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Bicycling


Despite community support, Alexandria board again wants to delay King Street bike lanes

Almost 60% of residents spoke up for Alexandria's King Street bike lanes Tuesday night, but the city's Traffic and Parking Board once again voted to recommend that the City Council delay building them because of concerns about lost parking.


Photo from Google Street View.

The proposal would remove 27 parking spaces and add bike lanes to King Street between Russell Road and Highland Place, west of Old Town. In a concession to neighbors, transportation officials had previously agreed to have sharrows between Highland and Janneys Lane for two additional blocks, saving 10 parking spaces.

Though Transportation and Environmental Services Director Rich Baier gave the order to go ahead with the plan in December, the Traffic and Parking Board (TPB) reconsidered the project as part of an appeals process and voted 5-2 in favor of delaying it. Next, it goes to the City Council for a public hearing and final vote on the lanes March 15.

According to Baier, there are an average of three cars parked along the corridor, and all of the houses on King Street have driveways that can accommodate at least two cars. But the board asked Baier to address a large number of suggested alternatives, all of which retained all parking spaces.

Said Baier, "Everyone talks safety, but it always comes down to the parking."

Those alternatives included finding alternative routes for bicyclists, which Baier said didn't address safety concerns for cyclists or pedestrians on King Street today. Baier also looked at a wider sidewalk, bulb-outs, and a so-called "enhanced curb," but without changing the parking, there was only two feet of space to work with, meaning the improvements would be small.

A representative of DASH, the city's bus agency, said that narrowing the through lanes for traffic calming as planned is not a problem for DASH buses or emergency vehicles.

At Tuesday's meeting, Baier, his staff, and numerous speakers in favor of the plan described the traffic calming effect of bike lanes. Transportation planner Carrie Sanders stated that bike lanes increase cycling, and drivers respond by slowing down. Baier pointed out that this is a well-established result and is "not at all cutting-edge."

Overall, 32 people spoke in favor of the plan and 23 spoke against. One speaker was Environmental Policy Commission Chair Scott Barstow, who pointed out that the entire EPC was in attendance and invited them to stand up. In the interest of time, the remaining EPC members did not testify.

But numerous opponents stated that the traffic would not slow down in any circumstance. One opposing speaker said that inviting more cyclists onto the streets would indeed slow down the cars by frightening drivers, but went on to say that frightening drivers was simply unacceptable.

TPB Vice Chair Larry Ruggiero, who made the motion to disapprove the city's plan, indicated that he judged the plan unsafe. When fellow board member Kevin Posey asked for his rationale, Ruggiero failed to give one.

William Schuyler, who seconded the motion, added an amendment asking the "two sides" to meet and find a resolution within the next 60 days, which the board had already recommended when they voted 6-0 against the proposal the first time in November.

Complete-streets proponent Kevin Posey, who represents Alexandria's Transportation Commission on the TPB, and TPB member Greg Cota cast the two dissenting votes. The Transportation Commission submitted a letter to the TPB in favor of the plan.

Cota seemed incredulous that the rest of the TPB could not see the value in separating bicycles from pedestrians and cars. Posey said he was not comfortable with any motion that dismissed the expertise of city staff and the opinions of cyclists concerning their own safety.

Despite the TPB request for both more "common ground" and more delays, the reality is that there is no solution that both retains parking and allows even a single, parallel bike lane within the right-of-way. As Baier repeatedly pointed out, the road is simply too narrow.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the project March 15 at 9:30 am at Alexandria City Hall, 301 King Street. If you'd like to express your support for this project, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is circulating a petition.

Development


Dupont church ruins may become new housing and a new church

In August 1970, an arsonist poured 12 gallons of gasoline on the Gothic 71-year-old St. Thomas Parish at 18th and Church streets in Dupont Circle. The building burned in minutes. Soon, only the parish hall, some ruins around the altar, and a single stone gable pointing to the sky remained.

Soon, that spot could become part of a new church and an apartment or condominium building.


Left: The 1899 building. Right: Concept design for a new church. All images from St. Thomas unless otherwise noted.

After the fire, most of the original building became a small park, and in fits and starts, the Episcopal congregation there worked to rebuild. They converted the 1922 parish hall behind the church into worship space and have used it since. But there's no way for a person in a wheelchair to reach the sanctuary, nor a casket for a funeral. Nor is there enough space for other programs.

From 2007 to 2012, Matthew Jarvis, a young architect and parishioner, designed a new church on the site of the old one. It was a modest, low building compared to the 120-foot-tall original. A roof with 12 triangular skylights would envelope the gable at one end and taper down to a two-story stone fašade on 18th Street.


A rendering of Jarvis' proposal.

The church looks to private development

But the parish and the diocese, which in the Episcopal Church controls the property, concluded that they couldn't afford to build and maintain this larger building. After long discussions with church members, they decided that the only way to be able to afford a new building was to partner with a developer, who would construct a residential building on part of the property, raising money for the church.

Working with Michael Foster of MTFA Architecture, the congregation created this draft design. Personally, I find grand religious architecture more compelling than the subdued design of the last attempt. It also better matches the other buildings along 18th Street, most of which are at least 4 stories and some rise as high as 9.

Meanwhile, a 70-foot residential building with 6 or 7 floors would face Church Street. (Disclosure: I live on this block, and can see the church from my window.) After receiving proposals from several developers, the congregation chose CAS Riegler, a firm based in Shaw, to design the residential building as well as to develop two vacant townhouse lots on P Street the church now uses for parking.

Some decisions are open for discussion, some are not

At a community meeting Wednesday night, church officials, Foster, and Kevin Riegler from CAS Riegler, emphasized that the process was still very young. Unfortunately, the meeting started out somewhat disorganized. A planned slide presentation about the church's overall plan for the site didn't materialize because of technical difficulties.

Some residents felt "surprised" that the church had already made a number of decisions with MTFA in writing their request for proposals: they will place the religious building on the 18th Street side of the property and the main residential building on Church Street; they want to demolish most of the parish hall; and there will be 15 parking spaces for the church and 41 for the residential building.

Foster never came right out and revealed these facts, which only came up because some residents had gotten a look at the RFP. It took a few questions from residents to clarify that Riegler was only responsible for the residential building and that the church's plan was largely not open for discussion.

Riegler emphasized his firm had only come on board 11 days prior and the residential building was "a blank slate." While he was laudably bringing in community members now in an effort to get input on the ground floor, many decisions about the site had already been settled before he was involved.

Residents worry about density and losing the park

"You've grieved for the loss of your church for 40 years," said one resident at the often-acrimonious meeting. "Now we have to grieve for the loss of our park." The park will no longer be public open space, though Riegler noted that with Dupont Circle one block west, there is already a good amount of space, and he didn't even mention Stead Park one block to the east.

Others, including some who had supported the church's earlier plan to build on the park, felt the building was too tall. Riegler pointed out that a 70 foot building, which is what zoning allows, is shorter than the 90-foot-tall building at 18th and P (or Massachusetts) which until recently housed the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or the also 90-foot apartment buildings on the corner of 17th and Church, at the opposite end of the block.

I personally would like to see the site accommodate as much new housing as possible, given that DC desperately needs to build 41,000 to 105,000 new homes over 20 years in order to house all of the people, at all of the income levels, who want to move to or stay in the District. But to many, the idea of what could be 58 new housing units represents a big change.

A number of residents argued that the church is not fulfilling its godly mission by partnering with a developer in a transaction that was mostly about dollars. "Is it the church's mission to build 58 condos? That's a paltry mission," one resident said. "We don't need more apartments, we don't need more autos," said another who had just moved to Dupont Circle when the church burned in 1970.

Yet another nearby resident asked why the congregation had to stay on the site at all. "Why don't you guys move? Find another facility" and donate the land to a different nonprofit, she suggested. ANC Commission Leo Dwyer argued that the church has been a treasured neighbor, letting a local LGBT congregation meet there and hosting health groups, not to mention serving as a polling place (at least for now; the DC Board of Elections plans to move and consolidate polling places).

Still, over the course of the meeting many people (including myself to some degree) grew a little more comfortable with some details that had been worrisome. Maybe some of these resemble the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The conversation starts with claims that the community wasn't involved, then moves to arguments that a building is too intrusive, and works its way to a discussion about what neighbors can constructively get in the design to maximize their quality of life within the constraints of zoning, property rights, and fairness.

What will be preserved?

A lot of questions remain. Chief among them is what will happen to the stone fašade of the parish hall, which certainly merits historic preservation, and the gable and ruins, which do so even more. While the new design for a church on 18th Street is impressive, it might have been easier to preserve more of the old church by building the new church where the old church elements are instead of on the other end of the property.


Photo by A.Currell on Flickr.

I asked Ryan Winfield, chair of the church's Building Committee, who said they didn't want the church to be hidden away behind other buildings. It once had a grand entrance on 18th Street, and they'd like it to again, he said. A lot of people don't even know it's there now, and assume it's just a completely abandoned site. Plus, they'd like to make reference to the past but also move beyond it after spending 40 years literally in its shadow.

Still, there are countervailing forces between a congregation that wants to design the best site from their point of view, neighbors who might prefer the slightly lower church to be adjacent to their homes, and preservation laws that give historic architectural elements, as this most certainly is, a special legal status.

Riegler promised another meeting in a few weeks to present their early designs for the residential buildings. He and his architectural partner for the residential building, Hickok Cole, will have to find a way to design something that preserves, incorporates, and references old elements while also being very much new.

Ultimately, the church has the right to build on their vacant property, and as long as it's "historically compatible," Riegler has the right to build a 70-foot residential building. For residents who don't want any building here, in particular, this process may require moving through the grieving process to accept that the park will go away, and then working to push for the most attractive design possible.

Zoning


After hearing one-sided talking points against the zoning update, some residents are against the zoning update

This past weekend, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham convened a panel for several members of Committee of 100, a group that is actively organizing to fight DC's zoning update, to speak to residents of the ward. Nobody from the Office of Planning (OP) was a part of the forum, nor was anyone with a different point of view on the panel.


Photo by theunquietlibrary on Flickr.

A gloating press release from the Committee of 100 following the meeting claimed that "Ward 1 Residents Reject Zoning Changes." C100 spokesperson Byron Adams wrote:

The tone of the meeting was set by CM Graham. He pointed out that while the City Council is prohibited from participating in zoning decisions, more time is needed by citizens and elected officials to fully grasp the far-reaching, long-term consequences of OP's proposals.

Apparently Councilmember Graham missed the working group sessions in 2008 and 2009, or the hearings before the Zoning Commission in 2009 and 2010, or the series of meetings OP held in every ward of the city in 2012-2013, or the discussion at the DC Council oversight hearing for OP every year since 2008, or the multiple additional roundtables which Phil Mendelson has held since taking over as chairman, and so on.

We all know there is no housing affordability problem in the District. Clearly, there is no problem with simply putting off any changes year after year ad infinitum.

Adams continued:

Opposition increased as the C100 and the audience discussed the implications of the ZRR, including how developers and speculators were out-bidding potential residents for what are single-family homes and then carving them up to degrade the historic character of these buildings and neighborhoods.

As described by the C100 panel, the OP recommendations would invite creeping commercialization of residential property, including, taller garages and garage apartments, businesses in garages or accessory structures, multiple home occupations, conversion of housing for institutional uses and corner food markets. While making these changes easier, if not "by-right," the ZRR would dramatically decrease the opportunity for public participation, including by Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, in these zoning and land-use decisions.

A straw poll showed virtually unanimous opposition to the ZRR.

Really? When told that this crazy process which has supposedly happened without enough public input, which will "outbid" residents to "degrade the historic character" of neighborhoods, bring "creeping commercialization" and "decrease the opportunity for public participation," people who showed up to learn about the zoning update came away thinking it didn't sound like such a good idea? Really?

It seems that residents did not have a chance to hear about how people who live in houses bigger than they need could share some space with someone else, make a little money, and contribute to the 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units we need to meet demand.

It sounds like they didn't have a chance to have a serious discussion about how to find space for things like daycare for our children or pet care for our furry family members, uses which are already legal in residential areas after a public hearing but which some people at the zoning hearings raised as a specter of "multiple home occupations" and is what it sounds like the C100 panelists might have been talking about.

One C100 member suggested at the November 7th zoning update hearing that people taking care of children in our neighborhoods would damage our residential areas. She said, "Someone in a 2-story house on an 18-foot wide lot would be overwhelmed with the cries of 16 children outside in a daycare or a child development center if he lived in a 3-story area, or the cries of 25 children in a higher area," and went on to also oppose allowing senior living facilities of more than 8 residents.

When asked why he held an event with a panel made entirely of opponents of the zoning update, Graham wrote in an email that it was "just to provide some basic information to folks who largely were not informed." Unfortunately, most likely they are still not informed or are even less well-informed than before.

The Committee of 100 press release concludes by encouraging residents to testify at the Ward 1 and 2 public meeting on February 26. It definitely is important for residents who have actually gotten informed about the zoning update to show up.

C100 is also encouraging people to attend a mayoral forum they have organized on February 25, 6 pm at the First Congregational Church of Christ, 945 G Street NW. That will be a good opportunity to hear most candidates for mayor defend the God-given right for residents of the most exclusive neighborhoods to keep restrictive zoning that ensures their communities don't have to play any part in accommodating our housing needs, can remain devoid of younger people and less wealthy people, and won't be "begrimed" by local food markets or those loud and annoying children.

Development


Harriet Tregoning is leaving the DC Office of Planning

Harriet Tregoning, head of DC's Office of Planning, will step down from her post on February 23 to work for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, DCist reported.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tregoning has been one of the region's leaders around smart growth. She pushed for helping the city grow and locating new housing, jobs, stores, and other amenities where people can easily get to them on foot, bike, and transit.

That she was ready to move on from DC is not much of a surprise. She had been planning director across two administrations, and there had been news reports she was on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's short list to head that city's planning department.

Tregoning made the most headlines for things like pushing to give DC more autonomy around the height limit, but her biggest influence for DC was more behind the scenes. As the mayor's representative on the federal National Capital Planning Commission, the regional Transportation Planning Board, and other bodies, she did a masterful job of working with officials who often don't have the center city's health at heart.

At one of the first NCPC meetings I ever attended, for instance, Tregoning was trying to convince members like Herbert Ames, a George W. Bush appointee who lived in South Carolina, as well as the representatives of the Department of Defense and other agencies, that it really was not a matter of the federal interest whether mechanical penthouses had to be set back from interior courtyards of buildings, a minor point of zoning where NCPC was considering overruling the city's Zoning Administrator.

Tregoning looked to the future, not the past

Tregoning is at her most comfortable when talking about the future, and in fact some described her as "DC's futurist-in-chief." She can cite statistics about the city's demographics, growth, and change to paint a vivid picture of where we are and where we might go. Rather than manage around conditions as they are today, Tregoning would envision where they would be tomorrow, or quoting the famous Wayne Gretzky adage in testimony, "skating to where the puck will be."

Under her leadership, the Office of Planning truly tried to anticipate our future growth and demand, and find ways to match plans and zoning to the city's actual needs. OP promoted aligning parking requirements with not the guesses of 1958 or even the patterns of today but how people will get around in a world of choices such as Zipcar, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, Uber, and more. It supported helping seniors to age in place and potentially repurpose large yet mostly empty single family houses to hold more residents of many generations, as they once did.

Patience meant success but also missed opportunities

Tregoning has an uncommon combination of drive and patience, which is necessary to be effective in government. Some people with a lot of good ideas run up against brick walls and grow frustrated (and, perhaps, even she eventually did.) Others simply content themselves with punching a clock and not rocking the boat, maybe trying to achieve a small amount from time to time but rarely sticking their necks out.

That patience sometimes meant that OP would not take on more difficult tasks. You wouldn't know it from some of the vitriol, but by and large, she worked with many of DC's most affluent and politically powerful neighborhoods to shape changes in a way that would avoid a big fight. When working on the Georgetown campus plan, for instance, OP acceded to many of the requests from neighborhood leaders, sometimes finding a win-win for all, sometimes to reach a suboptimal result like endorsing neighborhood demands to move all undergraduates onto the campus.

The Williams Administration, and former Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, had formulated a plan to make upper Wisconsin Avenue a thriving and walkable commercial corridor like many others around the city instead of a disjointed set of low-slung and dumpy buildings and parking lots. But the blowback from some neighbors was very strong, and many called for removing McCarthy for it.

Tregoning's OP mostly left Wisconsin Avenue alone and focused on areas where the city is going to change much more. That may have been politically wise, but it also meant that the need to house more residents fell disproportionately on changing neighborhoods while established ones got to erect barriers to new people coming in. Likewise, she didn't invest much effort into fixing weaknesses in the city's historic preservation system, which fulfills many important roles but also sometimes becomes a vehicle for lopping a floor off every building regardless of historic merit.

A one-two punch for smart growth in local government

Tregoning is stepping down around the same time as Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. The two are probably the region's greatest voices within government for smart growth. Others will have to step up, or regional decisions like plans from the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board could become a lot less forward-thinking.

The good news is that both Tregoning and Zimmerman are staying in DC while they work on national issues. This certainly means they will remain aware of local developments while at HUD and Smart Growth America (the nonprofit Tregoning's husband Geoff Anderson runs), respectively.

The Gray Administration will have big shoes to fill

Quite a few of Mayor Gray's most meaningful achievements involved Tregoning. Most notably, his ambitious Sustainable DC plan came from a multi-agency process Tregoning led. Without her, it seems very unlikely the District Department of Transportation would have committed to bold targets, like having 50% of trips by transit and 25% by walking and biking by 2032.

If Gray does not win the April 1 primary, then anyone he picks will be a caretaker and most likely very few high-level projects will get done at the Office of Planning. (Certainly the numerous good planners at the department will keep doing their jobs on the many important smaller initiatives, of course.) If Gray does win the renomination, even though he may face a general election fight, it would be reasonable to be thinking about a permanent replacement if he can attract one.

While Gray has hired some excellent people (mostly after his first year in office) and holds a good vision for the future of DC, his administration's record has been lackluster on bringing in dynamic agency heads from outside the city government. More often, he promoted deputies, some of whom were ready for the top job while others seemed lost without strong guidance.

On the other hand, the mayor corrected some early hiring mistakes in his own staff quite effectively. Would he ensure that the next planning director maintains DC's momentum instead of simply giving in to the inevitable opposition to every change?

Update: Tregoning will be Director of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD. She said the job

deals with a lot of the issues I've been really passionate about in Washington: transportation and working clsoely with US DOT; sustainability; urban job creation. I'm getting more and more terrified about what's happening to middle wage jobs, with the income disparities. ... Cities have reflexively squeezed the labor out of transportation and municipal operations for decades without thinking about it, and we have to think about that.

We are having a great conversation about that here in DC around green infrastructure and the Green Rivers plan, or looking at some of the things we've touched on in Sustainable DC. Retrofit of buildings, urban agriculture, sustainable transportation and waste management are all things that could have huge implications for jobs and are things cities need to be investing in.

It sounds like a great fit for her most recent work in DC and her current interests. Best of luck!

Transit


Chevy Chase hires a powerful Congressional chairman's brother to lobby against the Purple Line

In addition to some recent high-profile spins through the revolving door, we now have a new example of ethically questionable influence peddling in Washington: A powerful Congressman's brother working to bring down a transit line in Maryland.


Robert Shuster. Photo from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) wields the gavel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committeea post his father held, with great success, before him. Now Shuster's brother, Robert, has been hired by the town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, to help them oppose the construction of a light-rail line.

The Purple Line concept has been under development since 1989, with the state beginning work in earnest in early 2008. The principal opponent to the line, the Columbia Country Club, has dropped its opposition and promised not to bring any lawsuits as a result of a deal to adjust the route.

The Purple Line has faced countless obstacles and defeated them all. Rep. Shuster's brother now has $20,000 a month of Chevy Chase's taxpayer dollars to try to come up one the transit line can't overcome.

According to the Washington Post, Chevy Chase hired Robert Shuster's law firm last month, so far paying a total of $40,000 for two months. The town council is now deciding whether to move from a month-to-month arrangement to an 18-month contract, still for $20,000 a month.

The Post notes that the firm, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, lists Robert Shuster first as one of four lawyers on the project.

No worries, though: Shuster won't be lobbying. The Post quotes Mayor Pat Burda as saying she didn't even know about the Shuster connection when she first contacted the law firm, and that the town is focused on the Federal Transit Administration, not Congress. She said it in no uncertain terms: "We're not lobbying Congress."

But the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit has found a Congressional lobbying disclosure form from Shuster's firm that "states explicitly that Shuster and his partners are lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate for the Town of Chevy Chase." The form says Shuster and two others will be lobbying on urban development, transportation, and "government issues."

"I do not and will not lobby my brother," Robert Shuster pledged in a statement to the Post. But whether or not Shuster lobbies his brother may be beside the point. A Shuster calling up a member of Congress is going to get his phone call answered, and "in Washington, that's your first goal," said Purple Line advocate Tracey Johnstone.

But what does Chevy Chase seek to get out of Congress anyway? Maryland is in the market for $900 million in federal aid to round out funding for the Purple Line, but they're looking to get it from a New Starts full-funding grant agreement from the FTA, not Congress.

Undoubtedly the town of Chevy Chase, ably represented by the good people at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, will petition the FTA to reject the MTA's request for a New Starts grant. Purple Line opponents always find some legit-sounding reason to block it: endangered amphipods (except, oops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's no problem), impact on a nearby trail, the view from a tony golf course clubhouse. They'll certainly come up with a good story to tell the FTA.

But the lobbying disclosure form makes clear that they'll be taking that message to Congress, too. After all, FTA only makes recommendations for New Starts grants. House and Senate appropriations committees make the final decision.

Sure, that's a different committee from the one the other Shuster heads, but "if you think the appropriations committee isn't checking with the chair of T&I about what they're putting in a New Starts grant, you don't know how Congress works," said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Earmarks were eliminated in MAP-21, and if that ban continues, there would be no place for an explicit Purple Line funding authorization in the next bill. But there are some possibilities for the next bill to have an impact.

First, Congress could go back to earmarks, though it's unlikely. Second, Congress could make it clear, outside of bill language, that the region is expected to use its urbanized area formula grant money on the Purple Linethough that's a tough demand to make without offering new money. Third, Congress could underfund New Starts altogether, which is entirely possible and even likely, which could hobble the agency's ability to fund the Purple Line. Or, fourth, Congress could slip an amendment into the bill that targets the Purple Linerequiring more studies on endangered amphipods, for example.

Either way, it never hurts to have friends in high places in Washington.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog DC.

Development


Chevy Chase digs in its heels to fight the Purple Line

After almost 30 years, the pieces are finally falling into place to build the Purple Line. But as it decides whether to keep fighting the project, will the Town of Chevy Chase see the writing on the wall?


Protesters at a Purple Line event last year. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

This week, the Maryland Transit Administration narrowed down the list of private partners to help build and operate the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. But on Wednesday night, Chevy Chase held a public hearing about whether to spend $360,000 on legal representation to keep fighting the Purple Line, which passes through it for a half-mile.

During the hearing, residents of the affluent town of less than 3,000 people debated the merits of continuing to fight a project that even opponents admit is basically a done deal. Matilde Farren compared the Town Council to change-resistant aristocrat Lord Grantham on the TV show "Downton Abbey." "Trying to keep our town the way it was in the '20s is not realistic," she said. "Times change and we must too."

Residents worried about sound barriers, small shrimp

The Federal Transit Administration could approve Maryland's environmental impact study for the Purple Line in a few weeks, making it eligible for federal funding. Once it's approved, the town will have 150 days to file a lawsuit.

Chevy Chase will probably argue that the MTA hasn't done enough to mitigate the Purple Line's impacts on the town. Some trees will have to be cut down on the Purple Line's route along the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight line that was converted to a trail in the 1980s with the expectation that transit would follow. And some of the 30 or so houses that back to the trail might have to get sound barriers or retaining walls.

Meanwhile, parents are concerned about losing an at-grade crossing at Lynn Drive that students use to walk to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, though the town's been unwilling to consider an underpass there. And environmentalists have taken up the fight for a small, endangered shrimp-like creature in Rock Creek Park that's actually never been seen near the Purple Line route.

Town would rather hire lawyers than talk to MTA

It's not like the MTA isn't willing to listen. There have been meetings and public hearings about the Purple Line and its earlier iteration under Governor Bob Ehrlich, the Bi-County Transitway, for over a decade. Even the Columbia Country Club, which straddles the trail and has historically been the Purple Line's biggest opponent, agreed last year to lay down their guns and work with them.

MTA officials have been communicating with Chevy Chase's Mitigation Advisory Committee since 2009. But town officials haven't spoken to the MTA in months.

Instead, the town has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to fight the project, including over $430,000 to consultant Sam Schwartz to study alternatives to routing the Purple Line through Chevy Chase and a subsequent review of the state's plans. More recently, it hired law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in December and will decide on a longer-term arrangement next month.

At the hearing, some residents were prepared to spend more. Doug Kammerer, a meteorologist for NBC4 whose house backs to the trail, compared not hiring a lawyer this time to "entering a fight without a boxer."

A "self-centered" town

Chevy Chase previously considered suing the MTA to block the project in 2009 before deciding not to, which came up multiple times during the hearing. "4 years ago we fought this battle," said Jacob Bardin. "We lost something in those years. If we continue this antagonistic view we'll lose more." Bardin was one of fourteen citizens who wrote an open letter to local officials in 2008 decrying the town council's "self-centered" behavior.

The town seems to be digging in its heels. Recently-elected councilman John Bickerman vowed to "find a way to defeat" the Purple Line and its supporters, and this last-ditch effort appears to be his attempt to do so.

But more residents on both sides of the issue are recognizing how bad this fight makes Chevy Chase look. Many speakers at the hearing noted that this effort wasn't about killing the Purple Line, but finding the best solution for their town.

"To say we are going to take a step [hiring a lawyer] does not mean we're going to oppose the Purple Line," testified Rolf Sinclair. "We do run the risk for a lot of efforts to squash our attempts at this...people are opposing something that will benefit the working people of PG [County]."

Transit


Montgomery may cut Wisconsin Ave BRT line off from DC

Tomorrow, it's likely that the Montgomery County Council's transportation committee will approve a Bus Rapid Transit line along the high-density Route 355 corridor. But Council staff is recommending it end at Bethesda instead of at the District line in Friendship Heights.


Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

The county's BRT plan has progressed through the committee over the last few weeks. Committee members have voted to approve BRT lines on Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road, University Boulevard, and New Hampshire Avenue. They also voted to keep a line along Route 29, which has high ridership but faces neighborhood opposition.

Tomorrow, the committee will discuss the 355 corridor between Friendship Heights and Clarksburg, arguably the most promising route for high-quality, center-running BRT given its existing high population density and coming development at places like White Flint. The Planning Department estimates that BRT could have 44,000 daily riders in 2040, the highest of all 10 proposed corridors.

But we learned today that Council staff is calling for the 355 line to end at Bradley Boulevard in downtown Bethesda instead. Neighbors along this section of Wisconsin Avenue oppose this segment due to concerns about BRT threatening pedestrian safety and impacts to the median and right-of-way. The plan proposes wider sidewalks and an improved pedestrian environment, while recommending no changes to the median or street width.


BRT along Route 355. Montgomery County may eliminate the section in blue. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Cutting short this key route will sever an important transit connection between Montgomery County and DC, which will put more cars on the road and make both Bethesda and Friendship Heights less competitive locations for business. That's why a variety of supporters of the plan from the Friendship Heights area want the line to extend south and bring more transit options for their area, including Chevy Chase Land Company and JBG, both property owners in Friendship Heights, the Friendship Heights Transportation Management District Advisory Committee, and Ward 3 Vision in DC.

While admittedly a long way off, someday there could be a Rapid Transit line from Georgetown all the way up Wisconsin to Friendship Heights and beyond, connecting a high density corridor not currently served by Metro. But that's only possible if Montgomery County is willing to continue BRT to the DC line.

So far the Council's transportation committee has voted to extend dedicated lanes for BRT to the DC line on other key corridors, including New Hampshire Avenue, Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, and Colesville Road. This will help thousands of commuters on packed DC-Maryland Metrobus lines like the S, K and 70.

This is a positive precedent that reflects the interconnectedness of our region, and allows for good transit options between jurisdictions. To that end, it's important that Montgomery County keeps BRT on 355 between Bethesda and Friendship Heights. You can let the County Council know how significant this connection is by sending them an email using this form.

Development


Fight over 5333 Connecticut reveals dysfunctional process

After decades of fighting, work began last month on a new residential building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. While neighbors had few good reasons to oppose it, the project embodies the loopholes developers use in DC's patchwork of building regulations and zoning.


The site before construction began. Photo by the author.

The 261-unit building has long been approved as matter-of-right. It will not be a great building, but it is legal, and further appeals from residents to stop construction will only reduce their credibility in the future. Elaborate delay tactics will only reduce developers' willingness to cooperate with them.

On the other hand, the opponents' objections do reveal how Calvin Cafritz Enterprises designed the building to be as large as possible, using a thorough knowledge of DC's regulations. Architects Eric Colbert and Associates employed clever interpretations of what constitutes a "cellar," adding living space beyond the site's allowed density. The building's height was determined using the most favorable location of measurement.

However, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition doesn't simply want these irregularities fixed, they want a smaller building. They want a smaller building because they believe the effects of density will "harm" their community. They claim that added activity, reduced sunlight, and reduced tree canopy will degrade their quality of life.

Instead of looking for creative solutions to minor problems, they have chosen to fight the building itself. Rather than promoting uniform regulation across the city, opponents are using legal objections as easy tools to prevent a permissible project.

Recognizing that they have no legal standing, the majority of the ANC commissioners negotiated a memorandum of understanding that stipulated a number of design improvements for energy use and multimodalism. The four commissioners who voted for it were those closest to the project. The three who worked on the memorandum of understanding represented the areas that were most directly affected. The dissenting commissioners were in the suburban part of ANC3G, east of Broad Branch Road.

Despite the negotiations, opponents went ahead to protest the building at the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Given that there is no evidence that what Cafritz and Colbert have planned is illegal, the BZA should dismiss the complaints out of hand to avoid setting a precedent whereby the affluent and the influential preserve the narrow, short-term interests of their property at the expense of the rest of the city.

Opponents' case looks good at first, but lacks depth

With a little digging, it becomes clear that the 5333 CNC has no case against the building.

The project uses two sides of the building to calculate the height, a standard practice explicitly permitted by the Height of Buildings Act. Height must be measured from the existing elevation of the curb across from the middle of the mass of the front of building and height is determined by the width of the wider of the two streets it abuts.

Kanawha is narrower, but it is also at a higher elevation. Using the longstanding interpretation of the law, the Cafritz organization declared the Kanawha side the "front" and gained a few extra feet of height.

Opponents use a document from the Zoning Update process to show that this approach is unpopular but elide that the zoning update closes this idiosyncrasy in section 502.3, defining the height as originating from the midpoint of the facade that is closest to the lot line.

They further claim that the roof deck is 1.73 feet above the legal height because of how the development team calculates the Kanawha street frontage. The permitting calculations include portions of the facade of the longer, Military Road wing visible from Kanawha Street. The developer's midpoint is about 50' to the east, and 1.73 feet higher in natural elevation, allowing for the building to be that much taller.

A plain reading of the regulation suggests that this is permissible, if kind of tacky. Perhaps the regulation should be rewritten. Either way, the developer conceded this issue in the MOU, and will lower the building.


Site plan showing building mass, disputed frontage and measuring points.

A similarly shrewd, but legal, reading of code adds habitable spaces in a "cellar story" that does not add to the official FAR. Regulations distinguish "cellars" from "basements," where a basement is simply below the entry floor, and a cellar is a space whose ceilings are no more than four feet above the adjacent grade.

The architect designed the finished grade to hide a string of apartments along Military Road, but also excavated an full-height window well in front of them. This "areaway" also appears in the interior courtyard, projecting into berms in the central courtyard.

DC classifies areaways and parking vaults as projections from the building, and every story of a sub-grade projection is considered independently of all others. Therefore, their claim that the berms around the areaways are "planters" is at some level correct, but not according to the regulations.

I agree with the opponents that this common interpretation of the regulation is sneaky. The city should revisit this regulation, not because density is bad, but because it is opaque to the public.


North-South Section showing disputed projections

The final legal challenge in the opponents' BZA testimony is that the Military Road wing of the building extends beyond the plot of land zoned as R-5-D by 40 feet. A 1965 amendment extended the zoning of the plot to a length of 290 feet on Military. The zoning maps in 1966 and 1973 show this number. For some reason, from 1975-2003, the numerical description of the zoning plat appears as 251'. The graphical description of the lot remains the same, following the existing alley.


Changes in the zoning plat 1958-1984

Neither side can find why the number was changed. Cafritz's lawyer claims that it is a misreading of the lettering of the 5/9, which I find unconvincing. Opponents have no better case, claiming without proof that the ZC wanted to prevent inappropriate growth and so changed it. The current, digital zoning map shows the current line ending at the alley, as consistent with all maps since 1966.

The opponents' limited familiarity with development issues extends beyond legal practices and into architecture. In response to the MOU, opponents write that they are for "practical, modest changes that would not require wholesale redesign," including shifting the mass towards Connecticut Avenue and creating a "buffer zone."

However, re-masssing a building is a redesign at a fundamental level. Foundations, floor structure, column placement, parking spaces, circulation routes, apartment layout, pipe routing, curtainwall drawings, and even the landscaping plan would have to be redone. Other than a few design motifs, there isn't much work left to save.

By suggesting that their objections are simple, legitimate, and simply resolved, opponents are disguising their desire to have as little built on the site as possible. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up this much of a fight over less than two feet of height and a cellar.

Fighting a legal building discourages collaboration in growth

The majority of the legal objections are in response to loopholes that will be resolved by the update of the zoning code initiated under Harriet Tregoning. The other dubious interpretations should be resolved uniformly across the city. It is unfair to reject these rules in this case specifically when so many other projects have employed them.

It's not fair to other communities if this building is an exception. Closing loopholes would benefit the city by making the development process more predictable for the public.

Tellingly, the opponents of 5333 Connecticut do not want to resolve these regulatory flukes. At a September 15th meeting, Peter Gosselin, one of the 5333 CNC's leaders specifically said he would not ask for city-wide change to any of their complaints.

More locally, all of the objections could be resolved by removing one floor of the building. They are not asking for that either. The 5333 CNC are asking for the Cafritz team to come back and negotiate for their own property on the neighbors' terms.

The developer was under no legal obligation to engage the community. But that does not mean that they shouldn't have. In an ideal world, developers should go into communities in a transparent and open-ended way.

New projects often alter the dynamics of neighborhoods, and developers should work with communities to make a new building amplify the value new residents bring while minimizing the negatives through walkability and sensitive design. Similarly, neighbors should recognize the need for a city to grow and respect others' property rights.

With that in mind, I can't blame the Cafritz organization for not asking permission. The strife over this project is part of long-term context of opposing development through extremely effective legal means. Whether it is the lawsuits that delayed the Cathedral Commons project for ten years or the defeat of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study through lobbying, the neighborhood has shown that it has the means to oppose legal changes.

If I were a developer, I would choose the least complicated permitting option and hire an architect who can get me the most out of the zoning envelope. In other words, I would build matter-of-right and hire Eric Colbert.

The process for this building has proceeded so poorly because Upper Northwest's anti-development groups have consistently punished developers without providing guidelines that are commensurate with the demographic realities of 21st-century Washington. Even when developers try to work with neighbors, as at the Akridge and Babe's projects, they have faced stiff anti-urbanism groups. Now, a dangerous cross between the cost of collaboration and the desirability of the land ensures that development in Upper Northwest will proceed without community input for the forseeable future.

In the current political climate, only large developers, working with the government can handle the risks of Upper Northwest. That is the reality a handful of vocal opponents have earned multiple neighborhoods.

The only way out is for residents to take a broader perspective towards the issues a growing city faces, and propose a vision for development that integrates new residents and buildings into a diverse city. It is up to citizens to begin that kind of planning.

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