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Posts about Curb Cuts


This alternative is technically impossible because neighbors would complain

Do transportation consulting companies really provide unbiased analysis, or do they simply conclude whatever their paying client wants to hear?

Alley entrance on T Street near 14th. Photo from Google Street View.

We already know that "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz of New York is unafraid to tell NYC's teachers that they don't deserve special parking rights, but will twist ridership figures to please the Town of Chevy Chase and earn his $374,000 fee. Schwartz cobbled together the report they wanted, concluding that the Purple Line should run past other people's schools instead of their golf courses (and slower).

I smell some similar twisting in Gorove/Slade's report on where to put the garage entrance for the Utopia project at 14th and U. I've already written multiple times about this particular curb cut fight, where I come down (barely) on the side of the 14th Street entrance. But we may end up with the right decision for all the wrong reasons.

Some of these wrong reasons appear in the report. In the scoping process, DDOT asked Gorove/Slade to show why using the alley for parking is infeasible. It may be, but the report instead simply argues that the 14th Street entrance is not so bad. The biggest question in approving any curb cut is whether implementing it will harm pedestrians, but the report gives short shrift to this issue. After the table of contents, the word 'pedestrian' doesn't even appear until page 7. Instead of analyzing pedestrian safety, the report simply shows pictures of bulb-outs DDOT has already proposed for 14th and U, and then asserts that since those will improve pedestrian conditions, everything will be okay.

The bulk of the report focuses on vehicular Level of Service. It uses terms like "[this] intersection would fail" to describe an intersection with high traffic volume, reinforcing the outdated traffic engineer framing that success means moving large numbers of vehicles through an area. All of this LOS analysis (which takes up most of the space in the report) simply verifies that the front garage entrance won't worsen vehicle traffic. It's not nececssarily better; it's simply no worse. The consulting team spent a lot of time counting the numbers of vehicles going through each intersection, but published no comparable statistics for pedestrians.

Alley diagram at 14th and U.
Image from Gorove-Slade Associates.

The interior alleys at the site are very wide (30 feet), with plenty of room for cars or even to add sidewalks. The alleys connecting to U and T Streets, however, are only 10 feet (5 and 6 above). Two-way traffic on both of these alleys force cars and trucks to maneuver gingerly. Making both of these alleys one-way, with all traffic entering on U and exiting on T, could address this problem. The Gorove/Slade report analyzes this option, but dismisses it because residents won't like it:

Capacity analysis results indicate that the alley would operate efficiently with the one-way southbound restrictions. However, ... the southbound restriction would increase truck traffic along T Street between the alleyway and 14th Street, which is now striped with a bike lane. These impacts would be objectionable to the adjacent community, and the prospective residential and retail users of the proposed development.
The report glosses over mention of impacts, objectionable or otherwise, to the many people who will take Metro to this area, or who live nearby on other streets besides T, and will walk around here. They will feel the impact of a front garage entrance. It also dismisses the impact on the bicycle commuters who ride down 14th to work every day. They weren't counted, and their objections unheard. Instead, the authors simply dismiss an alternative which would "be objectionable to the adjacent community".

Gorove/Slade's report does make some valid points. They also, and more validly, criticize the one-way option for its effect on the Reeves Center, whose garage entrance faces U Street across from the alley. According to the report, having traffic turn into the alley from U and also into and out of Reeves at the same spot could create more vehicular problems.

The report also makes the very good point that the U Street sidewalk is much narrower than the one at 14th. Having vehicles exit there could be much more dangerous than on 14th. Even the one-way option creates more pedestrian conflicts at this tight spot.

Unfortunately, I simply don't find this report persuasive. It makes a few good points amid a plethora of lousy ones. To conclude, as this report does, that a 14th Street entrance is "the better option", it's important to consider all the impacts. Instead, Gorove/Slade simply considered some (like traffic and neighbor complaints) while ignoring others (like the needs of pedestrians on 14th).

Plus, "better" isn't the standard for a curb cut; the development must be impractical without one. And by impractical, that means for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and cars, not just for cars. It also doesn't mean politically impractical. I do believe this development may indeed meet this burden. But this report fails to show that, and does a disservice to everyone trying to rationally decide this issue. On persuasiveness Level of Service, it gets an F.



Our curb cut is limited to the present circumstances

How often does Councilmember Phil Mendelson (at-large) personally show up to the Board of Zoning Adjustment to testify in support of a variance? I suspect not often, but show up he did at yesterday's BZA hearing on the 14th and U "Utopia" project.

Treto Way. Photo by David Alpert.

Mendelson read a letter in support of locating the proposed garage entrance on 14th Street instead of in the alley behind. The developer, the Dupont ANC, and local residents and businesses all want this as well. Councilmember Jack Evans also submitted a concurring letter, which his commitee clerk, Jeff Coudriet (who also lives nearby), presented at the hearing. The BZA voted to approve the curb cut and all of the variances the developer needed.

I agree in this case. This is an unusual block with an unusual alley system, and the garage entrance poses many problems. But I'm very concerned that this not set precedent for other, less exceptional situations. Along U Street west of 13th, developers plan to replace the one-story, bland Rite Aid with a larger hotel and ground-floor retail. The rear of the building faces a standard alley, but a row of townhouses back onto the other side of the alley. Some of those residents are trying to pressure that developer The developer currently proposes to build their garage entrance across the 13th Street sidewalk, instead of off the adjacent straight alley.

Bad idea. Click to enlarge.

Unlike at Utopia, using this alley doesn't require cars to make two sharp turns and take three separate alleys. Unlike at Utopia, there are no alley dwellings. This garage entrance could be located at the eastern end of the alley, so cars only have to drive on a very short part. I'd even be okay with widening the alley a little bit right at the end, so there's enough room for one car in each direction. But another, extremely wide curb cut right next to an existing alley curb cut harms the rest of the public too much, while alley access to the garage harms the local property owners little.

It's clear that some major political chips got called in to get Mendelson to show up in person for the Utopia curb cut, and to generate the repeated letters from Evans supporting neighbors' position on the project. The political pressure was so potent that yesterday afternoon, DDOT decided to withdraw its original comments opposing the curb cut. That's politics, and I don't agree with those who complain about corruption every time an elected official weighs in. Taking positions on issues and pushing agencies on behalf of constituents is what elected officials do, and if you want to influence them, organize.

While Evans and Mendelson weren't wrong about this curb cut, we need to get organized and connected enough to ensure that Councilmembers aren't sending letters in support of every curb cut when some residents don't want traffic in their alley. Alley traffic impacts the residents, but a curb cut impacts everyone else. A curb cut increases the opportunities for vehicles to hit pedestrians and bicycles; it reduces the space we have for sidewalk cafes; it visually widens the street, making drivers go faster.

Fortunately, Mendelson's letter gives us good ammunition for differentiating the Utopia case from others, like the 13th and U Rite Aid/Hotel:

There are very few communities in the District like the one comprising the residents of [the alleys behind Utopia]. The two others that come to mind are Blagden Alley in Shaw and Brown's Court on Capitol Hill ... It is important to consider that this space is atypical. It is unlike the typical square with all the dwellings fronting on the public street, only to back up to alleys. [The residents of these alleys] must walk down their alleys to go anywhere, which creates unavoidable pedestrian and vehicular conflicts.
Public policy must balance a larger impact on a few against the smaller impact on many. Typically, in the political process, the few are better organized and louder than the many. Through this blog and Smart Growth organizations, we the many are getting organized. And I want to make it clear to Evans, Mendelson, and any other elected official that while I don't disagree with their views on the Utopia curb cut, such an exception, and their political muscle on its behalf, should be extremely, extremely rare.

Update: Wallach Place resident Guy Podgornik wrote in to explain that Wallach residents (the people across the alley) weren't pushing for the 13th Street curb cut, and heard this pressure came from HPO. I'm glad Wallach residents are okay with using a small portion of the alley for the parking and loading. At this point, the developer's latest plans include the 13th Street curb cut, and DDOT, HPO, and advocates should oppose it.



From drive-thru to walk-up: Van Ness Walgreens

When we last looked at the proposed Van Ness Walgreens at Connecticut and Veazey, it was a suburban store plunked down in an urban lot next to a Metro station. The building was set far back from Connecticut Avenue, with parking in front, curb cuts on both Connecticut and Veazey, a big free-standing sign at the corner, and a seven-car drive-thru.

DDOT and community members opposed the plan as inappropriate to the city, especially a site right near Metro. In response, Walgreens completely reworked the proposal into something that belongs on an urban street corner. Instead of siting the building at the very rear of the lot, it now comes right up to the property line along Connecticut Avenue. A few parking spaces are in the rear, off the alley, and the rest underground. There are now only three above-ground spaces instead of seven in the original plan.

The above diagrams show the original proposal (left) and the current plans (right). Areas shaded in red are part of the building, yellow are areas used by vehicles, and green are pedestrian-only walkways. As you can see, on the old plan pedestrians had to cross the parking area and potentially conflict with parking and turning vehicles. Now, pedestrians can enter the store directly from the sidewalk.

Instead of a drive-thru, the plans show a "possible walk-up window" in the rear. That would let drivers pull in from the alley, get prescriptions, and drive away. If the store is intent on building infrastructure for drivers to avoid parking underground and entering the store, that's a much better way. (They still might end up better off if they force people to actually enter the store and potentially see other items to buy, but that should be their own business decision.)

This design is a huge improvement over the original, but it's never going to become a paragon of great urbanism. As with many drugstores, it has few windows—just near the escalators, the front door, and the possible walk-up window. And unlike drugstores like CVS that have windows but the store covers them up, the building won't have them from the start. That means it'll be more expensive for another store to reuse this space for a more window-oriented storefront retail in the future. (Depending how the building is designed, it may not even be possible without structural reinforcement.)

At the moment, the design doesn't contain any bicycle parking. That's one of many concerns raised by the local ANC, as reported in last week's Current (article, continuation). The ANC's resolution also raises concerns about traffic, delivery trucks, noise from mechanical equipment, lack of vegetation, and one particular tree that screens the gas station currently on the site from a nearby apartment building.

The developer's traffic study should answer questions about the traffic impact, though I can't see it being worse than a gas station. Neighbors want Walgreens to save the existing tree, add more vegetation on the site, and enclose the mechanical equipment to cut down on noise. According to the Current, the ANC wants further concessions on these issues before it will support the variances Walgreens needs to build this more urban-friendly design.

The new design is about 1/3 bigger (20,188 square feet of retail space versus 15,071 in the original) and, if I'm counting right, has 4 more parking spaces (31 versus 27). With the larger project they're getting if granted the variance from lot coverage requirements, this project should be better for Walgreens as well as the community. It doesn't seem unreasonable to ask Walgreens to include some bike parking, landscaping, and address mechanical noise in exchange.



DDOT anti-curb cut regulation important but needs flexibility

DDOT has proposed new regulations to limit curb cuts. As we've discussed before, garage entrances that face the street and cut across sidewalks have a profoundly damaging effect on walkable urbanism. They make the street feel much more vehicle-centric, the cars crossing the sidewalk add opportunities for crashes, and by taking away on-street parking, they widen the street, leading cars to drive faster.

2100 block of O St, NW. From CSG.

According to DDOT's proposed regulation, they will not approve any new curb cuts, or allow existing ones to remain if a building is renovated, if the parking could be accessed from an alley instead of from the street. (There's a typo in the draft which makes it sound like the opposite, but that's what they mean). Under this policy, buildings without alleys could still end up with front entrances, like this; however, under the proposed off-street parking zoning rules, buildings without alleys wouldn't have any requirement to build parking. They still might, and could get a curb cut, but the policy is a big improvement over the current situation.

It's very important to have a regulation like this. Right now, DDOT often opposes curb cuts, as with the drive-thru Walgreens, but that's dependent on having a good ward planner with the time and awareness to get involved. This policy would standardize curb cut criteria.

Under this policy, there are only two exceptions: first, if "there is no alternative way to access on-site parking or a loading dock" via the alley, and second, in the event of special needs due to a disability. You might be surprised, but I actually think DDOT ought to have a little bit more flexibility.

Some blocks do have alleys, but alleys unsuited to heavy traffic volume. In some downtown blocks, the garages see a lot of car traffic in and out, while the alleys are narrow and provide insufficient room for cars and trucks to maneuver. Plus, any traffic in and out of an alley crosses the curb, just as it does on a curb cut. The only advantage of the alley is that we consolidate the pedestrian conflicts into a single area.

If we're building new blocks, then all parking absolutely should go through the alley. If we're substantially renovating most of a block and changing alleys around, as big downtown development projects often do, they they should leave enough space behind the buildings to handle the parking traffic. And for a small residential building with low traffic volume, we should absolutely use the alleys.

But there may be some situations where an alley exists and using it is possible, but undesirable. DDOT needs the flexibility to grant an exeption in these rare cases. One example is the 14th and U project, which backs onto the Treto Way alley between T and U just west of 14th Street.

Alley diagram at 14th and U.
Image from Gorove-Slade Associates.

This alley is unusual: instead of running linearly through a block or making an L shape, as most alleys do, this one looks like a capital H with a capital I on top of it. To get to the proposed parking entrance, all cars will have to make a 90-degree turn, and traverse a relatively narrow space in two-way traffic. Further, this alley already has a substantial amount of truck traffic. A few residents live off the alley, and there are also some businesses with their entrances facing the alley. I bicycled over there recently, and had to dismount to carefully walk around a truck not once but twice.

Neighbors are pushing for the building's garage to face 14th (location #3 in the image above) instead of the alley. DDOT and HPRB both opposed the idea. Responding to neighborhood pressure, DDOT commissioned a traffic study of the alley system, which recommends locating the garage on 14th as neighbors are suggesting.

The study seems to focus primarily on vehicle Level of Service with very little analysis of pedestrian safety. However, it does point out that the sidewalk on U Street between 14th and 15th is very narrow, and vehicles entering or exiting there (location #6 above) may pose more danger to pedestrians than on wider 14th, especially if the cars exit onto U. With all the trucks backing up and maneuvering in that area, traffic may also back up out of the alleys onto the surrounding streets and block sidewalks.

After investigating the area and talking to nearby businesses and residents, I've actually become convinced that a parking entrance would cause problems and may even worsen pedestrian safety (though I wish Gorove/Slade had done a more thorough analysis of that). The best solution would be less parking, but that's not what the developer wants and zoning still won't allow it. Therefore, I support the developer's request to DDOT, BZA, and HPRB to allow this garage entrance and curb cut.

Perhaps the regulations as written provide a process for getting an exception that's not spelled out here. If so, great. If not, we should have one. It shouldn't be easy for a developer to get a curb cut if there's an alley, and a bad DDOT planner shouldn't be able to grant one lightly. But if a garage is going to draw substantial traffic into an alley system that's not able to handle it, then an occasional exception is simply common sense.


Is our city a little more suburban today than it was yesterday?

[Autoposted while I'm in France]

Photo by pickles_pics on Flickr.

Was anyone watching HPRB or the Shell public space committee meetings? Is the Hilton going ahead with a big cylindrical tower? Is DDOT allowing a gas station to use public space? Post any interesting news in the comments.

Tonight is the National Capital Framework Plan (5 pm, 401 9th St, North Lobby, Suite 500) and the zoning hearing on height (441 4th St NW, Suite 220-South or Webcast).


Public Spaces

Tonight's and tomorrow's meetings

[Autoposted while I'm in France]

17th Street. Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

Even more interesting meetings are coming up. Tonight:

17th Street Streetscape: What is DDOT planning 17th Street in Dupont? Is it too late to fix any failings in the plan? 6 pm at Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th St NW.


Historic Preservation Review Board: At 10 am tomorrow, HPRB may consider concept plans for the Hilton. Or, they may postpone it until October, which both ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) and 2B (Dupont) have requested. They'll also review the proposed renovations of 1433 T with its alleged violations of tenants' rights, but since HPRB can't consider those factors in its decisionmaking, look for a meeting where Tersh Boasberg repeatedly cuts off members of the public who try to appeal to Commissioners on non-historic criteria. You can watch the meeting here.

Public space hearing on 10th and Maryland Shell: This is the first of two opportunities to stop the proposed Shell in Northeast Capitol Hill. 10 am at 941 North Capitol Street, 7th Floor.

National Capital Framework Plan: NCPC is collecting more public comment on their Framework Plan. BeyondDC has great coverage of the plan's highlights and weaknesses. 5-7 pm Thursday at 401 9th St NW, North Lobby, Suite 500.

Zoning review: Height: Parking was controversial, but sparks will fly again tomorrow evening as the Zoning Commission considers proposed new height regulations. It's wonky and arcane, but how DC interprets the Height Act (what is a "business street"? Can a building get its allowable height from one street but measure its starting point from another?) has stirred much debate in zoning circles. 6:30-8:30 pm tomorrow at 441 4th St NW, Suite 220-South or watch it live here.



Positive resident activism: Shell no!

Shell wants to build a new gas station at the corner of 12th 14th St and Maryland Avenue, NE, one block from the H Street corridor and the future streetcar. Residents are organizing to promote using that site for a business that better contributes to the walkable retail district they want for the area—a restaurant, daycare, flower shop, or almost anything else.

Shell station on Connecticut Avenue. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The "Great Streets" program is specifically trying to transform H Street into a lively, walkable retail and entertainment area. A gas station pushes the neighborhood the opposite way, creating a more suburban strip-mall feel. Besides, there are already three gas stations in the area.

Unfortunately, gas stations are a permitted use in that zone (hence the three already there), but this project requires a public space permit as well. In many if not most blocks in DC, the private property line is not at the sidewalk, but farther back. For example, my property line runs directly through the middle of my front stairs, making half my front yard private and half public. In many blocks, the bay window protrusions of the houses actually extend into the public space. (Here's more about public space from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society).

Shell plans to build the station on their property, but would use the substantial public space between their property and the street as paved area for cars to park and access the station. The public space is nearly as large as the property itself. By using it, they give DDOT the opportunity to oppose this auto-oriented use, just as they are with the Van Ness Walgreens.

The ANC asked the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to support an alternate use here, but they declined, citing "the interest of encouraging new investments across the District from various business types." ANC Commissioner Bill Schultheiss replied:

What I don't understand is how your office sees a gas station at this corner lot fitting into the "Great Streets" initiative. I am troubled by the idea that any development is better than no development implied by Mr. Albert's response. That is a false choice. There are other interested buyers of this property which would be more than happy to build a project that meets the goals of the Great Streets program.
Opponents of the gas station have a very snazzy site, "Shell No!" The project will come before DDOT for public space review on September 24th and before the BZA on October 14th.


The San Francisco way: curb cuts

San Francisco's streets are filled with curb cuts for individual houses, sometimes to an absurd level. Each curb cut takes away a parking space (or, in the best case, about two-thirds of one) to create one off-street space, and along the way makes the street and the houses less inviting, less walkable, and less attractive. Here are some more examples:

Click any picture to enlarge.

Did you notice something not so San Francisco-like about these pictures? Yup, they're actually not pictures of San Francsico. They're pictures of Washington, DC. Clockwise from top left, they are: 900 block of W, NW; 2100 block of O, NW; Florida Ave, NW; and 9½th St, NW. All are reprinted with permission from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

These people didn't waste nine months fighting for a parking minimum variance as Alice and Jeff Speck did for their house (right nearby three of the above pictures, in fact). The two on the left (W St and 9½th St) sacrifice almost all the curb appeal of their buildings to devote the frontage to a garage. On the upper right (O St), not only do the garages take away almost as much street parking, but it makes the street wider, causing drivers to go faster and making the street less safe.

When some say that other cities haven't (yet) reformed their parking rules citywide, remember that those cities look like this. Sure, these are small buildings, and the debate covers both small and large buildings. Unfortunately, while almost all opponents of parking reform also hate curb cuts, commenter Lance is the only opponent of removing minimums who I've heard agree with the idea of removing minimums even for small buildings. (I still support relaxing requirements on both types.)

DDOT officials say they are working on a new curb cut policy to prohibit front garage entrances like these. And the proposed parking zoning revisions will automatically give property owners an exemption from whatever minimums still exist when DDOT prohibits a curb cut and the property lacks an alley.



Van Ness Walgreens' drive-thru isn't even the worst part

As I reported last week, Walgreens is proposing a new store with a drive-thru and 27 parking spaces on the former site of a gas station at Veazey and Connecticut, right by the Van Ness Metro.

The drive-thru, while a bad idea, isn't even the worst part of this proposal. It is a cookie-cutter suburban design plunked down in the city right next to a Metro station. Instead of siting the building against the sidewalk to draw in pedestrians, they place it near the back of the lot, with only the narrow drive-thru lane separating the building from its neighbor. In front, they propose a row of parking along Connecticut Avenue and run the ramp down to an underground parking level along the Veazey Terrace frontage. There's even a free-standing sign at the corner to complete the suburban feel.

The building is colored red in the above picture, and the yellow shows land devoted to driving or parking inside the lot. Here are the complete original plans: ground level, basement parking level, and upper level.

Instead, they should put the building right at the corner of Connecticut and Veazey, extending all the way across that edge of the lot. There should be only a single car entrance, off Veazey or the alley, accessing parking (if necessary) behind, with the ramp to the lower level also located behind.

Fortunately, good-DDOT is coming to the rescue, strongly opposing the parking in front. Apparently the Walgreens planned to go before the BZA, but withdrew when they found out DDOT would oppose the drive-thru. They are now pursuing their options for matter-of-right development. That's too bad, because not only is the drive-thru a bad idea, but the reduced parking and greater density they were seeking could have generated a better and more urban project.

The latest parking zoning draft would, among other changes, forbid development like this which places parking between the building and the street. The commercial working groups haven't yet met, but there's a good chance drive-thru development may also be disallowed, or at least require BZA hearings and public participation to approve one.



Breakfast links: thanks for emailing tips edition

Sausage makers talk trains: Northern Virginia's Congressman Jim Moran is holding a town hall on called "From Roads to Rail" on Monday evening, July 7th in Tysons. House Transportation Chairman James Oberstar will speak too. Thanks bfox!

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

Next, Manhattan? Urban farming has transformed people's diets from imported canned goods to fresh local vegetables in Cuba. Cuba's big agribusiness may be inefficient, but look for more of this in the developed world as energy prices go up and up. From the International Herald Tribune. Thanks Bianchi!

Not another drive-thru: Walgreens is planning to build on a former gas station at Veazey and Connecticut, right by the Van Ness stop, reports reader Steve. The somewhat-good news: they're seeking a variance to build only 27 parking spaces instead of 40 (it should be even fewer). The less-good news: Walgreens gets to keep all the curb cuts the gas station had, and so they're building a drive-through. We should not be building drive-throughs in urban areas, especially not next to Metro stations.

Cardin on transit: Ben Cardin, Delaware's slightly less well known Senator Maryland's newest Senator and a great advocate for transit, gets interviewed by Grist. He talks about the transit component of the Climate Security Act, which he authored (and which failed to pass a Republican filibuster this year). Oops, I confused Carper and Cardin. We have a wealth of pro-transit Senators whose names start with 'Car'.

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