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Posts about Anti Neighbors


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.


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.


After 3-year fight, work starts on Silver Spring townhouses

In 2010, local builder EYA made a deal with a private school to buy their Silver Spring campus and build townhouses there. After a three-year battle with the neighborhood association, construction has finally begun.

Bus ad for the new Chelsea Heights development in downtown Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

Workers are busy clearing the five-acre site on Pershing Drive, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. Eventually, there will be 63 townhomes, including 8 moderately-priced units for low-income households, and a restored, 150-year-old farmhouse, which will be sold as a single-family home.

Over the past week, ads for the new development, dubbed Chelsea Heights, appeared on bus stops around downtown Silver Spring. It's named for the Chelsea School, a special-needs institution that sold its home of 36 years and recently moved to Hyattsville. But getting here wasn't easy.

Long and contentious history

Chelsea first announced their plans to sell the school to EYA in 2010 and move closer to their students in Prince George's County. But a group of neighbors in the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association (SOECA) were unhappy with EYA's proposal, then called Chelsea Court.

They claimed that townhomes didn't belong in a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes. The County Council allowed EYA to build townhouses if they reduced the number of units from 77 to 64.

Neighbors persisted, suing the county and later hiring a consultant who claimed that the project would violate state and county environmental laws. Both claims were dismissed, and the Planning Board approved the project in April with requirements that EYA provide more parking and restrict turns into the development to discourage through traffic.

It's about time this got built

It's not unusual for new development in existing communities to be controversial. Writing about the lost battle against a new apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently noted, people generally like their neighborhoods the way they are, and are often suspicious of plans to change it.

Construction at the Chelsea Heights site.

But there are so many reasons why infill development in Silver Spring is good for those neighborhoods and for the region as a whole. Chelsea Heights will place 64 new households within a short walk of transit, local shops and restaurants, and other amenities, reducing their need to drive and bolstering the local economy.

It reduces the pressure to build on the region's fringe, while providing housing where it's most wanted. These $700,000 townhouses aren't affordable to most people, myself included, but they'll help make the area more affordable by growing the housing supply.

This project has been a long time coming, and I'm glad to see it finally come to fruition.


DDOT tries to fill gap in 11th Street bike lanes

ANC1B asked DDOT to explore ways to fill a gap in the 11th Street NW bike lane between Florida and Vermont avenues and held a meeting Thursday to talk about it. Many neighbors along 11th Street are strongly opposed to the bike lanes, primarily because it would require removing about 30 parking spaces.

Alternative 1. Image from DDOT.

DDOT also provided information about crashes along the section of 11th Street. Officials reported that there were more crashes on that section of 11th than on similar sections of 10th and 12th streets. When asked who was to blame, DDOT representatives noted that some of the crashes were due to cyclists running stop signs, but many more were from right hooks or doorings.

DDOT presented 4 alternatives. In Alternative 1, parking would be taken out on the east side and replaced with a one-way buffered bike lane going north. Alternative 3 was much the same, except the parking was replaced with larger lanes in each direction, each with sharrows down the middle.

Alternative 2 did not remove parking, but it did change 11th to a one-way, one-lane street with bike lanes in each direction. This would require rerouting buses and much more analysis. Alternative 4 replaced the east side parking with a two-way cycletrack down the center. This would require cyclists to move to the left to get into the cycletrack on one end and to the right to get out of it at the other.

Alternative 4. Image from DDOT.

Opposition mostly centered around removing the parking. "I am opposed to removing any parking at all. Period," said one woman. "11th Street is too narrow for two-way traffic and bikes" another added. Many of these same critics sought other, less intrusive, options.

One suggestion was to reroute cyclists instead of buses. "You could remove the bike lanes from where they are now and move them to another street," said a speaker. "There's room on 13th."

DDOT transportation planner Jim Sebastian replied that bikes have a right to the street. "There's bikes on every street and, where ever we can, we put bike lanes in," he said. "It would be almost impossible to reroute bikes because they're legal on every street and they use every street. They're going to go where they're going to go. There isn't room on 13th and if there were, we would put bike lanes there also because we have bikes on every street in this area."

Audience suggestions included signs, enforcement, education, rumble strips, bicycle priority lights, and lower speed limits. Some audience members suggested a two-way cycletrack like on 15th Street, and center bike lanes like on Pennsylvania Ave NW. Others suggested continuous green shared lanes, which are shown to have limited effectiveness, though a study in California finds they reduce bicycle crashes.

Sebastian agreed that there were many options, but pointed out that the best success is found when engineering, education and enforcement were all used. DDOT did shoot down one suggestion for reversible, rush-hour traffic lanes because, as a matter of policy, the agency is moving away from that kind of design.

In addition to complaining about the loss of parking, many complained about scofflaw cycling behavior. One person criticized DC for allowing sidewalk cycling, which is legal on this stretch, and told stories about the one time they saw a tourist on a bike cut off a bus. Sebastian noted that adding bike lanes has been found to discourage sidewalk cycling. The committee chair tried to direct the conversation away from this issue, since DDOT was the wrong agency to deal with it.

The committee chair wanted to have a vote on a preference among one of the existing proposals, but ANC 1B02 representative Jeremy Leffler argued that any vote on the issue needed to be postponed. "We have too many issues with parking, so taking 30-40 spaces away is just a non-starter," said Leffler. "Any option is going to have to not effect parking."

Leffler complained that cyclists coming down 11th Street don't stop at the stop signs, but motorists do and so this committee needs to talk with the Public Safety Committee and the MPD before proceeding.

When asked to give a show of hands, 13 out of 25 people opposed removing parking. Leffler suggested that only people who live on 11th Street should vote. Had that actually happened, it might have showed that the only people who wanted to retain their parking were those who live on 11th.

In the end, the ANC decided to send DDOT back to the drawing board and to discuss it again at the end of September. Leffler also wanted to invite abutting ANCs and more ANC 1B representatives to the next meeting.

"The problem is not ANC 1B people, it's the people coming out of Columbia Heights, going 40mph, joyriding into our community and not stopping," he said.

A version of this post appeared at The WashCycle.



This parody flyer recently appeared on a San Francisco street, but could almost apply verbatim to most DC-area debates over road spaceGlover Park's median, the M Street cycletrack, and many more.


    SAVE MASONIC!!! Don't let the UN make San Francisco a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT EXPERIMENT! THEY WANT TO TAKE YOUR CAR AWAY! Did you know that besides countless meetings, mailers and community outreach the SFMTA is trying to SNEAK IN a redesign of Masonic Ave to MAKE IT SAFE FOR ALL USERS?? This is an OUTRAGE! Sure we skipped all the meetings and didn't read the mailers but AUTOMOBILE PRIORITY UBER ALLES!!!

    Despite a number of crashes, deaths and accidents, this street is TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY SAFE! Shout down and talk over anyone who disagrees with you and your made up FACTS!

    Don't let the BIG LIE* that over 700 people have been hit by cars in the past year in San Francisco fool you! MASONIC is as safe as a kittens belly fur!
    90% of the people who agree with us and the FACTS THAT WE JUST MADE UP SUPPORT OUR CONCLUSIONS!! RAGE CAPS!!!

    A FLOOD of frustrated drivers whose trip now takes 5 minutes and 15 seconds instead of just 5 minutes will go on a KILLING SPREE!!! YOU MAY BE THEIR NEXT VICTIM!!! LIKE SUDDEN IMPACT! YOU WILL BE IMPACTED! ALL DAY EVERY DAY! Analogous to what happens when a speeding automobile strikes you when you are crossing the road.

    Write letters as though you have a fifth grade education! Grammar be DAMNED! WE KNOW the County Stoopid-visors are doing this TO YOU because GREED! Their evil intent, their INSIDIOUSNESS and MEAN-SPIRITEDNESS is matched only by that of... THE CYCLISTS!!


    Keep the dream of the 1950's alive! EVERY ROAD IS A HIGHWAY! TEA PARTY FOR LIFE!!! Are you a lawyer? Do you know one that wants to work for free? Perhaps for a bunch of shrill, hysterical crybabies over forty? Why should cyclists and pedestrians ever feel "comfortable" near cars? What gives them that right?? ENTITLEMENT!!! ARRORGANCE!!!

    YOU DESERVE UNLIMITED FREE PARKING! IT'S NOT FAIR!!! MORE RAGE CAPS!!! THROW yourself on the floor! Spin around! Pitch a TANTRUM! People in cars should never have to compromise or share! It's the AMERICAN WAY! You're not a Communist, are you???

    Do you have your own anecdote about a cyclist being rude? Present it as DATA! Did a pedestrian hold you up for five seconds? Were you MAD that YOU had to WAIT? Tell the area representatives! Raise your voice! Shout at them! Get screechy! So the SFMTA has "engineers" who hold "Masters Degrees" and "Professional Certificates"<wbr>—<wbr>do not be fooled! YOUR IDEAS ABOUT TRAFFIC ENGINEERING ARE JUST AS GOOD AS THEIRS!

    *source SFPD

The San Francisco MTA is trying to modify Masonic Avenue to add bike lanes and trees and calm traffic, a plan that the local neighborhood association supports, Uppercasing reports (via Streetsblog).

But angry residents have posted flyers objecting to losing parking spaces and other complaints, which the parody flyer mocks:

Do you have your own anecdote about a cyclist being rude? Present it as DATA! Did a pedestrian hold you up for five seconds? Were you MAD that YOU had to WAIT? Tell the area representatives! Raise your voice!


Why DDOT chose no cycletrack for one block of M Street

If a church needs 3 of 4 lanes on a street for parking on Sundays, what's better: shrink down a planned cycletrack to a basic painted bike lane, or allow parking in the cycletrack some of the time?

No Parking signs at Metropolitan AME. Photo from Google Maps.

The long-awaited and much-delayed east-west protected bike lane, or "cycletrack," will finally go in on M Street, NW in October, but without protection for cyclists on one block. Many residents have been quite angry at the sudden change.

I spoke to Sam Zimbabwe, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Associate Director for Policy, Planning, and Sustainability (which includes the bicycle program). He provided some more details on why he and his group made the decision they did.

There isn't room to preserve all of the Sunday on-street parking on the block and add a cycletrack. Therefore, one of four things would have to happen:

  1. The block loses a significant amount of parking and flexibility, which particularly affects the church.
  2. People can park in the cycletrack on Sundays and during midday funerals.
  3. The cycletrack becomes just a classic painted bike lane.
  4. DDOT moves the tree boxes and completely rebuilds the north side sidewalks to create a sidewalk-level bike lane at much larger cost.

Zimbabwe and his team chose #3. If #1 were indeed politically infeasible, the question remains whether they were right to choose #3 over #2, or not.

The street today

M Street, NW between 15th and 16th has 90 feet from building to building, with 40 feet between curbs. Today, the road striping divides it into four 10-foot lanes. At rush hour, all four are ostensibly regular travel lanes, while parking is allowed at other times.

Current M Street cross-section. All diagrams by the author with StreetMix.

Metropolitan AME rents spaces in nearby garages on Sundays, but still uses a lot of on-street space for parking. The north side allows parallel parking, and the south side becomes diagonal parking on Sundays until 2 pm.

Current Sunday cross-section. (StreetMix doesn't have a module for diagonal parking, so this shows perpendicular parking. The actual parking is back-in head-out diagonal parking.)

On weekdays, the church sometimes has funerals where people double park in front of the church, and events where large tour buses full of people arrive. Buses need to let off on the north side of the street. If this doesn't happen against the curb, it would block a travel lane.

Can a cycletrack fit?

A cycletrack is at least 8 feet wide, according to Zimbabwe5 feet for the bike lane and a 3-foot buffer. On other blocks of M Street that have a similar width, DDOT will remove the parking on the south side (right side of these diagrams) and put full-time parking on the north (left) side, adjacent to the cycletrack. (At the corners, there will instead be mixing zones.)

Standard cross-section of 40-foot parts of M Street with cycletrack.

If this block used the same design, then the church would not be able to have diagonal parking on Sundays, or much on-street parking at all for weekday funerals.

People could park in the cycletrack

How can the parking remain? In May, bicycle planners showed some concept designs, like one that had perpendicular parking in the cycletrack on Sundays. Or, DDOT could put the parking on the south side of the street, which has the advantage of being in front of the church rather than across the street, and allow parallel parking in the cycletrack.

Potential design with perpendicular parking in the cycletrack. Image from DDOT.

Zimbabwe said he decided against this option because it could set a precedent of parking in cycletracks. Already, many people park in L Street's cycletrack, especially delivery trucks. Other institutions may similarly ask to use cycletracks for parking at certain days and times, maybe even during special weekday events.

Philadelphia lets people park in bike lanes on Sundays, also to accommodate churches. But as that link explains, that practice has then spread to Saturdays for weddings and other times.

Or, give the cycletrack a gap

The bicycle planners have chosen to give this one block a painted bike lane instead of a cycletrack. That's certainly a significant step down from the project's promise to construct a continuous cycletrack from Thomas Circle to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Proposed cross-section for this block of M, normally (top) and Sunday until 2 pm (bottom).

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is one (fairly short) block on a cycletrack that will be 1.4 miles long. Right now, there is no bike lane at all, and even with this change, the road will have a bicycle facility and fewer travel lanes for the project's whole length. He believes this is still a big step forward with just a small compromise.

However, just as he worried about the precedent of parking in the cycletrack, advocates worry that excusing one block from the cycletrack also sets a precedent. Shane Farthing of WABA told Martin Di Caro, "I'm concerned that if we start allowing individual private, adjacent landowners to essentially opt out of public transportation projects, we are starting to allow private convenience to trump public safety."

Another former DDOT official agreed with this concern. The agency will be planning other cycletracks, bike lanes, bus lanes, streetcars, and other transportation projects across the city. Some of those will pass by churches and other community institutions. This experience could well encourage other such organizations to try to reduce or eliminate any changes to their own blocks.

What about a sidewalk-level cycletrack?

Darren Buck suggested raising the cycletrack to sidewalk height and placing it between the parked cars and the sidewalk:

Photo by bikepedantic on Twitter.

Many other cities around the world do this. Here is one in Vancouver:

Photo by unk's dump truck on Flickr.

A painted bike lane is usually 5 feet wide. That puts cyclists in the door zone for cars, which isn't so good. Just moving a 5-foot bike lane to the other side of parked cars still leaves it in the door zone, plus if someone opens a door, the cyclist can't even ride away from the cars since the curb is there. That's why DDOT adds a 3-foot buffer between parking and its cycletracks.

But if the bike lane can be at sidewalk height, people might still be riding in the door zone, but that's no worse than on the painted bike lane. Here, if a door is in the way, the cyclist can ride away from traffic, toward the pedestrians, instead.

However, Zimbabwe said, this would be much more expensive, since DDOT would have to reconstruct the sidewalks and curbs along the north side of M. The curb cuts to garages would need changes, too, to stay at sidewalk height farther into the roadway before ramping down.

Plus, there would still be other obstacles on the sidewalk side of the bike lane, especially the tree boxes, but also parking meters and signs. That means cyclists wouldn't always have room to go around open car doors and other obstacles.

An even better approach would be to move the tree boxes and parking meters toward the current roadway, and build the bike lane on the sidewalk side of the trees and meters and other things. That means replacing the trees, but there aren't any really large trees on this block.

The big obstacle is cost. This solution would cost about $1 million, compared to a cost of $210,000 for the entire bike lane project, Zimbabwe said. And there's certainly no way to build that this year.

What's the right call?

Certainly DDOT could also have pushed to remove parking instead. Zimbabwe explained that the church was initially entirely opposed to any sort of bike lane, and by engaging with church leaders and members over the last few months, that position has softened. Plus, any bike lane is today just an abstract notion; when a real bike lane is in the ground, Zimbabwe thinks all parties may think a little differently about the issue.

Meanwhile, DDOT plans to study whether the missing block deters cyclists who might otherwise use M Street, and look at whether more people ride on the sidewalk on this block than elsewhere. Zimbabwe and his team made clear to the church that if this design doesn't work, they may make changes, even if that means less parking.

If we assume that less parking were't an option for now, Zimbabwe and his team picked the bad precedent of having only a painted bike lane for one block in the middle of a cycletrack, instead of the bad precedent of allowing Sunday parking in the cycletrack.

Maybe that's the right call, or maybe not. Many commenters on our earlier post disagreed, like Darren Buck. Regardless of DDOT's decision, this seems like a bigger policy question for future cycletracks as well. It would be good for the bicycle planners to engage with cyclists to discuss this question.

What do you think? Make a choice on the poll below, then give your detailed thoughts in the comments.


Black box theater, public plaza coming to Virginia Square

Arlington's Virginia Square neighborhood is a relatively quiet counterpoint to its busier neighbors, Ballston and Clarendon. But that may soon change as a black box theater, public plaza, and new cultural space come to the area as part of 2 private developments.

Concept plan for Quincy Plaza from the Project for Public Spaces.

Today, Virginia Square is a mix of apartment buildings and 1-story commercial strips, along with George Mason University's Law School and the former headquarters of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Virginia Square Metro station has the fewest average weekday boardings of the 5 Rosslyn-Ballston corridor Metro stations. This is a great opportunity to take advantage of an underutilized station and provide more amenities for existing residents.

Last winter, Arlington County approved a 9-story office building at 3901 Fairfax Drive, which is home to the now-demolished Arlington Funeral Home and a parking lot for a nearby Mercedes dealership. The building would have ground-floor shops, a black box theater, which the county would lease for 30 years, and a public plaza. Developer BDC Crimson LLC will seek LEED Gold certification for the building, according to an Arlington County press release.

This project will also include a public plaza located on Quincy Drive between Fairfax Drive and 10th Street. It's a departure from the rest of 10th Street, which is lined by parking lots and loading docks. By leading people to the Arlington Central LIbrary and Quincy Park, reinforcing its role as Arlington's "Central Park".

It's expected that work on the new plaza and office building will begin some time this year. While they'll be a positive addition to the neighborhood, other proposed developments have been more controversial. Neighbors aren't happy with a proposed apartment building across from the entrance to the Virginia Square Metro station on Fairfax Drive. They say the property, currently home to a bank and a building with martial arts and dance studios, should remain commercial.

Rendering of the proposed Latitude Apartments from Arlington County.

Developer Penrose proposes building a 12-story, 256-unit apartment tower called the Latitude Apartments. The building would have 5,600 square feet of ground-floor retail space and another 2,000 square feet of space for cultural or educational uses. Penrose would place retail on Fairfax Drive and 10th Street, adding sidewalk activity and "eyes on the street" to both streets.

However, the site is currently zoned for commercial uses, and Penrose wants to change it to mixed-use zoning. Residents of the Monroe, a condominium building across the street, issued a statement last month saying that the Virginia Square Sector Plan specifically calls for office space at that location. They claim that apartments would upset the balance of uses in Virginia Square while exacerbating parking concerns.

It's unclear what will happen to this project for now. According to ARLnow, the county has deferred making a decision about rezoning and will likely not pick it up again until November.

This post was edited to reflect that DARPA is no longer located in Virginia Square and that the Arlington Funeral Home has been demolished.


Is caving on parking minimums a smart move?

On Friday, DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced she's giving into yet another demand from zoning update opponents: to reduce rather than eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas outside downtown. Will this smooth the path forward for the remaining provisions, or only put other progressive changes at risk?

Photo by Blue Mountains Local Studies on Flickr.

Until last week, the Office of Planning (OP)'s plan was to eliminate parking minimums downtown and along corridors with Metro, streetcar, or high-frequency bus lines. Low-density neighborhoods of detached houses, and even moderate density neighborhoods of smaller row houses, would have retained minimums, though not for buildings of 10 units and fewer.

Now, only the highest density "downtown" neighborhoods, including developing centers like NoMA and the ballpark area, would have no parking minimums. Elsewhere, the minimums for multifamily residential will be 1 space per 3 units away from transit, and half that near transit, Tregoning explained.

Instead of exempting buildings up to 10 units, the new proposal only exempts buildings up to 4 units, and in "single-family" neighborhoods, even a single-family home will require a parking space unless it has no alley access. That means that nobody will have to put in a driveway curb cut for a single-family house, but might have to pave over a backyard even where street parking is plentiful.

In addition, property owners will be able to apply for an easier "special exception" to further reduce or waive parking minimums, rather than the tougher variance standard in effect now.

There is one significant step forward: OP had previously said that parking minimum changes (outside downtown) wouldn't go into effect if and when the zoning update won approval. Instead, there would be another, subsequent process to "map" the transit zones in each neighborhood. That would likely have led to years more of acrimony.

Instead, Tregoning said, OP now proposes to simply write rules so that the half-as-strict parking minimum rule automatically kicks in for properties within ½ mile of a Metro station or ¼ mile of a streetcar line or designated WMATA priority bus corridor. (I forgot to ask, but hopefully Circulator lines will also qualify.)

That means that if the Zoning Commission approves the plan, property owners near transit could see less onerous requirements more quickly than when there was going to be a mapping phase. While this is a step forward, OP could always have used this formula to define areas with no parking minimums at all. This didn't have to go hand in hand with retaining minimums.

This change isn't the right policy; it's just a political choice

There's no doubt the zoning update has engendered fierce debate. It's a constant topic of heated argument on neighborhood listservs, particularly in neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and Cleveland Park. A small group of opponents, almost all from west of Rock Creek Park, have shown up at hearings over 5 years to object to nearly every change of any kind.

From Tregoning's statements to the press, it's clear she's made the change in order to appease opponents, not because she's actually convinced keeping parking minimums is the better policy. She told Aaron Wiener at the Washington City Paper that abolishing requirements "was really wigging people out," and Mike Debonis at the Post quoted her saying, "A lot of people were very, very concerned with the concept of no parking minimums."

She also told DeBonis, "I'm not an ideologue. I'm very practical. The practical effect is not very different." That may be true in most cases, though it still means some owners will build garages they know aren't necessary, simply to avoid asking for zoning relief.

But the practical effect will be very different if the DC Zoning Commission further waters down the proposal before giving it final approval. Tregoning and associate director Jennifer Steingasser promised to transmit proposal to the commission by July 29. The commission, a hybrid federal-local body, has the final say on the plans, and can change them or ask OP to revise them in any way.

Opponents will pressure the Zoning Commission to scale back any changes, and there will be a strong temptation at least in the minds of some commissioners to shrink any proposal that meets substantial opposition. Had OP continued to propose eliminating minimums, the commission might have decided to keep some but reduce them. Now that OP set a new baseline of only reducing minimums, the commission may well decide to reduce them somewhat less.

Tregoning says she thinks the most recent change will appease some opponents, though some are blasting the new plan almost as vehemently. Chevy Chase resident and stalwart zoning update foe Sue Hemberger called the new proposal "repackaging [the] same anti-car policy." Alma Gates told Mike Debonis she's "not sure [the change] goes far enough," and DeBonis paraphrased Juliet Six saying she thinks the move "was calibrated to create an illusion of consensus."

The Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning have caved once again on parking minimums.

Retreat after retreat, and for what?

Why would this change engender any greater harmony, when OP has watered down its proposals several times in the last 5 years, never to any effect? Intransigence has paid off for those who opposed the zoning update since day one. They have managed to delay the update by at least a year, and bully the Office of Planning into successive rounds of scaling back.

OP has cut the fat, then the muscle, and now the bone from its plans. In 2008, the zoning update team was talking about eliminating all parking minimums and even establishing maximums. Travis Parker, the head of the update at the time, decided to leave in some minimums only in commercial corridors far from transit, because opponents say parking is most needed in those areas. Later, OP decided not to push forward on maximums.

When Parker moved to Colorado and Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser took over, she backed off further by promising to delay lower minimums around transit until after a further "mapping" process. It looked like Steingasser hoped that promise would quiet the small group of furious critics; it did not. Will this latest change be different?

Ironically, earlier last week, Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that it's a bad idea to reduce rather than eliminate minimums. Among other reasons, he said,

On a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn't lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests.
Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commissionafter all, her agency works with the commissioners day week after week, on hundreds of Planned Unit Developments and map amendments every year. Maybe by making this particular change, as opposed to all of the other changes they've made to appease opposition over the last 5 years, maybe zoning commissioners will say, ah, it's clear OP has listened to public input, and we will therefore pass their proposal.

I hope so, but I think it's much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we're left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.


Zoning update opponents ask for yet more delay

Foes of DC's zoning update have the script down to a science. If the Office of Planning (OP) doesn't change its proposals to cater to their wishes, they shout that there hasn't been enough public input. If OP does give in, claim that the plans are "a moving target" and call for more input anyway.

Photo by russelljsmith on Flickr.

John Chelen, the Cleveland Park resident who set up a stacked committee of the Ward 3 Democrats to condemn the zoning update, sent a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others asking for "a moratorium on the zoning re-write process."

Why? Because the proposals have been changing. I agree that's frustrating. The problem is that the changes entail OP caving to opposition from the very same groups that are upset they're changing. Chelen wrote:

During the last several months, several alternative sets of proposals have been released, often in a piece-meal fashion. Even now, proposed regulations are a 'moving target,' and additional changes to prior proposals have been promised. Such a helter-skelter manner of making such proposals imposes a hardship on our citizens.

With each new round of partial proposals by OP, our citizens must review these proposals and analyze their consequences, and try to find a way to submit their results to OP. OP has not devised a reasonable procedure to accept and respond to such submissions except through the limited meetings of the Zoning Task Force.

The public, especially notable citizens groups like the ones who have passed resolutions, do not have a way of engaging in this irregular process.

We would like you to directly intervene in OP's plans and make sure that OP will release a completely revised set of zoning regulations, "black letter law" as it's referred to in Federal practice, so that our citizens know exactly what's being proposed and how all sections interrelate.

After such a complete set of regulations is published, OP should hold additional public meetings to obtain comments and respond. Publication of a complete set of regulations and an opportunity for public comment should occur prior to any further transmittals to the Zoning Commission. To do otherwise would short-circuit an already inadequate process.

There was a finished proposal. It was at the end of 2011. OP brought the proposal to its task force, a group of citizens that included many opponents, as it prepared to start a series of public meetings.

OP had to show this to the task force because some time earlier, opponents had claimed there wasn't enough input, and asked for more task force meetings. So OP had to let the task force review it before releasing it to the public. However, opponents on the task force then responded by claiming that it was "secret" because OP hadn't had the public meetings yet. It was a classic Catch-22.

By the time this second wave of zoning debates came about, Travis Parker, who had led the process from its start in 2007, had moved to Colorado, and another member of the team, Michael Giulioni, had left to go to grad school. Responsibility for the update fell to Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser.

Facing fierce opposition, OP started backing off on some elements of the proposals. Planners limited corner stores to just actual corners, and accessory dwellings in garages to existing buildings that don't need much renovation. They acceded to Georgetown's desire to restrict accessory dwellings even more, and cut a rule to legalize "off-center" houses, where one side yard is bigger than required but the other is too small.

Various councilmembers, at least including Muriel Bowser and Phil Mendelson, also asked for more delays. At this year's oversight hearings for the Office of Planning, Bowser asked OP to cut back some portions of the proposals, like corner stores, and OP has complied. (More on that soon.)

Unfortunately, that really did make the regulations a "moving target." In the more than a year since, OP has repeatedly weakened the proposals. There will be far fewer places people can rent out garages than before. Corner stores in residential neighborhoods have become even more difficult to set up. Plus, there is a long litany of smaller changes. It has indeed been confusing to track what is actually still in them and what has gotten lost along the way.

Worse yet, OP has told neighborhoods concerned about parking minimums around transit that the parking minimums won't even go away immediately after the code goes into effect. Instead, there will be a second "mapping" phase, where OP goes through some public process to determine where the transit corridors are even though it already has a map of them. That will give more chances for individual activists or councilmembers to push back against change in their neighborhoods and for OPperhaps under a different mayorto cave to some or many of these requests.

The Zoning Commission is the proper process

The most important point here is that there is a well-defined, thorough process for getting public input on a zoning proposal: the Zoning Commission's hearings. Most proposals first come to the public's attention when someone files a zoning petition with the commission.

They review it, "set it down" for hearings, hold often very extensive hearings, then have more meetings to deliberate. Under DC's Home Rule Act, they are the body with ultimate power over zoning, so it makes sense for the main hearings to happen in front of the Zoning Commission, not just in front of planners or councilmembers.

Most likely, the commission will want to have a very long, thorough process for hearing from the public on the zoning update. It could take them months, or more. That is where the public input should happen.

The Zoning Commission can change the proposals. It's fairly likely some members will try to "split the baby" and further attenuate any changes if there's a lot of opposition.

The problem for opponents is that once the Zoning Commission goes through this process and one wave of changes, they'll then pass something. Asking for another round of public hearings before the Zoning Commission even gets involved simply creates another opportunity for nothing to happen, or to further water down the proposals.

We should have been done by now

It's instructive to look back at the public process page on the original zoning update site. It first talks about the process OP underwent in 2008 and 2009, where a series of public working groups reviewed chapters of the code, and made recommendations. OP then created a set of broad policy recommendations, and submitted them to the Zoning Commission. The commission held hearings and voted up or down on each recommendation. That concluded in 2009.

The original process document says:

Upon completion of all 20 hearings, OP will take the language preliminarily approved by the Zoning Commission and work with the Office of Zoning to codify it into a final cohesive document. This document will then be subject to final review on this website and by the Zoning Commission prior to final approval.

The entire review and approval process is expected to take between two and three years.

There were originally only going to be 2 steps after those hearings: OP writes a final zoning code based on the ZC's guidance, then submits it to the ZC, which holds final hearings. We should have been done around 2010 or 2011.

Rough timeline of the original process. Image by the author.

Instead, opponents asked for OP to involve the task force more, which they did. Councilmembers wanted an additional public information meeting in each ward, which OP held this past December and January. Fine. Now it's long past time to get the text to the Zoning Commission.

Rough timeline of the actual and potential future process. Red bars are complete or almost complete, yellow are speculative. Image by the author.

OP had draft text last year. I read it and submitted hundreds of small suggestions. I also found some typos and errors. OP fixed the mistakes, incorporated a few suggestions, and disagreed with the rest. Having a "black letter" version of the code for people to react to does not mean that if there are any errors, you have to release another one, have more meetings, then another one, more meetings, and so forth.

OP had hundreds of public meetings, then zoning commission hearings, then task force meetings, then more public meetings, then more task force meetings, with many neighborhood meetings along the way. Enough is enough. We're at least 2 years beyond the original timeframe, with a draft that's now weaker than what the Zoning Commission already approved.

Mendelson has scheduled yet another oversight hearing, for July 2. We don't need more hearings. At the last one, Mendelson even said he thought this issue should just go to the Zoning Commission already. Hopefully he really meant it and will still push for that to happen.

OP has been showing the final chapters to that task force. Now, they need to submit them to the commission, and the commission needs to schedule its setdown and hearings as soon as possible. There's no reason for any more delay.

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