maryland's State Highway Administration, which historically has prioritized moving cars over moving people. We will need to remain vigilant to ensure that BRT can help transform these dangerous, suburban roadways into multi-modal boulevards of the 21st century.
Doing nothing ensures continuing the status quo of unsafe roads, high pedestrian fatalities, and worsening traffic. Redesigning these roads to accommodate mass transit, as the BRT proposal suggests, provides the opportunity to improve these conditions and create a more walkable, safe environment on these roadways that Chevy Chase residents and undoubtedly many others desperately want.
Councilmember Tommy Wells re-introduced legislation this week to let a developer of a new building promise that tenants can't get stickers to park on neighborhood streets, if they choose to offer such a guarantee to neighbors. Would this alleviate the parking angst that erupts over nearly every development project, like ongoing controversies in Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant?
In Tenleytown, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) supported a new building with no underground parking last year, on the condition that new residents not be able to get residential parking stickers. That was fine with developer Douglas Jemal, but government agencies may not enforce this provision, leaving it entirely to the private agreement between Douglas Development and the ANC.
Neighborhood opposition to growth often revolves around traffic and parking. Even if a developer wants to market a new building to car-free and car-lite new residents, people worry that residents will bring cars anyway and park them on the street.
Building underground parking isn't a solution, either, because some people will still park on the street to save the monthly garage fee, and that underground parking means a lot of cars which add to traffic.
Just look at this message on PoPville's forum, from a resident in Columbia Heights. Some people have been double parking on Harvard Street, stopping emergency vehicles from getting through. Clearly, people should not double park and ought to get tickets, but the resident then went on to use this case to argue against a parking-free condo project:
The reason I'm asking is that a developer is seeking to build an 8 unit apartment building on Harvard Street, NW and they are asking the board of zoning to waive the parking requirements to have parking for their building. We submitted over 70 signatures and 10 letters of opposition today, but apparently the planning department is planning on supporting this application.It's not possible to solve a double parking problem by ensuring that there are 8 more parking spaces off street. The only solution, as many commenters pointed out, is to ensure that we enforce the double parking rules so that parked cars don't block emergency vehicles. Still, we know that the prospect of more residents makes people worry that parking on the street will get harder.
It is my feeling that worsening the parking problem on Harvard street will effectively cut off access to local hospitals for residents in Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights, and will make it impossible for the fire trucks in Adams Morgan to help out at fires east of 16th street.
Not far away, Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner China Terrell worries about a development project at the former fire-ravaged Meridian Hill Baptist Church:
[The developers] want to build 75 condos in the church (mostly 1-bedroom units), with no on-site parking. Instead, homeowners would have the option of leasing parking spaces at DC USA in Columbia Heights. When this plan was introduced at the May 21 ANC meeting, residents were not supportive for obvious reasons. Increased parking and population pressures? The residents said no, thank you.DC USA is just about 2 blocks from the church, so actually, parking off-street in that garage is probably a shorter walk than trying to find an on-street space in the neighborhood at busy times, where you might circle for a while and end up as far away.
It's bad policy to require parking in every new building, like the Harvard Street condos and this church, but it's also understandable that residents would worry about the impacts. There's an existing shared resource that's often scarce. People are used to consuming that resource.
One solution is to ensure that new growth doesn't impact the resource. We want new residents, but don't want parking pressure. Just like it doesn't affect neighbors whether a new building has a fitness center or not, or whether there are 2 bathrooms for 2 bedrooms versus just one, Wells' bill could let parking be another issue that's up to the building and its tenants rather than a neighborhood impact.
It ought to be a basic value we all share (though not everyone does) that we want to welcome new people into our neighborhoods. New residents mean more vitality for local businesses, more tax revenue to shore up our city's budget, more people on the street to make neighborhoods safe.
Some people are nervous about treating new residents differently from existing residents. Why should one group of people get to use the public space and not others, they ask? We already give existing residents a break on property taxes, for instance. On the other hand, we shouldn't say that new residents can't use a public park, or send kids to a school, even though sometimes people oppose adding neighbors because they fear those resources will get more crowded as well.
Unlike those, however, driving is just one of several methods of getting around. In a place like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, there are many other alternatives, like Metro, buses, bicycling, and more. Some people still need to drive, but it's very reasonable to internalize that cost. If you want to drive, you will have to rent a place with a parking space, or rent a separate space at DC USA, or otherwise provide for this just as you pay for your bathroom space.
Wells' bill might not eliminate all opposition to growth. People will still also say they don't want to have to look at buildings, or don't want population in general. But trouble parking seems to be the biggest fear residents have from most projects. It doesn't need to be.
A Republican, Patrick Mara, just got the most votes in DC's Ward 3 in a special election. Leaders of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee, an organization formed "to support and elect Democratic candidates for local and national office," meanwhile, were more concerned with ramming through a resolution against the DC zoning rewrite's parking proposals.
This resolution claims that the DC Office of Planning has no data to back up its recommendations to eliminate minimum parking requirements near transit or for new single-family homes and small residential buildings, and reduce them for schools. It implies without any basis that the zoning rewrite will actually take away parking.
The Ward 3 Dem leaders behind this resolution are now going around claiming that this reflects the views of Democrats in Ward 3. In reality, it represents only the views of 23 out of 94 delegates in the group. Its supporters used procedural maneuvers to ensure it would pass without delegates even getting to debate the merits of the issue.
The task force
Last fall, resident John Chelen, an avowed opponent of the zoning rewrite, approached Ward 3 Democrats chairperson Shelly Tomkin. He had already formed a "task force" made up of about 7 people who opposed the zoning rewrite and some who had publicly testified against it. Chelen suggested to Tomkin that the task force put together a white paper on the subject, supposedly to inform the delegates of the pros and cons of the proposals.
Chelen testified against the rewrite process on October 5, 2012, asking the DC Council to step in and essentially require the Office of Planning to restart the 5-year project. This came before his task force had issued any paper on the merits of the zoning rewrite and before the organization's broader membership had debated the issues or adopted any resolution.
Tomkin approved this task force without including any members with differing points of view. When word got out about the task force from Chelen's testimony, Ward 3 Democratic Committee delegate Ellen Bass and another resident insisted that Chelen include them to give some balance (although even after a 3rd resident joined later, they were a minority of the members). Chelen, after substantial initial delay, permitted them to join.
The group's "white paper" purported to be a fact-based analysis of the Office of Planning's policy recommendations on parking. But not surprisingly, the report contained only "facts" that supported the anti-rewrite position and unsupported assertions about the horribles that will result if DC adopts the proposals. Yet Tomkin distributed it to the Committee delegates as an objective statement of the "pros and cons" of the proposals without any caveat about dissenters on the task force.
For example, there is no mention of the environmental concerns about car use and vehicle congestion. The report cites no data to back up assertions like these:
The paper also reflected a clear anti-zoning rewrite bias. It contained arguments attacking the OP proposals which it called "Stated Justifications." According to Bass, she had prepared a more balanced draft, but then 2 avowed opponents of the parking proposals reworked it. She and two other members who did not agree with the paper prepared their own "Alternative Analysis," which Bass said she had to distribute to Committee delegates herself.
- In most instances, current parking requirements are substantially less than likely parking need that would be generated by use, so current requirements only partially mitigate the impact of spillover parking.
- Elimination of minimum parking requirements on transit zones will result in spillover parking in residential neighborhoods near Metro stations
- Elimination of minimum parking requirements ... will result in people who live near transit zones or downtown to walk blocks from their car to their home ...
- The rewrite will reduce parking requirements for schools, hotels, and churches. [In fact, all the rewrite proposes to do is base the requirement on square footage rather than factors that change over time like number of seats, rooms and employees.]
Chelen then presented a resolution condemning OP's parking proposals at the Ward 3 Dems' April 11 meeting. It states, among other things, that the "parking proposals adversely will affect residents, businesses and the vibrancy of the city," that they "do not reflect community preferences," and that they are "not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan."
These are at best opinion statements not supported by data in the "white paper." For one thing, the zoning task force did not assess the community preference beyond its own membership of 10 or so people, and 3 of those people did not agree that the parking proposals would be detrimental. As for the Comprehensive Plan, this too would prove without basis, as soon became clear.
The first order of business on April 11 was a lengthy debate on whether attending members could vote in place of absent delegates, as the Committee Bylaws clearly permit. After much discussion, Tomkin thought better of denying these members their vote, but because of the time it took to resolve this issue, and Tomkin's decision to let an unrelated speaker give his presentation first, delegates grew impatient and some left before the late vote.
Furthermore, procedural shenanigans by the resolution's supporters ensured there would be no floor debate on its substance. Yes, on a very contentious issue that has divided many in Ward 3, and on a resolution that says policies "are not supported by data," there was no actual discussion about those facts. While the resolution purported to reflect "community preferences," community members never had a chance to talk about their preferences.
Tom Smith, an ANC commissioner and Committee delegate, did insist on asking Chelen how many parking places in Ward 3 would be eliminated if the rewrite went through. Chelen responded that he did not know and did not have any examples he could cite, but he was sure it would happen.
Afterwards, Chairperson Tomkin issued a statement in "themail," claiming that the resolution "was approved in a vote by a broad majority taken April 11." This careful wording obscures the reality that just 23 people voted in favor, a small proportion of the 94 Committee delegates and hardly a majority of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee. In fact, fewer than half the delegates (only about 44 people) even bothered to attend the April 11 meeting. By the time the resolution came up for a vote after 9:30 pm, there was barely a quorum present, and only about 30 delegates even voted.
The resolution does not speak for Democrats in Ward 3
The vote total is important because Chelen is pushing other organizations, such as the Cleveland Park Citizen's Association to adopt a similar resolution. He intends to bring this resolution to the DC Council as reflecting the views of Ward 3.
But his hyperbole is overblown and inaccurate. On the Chevy Chase listserv, he stated, "The resolution passed by a supermajority vote [of the Ward 3 Dems], a telling sign of community resistance to the ill-considered and over-reaching proposals made by the Office of Planning."
Ironically, despite the claim that the minimum parking proposals are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the very next day after the Ward 3 Dems vote, the Zoning Commission approved the Babes Billiards PUD, a mixed-use building in what would be a transit zone near a Metro station that would not have on-site parking. The PUD order cited 23 policies within the Comprehensive Plan that support a development with no on-site parking, beginning on page 11.
Being a neophyte at these political meetings, but not in life itself, I expected that a few motivated individuals could move the needle on getting things done through sheer guile and force of will. I was surprised, however, how an organization named the Ward 3 Democratic Committee could permit such a clearly non-democratic process, push through a white paper without even hearing dissenting viewpoints.
Today, the "white paper" is still not available on the Ward 3 Democrats' website, although it is available online, along with the "Alternative Analysis" from the 3 task force members who did not agree with the paper Chelen and Tomkin distributed. Instead of alienating Democrats by letting the group be a tool of those who want to advance a specific agenda on a non-partisan issue, the Ward 3 Democratic Committee ought to focus on its actual electoral mission.
Alexandria's City Council will soon decide whether to expand Capital Bikeshare in the city. Opponents claim that bikeshare is a waste of money that should be spent on other things, but ridership and revenue are exceeding expectations.
On May 6, the council will vote to fund an 8-station expansion, doubling the local CaBi fleet, and add CaBi operating funds to the city budget. However, some say that Alexandria is not getting a good deal. City Council members say privately that these residents have fixated on CaBi as the place to cut the budget in favor of their own causes.
The person leading this charge is Kathryn Papp, who has a history of opposing bicycles in Old Town. Papp argued last year that "adding bikes increases congestion" by slowing down cars. Now, she is presenting straw-man arguments against CaBi expansion.
"Every other city uses dedicated sponsors to cover operating costs, but not Alexandria," she states in a letter to the Alexandria Gazette-Packet on April 12, citing New York's Citibank-sponsored Citibike, which is still under construction. Papp notes that Alexandria also no longer receives federal grants to pay for bikeshare and will instead use $50,000 in development impact fees and $70,000 in revenue from real estate taxes.
In another letter to the Alexandria Times, Papp questions whether the city should pay for a service operated by Alta, a private company, in partnership with Alexandria, Arlington and DC. She claims that a financial dispute between Bixi, Alta's equipment maker, and the city of Montreal and a lawsuit from Bixi's software vendor makes Alta unfit to work with. Instead, she proposes that Alexandria use CaBi funds to reverse a proposed cut in library hours.
Conflating the problems of Bixi with Alta, the private company that operates CaBi, ignores the real question of whether it's actually working for Alexandria.
Alexandria is getting the same deal as Arlington, DC, and other cities with bikeshare systems. Like Denver's B-Cycle and Boston's Hubway, CaBi is a public-private partnership in which the city owns the equipment and contracts out operations to a for-profit company.
As with Minneapolis' Nice Ride system, CaBi lists a number of major sponsors on its website, though Nice Ride covers its operating costs with user fees and sponsored stations. Capital Bikeshare could partner with a corporate sponsor, but it's a regional system, and all of the jurisdictions involved should make that decision together.
Despite what Papp says, Capital Bikeshare also saves money. Capital costs of the proposed eight-station expansion are about that of a single DASH bus. Operating costs per ride are well under a dollar for CaBi, versus over a dollar for Metrorail and over two dollars for DASH. System-wide, CaBi moves about 8,000 people per day, almost as many as the 11,000 that DASH moves.
Papp complains that CaBi will get some financial support from local taxes, but Alexandria recently chose to dedicate 2.2¢ of its real estate tax rate to a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), including 3 designated transit corridors and supporting infrastructure for biking and walking. Given that 2 of the 4 busiest Alexandria CaBi stations serve nearby Metro stations, CaBi clearly fits in with the program's stated goals.
Besides, Alexandria can't simply move the funds to support libraries. TIP money must be spent on transportation, and since it's a new program, raiding TIP funds for libraries would only weaken it as a funding source. Just as CaBi is a transportation service that should be evaluated in the context of Alexandria's transportation program, libraries are a social service that should be evaluated in the context of Alexandria's other social services.
Capital Bikeshare has proven its worth to Alexandria, but a few detractors want to discredit this valuable service. The City Council should listen to the facts and support bikeshare funding. They will be voting on the budget next Monday; you can contact them here and voice your support.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously voted to approve the controversial Chelsea Court townhouse development near downtown Silver Spring. The vote ends a 3-year fight between local builder EYA and a group of neighbors who said the project was too dense and would harm the environment.
The vote allows EYA to build 63 townhouses, including 8 Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units for low-income households. It will restore a historic house on the site of the Chelsea School, located on Pershing Drive one block north of downtown Silver Spring.
The private, special-needs school first announced their plans to close and sell their 5-acre campus in May 2010. Most of the school's students live in the District or Prince George's County, and administrators want to focus on teaching them at public schools closer to home.
History of neighborhood opposition
Neighbors in the surrounding Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association, or SOECA, have strongly opposed Chelsea Court from the beginning. They worried about traffic and density and said that townhouses didn't belong in a "single-family neighborhood", especially when the property was only zoned for single-family homes.
The Planning Board approved rezoning the land for townhouses in 2011, but it was rejected by the County Council, who said EYA's proposal for 77 homes was too dense. The Council eventually granted the rezoning for a reduced number of houses last year. Neighbor Thomas DeCaro filed a suit against the county saying they acted illegally, but the case was dismissed.
More recently, SOECA argued that Chelsea Court violates state and county environmental laws. A consultant hired by the neighborhood says EYA ignored Environmental Site Design requirements to preserve natural features. Opponents say cutting down the property's mature trees and removing its steep slopes will cause runoff into a stream buried below Ellsworth Drive.
In a letter to County Councilmember Valerie Ervin, SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh urged her to "take all steps necessary" to ensure that Chelsea Court incorporated ESD "without regard to the possible loss of development intensity."
However, officials from the county's Department of Permitting Services say the site's natural slope was already removed to create sports fields for the school decades ago. "I understand that you may not agree and that you have expressed significant opposition to the project," replied DPS director Diane Schwartz-Jones. "In our opinion, the applicant has complied with the standards spelled out in the Montgomery County Code and with [Maryland Department of the Environment] standards."
EYA willingly makes changes
According to this planning staff report, EYA's latest design includes several changes in response to neighbor concerns. They've agreed to provide more parking than required, move a private road serving the new houses and restrict turns to or from it to discourage through traffic in a neighborhood where most streets are already blocked off.
In keeping with existing houses in the neighborhood, EYA's townhomes will be only 2 or 3 stories tall, as opposed to the 4-story homes they normally build elsewhere. Townhouses facing Springvale Road will be designed to look like single-family homes in order to blend in with existing homes across the street, while a double row of trees will shield them from sight.
Meanwhile, 51% of the property will be preserved as open space, including small courtyards between the rows of houses and two pocket parks. This figure also includes the private yard of the 150-year-old Riggs-Thompson House, which the school is currently using. EYA will turn it back into a single-family house. Planners say this counts because the house's yard contributes to "a general appearance of openness."
At yesterday's meeting, 18 residents gave testimony about the project, including several supporters who noted EYA's responsiveness to their suggestions. "I'm pleased to see what EYA has crafted and look forward to the development coming to fruition," said Robert Bacon, who lives a few blocks away.
More density in Silver Spring is environmentally and economically sustainable
It's not surprising that neighbors don't want to see trees cut down to build Chelsea Court, but this property isn't a virgin forest. It's a school campus that's already been cleared and built on. Building here is the environmentally responsible thing to do because it reduces the pressure to build in actual environmentally-sensitive areas.
Chelsea Court is also located in an urban area a short walk from one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and transit hubs. 60% of downtown Silver Spring residents already get to work without a car. Meanwhile, an independent study of EYA developments, including ones in Silver Spring, found that their residents walk more and drive less. Building more homes here means more people get to do the same, reducing their energy use.
But for all of the environmental benefits of being here, Silver Spring is an increasingly expensive place to live, due to the high cost of land and the expense of a 3-year-long permitting process. At an Urban Land Institute talk last summer, EYA partner AJ Jackson said that the time and money they've spent trying to get Chelsea Court built could add $50,000 to the price of each home.
Neighbors might say that maximizing density means bigger profits for EYA, but in reality, it means EYA can spread the cost of land and permitting over more homes, making them less expensive. $50,000 may not seem like a lot, but it means fewer people can afford to live in Silver Spring.
While people deserve a say in what happens in their community, the bitter and vitriolic fight over Chelsea Court sets a bad example for future projects. Not only does it create bad blood, but it encourages destructive suburban sprawl and makes Silver Spring a less affordable place to live.
We have to find a way to have a constructive dialogue about development, because this community's going to grow and change whether we like it or not. In the meantime, Chelsea Court has been approved. Not everyone will be happy with the Planning Board's decision, but they made the right one. Now it's time to get this project built.
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- The reason cyclists love green bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls